Drive & Dive Down Under: a tour of New South Wales with sharks, seals and dragons

Thirty grey nurse sharks circling…

By Simon Lorenz
Images by Simon Lorenz unless otherwise credited

The Dive-master says, “Go, go, go! Jump now, and you will be ahead of the group.” Not waiting one second longer, we grab our cameras and roll over the rail of the steel zodiac and descend. Diving over the ledge, looking into the underwater canyon, it is more than we had hoped for – crystal clear waters and 30 grey nurse sharks circling. All to ourselves!

Weedy sea dragon. Image by Ken Thongpila.

Weedy sea dragon. Image by Ken Thongpila.

What do you think when you imagine diving over in Australia? Do you think of the colourful Great Barrier Reef, the Yongala Wreck or Ningaloo Reef? Widely overlooked, yet worth a visit is New South Wales, the territory on the Eastern Australian coast stretching over 1000km of coastline. Its coast is lined with first-class dive spots featuring seals, rays, sharks and macro superstars. This coast mixes northern warm waters and southern chilled waters, providing divers with the best of both water types – warm water species like mantas, mobulas and zebra sharks, as well as grey nurse sharks, humpback whales and scalloped hammerhead sharks. Starting point of the aquatic road trip is in the sleepy fishing village of Narooma, a town famed for golfing, fishing and whale watching. Here one can dive with the members of a fur seal colony of Montague Island which is located 3km offshore. Seemingly unfussed by your presence, 30 or 40 seals swim, play, dive and pose puppy-eyed for the wide-angle cameras. So not only do they feature these funny small ears, they are also impressively big.

Further up north is Jervis Bay. Located on a 6km-wide circular bay it has over 40 different sites on the inside and outside of the bay’s mouth. Bizarre layered limestone cliffs create an outlandish world that continues underwater in dramatic swim-throughs, caves and canyons, some of which you can surface on the inside. Stingrays, picture posing Port Jackson and crested hornsharks are everywhere, as well as friendly big blue groupers and big colourful cuttlefish hiding in the caves and swim-throughs. Good macro subjects can be found around here too.
Sydney is Australia’s biggest city and is not only worth a tourist stop – this metropolis also provides its residents with a wide variety of cold water dive spots. Sydney is considered one of best spots for the weedy sea dragon, the funkiest member of the seahorse family. Sydney also features various rays, flatheads, Port Jackson sharks, silky and grey nurse sharks, blue groupers, octopuses, some very sizeable pacific cuttlefish, wobbegongs, moray eels and various kinds of nudibranchs.

Leopard shark. Image by Mark Gray.

Leopard shark. Image by Mark Gray.

North of Sydney is Terrigal, where in 2011 the ex-HMAS Adelaide was sunk. The 138m-long destroyer sits upright and is still very intact with the bottom of the hull below 45m. Penetration of the wreck is easy, big cut outs on every level allow divers to explore the wreck.

From here it’s not much further to Nelson Bay and Broughton Island, popular with the Sydney and Newcastle divers, which feature great macro and a variety of sharks.

The highlight however, is South West Rocks, a tiny beachside town favoured by local tourists. 3km offshore is Fish Rock Island. This rocky outcrop sits amidst a heavy current that can be seen rippling on the surface. Its key feature is a canyon filled to the brim with grey nurse sharks. At 25m, an entire armada of these sharks circle above and around. Easily 30 or so of these 2–3m sharks can be seen at one time cruising blissfully through the canyon.
A 125m tunnel through the entire island is a hotspot for lobster with literally one on every rock. The opening at the end of the tunnel is filled with thousands of baitfish. Outside the cave there is another wall of current. Sometimes a school of up to 100 scalloped hammerheads can be seen gently working the stream.

A little bit further up the coast is the one-pub type hamlet called Wooli. From here you can dive the Solitary Islands Marine Park. Its most famous dive site Fish Soup has an abundance of fish that attract a lot of sharks. Wobbegongs are literally everywhere here and the water column is alive with fish.

Fur seal checks me out.

Fur seal checks me out.

Final stop is the surf mecca Byron Bay. Behind Byron’s famous left break is one of the country’s best dive sites – Julian Rocks – the ‘Galapagos of Down Under’. On these islands literally anything can happen. The seasons bring very different visitors. Giant bull rays, lobsters, potato cods, big barracuda, loggerhead turtles and Spanish dancer nudibranchs are seen here on most dives. Eagle rays, bamboo sharks, shovelnose rays and guitar sharks are also common. In cold water season, grey nurse sharks, hammerheads and fur seals come by, while humpback whales breach in the bay. The summer season hosts armadas of zebra sharks, with manta rays soaring overhead. The currents are strong but manageable while every dive brings something new. It’s definitely a place to plan a few days.

After this it’s another few hours to Brisbane and an amazing tour has been concluded. From fur seals to manta rays, New South Wales has so much to offer. All dive sites are remarkably little busy, with mainly local divers diving here. This is an opportunity to dive without the hordes of the Great Barrier Reef. The local dive population is one of the most active in the world – now we know why.

Wobbegong with bull shark in background.

Wobbegong with bull shark in background.

Dive Centres and Tips:

Diving in Australia costs approximately AU$100–140 per two-tank dive, excluding gear. Bringing your own gear is recommended. Filling tanks for shore dives is AU$10–12 per tank. As dive operations are small it is recommended to book in advance. In low season boats may not go out, in summer they are quickly booked out.
The best time to visit is Australian summer. Cold-water species can be found mainly November and December. Warm-water species in the north start appearing December and will be around for 2–3 months until March.

Narooma – Narooma Charters
Spend two days, minimum.

Jervis bay – Dive Jervis Bay
Plan at least two full dive days.

Sydney – ProDive, Snorkel Safari
At least one day/night dive in north around Shelly beach, and one in south – Botany Bay/Bare Island.

Terrigal – Terrigal Dive Centre
One day of diving for the wreck.

Forster – Dive Forster

South West Rocks – South West Rocks Dive Centre
At least two full days or more. Spacious shared apartment called ‘the House’ is available for divers at a very low rate.

Wooli/Solitary Islands – Wooli Dive Centre
A very small place, Wooli Dive has a shared apartment that can be used. The beach is literally endless. Only a small supermarket and one pub, so be ready.

Byron Bay – Sun Dive
Definitely book diving and accommodation way in advance. This place is always booked out. Plan for at least 2 days of diving, though every day extra pays off.

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