Yorke Peninsula – Australia

Ahead the black bitumen road stretches ram rod straight to the mirage-like shimmering horizon. Either side, yellow barley moves like ocean waves in the wind while behind us the image is mirrored. Overhead a pure blue sky is only broken by the baking sun causing the thermometer to rise to 43 degrees Celsius in the shade, if some shade could be found.

Diving the Yorke Peninsula in summer can be a hot experience.

On a map, forming the shape of a lower leg and foot, the Yorke Peninsula projects into the Southern Ocean from South Australia’s coastline. It is bounded by the Gulf of St Vincent to the east and Spencer Gulf in the west. Although its flat, treeless landscape induces boredom on the three hour drive from Adelaide, the peninsula has great beauty. Yellow sand beaches and blue waters along both coast lines, spectacularly rugged sea carved cliffs, islands and rock formations in the Innes National Park, surreal pink and white salt lakes and the contrast of the blue sky and yellow swaying grains that stretch like the ocean to the horizon in the interior.

In years passed this region produced wheat, sheep, lime and copper. Being closer to Adelaide by water than by land, it was sensible to send all of this produce by ship. To load the ships, jetties were built. Spanning the shallow gulf waters between the shore and where it was deep enough to moor the ship, resulted in jetties up to 750 metres long and lots of them. Many still exist today, mainly for historical and recreational use, although some are still used to load grains grown on the peninsular. Recreational use includes scuba diving although the main use is fishing.

Fishing is a local obsession. Go to any jetty, at any time of day or night and you will find someone fishing but more likely you will find in excess of 20 people fishing. It’s a family sport with all family members included.

Beneath the surface, the jetties offer an abundance of life which luckily is not reflected by the fishing catch. Each jetty has its own character. Wooden pylons of the past still exist, supplemented by new steel structures. It is these old pylons which are the temperate water reefs, covered in sponges, yellow, orange, pink and purple in colour. White octo-coral Carijoa completely cover some of the piles, waving in time with the water motion. Gobies and blennies live and hunt throughout the corals and sponges, while larger fish shelter in schools in the jetty’s shade in a hope of avoiding the even larger fish which patrol the perimeter of the piles.

Diving here is about looking hard for small creatures. Seagrasses blanket the shallow sandy bottom where the sunlight reaches, however the jetty deprives the bottom of sunlight so the bottom life changes. Sea horses attach to the grass blades, pipefishes pretend to be grasses, blue swimmer crabs stalk looking for trouble, blue ringed octopus hide in discarded tins, cuttlefish mimic the bottom over which they hover, Old wives school and move as one to intimidate a would-be foe, a leafy sea dragon gracefully hovers pretending to be a piece of weed, this is the ultimate find.

Jetties, however, have their dangers. Approaching a jetty for the first time you will note the unpleasant smell which always emanates from the garbage bin closest to the jetty. ‘Jetty Jumpers’, young adolescence leaping from the jetty to prove their blokehood, don’t seem to care where they land, so if you are the diver beneath them, beware. Fishing lines and lures are really designed to catch divers not fish. Diving on the upwind side of the jetty helps to remove a lot of this problem and eliminate conflict. Squid lures used by the fishermen tend to become snagged on the bottom and lost. Divers retrieving these can use them to their advantage in a number of ways. Give them to the fishermen to show what great people divers are, trade with the fishermen for squid for dinner or trade with the air fill station for tank fills.

A serious danger to be aware of is at the Stenhouse jetty on the south of the peninsula. This jetty is not in either gulf and faces south into deep ocean. Before undertaking the long carry with your gear to the entry point check the end of the jetty for fishermen fishing and burleying for sharks. They sometimes camp on the jetty, creating long burley trails and fishing for two or three days. They do catch very large sharks here. Inquire before you dive and then make your own decision.

If you wish to dive a wreck there are a number along the southern coast within the Innes National Park. The history of how some of these ships came to sink in this area is intriguing, it includes piracy and tales of really bad luck. Ask the rangers at the park headquarters for the details and the locations, they may even accompany you to the sites of the Ethel and Ferret.

When the hot northerly wind is blowing offshore, an easy snorkel or dive is the wreck of the Willyama. One hundred metres offshore near Marion Bay, the steering quadrant projecting above the water, marks its position. Even at high tide the quadrant provides a roost for many sea birds, at low tide the boilers are exposed showing the lie of the wreck. It is a large vessel and there is enough remaining for a diver to explore. Lots of good size fish live around the wreck and are quite tame to divers, possibly as they see them so infrequently.

A diving trip to the Yorke is ideal for any level of diver. It is especially suited to an Aussie travelling diver or overseas backpacker with a car who wants a cheap dive holiday while experiencing a unique region of Australia. Almost all of the jetties have a caravan park nearby making accommodation cheap. A car is needed to get there and to get around but you don’t need a boat or a dive guide. You become the explorer and do it yourself. The Royal Automobile Association (RAA) produce a very good map of the Yorke Peninsula, it isn’t intended to be for divers but it shows all of the dive sites, the jetties.

Although there are no dive shops on the peninsula air fills are available at general stores at Edithburgh, Port Victoria and the Marion Bay Tavern. Most of the small towns have IGA stores which sell everything from divers’ weights to fresh bread and there is always a pub in every town.

Both gulfs are relatively shallow and with Kangaroo Island in the south preventing ocean swells from reaching into the gulfs, it creates an almost closed system. This increases the water temperature during summer to between 22 and 24 degrees Celsius. A south easterly wind blows almost none stop during summer making the waters around the jetties on the western side becalmed. When the weather reports indicate that the temperature is going to rise into the high 30s or low 40s it is a good indication that the wind is going to turn to the north or north-west. This is the time to dive the east and south coasts.

If you want an inexpensive dive holiday, with very easy diving, experiencing an often overlooked, interesting region of Australia, the Yorke Peninsula is definitely worth a look.

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