by David Glennie
There is always excitement at the first dive at a new, far from home location, and the further the travel the greater the anticipation. As the white bubbles cleared that announced my entry, my eyes darted around looking at my new surroundings and looking for exotic critters.
A pair of strikingly marked old wives rounded a bommie and swam directly towards me, âWhat are you guys doing hereâ, I yelled at them. After lugging heavy dive gear through a two hour plane flight and a one hour bus connection there was no way that I wanted to see and photograph fish species that are common around my home dive sites at Portsea. All of my cursing must have aroused a sleeping old man turtle as he awoke from his slumber and swam towards me, all was well in the world again as there are no turtles at Portsea. After my initial shock I came to realise that this episode perfectly illustrates the unique attraction of diving Byron Bay. The warm currents from the north bring tropical visitors from the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea to co-inhabit with the temperate species common along the New South Wales coast. Being the most easterly point of the Australian mainland Cape Byron juts out into the Pacific Ocean to catch any passers by that drift southwards with the East Australian Current.
If your visit is in early spring then you have the added pleasure of the company of some special passers by, humpback whales. Heading south after the winter calving season they are frequently seen in Byron Bay, some resting with their young and others with their sights set firmly on Antarctica and just moving through. Whale songs fill the water when they are in the area, providing a serene background music to your dive. Whilst very few divers get to see these giants underwater most get a display of breaching, fin slapping, diving tails and blows from the dive boat on your way to and from the dive sites. After the dive, or for the landlubber, it is a short drive to Cape Byron where there are many great vantage points for whale watching. You can even hire binoculars from the shop in the old lighthouse keepers quarters.
Most of Byron Bays diving is around Julian Rocks, a group of barren rocks some five kilometres offshore. Above water Julian Rocks are bare, barren and inhospitable to all but a handful of hardy seabirds, however below water nothing could be further from the truth with an amazing number and variety of fish at this rocky piscatorial oasis. Julian Rocks has been a marine reserve since August 1981 and all of the locals enjoy their protected status. Further to this the dive operators have fixed mooring buoys at each of their regular sites to prevent any anchor damage to the reefs. The fun of the dive starts early as the rigid hull inflatable dive boat has to be launched over the beach at âThe Passâ. The battered four wheel drive reverses at full speed into the surf to release the boat and then it is all hands on deck to keep the bow into the swells until the skipper is ready for departure. I will give you a tip here. Do not buy a used car from the Byron Bay Dive Centre unless you have a secret desire for salt water, sand and rust.
Several of the anchorages are on the north east side of Julian Rocks in amongst a collection of tropical hard coral, anemone strewn areas intermingled with rocks and temperate algal growth. The anemones play host to anemone fish, porcelain crabs and attendant shrimp as the most wobbegongs that you have ever seen laze around them. The fish pot pourri swirls around you with cooler water wrasse, leatherjackets, morwong and bream mixing with their warmer water cousins butterfly fish, flute mouth, puffer fish, banner fish and flowing schools of fusiliers. Every now and then the fusiliers scatter as a big kingfish torpedos through the school while every other fish jumps with the commotion and moves low to the reef to look inconspicuous.
Heading north from the anchorage area the depth gradually increases and at about 15 metres lies a swim through known as the Cod Hole. If you thought that the anchorage area was fish orientated wait until you see the Cod Hole, although only five metres long the tunnel is chock full of fish. More lazy wobbegongs carpet the bottom, bullseyes part to allow light from the other end to become visible and double figure snapper complete with the bumpy nose are at arms length. Overhead a lionfish is glued to the ceiling and proving difficult to photograph as it does not look right in the viewfinder upside down, your correspondent contorts himself in an attempt for the gold medal shot but only succeeds in filling his mask with water. On the ocean side of the Cod Hole sit more big snapper, even bigger kingfish and an even bigger greasy cod. Even bigger, but not home today, are grey nurse sharks that congregate in the gutter outside the hole during the winter months. Swim past the black coral trees and back up to the anchorage for an absolute âA classâ dive.
Byron Bay also has a lot to offer the non diver and in fact we combined my diving with a family holiday. The kids loved the beach as only kids can with boogie boarding, swimming, sand castles and burying Dad with sand. The local shops and restaraunts cater for every need with the bonus of local handcrafts and produce. The strong local alternative lifestyle community add colour and diversity to Byron and nowhere is this more evident than at the local market. This suburban boy has never seen a greater concentration of tie dyed, gluten free, organic, hydroponic, chemical free, hemp product, crystal, tofu, reflexology, bongo and sitar playing than at the Byron Bay market. There was even colon hydrotherapy, which I am not exactly sure what that is but was in no hurry to try.
Oops, back to the diving as this is not Market Monthly. Byron Bay has plenty to offer for the full on dive trip, family holiday or a couple of days stopover on a journey down the coast. Megan and the kids canât wait to go back and poor old me will have to do another series of dives at Julian Rocks, man what a chore. Make sure that you look up the Byron Bay Dive Centre and ask them to look after you as well as they looked after me.