Last chance to see … the underwater wonderland of Pope’s Eye

By David King, images David Bryant

Diving the Cumberland

Earlier this year, the Victorian Government delayed its channel deepening project in Port Phillip Bay, Australia, pending a new Environmental Effects Statement (EES).

But Treasurer John Brumby has told media that the project must eventually go ahead for the economic good of the State. He was quoted as saying: ‘It’s not a matter of if, but when’.

State Premier Steve Bracks has also said the Government is ‘determined to get everything right’ so the project can proceed.

Essentially, they hope to find a way of dredging the shipping channels without causing too much environmental damage. But as independent experts have been quick to point out, there is no way dredging on this scale can occur without damage to the environment.

In spite of this, the dredging project has bilateral support from both the Government and the Opposition.

One of the many popular Port Phillip bay dive sites at risk from adverse effects of dredging is Pope’s Eye. Right now may be your last chance to see… the Underwater Wonderland of Pope’s Eye

There probably isn’t a diver in Victoria (Australia) who hasn’t heard of or dived Pope’s Eye.

The man-made annulus, situated approximately four kilometres inside the heads of Port Phillip Bay, is where most Melbourne, Geelong, and Ballarat based dive students do their first Open Water dive.

A marine life mecca for underwater naturalists and photographers, it is well-known among interstate and international divers as well.

The annulus was built in the1880s as part of the pre-Federation Victoria’s defence against a feared attack by Russian forces around the time of the Crimean War. The defence system included South Channel Fort, the fortifications of Queenscliff and Point Nepean, the torpedo boats HMVS Nepean and HMVS Lonsdale, and the dreadnought HMVS Cerebrus.

New developments in long-range weaponry made the idea of forts defending the shipping channels redundant. The threat of invasion also faded and the construction was never completed.

The horseshoe-shaped annulus of basalt rocks eventually became a part of the Harold Holt Marine Reserve and a regular dive site for charter operators working out of Portsea, Sorrento and Queenscliff.

And no wonder. The inside of the annulus offers a sheltered anchorage of two to three metres of water. Outside, it slopes down to a sandy seabed at a depth of around 12 to 14 metres with virtually every centimetre of the rocky slope packed with marine life – hard and soft corals, huge strands of kelp, invertebrates galore, and so many fish teeming around, you don’t know where to look first.

There are iridescent blue devil fish, several species of wrasse, leatherjackets, old wives, moonlighters, magpie morwongs, sea carp, sweep, mado, goatfish, stingrays, and the occasional seal or sea lion, octopus, squid, cuttlefish, sea stars and nudibranches have also been sighted. Observant divers may even spot the odd sea horse or sea dragon and macro life is in abundance.

This is a site where an underwater photographer can spend an entire dive in a single two metre square space and return with a cornucopia of marine life shots. Where a handful of bread has divers surrounded by so many fish, they temporarily disappear from view.

With an average depth of 10m, I prefer Pope’s Eye for freediving as it makes a welcome change from the relatively shallow depths available from shore dives. Even non-divers find this site fascinating as it’s also home to a large colony of nesting gannets.

Pope’s Eye is just one of many dive site in Port Phillip Bay which could be negatively effected by dredging if the state Government’s channel deepening project goes ahead.

See it now before it’s too late.

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