By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose
The Capricorn and Bunker Group of islands and reefs are located at the southern most end of the Great Barrier Reef. The group consists of eight reefs and coral cays, all of which offer fabulous reef diving. This area is the best place on the Great Barrier Reef to see manta rays, turtles, leopard sharks, tasselled wobbegongs and many other large marine creatures.
Our first dives were around Lady Musgrave Island. We were hoping to dive the drop-off on the southern side of the island, but strong south east winds limited us to the calmer northern and western side. At Manta Ray Bommie we explored a pretty coral reef in 12 to 22m. The visibility was a typical 30m. We encountered an amazing variety of reef fish, including a large number of coral trout and batfish. While no manta rays were seen, we did see around a dozen green turtles. Another wonderful dive site at Lady Musgrave was the Entrance Bommie, a large blade of coral in 22m. This bommie is riddled with ledges and caves, which were overflowing with baitfish. Feasting on these tiny baitfish were trevally, coral trout and sweetlip. The highlight was finding a 2.5m long tawny nurse shark resting under a ledge. The dive sites around Lady Musgrave Island are a good place to see reef sharks, sea snakes and manta rays, with some of our divers lucky enough to have a spectacular encounter with a feeding manta ray on a night dive.
Further north, Fairfax Islands also offer a variety of wonderful diving, with the best being on the countless bommies on the northern side of the twin islands. We jumped in to find a large tawny nurse shark at one bommie, and also saw turtles, an enormous Maori wrasse and abundant reef fish. We encountered a massive black-blotched stingray and found two tasselled wobbegongs nestled in a cave surrounded by cardinalfish. But the best part of the dive was when a manta ray cruised in and hung around for 10 minutes. We experienced another manta ray, giant moray eels, gropers, a lovely leaf scorpionfish and even had a close encounter with four mobula rays, smaller cousins of the manta ray.
At Hoskyn Islands we did a number of exploratory dives on the bommies on the northern side of the island. One we named Hoskyns Hamper was feast of marine life. This site was dominated by two large coral bommies sitting in 17m. Both were covered with gorgonians, spiky soft coral and reef fish. The larger bommie was also undercut with many ledges filled with cardinalfish. Parting this curtain of fish revealed giant moray eels, nudibranchs, shrimps, lionfish, squirrelfish and a number of tasselled and ornate wobbegongs. On other dives here we encountered turtles, reef sharks, stingrays, schools of trevally and some beautiful red emperors, a popular table fish, which are now rarely seen. Each night a night dive was on offer and the one at Hoskyn Islands was wonderful. Diving the coral gardens we found a multitude of sleeping fish, and more active shrimps, crabs and cuttlefish.
We did only one dive at Llewellyn Reef on a very pretty coral garden. The usual reef fish were in residence, including butterflyfish, angelfish, anemonefish, wrasse, parrotfish and sweetlips. But we also encountered barramundi cod, coral trout and some lovely beaked filefish.
Fitzroy Reef was the furthest north we travelled and a spot where we enjoyed a number of dives. The north side of the reef has bommies and pretty coral gardens in depths to 20m. At Fitzroy number two we found numerous blue spotted stingrays, reef octopus, a white tip reef shark and a tiny spotted eagle ray. But the highlight was a large bommie with several nudibranchs, an ornate wobbegong and we watched a two metre long giant moray eel getting serviced by cleaner wrasse.
Five days of exploring the fabulous Bunker Group was barely enough, but we know we will have to return to dive more of this wonderful part of the Great Barrier Reef. (Nigel and Helen travelled aboard Big Cat Reality which relocates to Bundaberg at Christmas and Easter to offer several special trips to the Bunker Group).
With over 50 meters visibility, we were able to see what, up until that moment, we had only imagined: a living wall of inquisitive and excited sharks; grey, white tip, black tip and barracudas, waiting against the current the arrival of food that accompanies each tide shift. The only difference was that this time we were served on the same platter.
Among the shouts of elation that the divers let out through the regulators, I managed to hear the signal of Jean Christophe, who was beckoning us to the bottom. We all descended immediately to a small place that kept us shielded from the current… the prefect spot to enjoy the show!
At that point, we felt that all that we had read and heard about the Garuae was true. We had roughly over a hundred worked up sharks feeding frantically.
After several minutes of pure adrenaline, we got the call to go back into the current. We ended up losing ourselves in the deep blue while we did a long decompression and safety stop on our way to the central lagoon, where our boat was waiting.
For five consecutive days we did up to three immersions a day, each of which had a magic and personality of its own. Even though it was the same place, it was the currents, the different animals and the light that turned each immersion into a unique experience.
During the three following weeks of our trip, we had the opportunity to dive in several other islands in the archipelago. In all of them we had unforgettable immersions; however, Fakarava remains in our memory as the true representative of the Tuamotu and of extreme diving with sharks.
Let us trust the local authorities and operators will be capable of preserving this natural paradise.