sea dragons, blue devils and red Indians
by Tony Karacsonyi
Jervis Bay, approximately 250 kilometres south of Sydney, Australia, abounds in sub-tropical marine life, especially in spring and summer, when warm east coast currents push down Australia’s east coast. A mecca for divers largely from Sydney and Canberra, Jervis Bay has seen underwater film crews from France, England and Japan. They come to film its unique marine life – bottom dwelling sharks, weedy sea dragons and giant Australian cuttlefish – one of the world’s giant cephalopods.
The bay is glistening a metallic blue colour. A white-breasted sea eagle soars overhead as we scoot across the bay, to a favourite spot â€˜the docks’. We anchor near the base of a large cliff and roll over the side. The huge boulders are buzzing with reef species such as blue gropers, mados, crimson-banded wrasse, and elegant striped hula wrasse. We swim down following the 45 degree reef and settle at 25 metres, where the reef meets the sand, and some very interesting marine critters can be found.
Here we’ll search for the rare and beautiful red Indian fish, which gets its name from the long dorsal fin stretching over its head (like an Indian’s head dress). It is often hard to find as it can be well camouflaged among sponges and sea tulips (a kind of ascidian).
We discover a pair of weedy sea dragons. They’re feeding on small transparent shrimp-like creatures called mysids. The sand and reef are teeming with the tiny shrimps. A lovely seahorse is curled on a finger sponge, and a giant Australian cuttlefish is guarding its den. Giant Australian cuttlefish are endemic to the waters of southern Australia and are one of the world’s giant cephalopods.
Exploring further along the reef we see many beautiful reef fish but can’t find the red Indian fish. As we back track, I swim out five metres across sand to a lonely rock covered in kelp and sponges. The red Indian fish is laying majestically against a sponge â€“ I’m elated! A master of camouflage in this sponge-filled environment, I’m sure many divers have overlooked this rare fish, thinking it’s just another red sponge.
We take a few photos and it’s time to leave. Ascending to 12 metres, we explore large caves filled with sponges, bryozoans and reef fishes. The bryozoans, which look like small mops, are home to sea spiders and red amphipods named Amaryllis – the same kind of critters you see hopping around when you pick up kelp on the beach.
With our air running a low and our diving computers becoming saturated, we swim to the shallows where there’s two large but safe and shallow caves extending into the cliff face. It’s always exciting entering these caves, as you never know what’s living inside at the time: wobbygong sharks, giant cuttlefish, octopus etc.
Grey nurse sharks sometimes cruise outside these caves. The grey nurse sharks had disappeared for some years, thought to be due to setline fishing for wobbygongs, but are now slowly reappearing in small numbers.
We spend the last few minutes of the dive under the cliff where the reef is covered in sponges, bryozoans, ascidians, kelp and sea urchins. As I look into the open water, I see schools of pelagic yellowtail, slimy mackerel and stripey mados. It’s a magical end to this dive in southern New South Wales.
Another popular dive is North Bowen Island, which is a large rocky island just off the southern side of Jervis Bay. Here the reef goes from five to 25 metres, and you can see similar marine life to that of the northern side. Port Jackson sharks congregate here in the winter to mate. Sometimes, several dozen Port Jackson sharks lay on top of each other. Off the front of Bowen Island is a deeper reef where beautiful tiger anemones can be seen on sea whips. Bowen Island is well known for its colony of fairy penguins, which are sometimes seen swimming underwater.
A favourite dive, which we usually do at night is the â€˜scallop beds’. This place is a sandy sea floor thriving with sand dwellers: sea pens, octopus, doughboy scallops, Tasmanian scallops, nudibranchs, giant sand stars, hermit crabs, blue-ringed octopus, and sand gobies. There are many polychete worm tube structures, like trees, on the bottom, which are adorned with marine life. These create a miniunderwater oasis. Blue-ringed octopus can sometimes be seen crawling on the seafloor.
Murray’s Beach is a fantastic night â€˜shore’ dive in summer, with dumpling squids, octopus, goblin fish, king prawns, bottle squid and wobbygong sharks. It’s an amazing photo dive, as long as there is no swell. There are many fine, deep water dive sites outside Jervis Bay, including the cave/tunnel dives named Spider Cave and Cathedral Cave. Spider Cave extends some 80 metres back into the cliff face, while Cathedral cave, almost the same length. Spider Cave is about 25 metres deep just outside the cave, and Cathedral Cave 18 -20 metres at its entrance. These caves can only be dived on calm days, as swells charging into them make them very dangerous but they are awesome dives on a calm sea day.
There is a deep water wall dive at 30-40 metres deep, about one kilometre offshore, named Stoney Creek. It has spectacular sea whip gardens and rich southern marinelife – for experienced deep divers only.
Another notable dive site is the seal colony at Steamer’s Beach, to the south of Jervis Bay. Here in the winter months you can scuba dive with a colony of Australian fur seals. There are usually 60 or more living there through winter and spring. Diving with the seals is a fantastic experience, as they are usually very playful, but as with most seal colonies there is risk, however small, of sharks.
Montague Island, a couple of hours drive south of Jervis Bay, also has a large seal colony on its northern end, which is very popular. It’s a better place to dive with seals as the colony is located in the sun, whereas the Steamer’s Beach Seal Colony is in the shadow of the cliff face. At Steamer’s Beach, it’s an eerie but exciting dive, where the shade meets the sunlight, with seals zooming all around.
In recent years, Jervis Bay has become one of Australia’s marine parks, with many areas now protected from marine life collecting and fishing. It’s one of the most magnificent oceanic bays in New South Wales for boating, fishing, diving/snorkelling. Green Patch and Murrays Beach are popular snorkelling spots.
There are plenty of places to stay for visiting divers/travellers including motels, guesthouses, caravan parks and camping areas. If you have your own yacht or powerboat, you can stay on the bay itself. Divers travelling via Sydney, can easily hire a car, and pop down to Jervis Bay, for a few days diving. There are two dive shops based at Huskisson, about 15 minutes boat ride from the dive sites, and there is a liveaboard.
Jervis Bay is a great place to go diving, especially in summer and autumn, when the water is warm and clear. I think January to May, is the best time for Jervis Bay, although June/July can be excellent. See you there!