Another report written for the Dive-to-Diver board at scubadiving.com. In this report, I learn the value of flood insurance for one's underwater photographic equipment
When the day dawned looking like the photo above, I suppose I should have known that something was up. After four days in Australia I was still a bit jet-lagged, and waking pretty early in the morning. Perhaps I'm using hindsight and deciding that things looked ominous that morning, as at the time I remember thinking "Wow, what a cool sunrise". This is the sort of view of the Sydney Harbour bridge you don't tend to see on postcards.
I had made arrangements to meet Brian, aka Wiz, at a boathouse far to the north of Sydney's central business district, basically about as far north as you can go and still justifiably say you are in Sydney. I humped my gear down to the rental car and struck out across the bridge towards the north shore, with plenty of time to spare.
Good thing I had plenty of time. I knew something was going wrong when I drove in to Kurringai National Park, placing me further inland and further north than I really intended to be. Don't you just love navigating in a strange city! Eventually, after a stop at a petrol station, purchase of a map and some headscratching, I finally made it to Barrenjoey and the boathouse, where we were booked to go out with Atlantis Divers for a two tank morning dive trip. (By the way, the last time I looked at the Atlantis home page it was broken).
Atlantis runs trips from the boathouse, just visible on the lower edge of the peninsula in the photograph on their homepage, round to some wrecks and rocky areas off Palm Beach and in the vicinity. They had a good onsite shop with a range of gear. I had all my own with me, except tanks and a wetsuit. They fixed me up with a one-piece 6mm suit with integrated hood, which kept me nice and warm throughout both dives.
The dive sites are all about 15-25 minutes boat ride from the boat house, and the boat is fairly small, so you gear up, don wetsuits etc at the boat house, take a single tank to the boat for the first dive, then return to the shop for surface interval and hot coffee.
25.8m/85feet sea water, NoDeco limited to 25 minutes, Air
Our first dive of the day was on the wreck of the Valiant, an old tug/barge/oil carrier which sank accidentally while being towed to a be scuttled. This is a moderately deep dive, the sea floor is at about 90 feet and the top of the remaining superstructure of the vessel is at about 55 to 60 feet. The Valiant sank in an area with very little surface relief, so it has become an outstanding artificial reef.
We backrolled into the deep blue, and got ourselves together ready to descend. Brian found the top of his farmer-john wetsuit a bit restrictive, so decided to take it off. While he got back on the boat, I hung around in the water near the marker bouy, checking out the barnacles and the various salps and ctenophores floating in the water. I even tried to photograph a very pretty bi-refringent Sea Gooseberry, we'll never know how it turned out.
With exposure suit issues resolved, we were both back in the water, and started our descent down the bouy line. We descended in a mild current, through swirling schools of Gold-band Fusiliers and Blue-striped Snappers. Slowly, the body of the wreck came in to view, sitting on the bottom with a pronounced list to the port side. The hulk had hit the bottom stern first, forming some very impressive creases in the upper deck and hull. The visibility was good enough to see the length of the wreck, and then some, probably about 100 feet all up. As there is not really anything worth seeing off the wreck, and the wreck itself is essentially whole and has limited opportunites for safe penetration, navigating the site is very straightforwards.
The Valiant sank in 1981, so there is now twenty years of accumulated marine life on the hull of the wreck. At the time of our dive, ocean dwelling squid had laid numerous 5 to 10 centimeter long eggsacs on the hull, these were bunched together and swayed in the current like clusters of dismembered fingers. Lots of sponges and encrusting coralline algae are spread over the decks, along with anemones, the occasional urchin, and a multitude of Lizard fish. The wreck is often occupied by a resident Wobbegong shark, although we did not see it on this dive.
Of course, as soon as the camera is dead all the really cool things start to appear. We found a couple of green morays in crevices on the hull, including one juvenile that would have been not much more than a foot long. A bait-ball of juvenile striped catfish, numbering easily in the thousands, was making its way up and down the starboard side of the wreck in a perpetual leap-frog game of feed/hide/swim and feed again. On the port side a small school of squid made an appearance, while all about the Fusiliers and Snappers swirled. After twenty-five minutes our computers had had enough, and with us both nudging the caution zones for nitrogen, we slowly made our way back to the bouy line, up and out. An end to a very interesting, if very expensive, dive.
17.4m/58 feet sea water, Buddy's cold tolerance limited to 35 minutes, Air
Just before the turning point of the dive, I looked back over my shoulder to check on Brian and was quite simply arrested by the beauty of the scene. The boulders receded into the distance in water that had easily 100 foot visibility, a smooth flowing bank of colour over which swam a long, attenuated school of Fusiliers in the shallower water, the sunlight catching on their scales and flashing the bright yellow of their tails. Out to sea, we could hear a Humpback whale singing on it's northern migration. Our bubbles caught the sunlight and glittered momentarily like stars. I was half way around the world from home, with a thousand dollars worth of dead camera equipment and a fierce case of jetlag, and I could not think of anywhere I would rather be.
The day of the dead camera Wendy, my most esteemed buddy, arrived to join me in Sydney. After a couple of days exploring Sydney and the surrounds, we headed north to Brisbane. This is where I have lived for most of my life, and where I was certified, so I was looking forward to a chance for some diving on my "old beat". Unfortunately the weather was not in the mood to cooperate, and the waves in Moreton Bay were too big for anyone to go out to Flinders Reef and the Curtin Artificial Reef. Determined not to be thwarted, I pulled some strings with a family friend, and found a couple of spots for us on a mid-week trip off Stradbroke Island.
If you look at a map of Australia, about half way down the eastern coast you will see what looks like a promontory. This is actually Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world. South of Fraser Island runs a string of other, smaller sand islands, including Moreton and Stradbroke Islands, which enclose the harbour at Brisbane. Stradbroke Island is visible in the map below, it is the yellow coloured island below the word BRISBANE.
We caught the early morning vehicle ferry across the bay, and rolled up to the dive shop ready for some action. At this time of the year (basically mid-winter), the visibility is usually at it's best in South-East Queensland waters, and the area is occupied by Grey Nurse sharks (called Sand Tigers in the US). We were hoping to spot some at the first dive site, Flat Rock.
21.8m/71 feet sea water, 22 minutes, savage surface currents and waves.
Diving off Stradbroke is like a combination of 6-pack boat diving and California surf entries. There are no jetties or piers, and oceanic swells come straight on to the beach. There is actually some pretty good surfing here, and getting the boat into the water is a lot of fun. The boat held about twelve, so it's not really a six-pack! On the boat that day was an instructor with five BOW students, Wendy, Myself, and a very nice young man from Sweden. As there was only the three of us pleasure diving rather than on a class, we grouped up as a three-man buddy team for the two dives. While planning the dive we all agreed that we were not interested in swimming like loonies or going really deep, and it transpired that we all had fairly similar air-consumptions, so it turned out quite well.
The first dive site is called Flat Rock because there is a rock that comes out of the ocean there, and it is flat. Australians are known for their highly original naming conventions.
The seas were actually pretty rough out here, and several of the BOW students found themselves feeding the fishes. We back-rolled in and immediately found ourselves in a pretty strong surface current, which was holding the anchor line at an angle of about 30 degrees to the bottom.
We dropped down the anchor line to the edge of Shark Alley, the deepest point of the dive and the place where there was the greatest probability of Grey Nurse sitings.
We descended to the bottom of the alley at 70 feet and slowly cruised up against a mild current. Almost immediately we spotted a large Fringed Wobbegong shark, along with many anemones, sea urchins and Valentine Puffers.
At one point we spotted an Eagle Ray swimming across the alley, followed by another smaller Wobbegong, and a Green Turtle off in the distance. The fish life on the rock was quite dense and varied, and overall it was a very pleasant dive. Unfortunately we never did see any Grey Nurse sharks, maybe next time.
Returning to the anchor line for our safety stop, I noticed a bright yellow weight belt on the bottom. "That doesn't look right" I thought to myself. Back aboard the boat we found a rather ashen-faced group of BOW students, who had had just a bit of a thrill with the currents and waves while trying to get down. This was their first open water dive, and by all accounts it had not been fun. One student had not even made it down, being unable to clear his ears, while a second student had panicked at depth and made a thrashing, regulator spitting and mask throwing ascent from depth. The weight belt I had seen belonged to the instructor, it had been kicked off in the melee.
11.3m/37 feet sea water, Buddy's cold tolerance limited to 43 minutes
After the experience at Flat Rock, the instructor decided that he needed a really quiet spot with pretty much no current to get his students back in the water, so we headed in towards shore during the surface interval, and came to Shag Rock. Given that Flat Rock is flat, it probably comes as no surprise that Shag Rock has Shags on it.
For those who don't know, a Shag is a type of cormorant, a sea-bird that dives for fish. Because these birds dive deep and often, having lots of bouyancy would be a real problem for them. As a consquence, Shags and other cormorants do not have waterproof feathers like ducks and geese, and need to dry out after a dive by spreading their wings in the sun and wind. Shag Rock is a favourite place for this drying, when we got there it probably had a hundred birds sitting just above the waves drying themselves.
While doing the pre-dive briefing the instructor commented that there was so much fish life on this site that fish collectors often come here to collect for the aquarium trade. In all honesty, I am not sure that is really a good selling point for a dive site, but I think he was making things sound really up-beat and excellent in order to get some confidence back into his students, some of whom looked like they were seriously questioning the wisdom of this new sport.
The site was much shallower than at Flat Rock, and is easy to navigate as there are radial crevasses extending out from the main rock, so you can swim down following one crevasse for a while, turn left, swim at the same depth until the next crevasse, then in towards the rock for a while until you reach your starting depth, turn left again and head back to the anchor. This made navigation nice and easy, and we circumnavigated the mooring a couple of times on the dive.
The instructor was certainly right about the profuse smaller fish life on this site, once again the place was crawling with Valentine Puffers, Clown fish, a variety of Damsels, and at least one wobegong. Wendy saw a blue ribbon eel, or so she says, as she conveniently forgot to bang her tank and show me! We found two turtles sleeping in amongst the rocks, and an unparalled array of spiny, poisonous sea urchins. Good bouyancy was a must here, if only to avoid getting punctured.
Once we were all back aboard and the gear strapped in, we motored off for the shore through the waves, with salt spray washing over the bow and our hair flying in the breeze. After a warm water shower and a chat with the students, it was time to head off for a well earned hamburger and chips.
Diving off Stradbroke was a lot of fun, and Sydney also was enjoyable, all in all it was four great dives in some different conditions and with some new marine life that I had not previously encountered. After Stradbroke we headed inland for a while, camping and hiking in the mountains and visiting the ancient rainforests of the region, until finally we dragged all the equipment out to the airport, ready to depart for the north and part two of our diving adventures in Oz, the hunt for Minkes with Mike