Drive and dive

A road trip through Australia’s most populous state reveals busy highways offshore too, where the traffic has fins and flippers

Story and main photography by Simon Lorenz

What do you think of, when you imagine diving ‘Down Under’? Most likely you think of the famous Great Barrier Reef, or, for the more travelled diver, the Yongala Wreck or Ningaloo Reef? It’s easy to overlook New South Wales, on the eastern seaboard, with its over 1,000km of coastline. Yet its coast is lined with first-class dive spots featuring seals, rays, sharks and the otherworldly weedy sea dragon. The state’s coast offers both warmer, northern waters and chillier, southern waters, drawing warm-water species like mantas, mobulas and zebra sharks as well as humpback whales, grey nurse sharks and scalloped hammerheads.

With the distances involved in this sprawling state, the best way to explore these sites is a road trip from one of the major gateways of Canberra, Sydney or Melbourne, heading north up the coast towards Brisbane. Driving in Australia is easily arranged, cheap and fun as you follow the coastal highways through rolling hills beside an ever-blue ocean. At night you can stay at campsites which often have affordable cabins, or else use B&Bs, and there are free gas barbecue places everywhere for an authentically Aussie outdoors feel.

The sleepy fishing village of Narooma is the most southerly dive spot on the coast, though the town is famed more for golfing, fishing and whale-watching. Diving is a pretty low priority, with only one dive shop in town. This becomes an advantage when you reach the fur seal colony of Montague Island, two miles offshore, and get it pretty much to yourself. Seemingly unfussed by the presence of divers, a colony of fur seals swim, play and dive here, posing puppy-eyed for endearing wide-angle close-ups.

Occasionally a big male shoots through, patrolling the playground, and it’s best to make way. Fur seals are, biologically speaking, sea lions rather than seals as they have protruding ear lobes, which also means they are pretty big animals. Their play often gets interfered with by other bulls too: bull rays in this case, with wingspans up to 1.5m.

Further north, closer to Sydney, is Jervis Bay. Its six-kilometre-arc encompasses dozens of different sites, with even more outside its mouth. Bizarre layered limestone cliffs create an outlandish backdrop that continues underwater with dramatic swim-throughs, caves and canyons, in some of which it’s possible to surface on the inside.

Among the soft corals you’ll find stingrays and camera-friendly Port Jackson sharks. In caves and swim-throughs you can watch peaceful giant cuttlefish, the biggest cuttlefish species in the world reaching over half-a-metre in length. The bay also features a wreck dive to a two-engine plane that crash-landed in the 1940s and now rests, well-preserved, 12m down on the sandy sea floor. But beware of water temperatures here: even in summer the water may be no warmer than 18-20°C.

After a few more hours behind the wheel, the modern skyline of Sydney rears into view. Australia’s biggest city and capital of New South Wales is a common tourist stop, and it also provides sights for divers too, at a number of cold-water spots.

South Sydney is a great location for spotting the wonderful weedy sea dragon, the funkiest member of the seahorse family and one that is endemic to southern Australia. This fish hunts microscopic shrimp that float around the seaweed gardens it calls home so, for camouflage, it has evolved leaf-like appendages resembling fronds of seaweed. To find one, hover above and wave a dive torch over the foliage. Weedies have thin blue stripes on their flanks that shine back in torchlight.

You can also expect to find nudibranchs, morays, rays, guitarfish, flatheads, Port Jackson sharks, blue groupers, octopi, some very sizable pacific cuttlefish and various shark species like the wobbegongs, silky sharks and grey nurse sharks. For city diving, it’s pretty impressive. It’s fairly easy to just walk into the water at the dive spots, so you can save money and simply rent tanks. Helpful local divers will give you all the information you need.

Another hour north of Sydney is Terrigal where, in 2011, the Australian Navy ship HMAS Adelaide was sunk as an artificial reef. The 138-m long destroyer sits upright and still very intact with the bottom of the hull below 45m, circled by big schools of metre-long jewfish. Penetration of the wreck has been made easy, with big cut-outs on every level allowing divers to explore without risk. The bridge is easy to access too, and the creators of this artificial reef were nice enough to leave the captain’s fake-leather chair and all of his controls in place to enjoy. Nitrox is recommended to extend bottom time.

Distances can be huge in Australia and it’s another 800km to the next key spot, though there are other places en route with diving, especially with sharks, such as at Forster’s Pinnacle, Seal Rocks or Broughton Island near Nelson Bay. You can also break the drive at one of many good beaches, or check out a wildlife reserve where you can cross the obligatory koala and kangaroo off your checklist of must-see marsupials.

Your goal is South West Rocks, a tiny beachside town popular with local tourists from up and down the coast and a remarkable place for shark diving. Here, you are ferried in aluminum zodiacs 3km offshore to Fish Rock Island, an outcrop sitting in the strong Eastern Australian Current that can be seen rippling the surface. The key feature lies below: multiple canyons filled to the brim with grey nurse sharks. You descend 25m to the heavy, white sand bottom with an armada of sharks circling above and around. It’s not uncommon to count 30 or more of these two-to-three-metre sharks cruising calmly past.

Called sand tigers or ragged-tooth sharks in other parts of the world, this species is active at night and rests by sleep-cruising during the day in current-free areas. Here the sharks slowly glide past eyeballing you as if in a trance. They are so close you can count the massive teeth that sprout out of their mouths. Interestingly, these sharks are not dangerous at all. Their teeth are needle sharp but pointed back towards their throat, only allowing them to snap up prey and swallow it whole. The fish they hunt do not get bigger than 50cm, so humans are completely off the menu. And, since they hunt at night, their biting instincts are tuned out during the day, making this shark dive extremely safe.

The second highlight is a cave tunnelling 125m through the entire island. It’s a hot spot for lobster with literally one on every rock, while the opening at the far end of the tunnel is filled with thousands of baitfish. If you are here early you might see grey nurse sharks inside the cave plowing channels through the baitfish.

Fish Rock also hosts various other visitors throughout the seasons: manta rays, whale sharks and mola mola may pass by in summer, while humpback whales also visit. All year round are bullrays, wobbegongs, loggerhead turtles, and schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks. Dive operator Peter Hitchins says the hammers are always there, but only sometimes come close to the island. Sometimes the schools of hammerheads can be seen gently working the stream next to Fish Rock. Social media is always quick to pick up on it when it happens, as this sort of thing is usually only known to happen in the Galapagos Islands.

A little bit further up the coast is a one-pub-type hamlet called Wooli, from where you can dive the Solitary Islands Marine Park. Its most famous dive site, Fish Soup, has an abundance of fish that in turn attracts a lot of sharks – wobbegongs, a bottom-dwelling shark that occurs down the entire east coast, are everywhere here. Their wide mouths are hidden behind a beard of tassels, giving them a placid look, but they are snappers, and are known to strike at remarkably big prey. A diver’s hand can be misread as a fish, so it pays to beware as this shark does not let go and would have to be surgically removed.

Heading further along the coastal highway you reach the surf mecca, Byron Bay, busy with boarders and backpackers alike. Yet behind Australia’s most famous left-hand break, comparatively unregarded, lies one the country’s best dive sites. Accessing them means taking a zodiac, which often needs to wait in the waves until a gap opens up between the hundreds of surfers.

Beyond the break, a handful of dark outcrops coem into view, piercing the swells on the horizon: Julian Rocks, a marine reserve referred to by those in the know as the ‘Galapagos of Down Under’.

On these islands almost anything can happen, with each season bringing very different visitors. Giant bullrays, wobbegongs, lobsters, potato cod, giant barracuda, loggerhead turtles and Spanish dancer nudibranchs are seen here on every dive. Eagle rays, bamboo sharks, shovelnose rays and guitar sharks are also common. In the colder seasons, grey nurse sharks, hammerheads and fur seals come by, while humpback whales breach in the bay. Then in the summer, from December to May, the area hosts armadas of zebra sharks, with mantas and mobula rays soaring overhead. The currents are strong but manageable and with every dive bringing something new, it’s definitely a place to linger for a few days.

After Julian Rocks, it’s just a few more hours north to Brisbane and the road trip is done. From fur seals to sea dragons, mobs of mantas to schools of sharks, it turns out that New South Wales has a lot to offer. The best part is that though Sydney and Byron Bay are famous topside destinations, none of these dive sites is that busy. Most divers here are not tourists but friendly Australian divers for the sport is very popular in this part of the country. Now you know why. AA

Practicalities

When to go

The best time to visit is during the Australian summer. Dive with cold-water species from October to December, while warm-water species start appearing in the north at the end of December and stay around for two or three months until March.

How to get there

Sydney is well connected internationally and all the major car hire agencies have a presence at the airport. Cheaper rental agencies and so-called rent-a-bomb agencies are located in town, however may not support city-to-city rentals.

What it will cost

Diving down-under is not cheap: expect to pay AUS$100-140 per two-tank dive excluding gear. Don’t assume this includes a divemaster either. Bringing your own gear is strongly recommended as the equipment rental quickly adds up. Filling tanks for shore dives is AUS$10-12 per tank and weights are charged for too. You can cap overall costs by staying in low-cost accommodation and making use of your cooking skills on the barbies that are commonly available for free at campsites.

What to take

The water is cold most of the year so wetsuits should be 5-mm or 7-mm, or else use a semi-dry. In Byron Bay you might get by in summer with a 3-mm – water temperatures range from 15°C in winter to 28°C in summer – while in the south it will not get much warmer than 24°C and is shatteringly cold in winter.

Contacts

NSW dive operations tend to be small, so book in advance. In low season, boats may not go out at all; in summer, they quickly fill up.

Narooma – Narooma Charters, www.naroomacharters.com.au

Jervis Bay – Dive Jervis Bay, www.divejervisbay.com

Sydney – Dive 2000, www.dive2000.com.au;

ProDive, www.prodivesydney.com;

Snorkel Safari, www.snorkelsafari.com.au;

Terrigal – Terrigal Dive, www.terrigaldive.com.au

Forster – Dive Forster, www.diveforster.com.au

South West Rocks – SWR Dive Center, www.southwestrocksdive.com.au

Wooli/Solitary Islands – Wooli Dive, http://woolidive.com.au

Byron Bay – Sun Dive, www.sundive.com.au