Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)
by Ann Storrie
NEARLY ONE THIRD OF AUSTRALIA’S 20,000KM (12,000 mile) coastline is along the state of Western Australia. This area ranges from the tropical coral reefs off the Kimberly coast, to the temperate granite and limestone habitats southwest of the state. Tropical waters surround the Christmas and Cocos Islands and a band of oceanic atolls, including the Rowley Shoals, Scott Reef and Seringapatam Reef. These areas are remote and provide pristine and exciting tropical diving.
Further south, the waters of Ningaloo Reef near Exmouth support a wonderful mix of tropical and temperate life. Ningaloo is the longest fringing reef in the world and provides many safe, sheltered lagoons for snorkelling and diving. The area is also renowned for the annual migration of Whale Sharks that congregate to feed on plankton after the corals spawn in March.
The southwest of Western Australia has delightful, temperate marine environments. Limestone and granite pinnacles, caves, ledges and overhangs brim with invertebrates, the colour of which rivals that of the tropical coral reefs. There are marine parks right on Perth’s (the capital city’s) doorstep, which serve to protect marine life while allowing people to indulge in many of their favourite activities such as fishing and collecting crays (Panulirus cygnus). Some of the best sites are just a stone’s throw from the main swimming beaches of Perth, and Rottnest Island, which lies 18km (11 miles) off the coast.
Wrecks also feature along the Western Australian coastline. There are still 17th Century vessels to be discovered, and many old ships are regularly dived along the coast. Not content with these, Western Australia has scuttled two Australian navy warships, HMAS Swan, which is now a major dive attraction in Geographe Bay, and HMAS Perth on the south coast at Albany.
For a real adrenaline rush, try a cage dive with great white sharks off the Neptune Islands in South Australia. Colonies of New Zealand fur seals and Australian sea lions provide a banquet for the great whites and, often, good shark sightings for the divers.
With increasing tourism, the dive industry in Australia has become very efficient. Diving can be arranged on arrival for most areas along the coast, although some of the remote areas, such as the Rowley Shoals and Scott Reef, require prior preparation and planning.
CHRISTMAS AND COCOS ISLANDS
Christmas and Cocos Islands are some of the remotest and least known of Australia’s island territories. They are situated over 2600km (1616 miles) from Perth and only 360km (224 miles) and 1000km (621 miles) from Jakarta respectively. Christmas Island is a volcanic atoll renowned for its lush tropical rain forest with magnificent bird life, and the annual red crab migration. Its topography is spectacular and the sites are nearly all deep wall dives with many caves, overhangs and spectacular coral growth. Sites worth diving are: The Grotto 1, Northeast Point 2, Flying Fish Cove (and Cantelievers) 3, Thundercliffe Cave 4, West White Beach 5, Boat Cave 6, and Pig Rock (Egeria Point) 7.
Cocos Island is a true coral atoll, and drew the attention of Charles Darwin in 1836. It was here that Darwin formulated his theories on coral atoll formation. Cocos is renowned for its large pelagic fish, reef sharks, Manta Rays, giant Humphead (Napoleon) Wrasse, turtles, and a variety of different dive sites within a relatively small area. There are walls and small drop-offs, a huge expanse of Turbinaria coral that forms an enormous ‘cabbage patch,’ large plate corals that slope from the surface to about 25m (80ft) and safe snorkelling and diving in the lagoon. Sites worth diving are: Garden of Eden 8, Cologne Gardens 9, Cabbage Patch 10, The Towers 11, Two Trees 12, The Atrium 13, Govie House 14, East White Beach 15, Spanish Eyes 16, Prison Gardens 17, Lion Cave 18, and Manta Ray Corner 19.
As is common on isolated atolls, many marine species have proliferated on Christmas and Cocos Islands, while others have not yet colonized the areas. The absence of Coral Groupers, Humbug Damsels and dragonets is countered by the abundance of other groupers, wrasse, damselfish, gobies, butterflyfish, surgeonfish, blennies and cardinalfish. Many of these species thrive in above-average numbers compared with other Indo-Pacific localities.
At both islands, access to various dive sites depends on the weather. The climate is tropical. During the summer months, the northwesterly winds may inhibit diving on those sides of the islands, but diving on the east coasts can usually be arranged at this time. The water temperature averages 28°C (82°F) and visibility on the walls is generally 30-50m (100-165ft). During summer, in the cyclone season, visibility may be less, and a day or two’s diving may be lost if a cyclone passes nearby.
ROWLEY SHOALS, SCOTT AND SERINGAPATAM REEFS
The Rowley Shoals are some of the best examples of shelf atolls in Australian waters. They formed over 10 million years ago when the western continental shelf subsided. As the land submerged, the corals grew upwards to form three oval-shaped atolls, 30-40km (20-25 miles) apart, and approximately 280km (174 miles) from the Western Australian mainland. Each atoll consists of a rim of reef surrounding a large lagoon. They rise from over 400m (1312ft) of water, and their western sides all drop off extremely steeply.
When the first surveys of marine life were conducted at the Rowley Shoals in 1982 and 1983, the Western Australian Museum added over 340 new species of fish to Western Australian records. One of the most impressive species of these fish is the huge Potato Grouper (Epinephelus tukula). These fearless, inquisitive monsters often approach divers and even taste outstretched hands and fins. Huge clams, spider shells, cowries, colourful anemones with associated anemonefish, damsels and striking Yellowstriped Anthias all crowd among prolific coral growths at depths of less than 5m (16ft) on top of the reef. Shallow bommies within the lagoons support enough life to entertain a diver for hours, while the outer reef drop-offs are simply breathtaking. The entire surface of the coral foundation is covered with living stony corals, soft corals, anemones, ascidians, hydroids and sponges. Reef fish from nearly every family are found, and large schools of trevally, bream, snapper, tuna, mackerel and bonito are often sighted. Reef sharks and Manta Rays are also common. Sites worth diving are: Lively 25, West Wall 26, North Wall 27, Mermaid Channel 28, Cod Hole 29, Southeast Wall 30, Jimmy Goes to China 31, Blue Lagoon 32, Clerke Reef Channel 33 and Southeast Wall 34.
Western Australia’s northern atolls (excluding the Rowley Shoals) support the largest sea snake population in the world. These are Turtle-headed Sea Snakes.
Western Rock Lobsters (crayfish). On every dive around Rottnest you can see their antennae waving from under limestone ledges.
Rarely seen by divers, both the tropical and temperate water species of Blue Ringed Octopus have an extremely toxic venom.
Scott Reef and Seringapatam lie about 400km (250 miles) north of the Rowley Shoals. The diving and marine life here are similar to the Rowley Shoals, with one important exception. Sea snakes are in abundance at these more northerly atolls which boast the largest sea snake population in the world. Surprisingly, the snakes have not yet populated the Rowley Shoals. If you are looking for snakes, at Scott Reef and Seringapatam you may find up to 20 snakes on each dive. Beautiful, inquisitive, and sometimes extremely friendly, snakes of several species may follow divers during most of their time underwater. Provided the snakes are not antagonized, they are rarely a problem. It is a wonderful experience to glide gently through the calm waters of the lagoons and watch the sea snakes gently winding their way through the branches of staghorn corals where they poke into crevices for prey. Sites worth diving are: Seringapatam 20, Northeast Wall - North Reef 21, Southeast Wall - North Reef 22, Sandy Islet 23 and South Reef 24.
Visibility of over 40m (130ft) is normal during winter and early spring at the Rowley Shoals, Scott and Seringapatam Reefs, although water temperature may be a little cooler than expected for a tropical reef environment. Underwater temperatures of 29-30°C (84-86°F) do occur, but 25-26°C (77-80°F) is not uncommon. In August and September, when the winds are still and the land temperature a pleasant 30°C (86°F), there is nothing better than to relax after a day’s diving in a motionless boat, watching the most magnificent sunset reflected in the mirror of the lagoons. The waters of these atolls are pristine and one of the relatively untouched diving frontiers of the world.
NINGALOO REEF AND CORAL BAY
The Ningaloo Reef is one of Australia’s most important tracts of reef. It extends for approximately 260km (162 miles) from the northwest cape at Exmouth to just south of Coral Bay. The reef ranges from 7km (4½ miles) off the coast to less than 200m (656ft) from shore. It is the longest fringing reef in the world and many of its beautiful lagoons provide some of the easiest and most delightful snorkelling and shallow diving in Australia.
Ningaloo is best known for its regular visits by Whale Sharks. It is here that these magnificent fish can be predictably found and studied. The Whale Shark is the largest coldblooded animal in the world, and the largest fish. It grows to over 12m (40ft) and can have a mouth 1m (3ft) wide. Yet it is a harmless filter feeder. The sharks come to Ningaloo every March and usually stay until June. This coincides with the annual coral spawn on the reef that turns the sea into plankton soup. However, despite the plankton, visibility is often 20-30m (65-100ft). Charter boats employ spotter planes to guide them to the Whale Sharks, and sometimes seven or eight sharks can be seen in one day.
To swim with a Whale Shark is an awesome experience. The gigantic mouth is held wide open as it feeds and you can see it gulp an enormous quantity of water and plankton. The head is usually surrounded by small pilot fish, including juvenile Golden Trevally, while remoras are often stuck to its ventral surface. Other large fish, such as cobia, are sometimes seen swimming close by.
There is of course more to Ningaloo than Whale Sharks. This area is home to over 500 species of fish, 250 known species of corals and about 600 species of molluscs. Green, Loggerhead and Hawksbill Turtles are prevalent. Green Turtles, in particular, have extensive nesting sites along this coast. Manta Rays are common and occasionally large shoals can be seen feeding on the plankton.
Feather stars like to perch as high as they can to obtain the best vantage point for trapping passing plankton, while shoals of tiny juvenile fish swirl around.
Sites worth diving are: Navy Pier 35, Cod Spot 36, Northwest Ridge 37, Blizzard Ridge 38, Turtle Mound 39, Turquoise Bay 40, Coral Bay 41.
Whale-watching tours are organized between August and October when Humpback Whales migrate down the coast. They calve in the tropical waters and meander back close to the coast on their way to the southern regions for summer. Schools of dolphins are often sighted and Dugongs feed in the shallow sea grasses along the coast.
In 1696 when Dutch navigator Willem de Vlamingh visited a small island 18km (11 miles) off the coast of Fremantle in Western Australia, he wrote in his log: ‘Here it seems that nature has spared nothing to render this isle delightful above all other islands I have ever seen.’ The commander named this island after the small rat-like marsupials that scurried through the scrub (rott being Dutch for rat). We now call the island Rottnest, and the ‘rats’ Quokkas.
Quokkas (Setonix brachyurus) are still abundant on Rottnest, and the scenery is as beautiful as De Vlamingh described it three centuries ago. Although it is only 10km (6 miles) long and 4km (2½ miles) at its widest point, Rottnest is a haven of flora and fauna. This A-class reserve is regarded as one of Perth’s top tourist venues and the favourite holiday playground for the city’s residents.
The colourful, vibrant marine life inhabits limestone reefs that provide interesting caves, crevices, pinnacles and overhangs to explore. The area supports many tropical species of reef fish and corals that would not normally live so far south. The reason for their presence is a warm band of water, the Leeuwin current, that circles down from the tropics and moderates the water temperatures offshore. In some of the island’s sheltered bays, stony corals such as Pocillopora proliferate, and vivid tropical coralfish and butterflyfish can be found flitting through the kelp.
Temperate water reef fish are abundant. Western King Wrasse, Blackspot Pigfish, leatherjackets, blue devils, scalyfins, Breaksea Cod, Woodward’s Pomfreds, sweep, morwongs, moonlighters, bullseyes, old wives and Eastern Talma (or truncate coralfish) are just a sample of the species that you can see on one dive. Large sponges and colourful gorgonias grow on the deeper reefs surrounding the island, while rock lobsters, cuttlefish, octopuses and wobbegong sharks are prevalent under ledges and in the caves and crevices of the weathered limestone.
Rottnest is also a graveyard of many old ships that struck reefs around the island. An iron steamer, the Macedon, and an iron sailing ship, the Denton Holme, both struck Kingston Reef in the late 19th Century. They lie just offshore from the main settlement. The Macedon’s hull is still clearly defined and provides added interest among the caves and colourful ledges of Kingston Reef.
With its wrecks, caves, and vibrant marine life, Rottnest does not need sheer walls and deep diving to be impressive. The terrain is more subtle and the marine life more cryptic. Divers who are prepared to think small and look closely under the ledges and on the roofs of caves, will be rewarded by the wonderful colours and numbers of creatures that are compacted into every crevice of limestone.
Sites worth diving are: Roe Reef 42, North Reef 43, Coesy Point 44, Swirl Reef 45, Horseshoe Reef 46, Northwest Patch 47, West End 48, Fish Hook Drop-off 49, South Point 50, Green Island Drof-off 51, Crystal Palace 52.
GEOGRAPHE BAY - HMAS SWAN AND BUSSELTON JETTY
Beautiful Geographe Bay lies 300km (186 miles) south of Perth in Western Australia. The towns of Busselton and Dunsborough are tourist meccas, close to the southwest wineries, natural forests, limestone cave systems, sandy, white, safe beaches, and natural and artificial reefs that offer some of the best diving and snorkelling in the state. One of the highlights is Busselton Jetty 53. Nearly 2km (1¼ mile) long, it is the longest wooden jetty in the southern hemisphere. During summer and autumn, the end of this jetty offers one of the safest and prettiest dives in the world. The timbers (some that have been laid for over a century) are coated with an extraordinary array of soft corals, ascidians, sponges, bryozoans and other encrusting invertebrates, while enormous schools of herring, Yellowtail Scad and Long-finned Pike swirl around the piles. Graceful old wives, Truncate Coralfish (Eastern Talma), leatherjackets, pufferfish and bullseyes live under the jetty, picking food from the piles or from among the rubble on the seabed under the decking.
An underwater observatory has been constructed close to the end of the jetty to allow non-divers to view this wonderland. There is a permanent camera mounted underwater to allow Internet viewing of the underwater scenery, and an interpretive centre at the start of the jetty provides information on the area, souvenirs, and a wonderful underwater photographic display. A small train takes visitors and divers as far as the observatory. Steps to the waterline allow easy entry and exit for divers. Shops at Busselton take regular dive charters to the end of the jetty.
Geographe Bay has many beautiful natural reefs and is the site of Western Australia’s first artificial naval wreck dive. In 1997, HMAS Swan 54 was scuttled a few kilometres out from Dunsborough. It is 113m (371ft) long, 13m (41ft) wide and 23m (75ft) high. Most of the ship is accessible to divers, although cave diving qualifications are recommended to penetrate the hull. The magazine room, the galley, toilets and crew’s quarters all contribute to the excitement of diving the vessel, but you don’t have to enter these areas to enjoy the dive. The navigation tower looms up to within 7m (23ft) of the surface, and on a clear day, you can see the whole outline of the HMAS Swan from your dive boat. The bridge is easily accessible, and is now shared by divers, invertebrates and hundreds of fish that have made the Swan their home.
On the western side of Cape Naturaliste there are many other interesting dive sites, including the Indicators 55 near Canal Rocks.
THE SOUTH COAST ALBANY AND ESPERANCE
Albany is a picturesque town that overlooks the beautiful Princess Royal Harbour in King George Sound. Small islands and a southern headland shelter it from the sometimes fierce storms travelling north from the Antarctic Ocean. Many dive sites on the islands are spectacular with deep canyons and walls. Once past the surface layer of kelp, these granite outcrops are covered in invertebrates including enormous black corals, gorgonias and bright pink soft tree corals. Sponges and ascidians encrust the surfaces of the rocks and many well-camouflaged fish such as Harlequin Fish, sea perch and scorpionfish are found resting on the ledges among the colourful invertebrates.
In 2001, Albany became the home of the largest prepared naval dive wreck/artificial reef in the southern hemisphere. The HMAS Perth 56 was scuttled in just over 30m (100ft) of water within King George Sound. She is 133m (436ft) long, with a beam of 14m (45ft). The top of the tower stands about 3m (10ft) above the water level and is adorned with the mandatory navigational lights. Within 12 months of sinking, the hull was being covered by several species of invertebrates and the fish life was increasing. Other popular dive sites are: Michaelmas Reef 57, Cheynes III Wreck 58, Michaelmas Island 59, Breaksea Island 60 and Coffin Island 61.
Esperance lies approximately 480km (298 miles) east of Albany and is situated on the shores of a delightful heart-shaped bay. Beyond this bay, over 100 granite islands make up the Recherche Archipelago that stretches along the coast over an area of nearly 4000 sq km (1544 sq miles). Many of its islands are nature reserves and the region is becoming a popular destination for ecotourism. The magnificent underwater landscapes of sheer granite walls, caves and ledges are a diver’s delight. Colourful sponge gardens are a feature of this area. Huge orange, yellow, red and purple sponges sit on ledges in the depths down to 60m (200ft) and provide interesting habitats for thousands of other invertebrates and fish. Majestic big fish such as Western Blue Groper (a wrasse) and Queen Snapper are common in the Recherche Archipelago. Large leather-jackets, sweep, wrasse, boarfish, truncate coralfish and old wives also abound. Popular sites are: Esperance Jetty 62, Cull Island 63, Figure of Eight Island 64, Sandy Hook Island 65, and Mondrain Island 66
Large schools of bullseyes hover around and inside HMAS Swan . Within 12 months of sinking, more than 60 species of fish were recorded here.
A particularly good site to see these fish is on a very interesting wreck dive off Esperance. In 1991 the Sanko Harvest 67, a bulk cargo ship carrying phosphate, hit an uncharted reef while taking a shortcut through the Recherche Archipelago. It threatened an environmental disaster, with over 30,000 tonnes of phosphate and 300 tonnes of oil spilling into the ocean. A well-organised clean-up operation, however, saved much of the wildlife and quickly cleaned up the beaches. The site is now an extremely interesting dive that has been turned into an asset by the wildlife that it threatened at first.
A Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) on the deck of the Yongala wreck. They are one of the smallest of marine turtles, reaching a maximum length of 84cm (33in).