A diving road trip through New South Wales in Australia – from Narooma to Byron Bay
The divemaster says 'Go, go, go, jump now, and you will be ahead of the group.' Not waiting a second longer, we grab our cameras and roll over the rail of the steel Zodiac and descend. Diving over the ledge, looking into the underwater canyon it is more than we had hoped for – crystal clear waters and 30 grey nurse sharks circling.
What do you think when you imagine diving down under? Do you think of the colourful Great Barrier Reef, the Yongala Wreck or Ningaloo Reef? Widely overlooked, yet very worth a visit is New South Wales, the territory on the east Australian coast stretching over 1,000km of coastline.
Its coast is lined with first-class dive spots featuring seals, rays, sharks, and the weedy sea dragon. This coast mixes warm water from the north with chilled water from the south which provides divers with some of the best marine life from each environment. You can see warm-water species like mantas, mobulas and zebra sharks as well as humpback whales and scalloped hammerhead sharks.
The best way to explore these sites is a one-way road trip either from Canberra, Sydney or Melbourne towards Brisbane. Our aquatic journey starts in the sleepy fishing village of Narooma, a town famed for golfing, fishing and whale watching.
Diving has a pretty low profile with only one shop in town. This becomes an advantage when diving at the fur seal colony of Montague Island, two miles offshore, where we were pretty much by ourselves. Seemingly unfussed by our presence 30 or 40 seals swim, play, dive and pose puppy-eyed for our wide-angle cameras.
Occasionally a big male shoots through in a patrol of the playground. Fur seals are biologically sea lions, clearly visible with their protruded ear lobes, so they are pretty big animals. The play gets interfered by another bull, a giant bull ray measuring a good one-and-a-half-metre wingspan. Montague Island also hosts various sharks and other rays making it a great spot to dive.
Further up north and closer to Sydney is Jervis Bay. Located on a six-kilometre-wide, circular bay, it has more than 40 different sites on the inside and outside of the bay's mouth. Bizarre layered limestone cliffs create an outlandish world that continues underwater in dramatic swim throughs, caves and canyons, some of which you can surface on the inside.
We encounter stingrays, Port Jackson and horned-eyed sharks as well as friendly, big, blue gropers that keep playing with us. Big colourful cuttlefish hide in the caves and swim throughs. The bay also features a wreck dive which is a two-engine plane that crash-landed in the 40s and now rests, well preserved at a 12m depth on the sandy sea floor. Beware of water temperatures here, even in summer the water may not exceed 18 to 20 degrees Celcius.
After a few more hours the modern skyline of Sydney appears in our windshield. Australia's biggest city and the capital of New South Wales is not only worth a tourist stop, it also provides its residents with a wide variety of cold water dive spots.
Walking into the water local dive enthusiast Rob tells us: 'In our waters you can find something else every day.' Sydney is considered the best spot for the weedy sea dragon, the funkiest member of the seahorse family. This fish hunts microscopic shrimp that float in the water around his home, the seaweed gardens. For camouflage he has evolved leaf-like appendages resembling seaweed leaves.
To find him one needs to hover above the foliage and wave a dive torch. Weedies have thin blue stripes on their flanks that shine up. We also come across rays and flatheads in various sizes, Port Jackson sharks, blue gropers, octopuses, some very sizeable Pacific cuttlefish and our first wobbegongs. Other sharks can be seen here as well.
On another dive around North Head we encounter moray eels, wobbies, rays, and at least ten different kinds of nudibranch. For city diving, it’s pretty impressive.
Another hour north of Sydney is Terrigal. In 2011 the ex-HMAS Adelaide was sunk here as an artificial reef. The 138m long destroyer sits upright and is still very intact with the bottom of the hull below 45m.
Penetration of the wreck is easy – big cutouts on every level allow divers to explore the wreck. The bridge is easy to access, and the creators of this artificial reef where so nice to leave the captain's fake leather chair and all of his radio controls. Big schools of one-metre-long jewfish circle the hull while we ascend from this exciting wreck dive.
It's 800km until our next stop. Nothing is close by in Australia. But there are many good beach stops along the way as well as some wildlife reserves where one can tick the obligatory koala and kangaroo sightings off the checklist.
Many of these places also provide dive opportunities with sharks such as Forster’s Pinnacle, Seal Rocks or Broughton Island near Nelson Bay.
South West Rocks is a tiny beachside town popular with local tourists from up and down the coast. It is also the capital for shark diving. With steel-hulled boats, we are brought three kilometres offshore to Fish Rock Island.
This rocky outcrop sits amid a heavy current which can be seen rippling on the surface. Its key feature is a canyon filled to the brim with grey nurse sharks.
After we descend 25m to the heavy, diver-friendly white sand, an entire armada of these sharks circle above and around us. We count around 30 of these two- to three-metre sharks cruising blissfully through the canyon.
These sharks, called sand tigers or ragged toothed sharks in other parts of the world, are night active and rest, sleep-cruising during the day in current-free areas. The canyon is a perfect sleeping ground.
The sharks will slowly swim past while eyeballing you as if in a trance. They are so close you can count the massive teeth that boil out their mouths. This is what we came to New South Wales for!
The second highlight is a cave tunnelling 125m through the entire Island. It’s a hot spot for lobster with one on every rock. The opening at the end of the tunnel is filled with thousands of bait fish. If you are the first diver of the day you can see grey nurse sharks here too.
Outside the cave there is another wall of current. A week before our arrival a school of 100 scalloped hammerheads were seen gently working the stream. Social media picked up on it instantly, as these shots are usually just known to happen off Galápagos.
Our dive operator, Peter, says the hammers are always there, but only sometimes that close to the island. Next time we will hopefully be able to see them; we will be back for sure.
A little bit further up the coast is the one-pub-type hamlet called Wooli. From here you can dive the Solitary Islands Marine Park. Its most famous dive site, Fish Soup, has an abundance of fish that attract a lot of sharks.
Wobbegongs are literally everywhere here. This bottom-dwelling shark can be found on the entire east coast of Australia. With its beard of tassels, he hides his giant mouth while waiting for prey. Placid as he looks he is a snapper, and is known to strike at remarkably big prey. A diver's hand can be misread as a fish, so beware as this shark will not let go and will have to be surgically removed. On one dive we see a one-and-a-half-metre-long wobby eating a bamboo shark half its size.
Riding the coastal highway we head towards the surf mecca Byron Bay. It’s a lively centre of backpackers and surfers. Yet behind Australia’s most famous left break is one the country’s best dive sites.
The Zodiacs need to wait in the surf until a gap opens up between the hundreds of surfers. Finally, the skipper makes a break for it, yanks the horn and we zip past boogie boarders, paddle boarders and surfers.
A few rocks pierce the thrusting waves on the horizon. This is Julian Rocks, the Galápagos of down under. On these islands anything can happen. The seasons bring very different visitors. Giant bullrays, wobbegongs, lobsters, potato cods, big barracuda, loggerhead turtles and Spanish dancer nudibranchs are seen here on every dive. Eagle rays, bamboo sharks, shovel-nose rays and guitar sharks are also common.
In cold water season grey nurse sharks, hammerheads and fur seals come by, while humpback whales breach in the bay. The summer season from December to May host armadas of zebra sharks, with mantas and mobula rays soaring overhead. The currents are strong but manageable while every dive brings something new. It’s definitely a place to plan a stay for a few days.
After this it’s another few hours to Brisbane and an amazing tour has been concluded. From fur seals to manta rays, New South Wales has so much to offer.
Sydney and Byron Bay are well-known topside, yet as a dive location all dive sites are, remarkably, not busy. This is an opportunity to dive without the hordes of divers at the Great Barrier Reef or Coral Triangle. The local dive population is one of the most active in the world, now we know why.
Dive Centres and useful information
Diving down under is not cheap, expect to pay 100 to 140 AUD per two tank dive excluding gear. Bringing your own gear is strongly recommended as the equipment easily adds up. Filling tanks for shore dives is ten to 12 AUD per tank but weights get charged too.
As dive operations are small it is recommended to book in advance. In low season boats may not go out, in summer they are quickly booked out.
The water is cold most of the year and thick five-millimetre or seven-millimetre wets or semi-drys are recommended.
In Byron Bay one could get by in summer with a three-millimetre but it will be borderline for most other locations. Byron has temperatures ranging from 15ºC in winter to 28ºC in summer, while in the south it will not get much warmer than 24ºC degrees but shatteringly cold in winter.
The best time to visit is during the Australian summer, the European winter.
Cold-water species can be found mainly November and December (or earlier, but it will be even colder then). Warm-water species in the north start appearing end of December and will be around until March. So prime time is end of December to beginning February.
Diving will likely be the only activity that you do, aside from Byron Bay and Sydney, all places are low key and people go to bed early.
- Narooma – Narooma Charters is the only place in town. Two days as a minimum. There are public BBQ pits and a golf course with a sad casino for entertainment.
- Jervis bay – Dive Jervis Bay. Plan at least two full dive days.
- Sydney – ProDive, Snorkel Safari. At least one day/night dive in North Head around Shelly beach, and one in South – Bottany bay/Bare Island. Sydney, of course, has many attractions, the harbour cruise is much recommended.
- Terrigal – Terrigal Dive. Again little to do here. One day of diving is enough for the wreck. It's possible to sleep in Sydney or continue north.
Forster – Dive Forster.
- South West Rocks - SWR Dive Center. At least two full days or more. Fantastic dive centre, well organised and a good service for photographers. Spacious shared apartment called 'The House' is available for divers at a very low rate. At nearby Little Bay there are several resident kangaroo families (that love bread).
- Wooli/Solitary Islands – Wooli Dive. A very small place, Wooli Dive has a shared apartment that can be used. The beach is literally endless. Only a small supermarket and one pub, so be ready.
- Byron Bay – Sun Dive. Definitely book diving and accommodation way in advance. This place is always booked out. Plan for at least two days of diving, though every day extra pays off.