Saturday May 4th and Sunday May 5th 2013
Sydney is often overlooked as a dive destination because of the popular Great Barrier Reef but it’s a hidden treasure trove of sites and marine life ranging from the spectacular to the scary. In May I spent around a week in Sydney and got to explore its underwater world for myself.
Sharks often spring to mind when we hear the word Australia. Not a nice thought at all but they of all things were waiting for me on the first dive of my trip. Sydney has a fairly big grey nurse shark population and to see the sharks at first hand, divers take a boat from a marina in Manly and travel for roughly 30 minutes past the Opera House, Harbor Bridge and Bondi Beach to a tiny spot in the open sea with a few cliffs in the distance. Not much to behold, but this is the dive site Magic Point.
Peering over the boat into the water, I was glad to know that I wasn’t the only one thinking I’d gone mad as a dozen or so backpackers and Dive Masters were on board with me. I began my descent somewhat relieved at being accompanied by all these people. At Magic Point, divers can generally reach 20m and a bit beyond but to guarantee a better chance of spotting sharks and to have more time underwater, 14-16m is the recommended depth. Magic Point consists of two caves that sit opposite each other, with a sandy area at 14m where divers can kneel and observe all the action. We came to rest here, in front of the larger of the two caves that stretched for about 15m in an east/west direction.
A couple of grey nurse sharks soon made their way out of the cave and swam around us. Although daunting with protruding teeth, there is no record of them ever having attacked a human. Rather, they are shy. At certain times of the year they aggregate together and establish particular swimming patterns that keep them close but with enough personal space as well. A large creature like a diver can disturb this process and stress them out. As a result they disappear, leaving the dive quite unexciting.
The grey nurse sharks were spectacular to behold and once we became more used to what we were seeing, the dive began to feel very relaxing. But there were only so many sharks and photo opportunities we could take, so we headed north to an area of large boulders and a bed of kelp and other seaweed. This is a good place to meet some of Sydney’s other marine life such as cuttlefish, huge sting rays, blue devilfish, yellowtail, sucker fish and pilot fish. The leafy sea dragon in particular is delightful. It’s one of the most elusive creatures a diver will ever get to see, which makes spotting them extremely special (we found a couple of medium-sized ones). Using a pectoral fin on their necks and a dorsal fin close to their tails, they propel themselves slowly, perfectly camouflaged with their habitat and hiding from their predators such as sharks and rays. During the journey back to the boat, the dive ended with a nice touch as a giant ray swam over us as we headed toward 5m for our safety stop.
My next dive site, Shelly Beach near Manly is by far the most popular shore dive in Sydney, thanks to its sheltered location and calm shallow water. In fact, it’s so popular that benches have been provided especially for divers to set up equipment. Facing west, the beach is well protected and conditions are almost always suitable for diving. Fishing and collecting has been entirely prohibited here since 2002 and the marine life thrives.
We arrived on a very hot and sunny afternoon and walked into the water to begin the dive. The sandy bottom makes it easy to put on fins and masks and the descent is slow and simple – a gentle swim down to about 8m over the sand. Our first dive was to the right of the bay (The Right Hand Side) where there is a medium-sized rocky wall. As the dive begins it is not the most exciting due to the lack of coral and macro life. In the shallower depths the rocks are mostly devoid of life.
Things get a lot more interesting between 10m and 12m where the wall of rock on the right begins to spread out further over the sand. This area houses a lot more in the way of seaweed and tiny holes for creatures like crabs to hide in. In terms of height, the rocks are medium to high. Our first encounter was with a giant cuttlefish excellently camouflaged against the rock. Straining our eyes we could see him hovering slowly before he swam off, while a couple of blue gropers, possibly male and female, then glided slowly past us followed by a ray shark.
The Left Hand Side was the location of our second dive. Here there is only a small series of rocks and a lot more weedy terrain which is home to a lot of temperate fish life. White sand and a natural reef of tumbled boulders spread out again to about 12m and there is plenty to see although we soon discovered that we were the ones being watched, by a medium-sized flounder well hidden in the sand, his eye poking out at us. We came across more blue gropers and schools of yellow barracudas and long fin banner fish had made a home for themselves too. Blennies darted here and there and juvenile leatherjackets hid among the seaweed. Looking closely, one was even hanging onto a piece. The highlight, mainly for our dive guide, was spotting a turtle, apparently almost never seen at Shelley Beach. The Left Hand Side can also be described as a very deep snorkel. It’s perfect for novice divers, refresher courses and Open Water training.
I spent a week in Sydney from the end of April to early May, staying at the Wake Up! youth hostel near Central Station. All dives were arranged upon arrival in Sydney.
I booked my dives with Pro Dive Sydney (http://www.prodivesydney.com/divecenter/store/sydney). Their boat leaves every morning around 8AM from the marina at Manly. All divers are expected to make their own way there and the best route is the 30min boat from Circular Quay costing around 17 dollars return.
The boat to Magic Point has an area in the middle for divers to place their tanks and set up their equipment. Along the edge you can sit, stand and enjoy the view. Warm soup and sweets are provided during the journey. Basic toilet and sink but no area to rinse off/shower after dives. Inside the boat is a medium-sized table and comfortable sofa with books, magazines, Pro Dive leaflets and stamps for logbooks.
Entry into the water is by forward stride.
After two dives at Magic Point everyone heads back to Manly, finishing up around lunchtime. No showers are available so you need to bring your own shampoo, shower gel and use one of the showers on Manly Beach. As the dives finish by lunchtime, customers are free to have their own lunch in Manly.
To dive at Shelly Beach, you need to be at the dive school at around 9AM.
The dive school is a short 15-20min walk from the marina where the boat from Circular Quay arrives.
At the school customers renting gear help the dive guides prepare the equipment and load it onto the van. Shelly Beach is a short 15min drive away from the school.
Parking is available at a council car park at the end of Bower Street. Showers, toilets, changing facilities and gas BBQs are available in the park and a Kiosk cafe and restaurant are located at the waterfront.
After using the benches to prepare equipment, divers walk to the shore carrying full gear. Entry is a simple walk into the water.
Dives at Shelly Beach also finish up around lunchtime. After 2 dives you are driven back to the school where showers are provided and there is time to write in log books or have a coffee. Divers also help wash their rental equipment.
The Pro Dive shop consists of an equipment area, training pool, changing room, two showers and toilets and a shop selling equipment and books.
Dive 1: Magic Point: depth: 20.7m, dive time: 46mins, water temperature: 17C, entry time: 9:39AM, exit time: 10:26AM, average depth: 12.8m, used a 7mm wetsuit and 8kg weights. Start pressure: 220 bar, End pressure: 50 bar. Saw grey nurse sharks, 2 leafy sea dragons, a sting ray, sea urchins and blue gropers.
Dive 2: Shelly Beach Right Hand Side: depth: 7.9m, dive time: 35mins, water temperature: 20C, entry time: 9:25AM, exit time: 10:00AM, average depth: 4.4m, used a 7mm wetsuit and 12L aluminium tank. Start pressure: 230 bar, End pressure: 170 bar. Saw cuttle fish, mauri wrass, blue gropers and a ray shark.
Dive 3: Shelly Beach Left Hand Side: depth: 4.8m, dive time: 40mins, water temperature: 20C, entry time: 11:06AM, exit time: 11:47AM, average depth: 2.7m, used a 7mm wetsuit and 12L aluminium tank. Start pressure: 210 bar, End pressure: 150 bar. Saw more blue gropers, schools of yellowtail barracudas, juvenile leatherjackets and a turtle.