Fish Rock Trip by Sarah Speight
I had heard of Fish Rock a few times from various divers when I had mentioned I was interested in Grey Nurse Sharks. This spot is located in South West Rocks in Northern New South Wales and is a place where one is almost guaranteed to see a GNS. As well as the sharks, there are turtles, humpback whales during winter, crayfish, tonnes of moray eels, nudibranches, pelagic fish and the major attraction, a 120m long sea cave.
A group of us I got to know through a diving forum decided to go in March, as this was considered a good time to dive weatherwise but past the busy January time of year.
There are a few ways to get to South West Rocks. In Sydney, where most of my friends were coming from, it is a five hour drive, and from Brisbane it is a six hour drive. I decided to book a flight from Melbourne to Port Macquarie and drive an hour to the hotel. My flights in total cost $290 return. Other airport options include Coffs Harbour (another hour drive or so to South West Rocks) and Kempsey (30mins drive but not many flights). It is hard to hire a car in Port Macquarie on a Sunday though and they do not have nice cars for hire. As many people do the midweek special at the dive centres running from Sunday to Thursday it is worth ensuring that there are cars available for hire.
The accommodation we stayed at was the Costa Rica motel as it was included in the cost of the dive package. The place was very nice and the rooms were clean and comfortable. The rooms are all ensuite with TVs, and there was a kitchen and common room available elsewhere in the hotel. The hotel includes a small outdoor swimming pool, a spa, sauna, gym and tennis courts though I was too busy diving to use any of these facilities. A few nights we ordered take away from the restaurant in the hotel and also used the outdoor BBQs available.
There are a few other options for hotels as well as camp sites and caravan parks but as the dive shop was located in the Costa Rica motel area this motel was too convenient and cheap to pass up.
The two dive operators in the area run what is known as a midweek special and are both around the same price. At Fish Rock Dive Centre the total cost for this package was $545 and included
-accommodation from Sunday to Friday morning
-eight dives including tank and weight hire, with air fills (nitrox is extra)
-half price gear hire (if needed)
-dive guide services
Overall it was a very good deal and we got an extra dive with tank and weight hire for an additional $50 on the final day.
The dive centre ran an excellent operation and it was very convenient to have the dive shop a minute walk from my room. Each morning we met at 8am and the boat was packed up to take us to the dive sites. The boat is launched from a nearby river and they organise lifts to the boat ramp if you do not have a car. After dives there are wash tubs available and they have lockers where gear can be left to dry in the shop overnight. The staff at the store were very helpful and when my computer died before the first dive they loaned me a replacement for free for the week.
The dive sites were mostly about 30-35mins boat ride and it could get quite choppy over the sand bar. Anyone with seasickness is better off taking precautions against this. The dive sites could be quite choppy as well though the captain and crew were pretty good at minimising this if people were having trouble. Throughout the trip visibility ranged from about 8m to 15m, but I am told it can get up to 20 or 30m fairly often. Water temperature at this time of year averaged at about 21-23C but it was about 19C at 30m and 24-26C on the surface. My dives were all in the 50-70min range, apart from the deeper dives (40mins) and we did two a day (and three on the final day), with about an hour surface interval in between. There could occasionally be a bit of current and a bit of surge but we got good dive briefs telling us what to expect. The crew provided us with delicious cuppa soups, chocolate, lollies, tea and water, and biscuits during our breaks too. Generally the boat would return to shore at about 1-1.30pm and they were quite flexible with offering a third dive at around 3pm if three or so people were interested.
All the dives had the option of following a guide, and the cave requires a dive guide. But the crew were quite happy with us to dive unguided and this is mostly what we did though they always had one or two DMs in the water in the same general vicinity. The crew also would set up all your gear if that is your preference and would take photos/videos of us underwater to prepare into a DVD of the trip. All of the dives were done off an anchored boat rather than a live boat - something new for me - and it was strange to do all my ascending and descending on a line, a lot easier though!
The Cave + Aquarium (14m to 24m)
The dive sites were all awesome but the Cave and Shallow Entrance were definitely my favourite. The shop recommends experienced divers only for the cave dive and a guide is assigned to those that want to make a trip through. My first dive was through the cave and I swum from the shallow entrance (14m) to the deep (24m) and was amazed to exit the cave into a school of thirty or so grey nurse sharks. Inside the cave there was a sleeping turtle, many beautiful orange zoanthids, some crayfish, nudibranches, eels and bryozoan lace coral.
Outside the shallow cave entrance there were many Grey Nurse Sharks but not nearly as many as at the Deep entrance. I was told that their location varies. There were also hundreds of bait fish, more nudibranches, lazy wobbegongs draped over rocks everywhere, inquisitive blue gropers and Green turtles. The shallow entrance to the cave is a great place for photographers to hang out and take pictures of divers/sharks or fish silhouetted in the entrance. There is also the opportunity for macro photography if you want to take the time to search along the aquarium walls.
Shark Gutters (16m to 35m)
These were located near the deep entrance of the cave and at the bottom the temperature was about 19C and I definitely noticed the chill dropping from a surface water temperature of 26C. In the warmer depths, it was quite hazy though where the thermocline was, which was annoying for photography.
This spot was mainly for shark viewing! I did two dives here and hung out next to the walls of the gutters and just watched the sharks swim past gracefully. They were quite slow moving and would startle easily. One time I managed to stay still long enough for one to swim over my head but could not keep holding my breath and as soon as I breathed out my bubbles scared it so it did a sharp u-turn and ran into another shark. This other shark was not too impressed about this and I got to see a short-lived shark battle though both sharks emerged unscathed. This site was also filled with schools of bait fish, Pomfrets, bullseyes and lionfish.
Green Island (6-18m)
This site was located away from Fish Rock near the Smoky Cape Lighthouse and was in a more sheltered area so we often did second dives here so we could spend our surface intervals in calmer water. I was told there were pineapple fish at this site and the dive guide told me he would take me there as I was very keen on seeing one of these fish - they really do look like swimming pineapples - and he lived up to this promise! At this site there was a huge Green turtle that I ran into a few times eating bits of rock, a very skittish pineapple fish, a few shovelnose sharks, tiny cuttlefish, many gloomy octopuses and also some disturbingly well camouflaged numbrays. One of our group managed to spot an ornate ghost pipefish too!
Black Rocks (8m-20m)
This was another calm site we went to for a second dive and was similar to Green Island in marine life. Though one highlight is the cowries that are located on rocks around the place and I was able to watch one laying some eggs. There was also a school of striped catfish that form very tight formations and seem to move all at once. I saw many stingrays, batfish, and schooling pomfrets and also bait fish. The batfish were especially beautiful and I spent some time snorkelling during the surface interval to watch them swarm around the boat. I found many octopuses on this dive and was quite pleased about that as I love cephalopods.
For divers this trip is a great local destination and fairly cheap considering how good the diving is. The Fish Rock Dive Centre made things very easy for us and were very accommodating to our needs, especially as we got to pick all the dive sites ourselves as we had enough for a whole boat. I can't think of a single issue I had on the trip with the hotel or the dive shop.
For non-divers the town is fairly small; however there are a number of places to eat. There are also beaches near the town and a historical gaol that can be visited but I did not look too hard into things to do outside diving though my non-diving boyfriend spent some time at the beach and managed to fill the time enjoyably whilst most of us were out diving. We had such a good time there that we are heading back in March in 2010!