I HAD BEEN IN THE WATER only for a few minutes before I was joined by the local bully demanding a handout. It was an eastern blue groper, a very large species of wrasse and also a very over-friendly one.
The curious fish was swimming around me, peering into my mask and basically being a pest. I knew that if I didn’t feed the fish it would refuse to leave me alone, so I flipped a nearby sea urchin to keep it occupied.
Gropers have very thick lips, designed to smash urchin shells and spines. In two quick bangs with its lips it had the urchin open and was sucking out the tender flesh.
Now satisfied, the blue groper left me in peace to explore this lovely rocky reef on the south coast of New South Wales.
I grew up in Sydney and spent many childhood holidays on this coastline, which stretches from Sydney south to the Victorian border – more than 300 miles of pretty beaches, beautiful bays and rocky headlands.
After I learnt to dive, this stretch of coast became a favourite weekend destination, its temperate waters home to an amazing variety of endemic species.
And even after I moved to Brisbane in 1990, 600 miles north of this region, I still drive down the coast to explore the area whenever I can.
My last southern sojourn in June 2017 was one of the best.
Joining me on this trip was an old Sydney dive-buddy, Stuart Ireland, who now lives in Cairns and is one of Australia’s top underwater cameramen.
Our first challenge was to drive from Brisbane to Shellharhour, nearly 700 miles in one day. Shellharbour is 60 miles south of Sydney and
I used to dive this area, with its variety of shore- and boat-diving sites, on day-trips.
Arriving late at night, we checked into our hotel and crashed. The next morning we woke to blue skies and mild weather; Aussie winters are hard to take.
A school of old wives mill around the pylons at the Blue Metal Loader.
We had time for a quick dive, so drove to nearby Bass Point and the Blue Metal Loader.
This long jetty is always a great dive, especially when the seas are calm and blue. With barely a ripple on the surface, our entry and exit was easy over the rocks, and we were happy to find the visibility at around 15m.
We were quickly joined by the over-friendly eastern blue groper, the state fish of New South Wales. Every dive-site is home to a family of these cheeky fish, which follow divers around like puppies.
We explored the rocky reef and jetty in depths to 11m, and there was plenty to see among the rocks, kelp and seaweed, including nudibranchs, morays, leatherjackets, wrasse and a small reaper cuttlefish.
Usually this site is home to dozens of giant cuttlefish, but I could find only one.
We later learned from Shellharbour Scuba Centre that a small group of grey nurse sharks had taken up residence under the jetty over the previous months, and had only just moved on.
I suspect that they might have also enjoyed feasting on the giant cuttlefish.
The highlight of the dive was a vast school of old wives milling around the pylons.
Checking out of our motel, we jumped in the car and headed 220 miles further south. On the way we drove past many dive-sites I knew, off Ulladulla, Bateman’s Bay and Narooma.
I never usually bypass Narooma, because offshore from this town is Montague Island, always washed by clear water and home to a large colony of playful Australian fur seals.
But on this trip I wanted to dive an area I hadn’t visited for more than 20 years, a pretty holiday town close to the Victorian border called Merimbula.
Arriving late in the afternoon, we checked into the Merimbula Divers Lodge, the local dive-shop with cheap but comfortable bunk-style accommodation. We were here to explore a few of the local shore-diving sites, and in particular Merimbula Wharf.
The next morning the weather was a little cold and cloudy, but the water looked fantastic; flat and blue. We quickly geared up in the car park at the wharf, strolled across the rock platform and jumped into a shallow gutter.
While it’s possible to dive under the wharf, the main attraction at this site is the rocky reef. We quickly found ourselves in 14m, and with 20m visibility now we could really appreciate the rocky terrain, with lots of small ledges to explore and lovely sponge gardens.
Sponge gardens are a feature of the south coast, with colourful sponges, gorgonians, ascidians, sea tulips and bryozoans decorating each rock. A close examination between the sponges revealed nudibranchs, hermit crabs, shrimps, moray eels, octopuses and many attractive seastars.
We explored the rocky reef for a while, encountering a good range of southern reef fish and, naturally, several eastern blue gropers. We then headed out over the sand, as I was hoping to photograph an Australian angel shark. I had found a few of these elusive sharks off Merimbula Wharf on previous occasions, but had no luck that day.
Instead we found common stingarees, kapala stingarees, lots of sea pens, giant sand seastars, flatheads, an eastern stargazer and a Port Jackson shark.
We ended the dive under the wharf, which is only 2m deep, with two very large smooth sting rays swimming around us. These giant rays gather under the wharf to scavenge scraps from the anglers overhead.