The thing NIGEL MARSH misses most about his native Sydney is its amazing muck-diving. Can it really be that good so near to a major city? Join him on a three-day tour of the weird and the wonderful
SYDNEY MAY BE THE BIGGEST city in Australia, but it is also blessed with some of the best diving down under. Offshore are rocky reefs and numerous shipwrecks packed with an amazing variety of marine life. Sydney also has brilliant shore-diving along its rocky coastline, but what I most enjoy is its unique muck-diving.
I grew up and learnt to dive in Sydney but, needing a change of pace and lifestyle, I moved to Brisbane 26 years ago. There are only a handful of things I miss about Sydney, and top of that list is its wonderful muck-diving.
Of course, I return when I can, but on many visits there isn’t time to dive because I’m busy visiting family and friends. But recently, working on a book on muck-diving, I had the perfect excuse to return and enjoy Sydney’s best sites.
With three days up my sleeve, and a list of subjects to photograph, my first stop was a return to an old favourite, Bare Island. Made famous in Mission Impossible 2, the island was used as the villain’s base at the climax of the film.
Located in Botany Bay, it is connected to the mainland by a short bridge and surrounded by wonderful dive-sites.
Some wouldn’t consider Bare Island a true muck-dive, as it has rocky reefs, but it also has plenty of sand and silt, so let’s call it a mixed muck-site.
I jumped in from the shore on the western side of the island, and spent the first few minutes exploring the kelp, hoping to find one of Sydney’s iconic species, a weedy seadragon. These spectacular fish can be difficult to find, as they come and go from Bare Island, and they eluded me today.
Instead I found leatherjackets (filefish), wrasse, scorpionfish, old wives and a group of very cute eastern cleaner clingfish. These tiny fish grow only to 3cm long, cling to sponges and kelp and are known to clean other fish.
I then explored the rocky reef and adjacent sand in depths to 17m, marvelling at the wonderful sponges, ascidians and corals. The visibility was typical for Sydney, not great but OK at 6-10m. Among the sponges I found many species to photograph: nudibranchs, hawkfish, octopuses, cuttlefish, goatfish and several lovely pygmy leatherjackets.
On the sand were common and kapala stingarees (a smaller relative of the sting ray that is common in southern Australia) and a school of squid.
Continuing around the rocky reef there were numerous caves and ledges to investigate. They were populated by nannygai, old wives, sea perch and one very large spotted wobbegong shark.
AT THIS STAGE I was joined by a friendly local, an eastern blue groper. A member of the wrasse family, blue gropers grow to 1m in length, and every dive-site off Sydney has its local population of these wonderful fish.
To say that they are friendly is an understatement, as blue gropers follow you around like a loyal puppy, peering into your mask.
The reason they are so friendly is that they are fed urchins by divers, and expect a free feed from every diver they meet.
With the blue groper buzzing around me, scaring off some potential camera subjects, I suddenly stumbled across one of the species I was looking for – the bizarre red Indianfish.
This weird fish looks like, and even swims as if it was, a piece of broken sponge, drifting slowly on its side.
With a high dorsal fin that runs the length of its body, it looks as if it is wearing a native American feathered head-dress, hence the unusual name.
The red Indianfish is endemic to southern Australia and reaches a length of 35cm. I shot dozens of images of this wonderful fish before realising that there was another one just a metre away.
AFTER A SURFACE INTERVAL it was time to explore the eastern side of Bare Island. The rocky reef on this side is only 12m deep, but still covered in beautiful sponge gardens. I quickly found cuttlefish, squid, boxfish, leatherjackets, sea-perch and another blue groper to photograph.
Exploring a cave I found it packed with nannygai, but behind them I could see another endemic species I was after, the beautiful eastern blue devilfish.
These colourful fish, with yellow polka-dots on their faces, are found only in New South Wales. They love to sit on the bottom, generally in caves, propped on their fins.
With a macro lens on my camera I could only get a portrait of this wonderful fish, as it was more than 40cm long.
One species I dearly hoped to find at Bare Island was one unique to Sydney, a close relative of the seahorse – the Sydney pygmy pipehorse.
Discovered only in 1997, this gorgeous little fish is highly camouflaged and 6cm long. I didn’t fancy my chances of finding one, and after searching for 30 minutes I was about to give up when I noticed a movement in the algae.
I couldn’t believe my luck, because when I looked more closely it turned out that I hadn’t found one Sydney pygmy pipehorse, but two. I spent the rest of the dive photographing these incredible creatures, which have the body of a pipefish and a tail like that of a seahorse.
The next day I headed to the southern suburbs of Sydney to explore a wonderful muck-site called Shiprock. Located in Port Hacking, this shore-dive has a sandy bottom that leads to a rocky cliff. It drops 10m and is covered in beautiful sponges and ascidians.
Shiprock is tidal, and for clear water is best dived on the high tide. Cruising the sand and exploring the wall there was no shortage of subjects for my camera, including cuttlefish, octopuses, moray eels, nudibranchs, dragonets, hermit crabs, gobies, scorpionfish, grubfish, hawkfish and several large estuary catfish, another endemic species.
I was very surprised by the number of sharks and rays hiding at this site, and encountered stingarees, numb rays, a spotted wobbegong and a crested horn shark.
WITH A MAXIMUM depth of 18m, but able to spend plenty of time in shallow water, I spent more than 80 minutes exploring this amazing site.
I thought the highlight of the dive was finding a pineapplefish under a ledge, but then I found another of the subjects I was after, an eastern toadfish.
These weird fish have a wide mouth and flat head, which they generally have poking out of a hole. I took many images of this strange fish, and by then it was time to ascend and find some dragons.
Not far from Shiprock is the suburb of Kurnell, which is on the southern side of Botany Bay, directly across from Bare Island. There are a number of brilliant shore dives at Kurnell, with rocky reefs covered in sponges and kelp, the perfect place to see weedy seadragons.
On the rocky reef and sand there was plenty to see, including numerous reef fish, nudibranchs, moray eels and even a giant Australian cuttlefish.
This was only a small one, about 50cm long, but they can grow more than twice as big. There was also the resident blue groper to welcome me.
I didn’t take long to find a weedy, and over the course of the dive I encountered four seadragons. These lovely multi-coloured cousins of the seahorse are found only in southern Australia and are fabulous camera subjects. As I observed and photographed them, the weedies simply ignored me. They were busy feeding, sucking up mysid shrimps with their long vacuum-like snouts.
I HAD TIME for one more dive the next day, so headed to Sydney’s muckiest dive-site, Clifton Gardens. Located in Sydney Harbour, this is a wonderful shore-dive, where you can explore a jetty or a bathing net in depths to 9m.
The best marine life is found under the jetty, as the pylons are encrusted with sponges and kelp. The sandy bottom below this jetty is covered in rubbish, and it almost felt as if I was diving a typical Asian muck-site.
I soon found myself photographing nudibranchs, moray eels, dragonets, gobies, leatherjackets, decorator crabs, hingebeak shrimps and numerous cuttlefish, including a few no bigger than my fingernail.
Searching the sponges I also managed to find several lovely White’s seahorses, again found only in this area. But the two big surprises were another couple of species I was hoping to find, a blue-lined octopus and a striped frogfish.
The blue-lined octopus is a member of the blue-ringed octopus family and found only in New South Wales. I saw this tiny octopus walking slowly across the bottom on its tentacles.
I also found the striped frogfish walking across the bottom, in search of prey. More commonly known as the hairy frogfish, those around Sydney are generally bald, so their striped pattern is more pronounced. After finding these two wonderful critters, I surfaced with a smile and some great images.
After three days it was time to head home. Sydney had turned it on once more with some brilliant muck-diving, but there are a few other endemic species I still need to photograph, so it won’t be long before I return to enjoy more Sydney muck.
If you want to try it, diving conditions can be good at any time of year, but winter (UK summer) brings the most stable weather conditions. Be aware that water temperature varies from summer highs of 23°C to winter lows of 16°C.
Appeared in DIVER July 2016