Diving Byron Bay

 

My husband and I spent four days (November 6 through 10) in Byron Bay, New South Wales, Australia, as part of our two-week vacation.  We hadn’t originally intended to go there . . . EVERYONE knows that, if you dive in Australia, you dive the Barrier Reef, right?  So that was our initial plan, but we quickly got so much feedback about overdiving and cattle boats and reef bleaching that we decided not to make the big effort to get up north.  But we still wanted to dive.

 

As it turned out, my husband had a business contact in Bangalow, which is a charming small town in the foothills just a few kilometers from the coast, and quite close to Byron Bay.  Phil, our contact, suggested we stay there, and we asked him if there was any diving to be had.  He wasn’t sure, not being a diver himself, but we googled Byron Bay and found Sundive Dive Center.  It looked promising, and further, gave us a link to what seemed like an attractive place to stay, Planula Lodge.  Little did we know what we had stumbled onto!

 

We flew up to the Gold Coast Airport in Coolangatta and rented a car.  The car came equipped with a computerized navigation system, which was autocratic enough to have been GUE trained, but similarly was rather useful.  This was especially true since none of our paper maps gave any detail of the Byron Bay area, and we had no actual street address for the bed and breakfast, just a street name.  As it turns out, that’s because as far as I can tell, there IS no address, since the lodge is on a short dead-end gravel road to nowhere.  We would probably NEVER have found it without our insistent electronic companion.

 

But the up side of being in the middle of nowhere is . . . being in the middle of nowhere.  The lodge is all by itself in the country, where you hear almost nothing but birdsong (loud enough in the early morning to be its own alarm clock).  It’s an attractive place, on the rustic side, mostly wood, with a big deck and barbecue outside.  The rooms have huge windows, big enough to accommodate the huntsman spiders, which are about 5” in diameter, and the flying cockroaches, which are almost the same size.  Luckily, both remained on the OUTSIDE of said windows.  The bathrooms wisely have drains in the middle of the floor, as this is a lodge specifically marketed for divers, and they KNOW there will be wet neoprene everywhere.  There is a big, secure outdoor locker for BCs and regs, nicely ventilated so everything can actually dry from day to day.  And best of all, upstairs is a well stocked library of marine life identification books, so you can try to look up the ten percent of what you saw that you can actually remember well enough to try to speciate.

 

Either Tim or Wandy (the proprietors) or sometimes both, had breakfast with us each morning.  We could then pester them with questions about what we had seen, and they were patient and helpful despite the fact that they had undoubtedly answered all of these questions many times before.  Both clearly love Byron Bay and the marine park at Julian Rocks.  Tim is an accomplished underwater photographer and videographer, and we bought one of his DVDs from the park, and are just waiting until the next one is released.

 

The Julian Rocks marine reserve is an unusual place.  Situated where it is, it sees the southernmost portion of the tropical currents that sweep the Barrier Reef, and the northernmost portion of the cooler water that bathes Sydney and points south.  As a result, it hosts a wide variety and seasonal variation of sea life, both tropical and temperate.  The rocks serve as substrate for many types of coral, sponge and bryozoans, which support an amazing population of reef fish, but the current also brings in pelagic species.  Tim says that, despite over ten years of diving the same area, he has never found it boring, and certainly we saw that three days wasn’t enough even to begin repeating many things.

 

Sundive is an extremely professional outfit.  They do three trips a day to the rocks, using rigid inflatable boats.  Divers dress at the dive shop and gear up when the boat moors.  A detailed dive briefing is done in front of the map at the dive shop, and an abbreviated reiteration is done on site.  Everybody is very careful about safety, and a full name roll call is done to ensure everybody gets back on the boat.  Dives are quite closely timed at 45 minutes, and the anxiety level goes way up if anybody is more than five minutes overdue (the guides are VERY conscious of this).  Divers are never sent up alone, although they may reassign buddy pairs if they have two divers low on air who weren’t originally together (which was fine with me and Peter).  Water entry is by back roll – yes, I finally got to do the Jacques Cousteau thing!  I like it SO much better than the giant stride, although I did manage to lose my mask doing one entry.  Luckily, the water was so clear that Peter was able to go down and get it for me.

 

So the first day, we presented ourselves at the obscene hour of 7:45 a.m., and were quickly outfitted with 5 mil wet suits, vests and hoods.  One of my big anxieties about this trip was whether I would be cold, but as it turns out, I only got cold when my suit unzipped.  I consider it a major coup for my buoyancy control that I could remain horizontal, control my depth and attitude, and rezip my wetsuit, as I had to do it repeatedly.  THAT skill wasn’t taught in OW and I don’t think they’ll cover it in Fundies, either. 

 

We loaded gear, which was nicely organized in the center of the boat, with tanks, fins, masks and weights all kept together.  We then piled in the truck and made the short drive to the beach, where we got to witness the simple and elegant fashion in which they launch the boat . . . they back the trailer rapidly into the surf and slam on the brakes, and the boat falls off the trailer.  It works.  The divers then turn it around and push it into deep enough water to board, after which Matt, our captain, enjoyed using the twin 100 hp outboards to see just how much time the hull could spend out of the water.  Suffice it to say that the boat trip was always brief.

 

The boats moor on permanent moorings, and we were asked to use the buoy line to descend, which I did the first day, but not thereafter.  The water is so clear that the bottom is easily visible, and the line gets crowded, so after they knew we were okay, Peter and I just did free descents.  The very first day, we descended right on top of a wobbegong (above), which is a type of bottom-dwelling shark.  This was one of the top items on my must-see list, so I was delighted.  Within a couple of minutes, we had also found a pair of Australian morays (left), and had marveled at some spectacular deep purple sea urchins decorated with neon blue “v” shapes and a blue center.  We swam off into an area called the Needles, which are long shallow ridges of rock separating channels of sand.  Almost immediately, we turned up a Bull Ray with about a four foot wingspan, and we followed him down this channel for several minutes.  I was enchanted.  Unfortunately, because it was the first dive, Peter hadn’t brought his camera down!

The profusion of life was absolute awe-inspiring.  Beautiful soft and hard corals, multiple shapes and colors of sponges, large cup-shaped bryozoans harboring small, brightly colored fish . . . elegant anemones swaying in the surge, as well as a beautiful algae they called turtle weed that looked like long, straight green hair.  There were large cream and pink ascidians, and everywhere there were spectacular feather stars – some black, some black and white, and one particularly beautiful one was black with gold edges.  They were elegant and delicate unfurled, but striking and unfamiliar when curled up, resembling brightly edged discs.  I really didn’t know what they were the first day at all. 

And fish . . . hundreds and hundreds of fish.  Small, brightly colored reef fish ranging from some tiny neon blue ones that Peter loved and kept trying to get pictures of, to angelfish-shaped yellow and black striped ones that came in huge schools.  There were batfish, which are about 12” in diameter and also came in schools, and blue gropers, which were very large, inquisitive fish that seemed to find the divers fascinating and presented themselves to be petted.  We saw huge black cod, several feet long and high and weighing hundreds of pounds, and tiny anemone fish sheltering in the long, pastel tentacles of the elegant anemones. 

 

All too soon, the 45 minutes was up, and we had to go up.  As is my usual practice, I blew my safety stop and was rather crestfallen on the surface.  Nobody rubbed my nose in it, thank goodness.  Getting onto the boat proved to be easy – I had worried about getting out of my gear in the water, but I didn’t have to.  Just handing up the weight belt was enough to let me board without difficulties.

 

Back to the dive shop for warm showers, hot tea and a tank swap, and back out to the rocks.

 

The second dive, we had three photographers in the group of four, so we spent a long time in the shallow bowl where we first descended.  Our guide was a little disgusted with us – when we surfaced, he told the captain, “We spent THIRTY-FIVE minutes in the NURSERY!”  But we were happy.  There was so much little stuff to see and photograph.

The high point of the second dive was turtles, of which we saw several, including one mammoth one.  We also saw our first lionfish, and a big school of jewfish (right), which are a large commercial fish of a dark metallic gray with bright silver spots down their sides.  Throughout the three days, it continued to amaze me how many really BIG fish we saw.

 

And at the end of this dive . . . I held my safety stop!  Doesn’t sound like a big deal to the rest of you guys, but it was a very big deal for me. 

 

Back to the shop, and the disappointment of knowing it would be 18 hours before I got to go back. 

 

That afternoon, we poked around town and window-shopped, and unfortunately chose one of the very few undistinguished restaurants in town for dinner.  But it was delightful to sit outside on the patio and sip our beers and watch the people walk by, and we were happy and replete when we went back to the B&B to sleep.

 

The next day, the wind had come up a little bit, and there were bigger swells, which meant Matt had MORE fun flying the boat to the rocks.  I was initially a little nervous about being tossed around on the surface, but soon realized that my regulator was, as usual, taking care of me just fine.  We made our descent, and while waiting for the guide to come and join us, I did some skills, practicing regulator exchanges and mask skills while hovering.  What else do you do while you’re waiting?

 

The first dive of this day was the Cod Hole, one end of the rock formation where there is about a ten or fifteen foot swim-through.  Both times we saw this tunnel, it contained a beautiful silver and black lionfish, of which Peter got some pictures.  We also ran into a pair of small rays who were actively pursuing one another (playing? Mating?  Just fighting?)  We saw more wobbegongs, including one which was serving as a pillow for a sleeping turtle.  We were again delighted by the variety of corals and sponges, including large yellow “wall sponges” which would extend several feet at a time along the rocks.  I spotted some parrot fish with their iridescent colors, and many red morwongs (left), which I called “latte fish” because they were coffee and cream colored.

 

This was an interesting pair of dives for me, because there was fairly strong surge everywhere we went.  In the past, I have gotten very anxious and worried when having to swim hard against water movement, but I got the rhythm of the surge and learned just to tread water when it was against me, and use it to shoot forward when it allowed.  I also found I’ve gotten fitter or something, because I could swim very hard for long periods without overbreathing my reg, which is what had scared me on one of my early dives.  The surge has its advantages, though, because it makes soft structures move as though in a wind, causing anemones to ripple and algae to stream smoothly.  It was fun to watch even the fish get blown backwards at times!

 

Again, the 45 minutes was too short, and we made the trip back to the dive shop, swapped tanks, and headed out again.

 

The second dive, it was just the two of us with Corin (right), the guide who had been leading our dives all along.  This time, we were able to go around the back of the rocks to the area called Hugo’s Trench.  This was a wonderful dive, with small rays, morays, lionfish, pipefish, schools of batfish and jewfish, and one grey nurse shark.  This was also the dive where we found the cuttlefish, who was incredible cute, but clearly irritated as all get out to be disturbed by divers.  I don’t know how you read facial expression on a cuttlefish (below), but we all agreed that he was ticked.  Corin was clearly relaxed and not worrying about us, and having such a good time that we overstayed our time and he was quite wrought up when he realized it.  He motioned to us to follow and he took off like a scared octopus for the buoy where we would ascend.  I don’t think I’ve ever tried to swim so fast underwater!   We did our ascent, as it turned out, in blue water without reference, and I held ANOTHER safety stop.  A good end to the dive.

 

That afternoon, we had a business meeting at Rae’s restaurant right off the beach.  It was incredible to sit on this beautiful patio, with the elegant, white-upholstered chairs, and gaze over the turquoise surf while nibbling at a superb meal accompanied by a great New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.  We spent FIVE HOURS over lunch (my kind of meal!) and ended up going back to Planula and just vegging out for the rest of the evening.

 

The third day, the surface was even more disturbed, but I’d gotten used to it.  We descended into the Nursery and headed for the Cod Hole again.  This was the shark dive . . . we ran into something like seven of them.  At one point, we were swimming up one of the narrow channels when Corin motioned for us all to get down on the rock (standard shark procedure).  Two grey nurse sharks cruised past, and as they disappeared, Corin motioned the group to come forward.  What he hadn’t seen was the last shark, which came around the corner just as I saw the rest of the group taking off.  The shark was less than twenty feet from me, and very large, and although I had been told and had read that they were harmless, I also knew that we were always told to get down and stay down when we saw them.  I was torn between following the group and maintaining shark-safe position, and opted for safety; the shark saw me and swam over and took a look before cruising away into the blue water.  They are powerful and eerie, and I have to say I was more than a mite nervous, all alone and being checked out like that.

 

This was the dive where we found the fan coral, spectacular spreads of fine, white fronds.  We had not seen them on any of the other dives, which goes to show you that you can dive this place repeatedly and keep seeing things that are entirely new.

 

Again, a blue water ascent and another successful safety stop.  Byron Bay was clearly good for my diving!

The last dive of our stay, we had a different guide, and this man was gifted at finding little stuff.  On one wall alone, we saw probably seven or eight different species of nudibranch, some no bigger than a fingernail.  Peter (the guide) also found us a Spanish Dancer, which I had never seen before, and of which Peter (the husband) only got one picture, and that one slightly out of focus L  On this dive, we also saw the Spotted Eagle Ray, and Peter got wonderful video of him.  I think rays remain my absolute favorite sea creatures because of their grace and their absolute adaptation to their environment. 

 

On this dive, we found what I think was a coral, although I’m not sure – long “stems” with what looked like fine, white pine needles attached to them.  They were very beautiful, waving in the surge, but we got no pictures of them. 

 

45 very brief minutes flew by (actually, this dive was 52 minutes altogether – another case where the guide was having too much fun) and we made our ascent and safety stop as a foursome, and climbed back on the boat.

 

Back to shore, and our diving adventure in Byron Bay was over, except for a superb dinner at Olivo where we reminisced over what we had seen and done.

 

In summary:  Byron Bay, Australia, is a lovely town with a top-notch dive operator who runs tours to a fascinating marine preserve with an almost unbelievable density of marine life to enjoy.  Would we go back?  In a New York minute.  Anybody want to buy us the tickets?