Australian Traveller’s intern visits South West Rocks on the NSW north coast to experience one of the best dives in the country.
AT recently sent its diligent intern Sonja Kaute to experience No.52 of our 100 Great Things To Do In Australia You’ve Never Heard Of. She couldn’t believe her eyes.
The train is clattering through the early morning. Sydney’s suburbs pass by as I wind my way north through abundant green hills. Cows stare at me, chewing patiently. A kangaroo hops away from the rails. Seven hours later, as I arrive at the tiny train station of Kempsey, I know that this is truly the countryside; my final destination, South West Rocks, is 35km further to go. More luscious deep green fields and a sky beautifully peppered with fluffy clouds. I’m in a pastoral postcard.
Most visitors coming to South West Rocks head to Trial Bay Gaol, a former prison and internment camp now open to public, or Smoky Cape Lighthouse from where you can enjoy beautiful ocean views and might even spot whales. But my focus is elsewhere: Fish Rock, which I’ve been looking forward to for weeks. I’ll explore it from underwater, see highly endangered Grey Nurse Sharks and dive through the sheer rock in pitch black darkness.
I’m mentally preparing as we descend – preparing for those eerie looking creatures I like least of all (sharks), and for my very first cave dive. It only takes a few minutes before the first sleek silhouette materialises. Slow and self-confident, dozens of sharks circle over the sand gutter to my left. I count at least 30 with a single glimpse. I’m amazed; considering there are only about 500 Grey Nurses left on the entire east coast, I feel privileged to see so many in one spot. All my distrust of these creatures vanishes; a deep respect is all that remains.
As I straighten up and peer ahead, I notice something large and very close on my right. While I was distracted with the main pack [Sorry, anyone know what a “pack” of sharks is called? It’s called a “shiver” of sharks. Amazing. Anyway, back to the story. – Ed] , one of these fellows has snuck up to less than 30cm away. His head is right next to mine and for a magic moment we look into each other’s eyes. I think he’s not quite as impressed as I am, but I will surely never forget this moment.
On a second dive we pass the sharks to enter Fish Rock Cave, 24m below the surface. It’s narrow, we can only proceed single file, and it’s dark, despite our torches. At one point we must take a turn, diagonally up and to the right. I’m dizzy; it’s hard to stay oriented. There’s a sudden stillness that surrounds and confuses me for a moment. Wherever the lights shine, something’s moving: two huge stingrays are roused by our disturbance, a big turtle rests beneath them, giant lobsters’ and crabs’ eyes are glooming, reflecting the torch beams. As we come closer to the growing circle of light – the exit, veiled by countless swarming fish – it’s like returning to a familiar world from another planet.
It takes me days to fully grasp what I’ve experienced here, not forgetting the sea snakes, box fish, lion fish, bright yellow trumpet fish and huge amounts of colourful swarms appearing in such density that it’s almost impossible to see what’s behind them. I realise now why this is a paradise for underwater photographers and a must-do for every experienced diver.