Encounters with Grey Nurse Sharks - A diving adventure

Of all the books I have ever read on Australian dive sites all of them list South West Rocks, more specifically Fish Rock Cave in New South Wales as a premier diving spot with the longest underwater sea cave in the Southern Hemisphere and of course the resident Grey Nurse Sharks.

One of my regular dive buddies had the opportunity to dive there just after we had completed our Open Water Certificate, and to this day he raves about the site using it as a benchmark for all his dives since then. So when I heard we were going up there on a family holiday, naturally one of the conditions I had was to be able to dive this legendary spot.

I booked about a week in advance, which is well advised as the dives are booked up pretty quickly, especially in summer. From my first contact with the shop to the actual dives, I was impressed with the professionalism and knowledge of the operators. The shop is family owned and run by Kevin, Peter and Nick Hitchins. After an early start of 8.00 am - meeting at the shop and getting all our gear ready, we headed down to the boat ramp and launched the boat. We headed out through the estuary and over the sand bar to near perfect conditions: a sunny sky, calm seas combined with eager anticipation of what was to come. I have to admit I was a tad nervous about diving with the sharks as the only sharks I have ever come in contact with are the harmless Port Jackson sharks found in and around Port Phillip Bay.

Our dive leader for the day Peter, assured us that Grey Nurse sharks are not capable of biting humans in spite of their rather ferocious appearance. Their teeth are all situated on the outside of their mouth and are like needles, so it is impossible for them to grip on to humans and take a bite Instead, they are designed to catch fish and squid swimming past. (This was all very reassuring, but I was still not sure how I was going to react when I first caught sight of these sharks. I was kinda hoping I would spot them before they spotted me!!)

We got to the dive site, which is 4.5 km south of Smoky Cape, Fish Rock protrudes from the water and is devoid of life above water, but below the water is a whole community of marine life, from sharks to sponges, clownfish to crayfish and many more in between. Our first dive site was on the ocean side of the rock as conditions were favourable for this, with the current running South to North. The water was a pleasant 18 degrees, much warmer than my previous drift dive in Victoria a week earlier. The visibility was the best I'd ever had in ocean conditions: at least 30 metres.

As we descended into the blue I was amazed by the colours and varieties of fish I saw, I wish I could name them all, but I am not as familiar with the names of all the fish found in warmer waters. We swam over some ledges and found ourselves in a huge amphitheatre of rock walls and ledges, where I could see all the way to the bottom, 30 metres below me. As I studied the area below me, I saw a few grey shapes slowly cruising along near the bottom. As you can guess, this was the first of my sightings of the Grey Nurse Sharks. I was so in awe of what I was seeing I almost forgot to breathe! They are such graceful creatures and nothing like what I expected, not aggressive or scary. In fact, they are rather shy and skittish, not what you'd expect when you think of anything shark related. Prior to the dive, Peter had given us a dive brief outlining behaviour to follow when around sharks. This was to protect them and keep the behaviour constant so that the sharks can get used to divers. As we descended further we saw plenty of fish, corals and even a resting loggerhead turtle. After about 40 minutes we surfaced having had a remarkable dive. I'd definitely say one of my best to date.

But there was more to come, the Fish Rock cave was still to be explored. So, after a surface interval, during which we were offered coffee, tea and soup and had a bit of a chat with the other divers as well as getting a few facts on the local area, we exchanged our tanks for fresh ones and dived in again. We descended down a shot line to 10m and then went around a ledge and dropped into a gutter where the deep entrance of the cave is (24 metres). We saw another Grey Nurse Shark. By now I was getting quite used to them being part of the scenery. We turned on our torches at the mouth of the cave and entered, finning our way through the schools of bullseye that hang like a curtain across the cave. We ascended slowly up the chimney into the main chamber. It is pitch black in here, but there is an amazing variety of corals, gorgonian fans, sponges, crayfish and the occasional Wobbegong Shark. As we neared the end of the cave the sunlight was streaming through the other side, which combined with the silhouettes of the fish and divers ahead of me, made an awesome picture.

We left the cave and swam through the shark gutters where we spotted a few more Grey Nurse Sharks. I was having such a good time, it was hard to leave the ocean floor and ascend to do the safety stop at 5 metres. The good thing about doing a safety stop with such good visibility is that there is so much to look at while you're waiting for your time to be up. Schools of fish swim below you, huge batfish glide slowly by, not to mention the Blue Gropers that hang around waiting for the possibility of a feed.

Naturally when I surfaced I wanted to go again, so when we got back to the shop, you guessed it, I booked myself in for another two dives!

This time we met at 7.30 am as there were three boatloads of divers that day, one boatload including divers from the NSW Fisheries Department doing a study on the 'Lamington' sea urchins that are decimating the coast.(more about that later)

The 2nd time I dived the cave we took our time, exploring every twist and turn, I would highly recommend doing the cave more than once, as the first time you use to orientate yourself and enjoy the novelty of the experience, the second time you can really have a good look around.

During the dive as we swam through the cave our lights picked out hundreds of glowing red eyes. We had an audience! There is a whole community of crayfish that live inside the cave. Some appear to have been there for years, you can definitely identify the Grandfathers‚ they are huge!(It is against the law to use scuba to catch crayfish in NSW, so I had no such luck with trying to smuggle one out under my wetsuit, people would have noticed!) We saw one or two more sharks on that dive, but not as many as the first day. I spent some of the time looking for sharks teeth, as some of the other divers had found some while diving, but looking for white teeth on white sand, amongst light coloured shells is like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack! No such luck and I wasn't about to play dentist with any sharks either!

All in all, this has been a very enjoyable experience with the people I've met, marine life I have seen and things I have learnt.

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