Grey Nurses are not always shy...
Contributed by Michael Collins
Grey Nurse Sharks are very close to my heart. Indeed they are the stars of
one of my all-time best dives.
A couple of years ago, I went to Camden Haven with the University of NSW Underwater
Club. Located on the NSW mid-north coast, this beautiful seaside village is
about 30 minutes south of Port Macquarie. Our motel backs onto the river, has
its own jetty plus a public boat ramp 30 metres away, all of which make loading
and unloading our dive boat most convenient. The generous sharing of local knowledge
by Pete and Steve from Scuba Haven, the local dive shop at Laurieton, set the
weekend up to be a great one. The best-known boat dives are Telegraph Rock (5-12
metres with abundant fish life), the wreck of the Titan (40m, crane barge, beautiful
encrustations and shelter for fish) and the Cod Grounds.
The Cod Grounds is a Grey Nurse Shark aggregation site a few kilometres off
the coast from Camden Haven. However, it is outside NSW state waters and therefore
is not protected like Magic Point, Julian Rocks, etc. It is also a very popular
fishing spot with large schools of baitfish, yellowtail, kingfish, etc. The
bottom is around 30-35 metres and the rocky pinnacles rise to 18-25m depth.
We anchored away from half a dozen fishing boats and my two buddies and I descended
down the anchor line. With about 15m visibility, the first sharks appeared as
we passed through 10 metres, and soon we could see dozens. Not only that, they
were calm, curious and big. I sat against the pinnacle and watched them swim
past. One appeared from my right, slowly rubbed itself against my fins, up my
leg, stopping with its mouth next to my hip. Sadly, this "labrador of the sea"
had a hook lodged in its mouth. Was it asking me to remove it? Would I hurt
the shark if I pulled it out? Would the shark hurt me if I did? As I was close
to 30 metres depth, I pondered the trade off between the risks of narcosis-impaired
judgement and helping this beautiful animal. My buddies shook their heads pantomime-style
waving: "NO!!". The shark swam off, making the decision. Only ten minutes into
the dive, and it already rated five stars.
As we swam over a large wobbie resting in a crevice, an enormous ray cruised
by. The stump from where its tail had been cut off suggested
that it had previously been caught and released, although not quite unharmed.
As I watched the slow procession of sharks through the gutters, one of them
slowly swam at me. I clearly remember the slow side-to-side sweep of its tail,
although its nose and head didn't deviate from their course. It gently touched
my wrist compass with its snout, cracked its tail and took off. My buddies and
I looked at each other in disbelief.
Then a few minutes later the sharks got all jumpy. We looked around and saw
a small kingfish sinking, green blood trailing from its gills. A little undersize,
it had probably been thrown back. With the dying twitches telegraphing an easy
meal, the wobbie and the large ray reappeared looking for the scent trail in
the water. Despite competition from a couple of Grey Nurses, the wobbie got
its lunch. Calm returned, the ray glided off and the sharks returned to their
As we slowly made our way back up the pinnacle, another Grey Nurse appeared
swimming towards us. It couldn't possibly. Yes, it was going to. And it did.
It swam between my legs! I have a very blurry photo of the head of Grey Nurse
Shark in the foreground and the tip of my fin in the background. What a way
to end an amazing dive! These endangered animals are truly gorgeous. In over
300 dives, I've never had interactions with wild animals as memorable as this,
on their terms, in their environment. Let's ensure the efforts to preserve and
restore Australia's Grey Nurse Shark populations succeed. It's not just future
divers who will benefit from such wonderful encounters. The whole world suffers
from the extinction of a species.