I have unearthed a conspiracy of epic proportions. I am a
fanatical shark diver, so why have I never heard of Fish Rock? How could a
place this sharky stay hidden from me for so long? I believe that fiendishly
clever Australian divers have been purposefully hiding this gem from the
rest of the world. Maybe I am paranoid but it doesn’t matter because right
now I am in shark diving heaven.
Fish Rock is a rugged pinnacle patrolled by schools (yep,
schools) of Grey Nurse Sharks, and inhabited by at least three different
species of wobbegongs. Giant bull rays guard the entrance to a spectacular
shark filled tunnel that cuts right through the center of the Island, and
the surrounding dive sites harbor small reclusive blind sharks, stingarees,
and shovelnose rays. If there is a Valhalla for shark divers it must look a
lot like this rocky monolith with the unassuming name of Fish Rock.
I am on a month long drive’n’dive along the coast of New
South Wales, Australia, and although there are many more circles on my map
that I have yet to explore, I have no desire to leave the picturesque town
of South West Rocks which lies at the end of a peninsula, a mere 2
kilometers from the continental shelf and a 20 minute boat ride from the
Specifically, I have come here to photograph the beautiful
Banded Wobbegongs that Australian divers take for granted. It is tricky to
concentrate because the Grey Nurse Sharks (Australian for Sandtigers) keep
distracting me from my task. Fish Rock is surrounded by a series of rocky
ridges that snake down into deep water. Banded and Spotted Wobbies sprawl
lazily on top of these bluffs while the Grey Nurse Sharks cruise the sandy
‘shark gutters’ in between.
Normally, visibility here ranges from 10 to 30 meters but I
have arrived at the end of the worst storm in 30 years. Consequently, the
conditions are less than ideal for my mission but the wobbegong sharks are
so docile that I am able to shoot them from just a few inches away.
Banded wobbegongs can reach almost 3 meters in length and the
monsters that compete for floor space at Fish Rock are the largest I have
ever seen. You cannot appreciate how enormous they truly are until you
settle onto the seabed in front of one. With a mouth wide enough to engulf
my camera housing I am glad that these carpet sharks have a friendly
disposition towards divers. On more than one occasion a wobby has bared its
serpent-like fangs at me but I am inclined to believe that these displays
are simply yawns and not shows of aggression.
The Shark Cave
On my third day at ‘the rock’ I finally tire of photographing
spectacular golden hued wobbies lying on perfectly contrasting purple rocks.
The visibility is still too low to shoot Sandtigers so I decide to check out
the shark cave. The deep entrance is a narrow triangular fissure about 2
meters wide. To find it, you must first drop into a deep shark gutter and
muscle your way past the beefy Grey Nurse Sharks that hang motionless in the
doorway like bouncers outside a seedy nightclub. Then, depending on the
surge, it is either a quick kick or a mad scramble through the first tunnel
until you reach the midnight tranquility of the inner chamber.
Claustrophobics beware; the shark cave is not for everyone.
Beyond the entrance there is very little ambient light but a powerful torch
(Australian for flashlight) is enough to push away the oppressive blackness.
Once illuminated, the granite walls spring to life with colorful sponges and
spiny lobsters. Adding to the thrill of this swim through, big wobbies rest
haphazardly in obstructive positions, so that divers are forced to swim
uncomfortably close to them in order to progress along the passageway.
After about 20 meters, the cave narrows alarming but from
above comes a promise of daylight. Six meters higher, the tunnel widens into
a twilit blue cavern filled with shimmering schools of Bulls-eyes. Stationed
among them, yet more wobbies lounge on the boulder strewn floor, like ocean
dragons guarding a treasure of living silver. The image is intoxicating. So
much so, that on this first trip through the cave I find it hard to drag
myself away. Eventually, I head toward the light, emerging on the far side
of the island.
Once free of the cave I spot the bright yellow hull of Fish
Rock Dive Center’s fast little power boat The New World Two bobbing
overhead with its endless supply of hot coffee, fruitcake, and laughter.
Before the next day’s diving I must change lenses in order to
photograph the Dwarf Ornate Wobbies that also inhabit Fish Rock. Scientists
recently realized that the juvenile Banded /Ornate Wobbies that live here
are not juveniles at all but a completely different species. Consequently,
they renamed the big ones Orectolobus halei and tacked the word
‘Dwarf’ onto the common name of the smaller Ornate Wobbegongs (Orectolobus
ornatus). Like a trophy hunter on safari, I am eager to add both sharks
to my collection.
I return with Jon Cragg the owner of Fish Rock Dive Centre.
Jon has over 1500 dives on the rock and if anyone can find me a small
cryptically patterned wobbie in bad visibility it is him. Dropping down to
20 meters I amuse myself by chasing after Grey Nurse Sharks in the mist
while Jon scans the substrate. It doesn’t take him long to find me a real
Dwarf Ornate Wobby but the 60cm long shark blends so well with the coral
encrusted rocks that through my viewfinder I have trouble discerning where
the shark finishes and the coral begins.
A Ghostly Apparition
With uncharacteristically rapid movements, Jon motions me
towards the nearest shark gutter. One or two sharks are finning slowly along
but I see nothing unusual. Then, a ghostly albino Grey Nurse Shark
materializes out of the gloom. Although not completely white it is pale
enough that its back is no darker than its belly. Jon stares in awe at its
ivory silhouette while I fire off a couple of random shots in its general
direction. Raising his video camera Jon then gives chase and we do not
reconnect until back on the boat.
It turns out that this is a first for both of us and we
return at sunup the next day in the hope that it is still there. The
visibility has finally increased but so has the wind and after a short dive
filled with sharks but frustrating free of albino ones, we run for the
shelter of Green Island.
Almost as sharky as Fish Rock but protected from the easterly
swells by the looming headland, Green Island is the perfect place to ride
out bad weather and I spend the next two days there photographing Blind
Sharks and Shovelnose Rays.
There is plenty to entertain me around South West Rocks. I
lose a day combing the pristine beaches, wishing I had the surfing skill to
join the locals out in the bay. I visit Hat Head lighthouse, explore the old
jail, and stalk Kangaroos among the Bankshea Trees. Still the wind shows no
sign of abating and I admit defeat. I am reluctant to leave but at least I
have learned the truth about Fish Rock and I will be back. I stow my dive
gear and drive north. It is time to find out what other incredible dive
sites the Aussies have been hiding.