FISH ROCK IS ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS dive sites in Australia. Located off the New South Wales coast, this small outcrop swarms with marine life. Divers flock to explore the cave that cuts right through its centre and hope to encounter, among other things, the grey nurse sharks that live here.
These Carcharias taurus, known as sand tigers in the USA, are wonderful sharks with which to dive. They look mean with their protruding dagger-like teeth, but these teeth are designed to grip fish, not to cut flesh, so pose no threat to divers. Humans pose more threat to the grey nurses, with the species close to extinction in Australia.
Fish Rock is located off the town of South West Rocks, a six-hour drive north of Sydney. Over the past 20 years I have dived Fish Rock many times, and seen an amazing assortment of marine creatures, but have never had much luck with grey nurse sharks.
The sharks are found here all year, peaking from April to November, but although I had dived Fish Rock at least a dozen times it was 10 years before I even saw my first one.
Even at peak times, the sharks would always seem to know when I had a dive booked, and disappear. And when I did finally see some, it was in terrible visibility.
While other divers were telling me about seeing dozens of grey nurse in crystal water, I had come to doubt whether I would ever have such an experience at Fish Rock.
In December 2008, my wife Helen and I stopped off at South West Rocks while driving to Sydney. We booked in for two days of diving with Fish Rock Dive Centre, though not expecting much this late in the season.
At the dive centre I expected the owner, Jon Cragg, to tell me that the visibility was terrible, with no sharks about. Instead, he told us the opposite was the case.
Next day, the dive-boat tied in to the mooring. The weather was perfect - almost-flat seas, no wind and surprisingly no current. Fish Rock is nearly always washed by strong currents, one reason for it being so rich in marine life.
We jumped into the water to find the visibility at 15m, then followed guide Larry to a deep gutter where the Fish Rock Cave entrance can be found. In the gutter we were greeted by a large grey nurse shark.
We dropped to the bottom at 24m, where I counted a dozen grey nurse cruising about the gutter. My luck had finally changed!

AFTER PHOTOGRAPHING THE SHARKS swimming above us for several minutes, we followed Larry into the cave. Fish Rock Cave is 120m long, and rated among the top 10 dive sites in Australia, and for very good reason.
Torches on, we parted a thick curtain of bullseyes to enter. Only a few feet in, we were greeted by one of the cave watchdogs, a large banded wobbegong shark lazing on the cave floor.
Wobbegongs look harmless, but have very sharp teeth and will bite if harassed or accidentally stepped on, so always give them a wide berth. We slipped over this one, and followed Larry to the Chimney, where a passage rises vertically into the upper cave.
Shining our torches around, we spotted crayfish, shrimps, squirrelfish, glasseyes, featherstars, sea cucumbers, moray eels and several ornate and spotted wobbegong sharks. Usually I would take more time exploring the darker recesses of the cave, but today I knew that something special was awaiting us.
Navigating through the darker sections of the cave, I could just make out the dim light of the shallow entrance, almost blocked off by schools of bullseyes. We paused to photograph the resident black cod, but soon forgot this large fish when I saw the silhouettes of a dozen grey nurse sharks cruising at the cave mouth.
The sharks enter the cave over the summer months, but this was the first time I had seen them here. I settled down on the boulders carefully, between two large banded wobbegongs, and for the next 20 minutes watched and photographed as the grey nurses slowly patrolled up and down the gutter, into the cave and among the fish.
They seemed unconcerned by our presence, maintaining normal swim patterns that included swimming only inches above my head. Both male and female, they ranged in length from 1.5m to 2.5m. Several had mating bites along their flanks, hope for the future of this threatened species. I shot image after image, from every angle I desired.

WITH ANOTHER GROUP OF DIVERS coming up behind us, we exited the cave and made our way along the side of the gutter, avoiding the minefield of wobbies. Helen and I then sat in the gutter for another five minutes watching the sharks.
Some of them were playing chicken with us - swimming straight at our heads, forcing us to duck.
With our air running low, we reluctantly returned to the boat, but not before encountering some of the other local marine life - a hawkbill turtle, schools of kingfish and batfish, several moray eels and a very cheeky resident, the blue groper (not to be confused with grouper - it is in fact a wrasse).
Among the largest members of the wrasse family and the state fish of New South Wales, blue gropers follow you around, hoping for a free feed.
After a surface interval, Larry moved the boat to the northern end of Fish Rock. With no current, we would be able to dive another special site, the Pinnacle. This rises from 30m to 9m, and we could see its top from the surface, but we stayed above 21m. This was where the clear water was, and all the action.
Heading north, we encountered several blue gropers and more wobbies before we reached wall-to-wall sharks.
Patrolling the western side of the Pinnacle were at least 20 grey nurse sharks, including some very large females 3m long.
We drifted along the wall and came to the ridge that links the Pinnacle with Fish Rock, where another dozen grey nurse were swimming about.
Visibility was better at 20m. A school of stripeys hovered in mid-water, as bullseyes and yellowtail swept around them. Above were schools of batfish and fusiliers and, swimming between them all, the grey nurse sharks.
I could have stayed all day watching these sharks as they swam among the fish and past my smiling face, but my air was getting low. I finished the dive by exploring the gutters that riddle the top of the Pinnacle, finding several large banded and spotted wobbegongs, and then swimming with a school of batfish under the boat.
Protected in New South Wales since 1984, grey nurse sharks continue to decline from fishing pressures, with diver surveys indicating that only 500 may be left on the east coast. It was sad to see several of the sharks at Fish Rock sporting fishhooks from their jaws, but external hooks are of minor concern - it's the internal hooks stuck in their stomachs that are killing them.
Fish Rock may be a "protected" grey nurse habitat, but New South Wales Fisheries still allows fishing - the main threat to the shark's survival.
While I was diving a dozen boats were above, their fishing legal as long as they didn't anchor! Diving regulations are in place to avoid divers needlessly harassing the sharks; it's a pity the same can't be said for the fishermen.

GREY NURSE SHARKS CAN ALSO BE SEEN at other dive sites around South West Rocks. Divers can enjoy the coral gardens at Black Rock and see sting rays, gropers, giant cuttlefish, moray eels and a range of reef fish.
Green Island, one of my favourite sites, has many gutters and ledges to explore. Grey nurse are seen regularly, but divers will also encounter turtles, sting rays, wobbegongs, blind sharks, gropers, shovelnose rays, eagle rays and an abundance of reef and pelagic fish.
Other highlights here are the invertebrates - seastars, nudibranchs, octopuses, cuttlefish, shrimps, crabs and even blue-ringed octopuses.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Sydney, capital of New South Wales, is regularly serviced by domestic flights on Qantas, www.qantas.com.au and Virgin Blue, www.virginblue.com.au; and by international flights from most cities. To reach South West Rocks a hire car is the best option, but there are also regional flights from Sydney.
DIVING: Fish Rock Dive Centre; www.fishrock.com.au; South West Rocks Dive Centre, www.southwestrocksdive.com.au
ACCOMMODATION: A wide range is available around South West Rocks, and the two dive shops can offer onsite accommodation and package deals.
WHEN TO GO: Any time. Water temperature varies from summer highs of 25°C to winter lows of 16°C. Visibility varies from 6-40m, with the average 15m. Situated in an almost sub-tropical region, the climate is very pleasant. Summer temperatures range from 20-30°C, winter from 10-20°.
MONEY:Australian dollar
PRICES: Both dive centres operate daily double boat dives, from Aus $130.
TOURIST INFORMATION: www.australia.com, 020 7438 4601, www.visitnsw.com.