|The water was freezing, the visibility downright lousy. Descending Prodives anchor line, I was beginning to wonder why I had come to the other side of the world to dive in conditions similar to a bad day in Scotland.
I was about to explore a site known as the Docks, on the northern edge of Jervis Bay, 120 miles south of Sydney. It was early November, well into springtime, and the weather was stormy. But I had heard good things of the bay.
Prodives skipper, the cheery Gentleman Jimmy, had tucked the 12m catamaran into a sheltered spot close to Point Perpendicular. Diving with local underwater photographer Warren Jones, known for his sharp eyes and knowledge of the area, I felt I had a chance of seeing some of the bays more elusive marine life.
Jervis Bay is located on Australias south-east coast, where the warm ocean currents from the north and the Great Barrier Reef converge with the cold currents of southern Australia and Tasmania. Creatures from both worlds can be encountered here. Depending on the time of year you might see anything from manta rays, giant ocean sunfish and loggerhead turtles to humpback whales, shoaling kingfish (closely followed by groups of sharks) and the awesome giant cuttlefish that can grow as large as your buddy.
The cuttlefish have attracted much interest over the years. They are active in the bay in winter when they come in to mate, and can become so engrossed in their amorous activities that they can be approached very closely. Sometimes they even grab a divers snorkel. Sadly, it looked as if I had missed them this year.
Here be dragons
Dropping down the slope that led from the mini-wall at 10m, we cruised over huge boulders covered in surreal, plant-like creatures. Growing from the rock on long stalks, they resembled wart-covered pink and yellow tulips.
On closer examination I realised that they were giant ascidians, Pyura spinifera. Later I learnt that the colours were not their own, but belonged to an encrusting sponge, Halisarca australiensis.
They were everywhere, but as Warren was still moving, I decided to photograph them later. At the 20m mark, I watched my buddy with some amusement. He was hovering inches off the sea floor, eyes fixed on a spot a metre or so ahead of him, fins beating slowly but steadily. He reminded me of a hound sniffing out a trail.
He turned to point something out, but I had already seen it. Lifting my camera, I adjusted the position of my strobes and focused on this weird and wonderful creature.
For a moment particle suspension in the water played havoc with my autofocus. Then, as I inched closer, it locked on - bang, got it!
Encased in a bronze-and-yellow-patterned armour of bony rings with brilliant iridescent blue stripes, the weedy sea dragon, Phycodurus eques, was as magical as I had imagined it would be. The Docks is as good a place as any to see this intriguing creature, which lives in or close to kelp beds and is relatively common around the bays dive sites all year round.
It looked like a cross between a pipefish and the seahorse to which it is closely related, but had an elongated tail which it was using to steer itself along the bottom, rather than to grip on to things. As this was early spring the kelp beds were fairly stunted, so it had been a little easier to spot the sea dragon, despite the leafy barbels that help it to blend in with the kelp.
We spotted several more dragons along the sandy fringe before we headed back to the boat, passing through mini tunnels, under fantastic overhangs and around huge boulders encrusted with life. The variety of scenery and habitat of the Docks turned out to be typical of sites in and around Jervis Bay. With so many rocky ledges and crevices in which creatures could hide, small wonder this was such a haven for marine life.
As the dives continued we would encounter brilliantly coloured nudibranchs, stunning starfish, countless moray eels and many inquisitive fish, including the half-banded sea perch, the large eastern blue grouper (a member of the wrasse family) and the thorn or marblefish, a type of dragonet. Not to mention one of the strangest-looking fish, the Mick Jagger-lipped red morwong.
After almost 50 minutes on the bottom, I was beginning to freeze. A hot mug of soup with French bread went down a treat back on the boat. Apart from keeping us supplied with bread, fruit and hot drinks, the Prodive staff would change our cylinders for us, and I was impressed by the care they took with our cameras.
After an hours surface interval we went diving again, this time at a site called Slot Cave, not far from the Docks. We were on the hunt for one of the bays more elusive creatures, the Red Indian fish, Pataecus fronto. Until recently these were considered to be deepwater denizens, then divers discovered them in two shallow sites, one being Bowen Island on the other side of the bay, the other the spot we were about to dive.
Old wives tale
Warren was not hopeful. No one had seen a Red Indian fish for several months, and many local divers have never seen one. So we hit the jackpot when we stumbled across two of them just five minutes into the dive!
There they were at the edge of the reef, swaying back and forth on the sand like leaves in the swell. They resembled the leafy scorpionfish in appearance and behaviour, but were considerably larger and had much more of a head-dress, hence their name.
Heading up the boulder slope towards Slot Cave to look for a resident school of old wives, we came across a couple of Port Jackson shark egg cases, which reminded me of WWI hand grenades. The embryos take a surprisingly long time to develop. If this case was recently laid, the youngster would not be swimming free for some eight months.
We found the old wives under an overhang on a wall that plunged some 12m from the cliffs above to the boulder slope. There were as many as 30 of them, standing out against the dark backdrop. Their non-PC name is said to come from the grumbling sound that results from their habit of grinding their teeth when caught by fishermen!
The entrance to Slot Cave was in 8m. Visibility here seemed much better than on the outside, helped by the fact that the bottom consisted of coarse sand and shale. The walls were covered in sponges and a few anemones but the beauty of the cave lay in its long, narrow shape. The sheer walls reached to the surface, and shafts of light filtered through gaps in the roof, bouncing off the walls and floor. Had the swell not been so uncomfortable, I would have lingered longer.
Jervis Bay, listed as a World Heritage site and protected by Australias National Trust, is considered to be one of the finest bays in Australia.
It is shaped like a squashed horseshoe, enclosed by two crab-like pincers of land, Point Perpendicular to the north and Bowen Island to the south. The bay stretches some six miles from mainland to main ocean, and offers sheltered diving all year round.
Some of the best diving is found at sites outside the bay, such as Stoney Creek, the Drum and Drumsticks, the Arch, and the Cathedral, which have breathtaking scenery and often huge pelagic shoals and sharks. And Wreck Bay is a good place to dive when strong north winds are blowing. Several historic though mostly well-scattered wrecks lie here.
One intact wreck is of a Firefly aircraft lost in 1956 after a mid-air collision and found recently in silty water. It isnt usually dived unless special arrangements are made. The scallop beds, slowly recovering after years of dredging, are sometimes dived by photographers in search of interesting macro subjects.
Down in Weedy Valley
But in November, with the weather not yet at its best, we still had a choice of several excellent sites in Jervis Bay itself. Even when the winds shifted to the dreaded south-east, we were able to dive on the northern shore of Bowen Island, which offered familiar underwater topography but less of a drop-off in the shallows.
We dived two sites here: the Nursery, popular with juvenile fish, stingrays and sleeping sharks, including angel, wobbegong and Port Jackson; and, named after the abundance of sea dragons, Weedy Valley.
This site had everything, from a sandy bottom and kelp beds to caves, overhangs, swim-throughs and a mini-wall. In the shallows around the surge zones I came across large boulders covered in jewel anemones. Little blennies popped in and out of holes, and eastern kelpfish and stinky groupers were much in evidence.
Further down, many more of those giant ascidians projected from the boulders, and in the many caves and crevices I found an estuarine catfish, Cnidoglanis macrocehalus, moray eels and a group of Port Jackson sharks.
These arrive in the bay in their hundreds to mate during winter, when they can be seen lying on the bottom, stacked one on top of another. But after winter most head south. Everyone on the boat had assured me that the Port Jacksons had already departed, but I came across a dozen or so of them.
They were well-hidden and almost impossible to photograph, but I managed to poke my camera through a gap without disturbing them, and fired off a few shots.
If forced to single out one special encounter during my time at Jervis Bay, however, it was one that came towards the end of my dive at Weedy Valley. I had been photographing a pair of nudibranchs under an overhang next to some huge boulders when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a young giant cuttlefish.
There was something touching about the way its eyes looked into mine - so intelligent, so probing. By all accounts it shouldnt have been here, and it must have thought the same about me. I had been lucky with my sightings; this encounter provided a memorable signing-off.
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