Under the Sea in South Australia

When planning a trip to South Australia, scuba diving isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.  The water is cold.  Mid-year, it’s really cold.  But the frigid water is home to some really interesting creatures which those of us from the tropics won’t see.  So we braved the chills and had a few underwater experiences unique to this part of the world.

Leafy Sea Dragons – Rapid Bay 

The leafy sea dragon is the marine emblem of South Australia.  Found in the waters off the southern and western Australian coast, ‘leafies’ grow to about 20-24cm in length and have long leaf-like protrusions all over their bodies which provide excellent camouflage.

Certain dive sites are well known as habitats but finding them at the sites is quite a different proposition.  Leafies are solitary, they find a spot they like and merge into the weedy surrounds, and then don’t move around too much.  You would have to be lucky to see one on the move, so spotting them generally comes down to localised knowledge about their hiding spots.  Even at the sites they are known to frequent, diving without a local is likely to be fruitless.

There are two well known sites near Adelaide – Rapid Bay jetty and Victor Harbor.  We were lucky to be able to obtain a guide and gear at short notice – more on that later – from Adelaide Scuba in Glenelg.

Early morning we headed 2 hours south to Rapid Bay.

A jetty was constructed here in 1942 to load limestone from local quarries onto ships bound for the Whyalla, Port Kembla and Newcastle steelworks.  The jetty was closed in 1991 and with shipping gone, coral and marine plants now thrive on the pylons and the rocky bottom under the old jetty.  The leafies love this environment and are here year round.

A new jetty parallel to the old one was opened in 2009 for fishing and other recreational use.   At the far end, a set of steps leads down to a small platform for divers to access the water.   It’s a long walk out to the end of that pier when fully kitted up including a tank and enough weights to sink in a 7.5 ml wetsuit, but the platform makes for easy access to the, yes, very cold water.

And then it’s a short swim across to the old jetty.  We did 2 dives of about an hour each.  The conditions were easy and shallow with virtually no current, although with water temperature at 18 degrees we were solidly chilled to the core by the end of each.  The coral growth was surprisingly colourful and we saw lots of interesting marine life including nudibranchs and fish.  And the highlight – yes, we saw a leafy.  Just one.  But that’s ok.  It’s what we came for and we were happy.

We don’t have an underwater camera, but the guys at Adelaide Scuba who organised the trip were kind enough to provide some photos taken at this same site within a few months before our trip.  The one we saw looked exactly like this first one.

These next two pics were taken by one of their free diving instructors, Lucasz, who is on Instagram – Lucasz.ocean if you are interested in looking at more of his work.

We were especially impressed with Adelaide Scuba.  Having foolishly left it until a week before arrival to try and book a trip, we were told by another scuba operator we won’t name that nothing was available but that we could just hire some gear from them and go looking ourselves.  We thought our chances of finding leafies when they camouflage so well was just about zero so we declined.

With no real expectations, we contacted Adelaide Scuba when we arrived in Adelaide and they scrambled a guide to take us the next day.  Good quality gear, great service and a guide with a hawk eye for critters we can say with certainty we would have finned straight past if on our own. If you are after scuba services in Adelaide, we’d highly recommend these guys.

Giant Cuttlefish – Whyalla 

Once a year at just one place on the planet, giant cuttlefish congregate to breed.  That place is a stretch of coast between Fitzgerald Bay and False Bay near Whyalla where an expanse of rocky ledges near the water’s edge is the perfect environment for mating.  If you are a giant cuttlefish, that is.  Ordinarily solitary creatures, from May to August each year they arrive by the thousands from far afield in what the experts call the ‘great aggregation’.  This annual migration of the Australian giant cuttlefish is the only known one of its kind in the world.

And we were lucky enough to be in South Australia in late May, so we had to go.

There are two prime spots near Whyalla: Point Lowly and Stony Point.

The migration usually attracts avid divers from across the globe, but Covid related travel restrictions have temporarily throttled that.  We still expected to see lots of divers, but a group leaving as we arrived and our group of 4 were the only ones at Lowly Point that morning.

The entry is over the flat rocky ledges at the shore with a guide chain to assist.

This time we had a 7.5 ml wetsuit, additional 5ml vest and neoprene hood and gloves.  It felt like being the Michelin man and the amount of weights needed to get under the water with all that buoyant gear on was ridiculous.

And of course the water was freezing.  17 degrees this time.

But the sea was clear and calm, and the cuttlefish were prolific.  Hundreds and hundreds within metres of the shore.  You could spend an hour within a few square metres and not get bored.  In fact, we did.

We’d been given a good lesson on identifying males from females, and the various mating rituals in which they engage.  Interestingly, there are 10 males to every female, so competition among the gents is tough.  Fighting between males is common.  And once a male has successfully mated, he will attempt to push the female into a rocky crevice and cover her to prevent other males getting her attention.  The females will mate with several males then choose the sperm she wants.   We tried to avoid drawing parallels to human behaviour.

The Australian giant cuttlefish is the largest cuttlefish species in the world, growing to around 50cm in length and up to 11kg in weight.  Like octopus, they change colour to camouflage into their environment, which is all the more remarkable because they themselves are colour blind.

Ordinarily, cuttlefish lurk in rocky crevices and under overhangs, but during the breeding frenzy here, caution is abandoned.   They cruise around, fight and interact in the open water, so intent on the task at hand that they literally don’t care about divers hovering around watching.

Again, we didn’t have an underwater camera, but one of our diving companions generously shared some of the photos she took.  Here’s a pair wooing.

The sheer number of them in plain sight makes them an easy feed for seals who come to gorge on the cuttlefish buffet.  We saw a couple of them cruising around before we entered the water and she was lucky to get this great shot during the dive.

She used a red filter on some others to show the incredible contrasting colours on the cuttlefish.

Unlike the leafies, the cuttlefish are very easy to find.  If you have your own gear, you don’t need a guide, and in fact they are close enough to the surface that even just snorkelling you can see a lot.  But if you want a guide or gear, we used Whyalla Diving Services and would recommend them.  Good gear, knowledgeable guide.

Since 2018 Whyalla has held an annual Cuttlefest with a range of events directed to education about the cuttlefish, guided snorkel trips and an art festival.  It was yet to commence when we passed through, but there’s a few cuttlefish-inspired pieces of permanent public art to see.

There’s a rather cool mosaic chair near the new recreational fishing pier on the city foreshore.

Whyalla has some way to go in the street art stakes but here’s a few of the better cuttlefish related murals around town.

Sea Lions – Blyth Island 

Heading south from Whyalla we passed Cowell, where an impressive mural adorns the local grain silos.  It’s part of the Australian Silo Art Trail.

The mural depicts local shearer and camel breeder, Lionel Deer with his camel, Diamantina.

Then through Tumby Bay where we stopped to see a very clever silo art piece.

Most silo art consists of a vertical image on each silo because the gap between them breaks up the available canvas.  At Tumby Bay, however, a horizontal work spreads across all three double silos which, when viewed from a particular angle, appears as a single unbroken picture.  The artist used the curve of the silos to create a visual distortion in which the gap between the silos disappears.  It’s really, really clever work.

Compare these two photos.  The first is taken square-on and the gaps are clear.  But in the second, the image seems to spread across, unbroken.

Next day, we headed out to Blyth Island, part of the Sir Joseph Banks Group, about 2 hours by boat north east of Port Lincoln.  It’s small, uninhabited and home to a large population of those absurdly cute, playful creatures, sea lions.

We anchored some distance from the island and transferred to dinghies to get closer in.  From the dinghies we jumped in and finned closer to the island.  Conditions were good.  The water, as everywhere, was ferociously cold.  And as this was just a snorkel, we had no boots, gloves or hoods.  Ice cream brain freeze is nothing on this.

But as soon as we spotted the sea lions, the cold was forgotten.

We had a go-pro in a waterproof housing that we used to take some video.  Here are some still shots from that footage.

It was obvious why they are called ‘puppies of the sea’.

They were having fun playing together.

Curious pups approached us in groups of 3 or 4, hanging back until the bravest of them would come forward for a closer look.  The first one would swim right up and look at us through our masks.  Then others would follow and they lost their initial shyness.

More independent older ones would duck and zoom under and around us.  So elegant in the water.

After an hour playing with them, the chill was setting in.  Our feet and hands were numb and we were shivering.  A lot.  Time to go.  But absolutely it was worth it.

White Shark Cage Dive – Neptune Islands

And lastly, to the Neptune Islands to cage dive with the great white sharks.

Approximately 70km off Port Lincoln, near the entrance to Spencer Gulf, the rocky coves of the Neptune Islands Group are the breeding ground for Australia’s largest colony of long nosed fur seals.

As youngsters, white sharks eat fish, rays and other sharks, then as adults they expand their diet to include fur seals.  There are no small sharks in the Neptune Islands – the shark nursery areas are thought to be far away and, interestingly, have never been located.  But the islands are a hot spot for adult white sharks who come to hunt the seals.    The sharks here are all 3 to 5 metres in length and weigh up to 1,500kg.

Since 2002, two specific sites in the North Neptune Islands group have been the only places in Australia where cage diving to view great whites is permitted.

Early morning we headed out into grey weather and after about 4 hours, arrived at one of the sites, quite close to one of the islands.  The process is fairly simple.

The boat has a cage mounted on the back.

The cage is lowered into the water.

Divers are fitted up with a ‘vest’ made out of weight belts like this.

Then it’s don a mask, grab a regulator attached to a fixed air line and climb in.

As it’s only a few metres below the surface and conditions were quite choppy, the cage was surging up and down, tossing the inmates, sorry, divers around quite a bit.  The weighted vest keeps you down but nothing can stop the inelegant prospect of one’s feet floating up except anchoring them under the bottom bar.  A tempting treat for a shark, maybe?

And then you hang on, with all but your core bodily functions shutting down due to the insidious cold, and wait for the passing sharks.  It wasn’t like the videos you see of sharks head butting the cage.  In fact, it was like watching a passing parade.  They didn’t seem upset or even curious by the presence of the cage.

Again we had a go pro in a waterproof housing which we used to take video.  Here’s a few still shots from that.

 

Hand on heart we would struggle to recommend this trip, especially if you’ve seen sharks when scuba diving other places.  Obviously these guys are bigger and more dangerous than a reef shark, but we didn’t actually see them doing anything more than swim past, and although it’s not advertised, our impression was that generally you won’t.  The trip out and back is just open ocean with nothing to see, and in total it’s about 14 hours to spend 20 minutes looking at the sharks.  But we don’t regret doing it.  Shark sightings are not guaranteed, so in a sense we were lucky.  And now we know!

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