Diving Down Under

Diving Down Under

Diving in Australia – before we went on this trip, the first thing that came to mind was the Great Barrier Reef. We talked to some people while planning our trip, including some very experienced divers and world travellers, and we realized that if we wanted to do justice to the GBR, we would probably have to devote the time and money to explore it on a liveaboard. That wasn’t on the agenda for this trip, but maybe one day!

So, our diving adventures in Australia were a bit off-the-beaten-track, but we still saw plenty of cool creatures, and we actually really enjoyed having dive sites to ourselves (or just running into a few dedicated local divers), rather than being surrounded by large crowds. The more we travel, the more we realize crowds are really not our thing!

Sydney

While we were in New Zealand, we hadn’t done any diving, so it had been about 6 weeks since our last dives in French Polynesia, and we were eager to get back in the water. Well, Bryan was very eager, but Lisa sort of had mixed feelings. She had now done about 15 dives, so she was getting more comfortable and always loved the dives while they were happening, but still got pretty nervous before each one, especially in a new place with new equipment. And this would be her first time diving with a 7mm wetsuit in pretty cold water (about 20 C). It would also be her first time diving without a guide, just the two of us as a buddy pair.

We signed up to go out for 2 dives one morning in Sydney. We met our boat captain and the 2 other people joining us at a harbour. Funnily enough, they were both Canadian as well, and one of them was also from Edmonton! The boat ride out to the first dive site (The Apartments) was about 45 minutes, and when we arrived our captain gave us a briefing on the dive site topography and what we might find. We were mostly looking forward to the possibility of seeing grey nurse sharks, which an Australian woman we met on a bus in New Zealand had told us about.

We got in the water and swam out through a little underwater canyon in search of the sharks. Along the way, some wobbegong sharks approached us and seemed very curious about Bryan’s camera. They kept swimming up and around us – at the time, Lisa didn’t even know what they were but thought they looked like big algae eaters (about 4-6 ft long).

Curious wobbegong shark

A bit later, Bryan spotted a giant cuttlefish hanging out in a little nook. It kept swimming out to check us out, hovering like a cute alien in front of us, and then backing up into its hiding spot. Soon it would come back out again, and kept approaching and retreating while we sat and watched. Lisa loves cuttlefish and this was the first one she had seen in the wild, so she was super excited!

A very inquisitive giant cuttlefish!

Unfortunately, we didn’t find the grey nurse sharks, but we were still really happy with what we had seen. We got back on the boat and headed to the next dive site, where we were told we might be able to find some weedy sea dragons. Unfortunately, the waves had picked up by this time, and the ginger pills Lisa had taken that morning didn’t seem to be doing much. She desperately tried to stare at the horizon and stave off the growing feeling of nausea, but eventually couldn’t hold back anymore and had to throw up off the side of the boat.

That did bring some relief, so she was ready to go for the next dive. We swam around lots of pretty sponges, and saw a Port Jackson shark hanging out on the bottom. But this time the water felt even colder, and after about 40 minutes, Lisa couldn’t take it much longer. So we decided to end our dive, even though we hadn’t found the sea dragons. Oh well, it had still been fun, and once again, Lisa was glad she had gone, even though she had been reluctant at first.

Port Jackson shark

South Australia

South Australia is lovely and warm…above water. However, as it borders on the Southern Ocean, even if it’s 40 degrees on land, the water is never particularly warm. Fortunately, we were there right in the middle of the Australian summer, so it was about as warm as it ever gets. Unfortunately, this is still 18-20 C, which meant we needed to wear 7mm wetsuits and hooded vests, and even then, still got cold.

Well, we got cold while we were in the water. But while we were gearing up on land and trudging down jetties to enter the water, all that neoprene and the Australian summer sun added up to a lot of sweat. Basically, we were in an endless cycle of overheating, relief upon entering the water, becoming too cold, relief upon exiting the water and warming up in the sun, and then repeat. However, we were fortunate not to be there in the winter, when water temps can plummet down to about 12-14 C. Ugh with a capital U!

We had two critters on our “must-see” list for our time underwater in SA – the leafy sea dragon, one of the most beautiful fish in the sea, and the striped pyjama squid, a remarkably strange yet very cute cephalopod.

Rapid Bay

Rapid Bay jetty is about an hour and a half drive from Adelaide, and we were informed by the folks at Diving Adelaide that this was a good place to find leafy sea dragons. We set up a tour with a guide from the shop, and drove down along the coast for a couple of dives.

Upon arriving at Rapid Bay, we geared up and got in the water as quickly as we could – not only was it uncomfortably hot in our thick wetsuits and heavy gear (with 35 C + air temps!), but there is a large population of overly friendly flies living there. Fortunately, they were not biting sandflies like the ones in Doubtful Sound, New Zealand, but it was still pretty gross feeling them constantly crawling all over our faces and hands.

Once we descended and swam out, our guide Brendon promptly found two leafy sea dragons (one with eggs!) right where he had told us we could expect to find them. After being shown around the dive site, we decided to return on our own a few times to try and find them again and get more photos.

Leafy sea dragon carrying eggs

We decided to take a day trip out to Rapid Bay on Christmas Day to do a few dives. Theoretically, the dive site is very easy to navigate, but we still managed to get disoriented on one of our dives. Lisa basically figured she would just follow Bryan, since he is a much more experienced diver and also generally better at navigation. After swimming out from the jetty to look for something, we swam back and continued following along the jetty to where we thought the dragons would be.

“The Cathedral” under the Rapid Bay jetty

Lisa was a bit confused, as the current now seemed to be going in the opposite direction as it had before, but she figured Bryan knew what he was doing. But after swimming along for longer than we remembered we should, we decided to surface to get our bearings. Yup, we had reversed direction and now were swimming back to shore – oops.

Fortunately, we had only been about 12 m deep, so we just descended again and carried on our way, though this detour lost us valuable air and body warmth. Bryan was very annoyed that he had wasted so much of the dive, while Lisa realized that just because someone is a Divemaster doesn’t mean they are great at navigating new dive sites! But Bryan redeemed himself by finding a leafy sea dragon out on the seagrass!

Lisa with a leafy sea dragon
A baby leafy sea dragon

Here is a video from our diving at Rapid Bay:

Bryan also wrote a detailed article about diving and underwater photography at Rapid Bay, which you can check out here.

Edithburgh

We were told that Edithburgh jetty was the best dive site in South Australia, with tons of great macro life, including the legendary striped pyjama squid. We decided to set up an overnight trip with a guide from Diving Adelaide, Dan Kinasz. Dan is a local expert who is studying Chemical Engineering, and guides divers in his spare time. Pretty sweet deal.

He even guided Jonathan Bird and his family, who did episodes of Jonathan Bird’s Blue World at Rapid Bay and Edithburgh!

Edithburgh is a tiny town out on the sleepy Yorke Peninsula, about 3 hours’ drive time from Adelaide. There is really not much of anything going on there, especially in the middle of the week. The Edithburgh jetty is pretty much the ideal shore dive – only about 5 m deep, and probably a 30m walk from the parking lot to a set of stairs going down into the water. Shore diving doesn’t get any better than this.

We did 4 guided dives with Dan; 3 day dives and 1 night dive. The day dives were great, with Dan finding us a frogfish, multiple blue-ring octopus, pipefish, nudibranchs, and a variety of other cool fish.

Blue-ring octopus
Barred boxfish

Night is when things got crazy, like off-the-charts crazy. This was Lisa’s first ever night dive, so she was nervous, but between the shallow, easy site and having Dan keeping an eye on things, it went quite smoothly.

Within a minute of dropping in we saw multiple Southern Sand Octopus crawling across the sand. Then a seahorse, hanging on to some seaweed and shying away from our lights (which we quickly pointed away from it to avoid stressing it out). Then some pyjama squid, multiple blue-ringed octopus, a teeny-tiny bobtail squid, a baby cuttlefish, and even more pyjama squid. It was insane, probably the best night dive ever!

Sand octopus
Bobtail squid
Pyjama squid

After some great encounters and some nice photos, we headed back to Adelaide super pumped to plan our return trip.

A week later, we were back at Edithburgh, but this time it was just the two of us. We had different rental gear, which consisted of two very nice back-inflate BCDs, among other things. We started with a night dive, and as soon as we got in the water things started to go sideways. As we descended, Lisa found herself in a strange position with her feet tending to float up above her head – she couldn’t quite get used to the different gear right away. This being only her second night dive, and us being alone out there, she was of course not comfortable. Additionally, Bryan had convinced Lisa to bring along her GoPro with light, as we wanted to get some pyjama squid video, so she had to hold onto that along with her dive light.

We quickly surfaced to talk through the issues, and Bryan took the GoPro and looped it through his BCD so Lisa could have her hands free. This made things difficult for him too, since he also had his large camera rig.

We descended again, and with time Lisa got more comfortable with the back-inflate, and got herself levelled out. Meanwhile, Bryan, checking on Lisa every 30 seconds but still desperate to find pyjama squid, veered off the wrong way and took us out into the seagrass and away from the jetty. By the time he admitted that we were lost, and we surfaced to get our bearings, we had spent over 40 minutes on the dive. Although we had enough air for 90-120 minutes, it was too cold for us to make it for anything close to that length of time.

Sea hare

Bryan sheepishly apologized for once again getting us lost underwater, and then we swam back to the jetty on the surface. Dropping back down, we landed right on the pyjama squid sand patches, and saw a bunch of the critters. We got progressively colder as we had fun with the pyjama squid, some reef squid, and a friendly octopus, but we just weren’t able to get any good pyjama squid video. The light we had attached to the GoPro was not particularly great, and the water was full of little krill darting towards our lights. It was infuriating! And next thing you know, it was past 65 minutes and we were cold enough that it was time to end the dive.

That was OK though, we still had another night dive the following night. The next day we did a couple of day dives, seeing some fun fish and nudibranchs. Lisa got to spend 15 minutes taking video of Bryan photographing a nudibranch, for use in an instructional video, and you can be sure that she enjoyed every second of it (yeah, right).

When it came time to do our final night dive, we geared up in the parking lot, but noticed that the wind was quite strong. Bryan really, really wanted to do the dive, but the wind had whipped up some waves, and they were crashing against the dive stairs and the shore, periodically throwing up spray. It was not looking good. Bryan went down the stairs in his gear just to test out how bad the waves were, and they were not terrible…but not good. Not bad enough that we 100% couldn’t do the dive, but not good enough to really be comfortable.

Although Bryan desperately wanted one more crack at the pyjama squid, he thought back to something he learned working for Shell – a process safety rule called the rule of three. 

Essentially it said that most major accidents were not caused by one really bad condition, because people could clearly see the bad condition and understand they needed to mitigate it or cancel the job. That was what was called a red light – in this case that would have been if the waves were so high that we could not safely enter or exit the water at this point. The cause of most accidents was multiple yellow lights – conditions that were not on their own terribly unsafe, but which had the potential to escalate and combine to cause an incident. The rule was this: three yellow lights is the same as a red light.

In this case, we had three yellow lights:

  1. Lisa was new to night diving.
  2. The waves were decently high and would most likely escalate during the next 90 minutes (due to the wind – it had been getting progressively stronger all day so far). So we might be able to get in and complete the dive without issue, but getting out could be tricky.
  3. It was dark, and there was no one else at the jetty if we needed help.

So, as much as it hurt Bryan, we played it safe and cancelled the dive. A bit anticlimactic, but the right call to make. So we vowed to return to Edithburgh one day, and spend a whole week doing night dives. And that is on our list for the future!

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