NSW has got some of the best beaches in Australia, but it’s also home to a collection of spectacular dive sites, some famous globally, others waiting to be discovered. From Byron Bay in the State’s north to a tiny World Heritage-listed island 600km off the coast of Sydney, these spots will introduce you to an underwater world quite unlike any other. Where else on the planet could you come face to face with a wobbegong?
This tiny island, a two-hour flight northeast of Sydney, sits in the Tasman Sea, at the crossroads of five major ocean currents, including the warm East Australian Current (yes, the one that Nemo and pals rode in Finding Nemo). This World Heritage-listed islet has abundant marine life (including the rare Ballina angelfish), rare coral and crystal-clear waters—and only 400 visitors are allowed at any one time, meaning you’re unlikely to be diving among a crowd. There are more than 60 world-class sites a short boat-ride from shore.
Just east of Nelson Bay on the North Coast, Fly Point Aquatic Reserve is a tiny aquatic microcosm that offers an incomparable diving experience. A local fishing ban means that the marine life here is super-abundant: expect to encounter everything from sponge gardens and nudibranchs to massive blue grouper, octopus and harmless wobbegong sharks.
A stone’s throw away from the beaches of Byron Bay, Julian Rocks Marine Park has a well-earned reputation as one of the finest fish dives in the world. Warm currents combine with cooler temperate waters, meaning there’s a fascinating mix of tropical and cold-water species—Lonely Planet once described it as a ‘mini Galápagos’. Mingle with grey nurse sharks, hawk’s-bill and green turtles, manta rays and 500 types of fish.
Montague Island is one of the few places in the world where you can dive among fur seals. And if the thought of cavorting underwater with this playful little mammal isn’t enough to tempt you to this rocky outcrop off Narooma on the NSW Far South Coast, then maybe you’ll be convinced by the chance to spot whales and dolphins on the short boat-ride to the site. Oh, and the island’s nature reserve is home to thousands of little penguins and 15 bird species found nowhere else in the world.
Bushrangers Bay Aquatic Reserve is a small, sheltered bay at the eastern tip of Shellharbour, a coastal town about 90 minutes’ drive south of Sydney. Its protected location makes for ideal diving conditions. Look out for the amphitheatre-shaped cliffs whose hundreds of cavities make perfect hidey-holes for tropical fish and sea urchins. The site also boasts weedy sea dragons (a cousin of the seahorse) and kelp-covered reefs.
On the Sapphire Coast, about halfway between Sydney and Melbourne, Merimbula is home to three underwater shipwrecks that make for great diving—the SS Empire Gladstone (at a depth of 10m), Tasman Hauler (30m) and the Henry Bolte (26m). The Empire Gladstone is the only accidental shipwreck (she sunk in 1950); the others were both scuttled in 1988, but all three are equally fascinating to explore.
Located off South West Rocks on the NSW Mid-North Coast, Fish Rock Cave is arguably one of the best cave dives in the country. The cave runs underneath Fish Rock, a small island about 3km offshore, and divers need to negotiate 120m of darkness to get to the naturally lit cavern at the end—known as the ‘aquarium’—an ecosystem that’s home to grey nurse sharks, stingrays, jellyfish and fish as far as the eye can see.
The Jervis Bay Marine Park, about three hours’ drive south of Sydney, is renowned for its sparklingly clear water and features more than 30 dive sites, where you’ll likely see kelp forests, sponge gardens, eastern blue devilfish and the endangered grey nurse shark. Popular spots include The Docks, where divers can explore a double-decker cave, and the hidden sponge gardens, which reside below the swarming schools of fish.
It might be a little under-the-radar but this South Coast town offers some excellent diving sites, where you’re unlikely to have to share the water with anything human. Magic Reef is Ulladulla’s ‘Garden’, with abundant sponges, nudibranchs and tiny sea creatures; North Bommie (just outside the harbour) is populated by large schools of yellowtail, wobbegongs, bull rays and moray eels.
Covering some 71,000 hectares, the Solitary Islands Marine Park is the third-largest marine protected area in New South Wales. The main drawcards of this site, on the Mid North Coast, are the more than 550 species of reef fish, 90 types of hard coral and some 600 mollusc varieties. At the northern end of the park, Anemone Bay has the densest coverage of anemone and anemone fish in the world.