Ben Stubbs gets close to diverse marine life in Shellharbour, including a denizen of the deep.
The theme from Jaws plays in my head as I shine a torch into a cave concealed by a garden of seaweed and see a flash of tail and the shadow of a dorsal fin. Only metres away is a shark whose slumber I've disturbed, but my dive partner, Mick Harris, isn't worried. He's dived off The Gutter at Shellharbour on the NSW south coast thousands of times and says he's seen it all.
As the shark weaves towards us, I feel as if my wetsuit is filled with quick-set cement. I can't move; the shark latches onto my arm. This is not how I expected my first shark attack to go.
I'm diving with Shellharbour Scuba Centre experts off Bass Point, close to the Bushrangers Bay Aquatic Reserve. Above the water, the coastline is crowded with lines of smokestacks and traffic jams. Harris assures me it is more appealing below the surface.
We pace our jump off as if we are entering a skipping rope; it's all about timing as we splash in and start breathing through our regulators. The Gutter is a three-metre groove off Bass Point's rocks where the current rockets us out to a reef 20 metres below the surface. At 15 degrees, the water seems ice-cream-headache cold despite the five-millimetre suits, booties and hoods.
Schools of yellowtail and a stingray move through the water. We then catch sight of a cuttlefish moving like a pulsing glove. It floats through coral that protrudes like skinny fingers from the rocks. Harris approaches to get a better look. It doesn't like our intrusion, and this odd-looking creature the size of my forearm squirts a trail of dark, claggy ink in our direction to warn us off closer inspection, so we leave and continue on past spongy clumps of coral and curtains of seaweed.
Indonesia, the Solomon Islands and the Philippines rate among Harris's favourite sites, but he says the diverse marine life in these cool-water coves south of Wollongong are always a surprise: sea spiders, turtles and sharks are common sights.
When a blue groper - the golden retriever of the sea - swims to us, Harris pats and scratches its scales. The fish flips in delight. Harris grabs a tiny shellfish from the sand, the peanut of the sea he calls them, and holds it out for the groper. It obliges and nips it from his open palm, then swims around us hoping for more.
Harris's eyes widen and he swims over to a harmless-looking blob of weed. We get closer and out from the branches swims a weedy dragon. It looks like an oversize seahorse and is the size of a football. It bobbles around us gracefully before cantering off on the current. It's not quite a fish and not completely a seahorse, related to the Syngnathidae family and it glows as the sunlight catches its back. We hover above fluorescent nudibranches - hermaphrodite snails of the sea. Less than 15 centimetres long, these curious creatures are said to take on the colour of the food they eat.
The water becomes darker as we descend and I follow Harris's kick towards a collection of purple rocks, spot a frogfish in its cave and, then, the dorsal fin. Harris is calm and doesn't move as the 1½-metre shark approaches.
In the past, my wife has laughingly accused me of "stretching the accordion of truth" but this is shockingly real and I close my eyes as the shark closes in. Yet when "Jaws" takes hold of my arm I'm so stunned I just have to look. The predator is as toothless as granny without her false teeth - and just as friendly - and Harris is laughing, his regulator sending spirals of bubbles towards the surface. Harris knew it was a Port Jackson shark, a species with a small mouth, very short front teeth and flat, broad back teeth perfect for the molluscs and sea urchins it prefers to shivering scuba divers.
With encouragement, the shark dislodges itself from my arm and returns to its cave, we check our oxygen and ride the current back to The Gutter. On land I peel off my gear, searching for bite marks to show to my wife, but in truth I can't find a thing.
Ben Stubbs travelled courtesy of NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and Shellharbour Scuba Centre.
Shellharbour is a 100-kilometre, 90-minute drive south of Sydney via the Southern Freeway. Trains run daily to Oak Flats, with connecting buses to Shellharbour. See 131500.com.au.
Pelicans Rest in Shellharbour village has self-contained units with private entrance, balcony and kitchen facilities, from $110 a night. Phone (02) 4296 4571; see pelicansrest.com.au.
The Shellharbour Scuba Centre hosts dives to Bushrangers Bay Aquatic Reserve and surrounding areas from $80, equipment included. Phone (02) 4296 4266; see shellharbourscuba.com.au.