Daniel Scott surveys the state's underwater destinations.
Learning to dive is the best skill I've acquired in adulthood. My dive card has been a passport to another world and since qualifying I've had extraordinary underwater experiences in locations including French Polynesia and the Philippines.
Diving in NSW, with the exception of Lord Howe Island, may not have the lustre of overseas destinations or the Great Barrier Reef but is nonetheless varied and occasionally spectacular. From wrecks such as the HMAS Adelaide off Terrigal to gaping underwater caverns at Seal Rocks on the mid-north coast, where rare grey nurse sharks gather, there's much to explore.
The state's top sites, such as Jervis Bay in the south and Port Stephens to the north, lend themselves to a weekend of diving. For those not yet qualified, dive shops in Sydney and along the coast offer entry-level open-water courses.
Merimbula and Eden
Known as the Sapphire Coast, part of the deep south's appeal is water clarity. Off Eden, the Tasman Hauler wreck is the most notable dive. Scuttled in 1987 and standing upright in the sand at 29 metres, the tug is a thrilling introduction to wreck diving.
Further north, Merimbula Wharf is considered one of the best shore dives in NSW, according to Mike Standen, of Merimbula's Divers Lodge. "It's easy to get in and easy to get out and drops gradually to 15 metres," Standen says.
Merimbula Divers Lodge, Park Street, Merimbula. Double boat dives cost $219 including gear. Next open-water course begins on February 3 and costs $440 with prior online learning. Accommodation onsite from $29 a person a night. Phone 1800 651861; see merimbuladiverslodge.com.au.
Batemans Bay, Narooma and Montague Island
Canberra-based Indepth Scuba runs weekend dives from Batemans Bay and Narooma and visits Montague Island Nature Reserve, where the marine life includes Australian fur seals and grey nurse sharks.
Indepth Scuba has double boat dives with gear for $150. Next open-water course starts on February 6, costs $535. Accommodation costs $38 a night at the Batemans Bay dive lodge. Phone 6251 2011, see indepthscuba.com.au.
Narooma Charters has double boat dives for $99 without gear. Phone 0407 909 111, see naroomacharters.com.au/diving.htm.
About 227 kilometres south of Sydney, Ulladulla has a variety of shore and boat dives, as well as a little-known site at Brush Island, 20 kilometres south, off Bawley Point.
"The pick of the Ulladulla dives is Lighthouse Wall, where you can drift along a sheer 100-metre-long wall covered in gorgonian fans and sea tulips," says Karen Williams of Ulladulla Dive. On the sandy bottom are numb rays and shovel nose sharks.
Ulladulla Dive has double boat dives for $170 with gear. Next open-water course starts on February 4, costs $390 with prior online learning. Phone 4455 3029; see ulladulladive.com.au.
Beautiful Jervis has more than 30 sites. "There is so much variety here," says Bill Mountford of Dive Jervis Bay. "There are reefs, drop-offs and gutters to explore and between May and October we can dive with the seals at the Drum and Drumsticks site." A popular site is the Docks, with its double-decker cave and sponge gardens.
Dive Jervis Bay at Huskisson has half-day boat dives from $170 including gear. Next open-water course from February 4 costs $445 with prior online learning. Phone 4441 5255; see divejervisbay.com.
At Shellharbour, south of central Wollongong, there is the intriguing possibility of diving using an underwater scooter, enabling you to cover about four kilometres in a single dive and visit Spider Rock, where three types of underwater arachnid are spotted.
Shellharbour Scuba, 41 Addison Street. Scooter hire costs $50 a dive, gear $80, tank refills $8. Next open-water course starts on March 3, costs $395. Phone 4296 4266; see shellharbourscuba.com.au.
From diving in Botany Bay to exploring the wreck of the Valiant off Palm Beach, Sydney has diverse sites. Iconic spots such as the Gap, which has caves and boulders, Camp Cove in the harbour and North Head's Old Man's Shoulder are among the city's best sites.
Dive shops include Pro Dive in Cronulla (9544 2200, prodivecronulla.com; open-water courses from $390); Dive Centre Bondi (9369 3855, divebondi.com.au; open-water courses from $425, double guided shore dives $55 plus equipment); and Pro Dive Manly (9977 5966, prodivesydney.com, double boat dives from $139 with tanks and weights).
The HMAS Adelaide was scuttled off Terrigal last April and it's already a popular site. More wrecks, reefs and caves are nearby. "Skillion Cave is a fantastic site," says Terrigal Dive Centre's Scott Deal, "with colourful ascidian sponges and coral."
Terrigal Dive Centre, at Terrigal Haven, has double boat dives for $188 including gear. Regular combined open-water and specialty boat dive courses cost $560. Phone 4384 1219; see terrigaldive.com.au. Also on the Central Coast is Charmhaven-based Scuba Shack (scubashack.com.au) and Pro Dive (prodivecentralcoast.com.au).
Nelson Bay and Port Stephens
About 230 kilometres north of Sydney, Port Stephens has two of the east coast's best shore dives, at Halifax (to a depth of 29 metres) and Fly Point (three to 24 metres). At Halifax you might encounter moray eels and pineapple fish as well as amiable blue gropers. Shoal Bay is great for shallow training dives and Port Stephens's huge natural harbour is one of the state's best places to learn to dive.
Further offshore and definitely worth the 12-kilometre boat ride is the Broughton Islands group, where the most popular site
is a 50-metre channel running through the Looking Glass.
Let's Go Adventures Nelson Bay has single guided shore dives, including gear, for $95. Double Broughton Island boat dives cost $150, including tanks. The next open-water course starts on February 4 and costs from $375. Five-time national record holder Alana Caskey-Wells also runs regular free-diving courses. Phone 4981 4331; see letsgoadventures.com.au. Also in Nelson Bay is Feet First Dive (4984 2092, feetfirstdive.com.au); Newcastle Dive Centre (4969 6310, newcastledive.com.au); Swansea-based Aqua Zero (4972 0266, aquazero.com.au) and Charlestown Diving Academy (4942 1412, charlestowndive.com.au).
Seal Rocks and Forster-Tuncurry
"Diving at Seal Rocks is like visiting 'the land that time forgot'," says John Duggan of Tuncurry's Action Divers. "Everything's so big - the boulders, pelagics and the aggregations of between 30 and 100 grey nurse sharks." Closer to Forster is the Pinnacles, an impressive deeper dive where large schools of kingfish and more grey nurses gather.
Action Divers at Tuncurry runs double boat dives at Seal Rocks for $170 including gear, and dives at Forster for $160. Open-water courses can be booked for a minimum of two people for $420. Phone 6555 4053; see actiondivers.com.au. Also running trips to Seal Rocks are Dive Forster (6554 7478; diveforster.com.au) and Forster Dive Centre (6555 4477, forsterdivecentre.com.au).
South West Rocks
"Fish Rock Cave is what most people come to South West Rocks to dive," says Jon Cragg of FishRock Dive Centre. "It's one of the southern hemisphere's longest ocean caverns at 125 metres and is a superb dive. Our first boat dive is normally around the shark gutters, where we see lots of grey nurses and then ... through the cave."
FishRock Dive Centre at South West Rocks has double boat dives including gear for $175. Open-water courses cost $450. Phone 6566 6614, see fishrock.com.au. South West Rocks Dive Centre also organises dives and courses and has on-site accommodation. Phone 6566 6474, see southwestrocksdive.com.au.
The Solitary Islands Marine Reserve extends for 75 kilometres offshore near Coffs Harbour and is home to more than 550 species of reef fish. There's wonderful visibility and the mix of warm and cold ocean currents means both temperate and tropical marine life, especially around South Solitary Island, are spotted.
Jetty Dive at Coffs Harbour has double boat dives for $160 including gear. Open-water courses can be booked, four people minimum, for $495. Phone 6651 1611; see jettydive.com.au. Other Coffs coast operators are Dive Quest at Mullaway (6654 1930, divequest.com.au) and Banana Coast Divers (6652 9488, bananacoastdivers.com.au).
The Julian Rocks Marine Reserve, 2.5 kilometres off Byron, is regarded as one Australia's top sites, with manta rays, turtles and dozy leopard sharks regularly spotted. There are several sites around the rocks, including the Cod Hole, which Sydney scuba-diving veteran Michael McFadyen calls "a great dive, one of the best you will do in NSW".
Byron Bay Dive Centre has double boat dives for $180 with gear. Next open-water course starts on January 30 and costs $495. A room at Planula B&B (planula.com.au) costs $165, twin-share. Phone 1800 243 483; see byronbaydivecentre.com.au. Sundive (1800 008 755, sundive.com.au) also runs double boat dives for $180 and open-water courses from $495.
Diving Lord Howe Island
About 600 kilometres off the coast and fringed by the world's most southerly coral reefs, Lord Howe Island has more than 60 top-class dive sites ranging from easy off-the-beach dives inside the lagoon, to exploring the outer reef, to the more challenging Ball's Pyramid site, a huge sea stack 20 kilometres offshore where marlin are occasionally sighted.
Regarded as one of the Pacific's most beautiful islands, Lord Howe's underwater topography is equally beguiling, with volcanic dropoffs, caves and multicoloured reefs. Marine life includes rare and endemic species such as double-headed wrasse, Spanish dancers and Galapagos whaler sharks. Warm, clear waters make Lord Howe, a World Heritage site, the complete package for divers.
The island has two dive shops. Both ProDive (phone 6563 2253; see prodivelordhoweisland.com.au) and Howea Divers (6563 2290; see howeadivers.com.au) offer double boat dives for $180, including gear hire, and open-water courses for $500. Prodive has 12-dive packages for $750. QantasLink flies from Sydney to Lord Howe Island and a seasonal weekly service to the island is available from Port Macquarie from February to June and September to December. See lordhoweisland.info for flight and accommodation details.