Open invitation to go below deck

A scuttled navy warship on the central coast has become a thrilling scuba site. Michelle Wranik heads for a cabin.

Silent, abandoned and unearthly, a shipwreck can be a "holy grail" of underwater exploration. Legendary ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau has spoken of feeling "enraptured" when exploring a sunken ship. "The mixture of life and death is mysterious, even religious," he is quoted as saying as far back as 1960. "There is the same sense of peace and mood that you feel on entering a cathedral."

Although it doesn't have the history of a World War II warship, the former Australian navy frigate HMAS Adelaide was in service for several decades - in the Middle East; on peacekeeping operations in East Timor; and sent to the aid of solo round-the-world yachtsmen Tony Bullimore and Thierry Dubois.

The vessel was scuttled on April 13 last year, creating a thrilling scuba site off Avoca-Terrigal on the NSW central coast. It didn't sink quietly: a "No Ship Action Group" led by local residents campaigned against the move, concerned the ship would pollute the ocean with heavy metal and debris.

But there is no denying the wreck has boosted aquatic life and undergone a "remarkable transformation", secretary of the Central Coast Artificial Reef Project, Sue Dengate, says. The Adelaide is now an artificial reef teeming with life.

Central Coast Tourism permits 60 divers a day to access the Adelaide and the site attracts enthusiasts from around Australia and abroad. A permit costs $18 a person. On the morning I dive the site with Pro-Dive Central Coast, one of two operators with access rights, I'm among a group of nine welcomed aboard a rigid-hull inflatable called the Snappy Tom.

The director of Pro-Dive, Bob Diaz, says there are dozens of ways to explore Adelaide's four lower levels and three upper decks. Much of the equipment was removed before scuttling but intriguing relics remain, including the ship's torpedo storage racks.

On the bridge is the captain's chair and a telephone handset still attached by a cord to its receiver. "If you want to make any complaints, best use that phone," Diaz quips.

His booming laugh and relaxed manner put our group at ease, although wreck diving, with its maze-like disorientation and tight spaces, isn't for the faint-hearted. Divers must be certified with at least six dives before applying for a permit and even advanced divers might find the experience unnerving. "I'm expecting a skeleton to fall out when I open a door," one diver in our group laughs. My dive buddy and I take Diaz's advice, play it safe and decide to stick to the ship's exterior and upper decks on our first dive.

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The ship is submerged at 32 metres, bow to sea, and with visibility about 10 metres, is instantly recognisable. Yet nothing prepares me for its sheer size. At 138.1 metres by 15 metres wide, it's an otherworldly structure shrouded with molluscs, barnacles and seaweed. We swim towards the bow, stretching our arms in exaggerated Titanic film-style poses before floating on the starboard side to explore the bridge and mast.

When we return to shore for a break, the group shares observations, marvelling at the transformation below. On our second dive, my buddy and I muster the courage to penetrate a lower level, swim along darkened passageways, push open doors, enter a portside cabin - and catch a trio of arm-size kingfish by surprise.

We hover above the ship's helicopter hangar and bob past gun turrets teeming with fish until nature turns and a sunny 26 degrees with calm seas becomes a southerly that chops up the ocean. "I'd be getting in quite quickly if I were you," Diaz shouts. But beneath the surface, the former HMAS Adelaide is as serene as ever.

Michelle Wranik dived courtesy of Central Coast Tourism and Pro-Dive.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Avoca Beach is a 90-kilometre, 90-minute drive north of Sydney on the F3 Freeway via Gosford. Trains run daily to Gosford; buses run from Gosford to Terrigal and North Avoca, and from Gosford to Avoca Beach. See cityrail.info; 131500.com.au.

Diving there

The former HMAS Adelaide site is open every day. A diving permit costs $18 a person. Moorings are offered in two-hour timeslots, from $80 for casual commercial operators and $60 for club and private bookings.

Pro-Dive on Wyong Road in nearby Killarney Vale has a boat departing daily at 8am and 9.30am to the Adelaide dive site. Single dives $60/120 (with and without gear); double dives $110/$180, plus permit fee. Divers must have open-water certification with at least six dives' experience, including two in the past six months. Phone 0243 893 483; see prodivecentralcoast.com.au.

More information

See hmasadelaide.com; divetheadelaide.com.au.

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