Beyond the east coast of Australia, grey nurse sharks tour an underwater highway of rocky reefs. A troop of admired operators deliver their clients within arm’s reach. By Justin Gilligan
The classic coastal run along the pacific highway down the eastern coast of Australia is a well-worn path for avid travellers. For some, the trip can only take a few days; for others it can take an entire lifetime. Each year a similar path is forged by grey nurse sharks beneath the sea surface beyond the coast. Hidden from view they travel a complex freeway of rocky reefs, stopping at key locations to take shelter under overhangs, in caves and between steep-walled gutters. Like weary travellers that have spent too much time at the wheel, the sharks stop off at a number of reefs just offshore from several coastal towns.
Divers have known many of these stop-offs for decades. Others remain undiscovered. Throughout the sharks’ main distribution that extends from Rainbow Beach, north of the Sunshine Coast to Narooma in southern New South Wales, passionate dive operators have staked their claim in these quaint coastal towns. Their main business is to transport their customers from the sleepy seaside towns and coastal cities to the local reefs that lie submerged beyond the crescent-shaped beaches lining the coast. These operators share a common thread in that their reefs are not only visited by curious tourists, but also by grey nurse sharks during their migration along the coast.
In recent years hundreds of divers have been drawn into the water through a fascination with this species. Their docile nature overshadows their typical “shark-like” appearance. It is a thrill to turn a corner and be met by the toothy maw of a grey nurse, its beady yellow eye staring you over, before its large bronze body covered in dark spots cruises past with only the slightest movement of the elongated upper lobe of its caudal fin. Combine this encounter with some dramatic topography such as a cave or series of gutters and this really is a fantastic experience.
The ultimate way to get around the coast is by car. It provides the freedom to go where you want when you want, and means that you can stop at several of the best dive locations during your travels. Simply fly into Sydney or Brisbane, hire a car or a camper and the world of the grey nurse shark is your oyster.
Along the way you will be met by picture-perfect beaches partitioned by spectacular headlands with amazing panoramic views and animated lighthouses. The foreshores of these trendy coastal towns comprise café-claimed beachfronts, art galleries, diverse dining experiences and popular nightspots. There are also plenty of places to wind back the clock, slow right down and enjoy making the most out of life on your own time schedule.
The more time you have, the better your grey nurse shark encounters will be. If there has been a significant rain event, the sites may be inundated with brown floodwaters. You won’t be disappointed long though, as conditions will quickly improve. On many occasions, a sharp southerly breeze has saved the trip and delivered a blue pulse of East Australian Current back to the coast to envelop the reefs, making for ideal conditions to observe the sharks and their surrounding environment.
On the really good days, you can be rewarded with some of the most amazing encounters to be had with any marine animal. These slow-moving sharks often gather in large numbers for unforgettable natural encounters, without the use of bait or a cage. If you control your buoyancy, breathe slowly and allow the sharks to come to you, they can approach so close that it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
Unfortunately, we have not always had such an appreciation for this species. Its ferocious appearance led to greys being wrongly accused of shark attacks in Sydney Harbour and off metropolitan beaches in the early 1900s. By the 1950s and 1960s, large numbers had been hunted mercilessly, killed by divers armed with explosive power heads. Their aggregating behaviour and preference for shallow, inshore habitat meant they were easy targets, leading to a major downturn in population.
Dwindling numbers eventually led to legal protection in 1984. In an important step towards conservation, much of the shark’s habitat was protected with the creation of six marine parks along the coast of New South Wales and one on the Queensland coast. Although this is a positive step towards the management of this species, grey nurse sharks continue to be caught indirectly in recreational and commercial fisheries.
What follows is a short overview of key locations for encounters with grey nurse sharks, from north to south, along the east coast.
Four volcanic pinnacles are situated north of Double Island Point, the westernmost two of which break the surface. The sharks can be found throughout the site, although they tend to frequent areas that are exposed to the most current on the day. Sharks can be seen here year round, although summer is the peak season. “Mating takes place here between November and December,” says Kevin Phillips of Wolf Rock Dive. “We have seen professional photographers here drop their camera and run when this happens, so make sure you don’t wear your grey wetsuit and lipstick.” According to him, Wolf Rock offers encounters with the biggest grey nurse sharks on the coast as the pregnant females spend time here gestating. “It’s the mother’s waiting room. We’ve had 50 sharks stacked up here in the current, one on top of the other – it’s an awesome sight!”
A pair of small islands breaks the surface off the coast of Cape Byron – the most easterly point on the Australian mainland. Julian Rocks is surrounded by rocky reef that comprises walls, gutters and overhangs. The sharks occur here between June and November and tend to frequent areas exposed to current on the northern section of the island. “The numbers of sharks that visit us are increasing every year,” says Caroline Price of Sundive Byron Bay. “During the height of the last winter we had around 40 grey nurses here – it is such a fantastic place to view and photograph the sharks.” The positioning of Julian Rocks means that it is influenced by a mix of tropical and temperate currents. “This area is very well known and photographers are drawn back each year by the grey nurse encounters and also the turtles, manta rays, wobbegongs, leopard sharks, whales and pelagic fish,” she enthuses.
A series of rocky islands and reefs cover around 75 kilometres of coastline. The grey nurse sharks can be found throughout Coffs Harbour, although the most consistent locations to see the sharks are on South, Northwest, North Solitary Islands, and Pimpernel Rock. The sharks predominantly occur here between May and November.
Manta Arch on South Solitary Island is one of best locations to see the sharks. Situated in 25 metres of water, the site is made up of a series of gutters and a large overhead arch. “Between May and July, it’s possible for us to have 40-50 sharks in an area the size of two basketball courts,” says Mike Davey of Jetty Dive. “By staying on one side of the gutter and keeping low, we often get sharks approach within 2 feet.” A highlight for Mike occurred when he and staff from the local Marine Park Authority removed rope caught on the tail of three sharks. “We put the video on Facebook and it went viral. It was a great feeling to know we had saved these animals’ lives.”