When you think of scuba diving in Queensland, Australia, very rarely do you think of anywhere except the Great Barrier Reef. It is, after all, one of the most impressive natural wonders of our amazing planet. So why should you plan to dive anywhere else?
Because one of the most amazing and diverse displays of marine life can be found right on the doorstep of Queensland’s capital city, Brisbane.
I spent close to three years diving Brisbane’s sites and it was some of the worst, but also by far the best, diving I have ever done. Whilst there are plenty of dive sites inside Moreton Bay, the best diving I found was outside the bay, off the northern tip of North Stradbroke Island.
Straddie, as the locals refer to it, has three main dive sites, of which, two can easily be classified as world class. To get to these dive sites you can either dive with a company located on the island itself, or companies based in Brisbane. If you are diving from Brisbane, expect early starts, coupled with a long boat ride across Moreton Bay and sometimes a rather challenging sandbar crossing. You may be in for the best dives of your life, but I never said they’d be considered ‘easy’.
The most frequented dive site visited by diving companies. Due to its protected location inside the lee of Straddie, it can be dived in most conditions. However, all companies consider it a ‘backup’ dive site when the other two sites are deemed too dangerous to dive. As it is not a marine protected site, boats can drop anchor, which has somewhat depleted what was once a rather stunning reef system. Schools of stunning fish species, bull rays, green, loggerhead and hawksbill turtles, nurse sharks, leopard sharks and shovel nose rays still call this site home though, so no doubt you will enjoy your dive. It has a maximum depth of 18 metres at its northern tip, an average depth of about 12 metres and is usually free of the challenging ocean currents and swells that can make the other sites too dangerous to dive.
Located furthest from the island, and thus is subject to big seas and strong currents. Even on a day where the weather forecast is superb, a 2-3 knot current can still be present to make the boat turn to an alternate site. It is a Green Zone, which means fishing is banned and commercial dive boats must use the mooring lines that are provided. This is great, because it means no boat can drop anchor, but also means that you can only dive the sites that have a permanent mooring line. The two preferred dive sites are located on opposite sides of Flat Rock.
This is an amazing site. The mooring block sits in 27 metres of water on the sand. Here it is not unusual to see schools of barracuda year-round or the passing manta ray or leopard shark resting in the sand during the summer. Head directly towards the rock and you will come across a series of shallow caves, with the bottom of the cave in about 15 metres of water and the top of the cave in about 11m of water. The main cave itself cuts into the reef a few metres and here you have the chance of finding the massive resident loggerhead turtle hanging out. If he isn’t there then a nice big Wobbegong Shark can be occupying the cave. Keep your eyes peeled for schools of white spotted eagle or cow-nose rays, but don’t forget to peek between the cracks of the coral crusted bommies. There you can see the dazzling flash of colour from the dancing Mantis Shrimps!
Opposite Turtle Caves is the go to winter dive site of Shark Alley. Mostly never dived during summer, the two or three commercial dive boats will battle for the main mooring during the colder months. Their divers want to sink beneath the inky depths in search for the grey nurse shark (also known as sand tiger or ragged tooth). Heading south-west from the mooring you will soon find yourself in around 25 metres of water at the mouth of the alley. There are two rocky walls starting at 16 metres from the walls of the alley. The sharks, reaching lengths of around 3 metres, are usually pretty docile, as long as you don’t accidentally make one feel trapped by cornering it between the rocky wall and your buddy. Generally speaking, stay to one side of the alley and allow sharks ample room to pass you by. You won’t need to chase these sharks in order to get a close look or the ‘money shot’. With some patience and good positioning it will only be a matter of minutes before you find yourself face to face with a grey nurse shark. You will find yourself surrounded by anywhere up to forty individuals during the cold months of winter. Well worth the dive in the chilly temp!
It isn’t only the grey nurse that can be found at Shark Alley. From time to time the resident loggerhead turtle from Turtle Caves can be found chewing on the coral growth, as well as schools of eagle rays in their hundreds passing overhead. In extremely lucky cases, you may even come across a curious humpback whale, that make their way from the frigid waters of Antarctica to the warm waters of the Great Barrier Reef to give birth and mate. If you don’t see one, you will undoubtedly enjoy your dive whilst being serenaded by their hauntingly mesmerising songs. Most dive companies will plan two dives at Shark Alley if the conditions allow, so to make the most of your second dive have a chat to your dive company about completing your Enriched Air Nitrox Course, which will extend your no deco time.
Manta Ray Bommie
This site offered off North Straddie is the go to summer dive site, aptly named Manta Ray Bommie for the feeding and cleaning stations that attract the migrating manta rays. It sits almost right off Point Lookout on the island and thus can be subject to big seas and strong currents on the wrong days. However, if you are lucky enough to book on to a good day, you certainly won’t be disappointed. Up to eight mantas have been seen at one time on this shallow dive site. Curious by nature, it is not uncommon for a single manta ray to gracefully sweep by you in big circles again and again, spending your entire sixty minute dive checking you out just as much as you are checking it out. These massive rays are one of the most mesmerising creatures that grace our oceans. Apart from the mantas, leopard sharks and shovel nose rays can be found in great abundance, usually sitting in the sand patches between the bommies.
If you find yourself in Brisbane, it is well worth booking in a dive trip with one of the operators. It will be an early start, potentially long boat rides (if you are departing from the mainland) and maybe some form of swell or current to contend with, but unless you get super unlucky and come across bad weather conditions or zero viz, you certainly won’t be disappointed.
Water temperatures vary from as low as 16-17 degree Celsius in the winter to around 25-26 Celsius in the summer. Dive companies can provide 5mm wetsuits, which will cover you year-round. Brisbane diving is one of the hidden secrets of Queensland Tourism so make sure to include it in your next holiday!