Fish Rock – what’s in a name?
By Andy Murch
When it comes to naming things, Australians like to keep it simple. There’s the redback spider, the blue tongued lizard and my personal favorite; the yellow belly black snake. While they may not be the most imaginative monikers, they get the point across.
A twenty minute boat ride from Southwest Rocks (obviously named by an Aussie) there is a craggy pinnacle crawling with marine life that has the most unassuming yet succinct name of all; Fish Rock.
It is indeed a rock covered with fish, but the name Fish Rock really doesn’t do it justice. For starters, it is a very big rock. In fact, its a topographic anomaly that soars one hundred meters or more off the sea floor, terminating in a guano covered outcrop of windswept stone, reminiscent of a drowned snow capped mountain.
The mostly submerged monolith supports a riotous community of invertebrates that act as a living smorgasbord for tens of thousands of resident fish. At the top of the food chain, scores of enormous wobbegong sharks sprawl on every available horizontal surface. While deeper down, grey nurse sharks meander along the shady gullies.
When diving at Fish Rock, it is easy to forget that grey nurse sharks are officially endangered. Occasionally the gutters are completely empty but more often than not, a dozen or more snaggle-toothed sharks can be found levitating in place or slowly milling around like submarines waiting for orders. Sometimes the valleys are jammed with sharks, which leads me to believe that the original estimate of there being less than 500 grey nurse sharks remaining on the east coast, was a little off the mark. Don’t get me wrong, they’re undoubtedly endangered but it wouldn’t surprise me if there are sometimes 100 or more at Fish Rock alone.
Although the sharks appear to be permanent fixtures, the composition of the grey nurse aggregation is constantly changing. It is hard to keep track of individual sharks but occasionally an obvious newcomer will show up. In the summer of 2007 the first recorded albino grey nurse shark put in a brief cameo appearance at Fish Rock. I was lucky enough to be there at the time but the ghostly apparition was very shy and did not stick around long for the paparazzi.
Albinism in sharks is not a new phenomenon but it is rare to see albino sharks reach adulthood because juveniles that contrast strongly with their surroundings make very easy targets.
Along with the grey nurse sharks, there are at least three species of wobbegong sharks living year round at Fish Rock. Spotted wobbegongs grow the largest but banded wobbegongs tend to control the best real estate. The ideal spot for a wobbegong to lay in wait for a meal is an unobstructed flat ledge under an overhang where small fish congregate (ironically seeking protection from large predators). Fish Rock has many such perches and on a good day they’re all occupied by large wobbegongs.
Banded wobbegongs (once known as ornate wobbegongs) are a photographer’s dream. Their hides are covered in an intricate pattern of golden hued blotches, fringed by contrasting broken black lines on a mottled white background. Their complex coloration is designed to help them become one with the reef but against the purple sponge and coral encrusted backdrop of Fish Rock, they stand out in vivid detail.
A few years ago, a shark researcher named Charlie Huveneers started looking more closely at ornate wobbegongs. He noticed that some ornate wobbegongs (which can grow to almost three meters in length) were reaching maturity while still very small. That didn’t make much sense, so the good doctor took a series of measurements and scrutinized the tiniest details of each shark’s ornate patterning.
After months of laborious lab work he was able to confirm that the original ‘ornate wobbegong’ (Orectolobus ornatus) that local shark fishermen had been indiscriminately catching, was actually comprised of two subtly distinct species. Both have since been classified as near threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
He renamed the smaller of the two the ‘dwarf ornate wobbegong’ and in true Aussie fashion, came up with the self explanatory ‘banded wobbegong’ (Orectolobus halei) for its larger cousin. Incidentally, wobbegong is an Australian aboriginal word meaning shaggy beard.
Fish Rock is by no means the only place along the northern New South Wales coastline where you can dive with grey nurse sharks and wobbegongs. What sets it apart is its location. It is a mere two kilometers from the edge of the continental shelf which puts it directly in the path of schools of migrating pelagic fish.
It also has a unique geological feature. There is a rift running through the entire upper section that forms a large cavern wide enough for experienced divers to swim through. To make things interesting, the tunnel leading to the main cave is invariably blocked by resting wobbegongs which divers must squeeze past in order to progress through the cave system.
The deeper of the two entrances is a narrow triangular fissure about two meters wide. To find it, divers must first drop into a shark gutter and muscle their way past beefy grey nurse sharks that often hang motionless in the doorway like bouncers outside a nightclub. Then, depending on the surge, it is either a quick kick or a mad scramble through the first tunnel until they reach the midnight tranquility of the inner chamber.
Claustrophobics beware; the lower tunnel can feel extremely oppressive. Beyond the first bend there is very little ambient light but once artificially illuminated, the walls explode with color and life. Hundreds of crayfish scurry away into deep recesses and dazzling schools of silver-sided bullseyes swim in unison perilously close to the mouths of expectant wobbegongs.
Venturing onwards and upwards, the cave eventually opens back up to the light revealing more grey nurse sharks silhouetted against the entrance.
After diving at many celebrated spots around the planet, I am convinced that a trip through the shark cave at Fish Rock is an experience worthy of every diver’s bucket list.
Few people would disagree that Fish Rock should be off limits to fishing, but it has not yet been designated as a fully fledged marine protected area. Fishermen are no longer allowed to anchor on its coral covered slopes but they are still permitted to motor back and forth, trailing hooks that indiscimanently capture fish and sharks alike.
Hopefully the rule makers will eventually come to appreciate Fish Rock’s importance as a habitat for endangered grey nurse sharks and afford it full protection.
When foul weather or strong swells make Fish Rock undiveable, there are many other sites around Southwest Rocks that are worthy of a quick dip. Green Island (brilliantly concise) is a protected site that has a respectable reef of its own. In fact, it comes complete with all the shark species found at Fish Rock plus a whole slough of shallow water rays and plenty of crevices harbouring tiny blind sharks.
Anywhere else, Green Island would be considered a first rate dive site but next to the magnificence of Fish Rock it is lost in obscurity.
When the seas really kick up, Southwest Rocks has plenty to offer back on land. Picturesque Hathead Lighthouse, a sprawling 19th century colonial prison and a number of long pristine beaches are just a few places to while away a windy afternoon. For more athletic visitors, there is some decent rock climbing right on the sea cliffs and the surfing is as good here as anywhere else along the coast.
But it’s ‘the rock’ that draws people back year after year. Jon Cragg the owner of Fish Rock Dive Centre sums it up nicely. He has dived Fish Rock more than 2000 times. When I asked him where else he likes diving, he shrugged and said “After diving Fish Rock, why would I want to dive anywhere else?” He has a point.