Eighty feet down under

Posted: February 12, 2009 in Uncategorized

Photo courtesy of Ocean Realm Images (I’m the diver in the background)

The short version: over the weekend, I headed up to South West Rocks, about a 4-hour drive, and spent two days diving with my friend Mads and some of her Brisbane friends. And sharks. Lots of sharks. We dove, we froze our asses off, and we ate and drank in sparkling summer weather. It was a hell of a weekend.

The long version:

On my trip to Vanuatu I’d met Madeleine, a fellow solo holiday escapee who’d run away to Hideaway Island for the Christmas break to do some serious lounging and diving. We got along immediately, our mutual enthusiasm for foreign and preferably exotic destinations fueling each other’s imaginations into a laundry list of possible trips. She was also taking her Advanced Open Water course while I was getting my initial certification, and we did a few dives together and fell in with the divers clique on the island, overall living and breathing diving for most of the week. So when Mads pinged me to invite me along with her and some fellow Brisbanites to the central coast for a weekend diving expedition, I naturally jumped on board.

Extricating myself from the city of Sydney by car was the hardest part, somewhat equivalent to extracting yourself from the clutches of a rather amorous octopus who’d discovered diced cuttlefish in your pockets. Traffic snarled, signals taunted me with unnecessarily frequent red lights, and the mounting heat of the impending weekend heatwave beat down mercilessly. Even the Kangaroo Disco seemed irritated by the stop-and-go traffic, an indecipherable red light flaring and flickering on the dash after the first 20 minutes. Once on the highway though, the irritated little light disappeared, and the Roo Disco hit its stride. The fact that it had trouble with lengthy hills, and would shut off the air conditioning under the strain of trying to maintain speed until cresting the summit, just took a bit of patience and dutiful lane changing.

The highway trip itself was uneventful and relatively quick, burning through some 470 kilometers in about five and a half hours. I found the dive shop right where the fairly basic directions indicated, in an unassuming brick building attached to a bait and tackle shop and a mechanic’s garage. The first floor was a combination storefront and rental gear storage, while the upper floor was the dorms and massive common room for weekend packagers like us. I checked in, got the door combination and local bar recommendations from Kevin at the desk, then celebrated my arrival by getting stuck in the bathroom of the empty dorm. While I assessed my situation, Mads called me to notify me that they would be running late, as they’d run into car trouble about an hour north. I told her I was not going anywhere terribly soon. Luckily the door lock was neither complex or very well assembled, and was able to free myself by patiently disassembling part of the lock with my pocket knife and struck out to tour around the small town of South West Rocks and get my bearings, and most certainly a drink.

Neither of these were a lengthy effort, since the town itself was all of a few blocks square, perched a few hundred yards back from the beach, and separated from it by an surprisingly prominently-placed RV park, which of course had the best views in town, and was therefore jam packed. On Kevin’s advice, I eventually found myself at the Riverside Tavern, a very new-looking place set out a bit on its own, just down the road from the boat launch. I ordered a beer, found a good table outside, and sat back, enjoying the quiet. As the sun set over the river, I delightedly discovered a pack of wild kangaroos had descended into the field next to the tavern, grazing absently and hopping comically around the field. One pair of males even launched into combat, presumably over a nearby female, a difficult standoff to take seriously since it at best resembles a drunken slapfight, both parties staggering around the field, straight-arming each other in the face, and looking glassily affronted. Whether by accident or design, to perfectly punctuate my first ever live wild kangaroo sighting in this very Australian setting, “I Come From A Land Down Under” came on the stereo in the background, leaving only a man in khaki shorts with corks dangling from his hat saying, “Crikey!” as the last missing item from this overwhelming stereotype playing out around me.

By this time Mads and her friends had made the final push into town, and introductions were made. As it happened, everyone else was some form of marine biologist; Richard, a slight Englishman with a distinctive accent, was studying pygmy seahorses, and was also a professional photographer, toting with him a camera that looked more like something suited for industrial mining. Jess, a fellow American, was studying something to do with shrimp, which I came to simply refer to as “shrimp and shrimp-related bacteria”. Anne, another fellow American, rounded out the group as a part-time university dive instructor from California and specialist in tide pool ecosystems. As a whole, it appeared that we had a dangerous capacity for spending far too long staring at small, nearly empty pools of water. We managed to scavenge something resembling dinner from the kitchen before the whole town shut down for the night, and we headed back for the dorm and attempted to sleep fitfully in the sweltering rooms.

The following morning was hazy as divers roused themselves in the dorm at the ungodly hour of six AM, and I woke for the second time since I’ve known her to Mads holding a cup of freshly-made coffee for me. This, I knew, would be a lasting friendship. Luckily I had learned a valuable lesson in Vanuatu, which was in hot, tropical climates with an early dive the next morning, your best sleepware is your bathing suit, which meant I had a ten-second bed-to-dive-shop schedule. Picking out my rental gear, we loaded it all onto the boat, piled into the Roo Disco, and followed the boat trailers down to the boat launch. Our departure was only slightly delayed by a guest appearance by the local PD and an ambulance due to a boat flipping in the channel, seemingly showing up for lack of anything better to do, since they all left after briefly milling around. Loading onto the boat, we bounced out past the breakers and motored to Fish Rock, a barren rock island just offshore. As the boat wake kicked up at us on the way up, we realized with dread that the water temperature was dropping the closer we got to the rock. This was confirmed as, one by one, each diver rolled off the boat into the water and immediately screamed, “Holy fuck, it’s cold!”, then verbally abused those still in the boat who were not showing the proper amount of urgency around getting their gear on. A quick glance at my computer showed it to be an absurd 15 degrees Celcius (59 degrees Fahrenheit), which four millimeters of neoprene suddenly seemed woefully outmatched against.

Immediately after entering the water, a second issue for me became strongly apparent: my mask was leaking like it was made of epoxied mosquito netting. Fiddling with it finally created a seal, but for both dives that morning, I had to clear water from my mask about as often as I took a breath. And yet, despite the cold making my head ache sharply and my vision dancing and swimming around my mask full of water, as we dropped down to twenty five meters and a massive school of fish parted around us to reveal the entrance to the cave we were about to swim through, I really didn’t care about any of it. Swimming forward into darkness, our dive lights brought out all the brilliant colors normally lost through the heavy blue filter of the ocean, sweeping across mottled brown Wobbegong sharks, massive red lobsters with an air of perpetual surprise, schools of bright yellow and silver fish, and various wall-dwelling sea creatures in a myriad of colors.

Passing towards the far end of the cave, a spot of flickering light grew larger and brighter, and as we grew closer, it became apparent that the flickering was caused by the shadows of countless gray nurse sharks circling within the pool immediately outside the entrance. Hugging the wall as we exited, our pace slowed significantly as we crawled along the pool teeming with sharks anywhere from four to seven feet long. The sheer number of them in such close proximity was staggering; with visibility no more than thirty feet, at one point I counted over twenty sharks visible at one time. They seemed not quite oblivious to our presence, more absently tolerant, like you would treat the other passengers on a commuter bus. Occasionally one would start heading directly towards you, and each moment it grew closer, all you could do was watch and wait, wondering what exactly it had in mind, until it turned away, sometimes at the last second, to glide past, as if breaking the tedium of swimming in constant circles by playing chicken with a hapless tourist.

After leaving the pool, we caught the current back to the boat and emerged, shivering, to line up in the sun and drink instant soup to warm ourselves in time for a second dive. After our dives were done we motored back to the boat ramp, piled out of the boat, and headed back to the dive shop where we unloaded and cleaned gear, showered, and fought the urge to immediately lie down and pass out. The rest of the day we spent luxuriating at local outdoor cafes, eating large meals and drinking beers and gin and tonics in the shade through the heat of the day and into the twilight of evening. Eventually, now wide awake again, we made our way back to the dorms and spent the remainder of the evening on the floor of our room, haranguing each other over a game of Liar’s Dice, since if there’s one way to solidify new friendships, it’s to spend hours calling each other a dirty liar.

The following day’s dives were an improved repeat of the day before, with warmer water, better equipment (a non-leaking mask and neoprene hoods for everyone), and a better idea of what we wanted to see most. The morning flew by this time, and we begrudgingly returned to the boat after the second dive, spent entirely in the shark pool, and motored back through the surf. Cleaning up once again, we had a final lunch, toasted our weekend success, and finally collected our gear and parted ways for the long drives home. The kilometers ticked away regretfully but easily as the day gradually faded into one of Australia’s famous spectacular sunsets, a thoroughly complete weekend behind me.

  1. muffster says:

    okay, thats just COOL!!!! so glad you had fun and then some!!!!

  2. Anonymous says:

    okay, thats just COOL!!!! so glad you had fun and then some!!!!

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