THE BEST ARTIFICIAL REEFS OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA
Western Australia is
endowed with some of the finest diving in Australia. From Esperance in the south
to the remote Rowley Shoals in the north, there are many wonderful dive sites
and marine animals to encounter in the west.
We recently spent three weeks diving along the Western Australia coast and found one of the highlights of diving in the state were the magnificent artificial reefs, the best of these being the destroyers and piers – HMAS Perth, Busselton Jetty, HMAS Swan and Exmouth’s Navy Pier.
Albany, located 400km south of Perth, is the oldest settlement in Western Australia. Situated on the picturesque natural harbour of King George Sound, Albany was once the main port in Western Australia for almost a century. The town is still one of the prettiest in the state and is surrounded by spectacular granite hills, which dominate the countryside and coastline.
For divers, Albany offers many magical dive sites on rocky reefs, shipwrecks and artificial reefs. Albany’s number one dive site was created on the 24 November 2001, when the HMAS Perth was scuttled in 35m of water in King George Sound.
The Guided Missile Destroyer HMAS Perth was constructed in the USA in 1962. The ship is 133m long, 14.3m wide and displaced 4900 tonnes. After a career of 34 years with the Royal Australian Navy, the HMAS Perth was decommissioned in 1999 and prepared for her future as a dive site and artificial reef.
We were fortunate enough to do four dives on the HMAS Perth with Albany Dive.com, a very professional local dive operation that run daily boat dives to the best sites off Albany. It is only a twenty minute run to the HMAS Perth on Albany Dive.com’s comfortable 8.7m sharkcat.
The HMAS Perth is a brilliant dive, the ship has a maze of endless rooms and passageways to explore. Fortunately, plenty of access holes have been cut into her sides to ensure that divers don’t get lost and can nearly always see daylight. On our dives we explored the funnels, radar dish, the bridge, computer room, bathrooms, living quarters, mast and the stern gun turret. However, as much fun as it was exploring the ship, we were more amazed at the sessile life and marine life that thrives on the old warship.
The interior of the ship has become encrusted with sponges and algae, and is a good place to see shrimps, crabs and cuttlefish. We found one huge cuttlefish residing in the funnel, perfectly camouflaged amongst the sponges. The exterior of the HMAS Perth is completely covered in sponges, ascidians, bryozoans, anemones, algae, hard corals and soft corals. The colours on the ship are just dazzling and make for great photos. The prettiest sessile life would have to be the pink jewel anemones. These delicate anemones are found in small colonies clinging to the handrails.
Living on the sponge gardens that decorate the ship are many animals, including crabs, nudibranchs, flatworms, sea stars and false Tasmanian blennies. These fish are real characters, with their permanently fixed grins and are found on the mast structure with their heads protruding from the hollow ends of handrails.
A healthy population of reef fish reside on the HMAS Perth, commonly seen are species of wrasse, morwong, leatherjackets, boxfish, pufferfish, scaly fin, sweep, bullseyes, sea perch and scorpionfish. Schools of yellowtail engulf the mast and funnels, while hunting them are often trevally and samsonfish. When diving the HMAS Perth keep an eye out for Australian sea lions. They love to buzz around divers and will sometimes keep you company during your entire dive.
Visibility on the HMAS Perth varies from 10m to 30m, averaging around 15m. Albany is located in the Southern Ocean, however the water temperature is a lot warm than you might expect, varying from 15C to 21C. This is due to the Leeuwin Current, a warm stream of water that flows down the Western Australian coast and wraps around into the Great Australian Bight. The current allows corals and even tropical species to survive year round off Albany.
JETTY – BUSSELTON
The longest timber jetty in the southern hemisphere, at 1841m in length, the Busselton Jetty is an impressive sight stretching into the calm waters of Geographic Bay. Work commenced on the jetty in 1865, and over the years it was enlarged and repaired many times. Today the Busselton Jetty is a stunning artificial reef and one of the best dive sites in Australia.
While it is possible to dive any section of the Busselton Jetty from the shore, we joined local dive operation The Dive Shed for several fantastic boat dives at the very end of the jetty.
The end section of the Busselton Jetty sits in only 9m of water and is surrounded by swaying sea grass beds, a habitat for sea dragons if you have the time to search. The jetty pylons are a kaleidoscope of colour, the shade provided by the boardwalk above allowing a thick growth of sponges, ascidians, hard corals, anemones, algae, bryozoans and soft corals to thrive. The most beautiful and abundant are the orange telesto corals, their long fingers sprout out in every direction and are covered with delicate white polyps.
Hidden amongst the sessile life we found flatworms, crabs, shrimps, sea cucumbers, sea stars, feather stars, molluscs, hula fish, boxfish, gobies, blennies, juvenile globefish and lots of nudibranchs. The most common nudibranch under the jetty is the short tailed nudibranch, which is bright orange and seen in their dozens.
Moving from pylon to pylon the fish life under the jetty is astounding. Schools of yellowtail, bullseyes, old wives and trevally swarm around the pylons. Reef fish are everywhere, especially dusky morwong, moonlighters, western talma, white barred boxfish, sergeant bakers, black banded sea perch, western foxfish, john dory, crested morwong and many species of wrasse, leatherjackets, goatfish and cardinalfish.
Also under the jetty divers are likely to encounter Port Jackson sharks, giant cuttlefish, squid, stingarees, numbrays, wobbegongs and even the odd fur seal or sea lion.
The Busselton Jetty is a photographers dream dive, you don’t have to move far to encounter a diverse range of subjects for either wide angle or macro. Visibility under the jetty averages 15m, but it can be over 30m at times.
There are many other wonderful dive sites off Busselton, which is located 230km south of Perth, however the other famous dive site in the area is another artificial reef, the HMAS Swan.
The HMAS Swan was a River Class Destroyer Escort, built in the Naval Dockyards at Williamston, Victoria and launched in January 1967. The ship was decommissioned in 1996 and was the first warship scuttled for divers in Australia when she was sunk in Geographic Bay in December 1997.
The 113m long warship now rests in 30m of water and is an oasis for marine life. We dived the HMAS Swan with The Dive Shed and were amazed by the marine life and sessile life covering the vessel.
After being underwater for almost a decade the ships hull is encrusted with sponges, ascidians, gorgonians, anemones, hard coral and soft corals. The ship is one of the most colourful we have ever dived, even more so than many of the World War II wrecks of the South Pacific.
The HMAS Swan is a lot of fun to explore and has a completely different layout to the larger HMAS Perth. Dominating the ship is the huge mast structure, which is usually surrounded by trevally, yellowtail and batfish.
Access holes cut along the side of ship allow almost unlimited exploration of the vessel, unfortunately the engine and boiler rooms are sealed. There is the operation room with a radar station still in place, endless passageway, bathrooms, the galley, the magazine and the most popular stop for photos is the bridge and captain’s chair. Visibility on the ship averages 15m, but can be 30m, allowing you to see much of the structure as you swim along the hull.
Fully protected as a marine sanctuary, the fish life on the HMAS Swan is very impressive. On a typical dive you will encounter western blue gropers, moonlighters, morwong, leatherjackets, wrasse, western foxfish, boxfish, old wives, samsonfish, dhufish, sweep and silver drummer. Hidden inside the ship are radiant western blue devils, while under the stern are flatheads and wobbegong sharks.
The best time to dive both the HMAS Swan and Busselton Jetty is from October to May. The water temperature varies from 15C to 22C, but avoid the winter months as cold dirty water gets pushed into Geographic Bay.
PIER – EXMOUTH
Exmouth is the gateway to the fabulous Ningaloo Reef. Hundreds of wonderful dive sites are located along this fringing reef, which is packed with marine life and renowned for its whale sharks. However, Exmouth’s most famous dive site is an artificial reef, the Navy Pier.
The Navy Pier is located at Point Murat, at the very top of the North West Cape. Built in the 1960s by the US military, the pier was constructed to provide supplies to the nearby ‘top secret’ Harold E Holt Naval Communication Station. For decades the pier was off limits to the general public, and still is, but fortunately the Exmouth Diving Centre have special permission to take divers to explore under the pier.
The Navy Pier is done as a shore dive, with the Exmouth Diving Centre taking divers daily to the site in their mini-bus. The pier is nothing special to look at, around 200m long with a T section at the end. However, as soon as you look into the water and see schools of trevally and batfish teeming on the surface you know you are in for a unique experience. The Navy Pier is only dived at high or low tide, as the tidal flow in the Exmouth Gulf can be very strong. But it is because of these strong currents and the shade provided by the pier that such a wealth of marine life gathers.
The pier sits in 13m of water and the bottom is basically sand with a small section of limestone reef exposed. The steel pylons are lightly covered with hard coral, hydroids, anemones and soft corals, but these are generally ignored by divers who are more interested in the impressive collection of fish and other marine life.
On a typical dive at the Navy Pier you will see more fish species, in large numbers, than you could possibly imagine. Angelfish, cardinalfish, wrasse, butterflyfish, squirrelfish, lionfish, scorpionfish, parrotfish, boxfish, stingrays, sweetlip, toadfish, tuskfish, damselfish, surgeonfish, gobies, blennies, rabbitfish and rock cods are just a few of the families represented.
Schools of big eye trevally, batfish, barracuda, many lined sweetlip and stripey snapper swarm around the pylons. Huge Queensland gropers and estuary gropers rest on the bottom or on cross beams. Tasselled wobbegongs laze on the sand next to white tip reef sharks. Eagle rays soar between the pylons, while sea snakes forage on the bottom. You may also see the odd turtle or dolphin.
Invertebrate species are easily overlooked at the Navy Pier. We found sea stars, feather stars, flatworms, crabs, shrimps, octopus and a large number of nudibranchs.
Being a ‘muck’ dive it is the unusual species that really made the Navy Pier such a special dive site for us. Rare northern wobbegongs can be found hidden under boulders, while sail-fin catfish snake across the bottom. Peering out of ledges are the cute faces of northern frogfish, and you may also see anglerfish, crocodilefish, ghost pipefish and leaf scorpionfish.
We were fortunate to find two bizarre looking fish resting on the bottom. Very colourful and with small weedy growths on them, we at first thought they were cockatoo waspfish. Later, Rudie Kuiter, one of Australia’s leading fish experts, identified them as bearded velvetfish, and our photos were the first ever taken of the species alive!
Fishing is not permitted at the Navy Pier, protecting the unique collection of marine life found here. Visibility at the pier averages 12m, while the water temperature varies from 20C to 28C.
Western Australia has many other wonderful artificial reefs and are constantly creating more. In the last few years two large fishing trawlers, captured when fishing illegally in Australian waters have been scuttled, the 55m long Lena off Bunbury in 2003 and the South Tomi off Geraldton in 2004. Off Rockingham they are creating a Dive Park, a collection of scuttled ships for divers to explore. The first ship placed in the Dive Park was the 37m long Saxon Ranger in 2005.
With the Western Australian State Government leading the way in the creation of artificial reefs in Australia, divers will have many more wonderful dive sites to explore in the coming years off the west coast.
Article appeared in Sportdiving
No.120 Feb/Mar 2007
The Dive Shed
Exmouth Diving Centre