Published in Scuba Diver Asia-Pacific March 2024

by Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

Rock hopping, another term for shore diving, is a very popular activity in southern Australia, but in the north of the country few shore diving sites are available. Queensland in particular has very limited shore diving, however there is one area of the Sunshine State that offers wonderful rock hopping – the Woongarra Coast off Bundaberg.

Known as the ‘Sugar Coast’ Bundaberg is renowned for its sugar cane, which goes into producing its most famous export – rum. This large country town is located adjacent to the coast and is best known among divers as the jump-off point for the always brilliant Lady Elliot Island. However, the town’s best kept secret is the Woongarra Coast, a 30km stretch of rocky coastline from Elliot Heads to Burnett Heads.

This rocky coast line is unique in Queensland and was formed around one million years ago by a volcanic eruption. That volcano is now dormant but still dominates the Bundaberg area, rising 95m above the surrounding plain and is today called The Hummock. This volcanic eruption left the countryside covered in rich soils and igneous rocks, which tumble into the ocean and provide a solid base for the corals to flourish along the coastline.

We first dived the Woongarra Coast twenty years ago and were instantly impressed by the brilliant shore diving, the rich coral gardens and the abundance of marine life. Over the years we have enjoyed many wonderful dives on this coastline, but also discovered some of the limitations of this area which impact on the diving.

While this rocky coast can be dived at any time of the year, it is always best when there has been mild winds and little or no rain for weeks. With two rivers and several creeks draining onto this coast, it only takes a dose of heavy rain to turn the water murky green or even chocolate brown. We generally try to dive this area once or twice a year and have generally enjoyed 6m to 12m visibility when conditions are good, but have also had to abandon diving plans due to poor visibility.


Barolin Rocks

While you can jump in the water anywhere along the Woongarra coastline, there are three established sites that have good entry and exit points and a wealth of marine life. One of our favourite sites is Barolin Rocks at Coral Cove.

This site has a spacious carpark, a toilet block and showers, the perfect setup for great shore diving. From the carpark you follow a trail to a natural rock pool. If the tide is in you can simply slip into the pool and swim out, but at low tide it requires a scramble across the rocks to get in. The exit is just as easy if there is no waves. If there is any swell avoid this spot and try Burkitt’s Reef.

At Barolin Rocks you descend to find yourself instantly surrounded by a surprising amount of lovely corals. Soft corals dominate the bottom here, but pushing up between them are also hard corals, gorgonians, ascidians and sponges – a beautiful tapestry of shapes and colours. The coral covered reef follows the headland, with depths varying from 3m to 6m, but you can also venture out wide to explore patchy coral gardens in depths to 9m.

Reef fish dart between the corals, with a variety of rabbitfish, butterflyfish, grubfish, morwong, goatfish, wrasse, snapper, sweetlips, rockcods, morays, boxfish, pufferfish, bream and hawkfish to be seen. Also look for smaller gobies, damsels, blennies and threefins. However, the most spectacular fish are the Queensland yellowtail angelfish, an endemic species which are always seen in pairs and are a signature fish of the area.

We mainly dive this site with macro lens on our cameras, and look for juvenile fish, crabs, shrimps, sea stars, feather stars and especially nudibranchs. A good variety of nudies are found at this site, including large Spanish dancers. Also look for spindle cowries on the gorgonians, and sea hares and flatworms in the shallows.

Many of the larger boulders form ledges and caves, which are home to crayfish and quite a few ornate wobbegong sharks. While the sandy patches between boulders provided a resting place for large flatheads and numerous Australian bluespotted maskrays. We have also seen larger blotched fantail stingrays, and eastern shovelnose rays half buried in the sand.

Turtles are often encountered, but another marine reptile is a feature of the site – olive sea snakes. Although highly venomous, olive sea snakes are very docile creatures and easily avoided if you fear snakes.

Another creature to keep an eye out for is the resident dugong. We have been lucky to swim side-by-side with this curious mammal several times over the years. Unfortunately, it only visits the site once or twice a year, so an encounter is purely pot-luck.


Hoffman’s Rocks

Also known as Nudibranch Park, Hoffman’s Rocks is a little more exposed to the weather, which can make the entry and exit a little tricky. This site is located at Bargara, which is a popular seaside holiday town with a good variety of accommodation and restaurants.

The rocky reef at Hoffman’s Rocks is very similar to Barolin Rocks, with the same lush coral gardens. But this site also has numerous small bommies beyond the rocky reef that rise a few metres out of the sand and attract a great assortment of marine life. You can reach 12m at this site, but most diving is done in depths between 6m and 9m.

The marine life is very similar to Barolin Rocks, but at times this site has even more nudibranchs. We have even found several unusual nudibranch species here that we have not seen at other sites. The spot is also a good place to see moray eels, wobbegongs, stingrays, pufferfish and scorpionfish.

Hoffman’s Rocks is often washed by a slight current, which tends to bring in pelagic visitors. We have seen turtles, batfish, Queensland gropers and even schools of barracuda and trevally. On one dive we also watched a squadron of six spotted eagle rays gliding around the reef.


Burkitt’s Reef

Burkitt’s Reef is located at Bargara, and surrounds the small headland at the southern end of town. To explore this site the best entry is from the beach boat ramp, unless you want to try to walk across a shallow rocky reef, not recommended. A short swim from the boat ramp takes you to a reef covered in coral in depths from 2m to 8m. If keen, and good on your air, you can swim right around the headland and exit at Kelly’s Beach. But we generally swim back to the boat ramp. Burkitt’s Reef is a good dive site if a swell is making the other sites a little too rough for a safe entry and exit.

The coral gardens at this site abound with tube worms, anemones, sea stars, feather stars, shrimps and crabs. This site also has a good variety of reef fish, and nudibranchs are again common.

Some of our best dives at this site have been beyond the main coral reef, exploring the small bommies and coral patches. As here we have found olive sea snakes, honeycomb morays, ornate crayfish, Australian bluespotted maskrays, eastern shovelnose rays, gropers, ornate wobbegongs, greater bamboo sharks and a few tasselled wobbegongs.

We love the easy shore diving at Bundaberg, and only wish this area was closer to Brisbane, as the four-and-half-hour drive makes a weekend seem far too short. We have had some amazing dives here over the last twenty years and are pleased to know that future generations will enjoy these sites as they are protected as part of the Woongarra Marine Park.


Bundy Boat Diving

Bundaberg has much more than just shore diving as off the coast are a number of brilliant boat diving sites. The most popular of these is the Cochrane Artificial Reef, a great collection of old ships and several planes that rest in 18m. The area also has numerous reefs and a brilliant wreck dive, the MV Karma. From Bundaberg you can also dive HMAS Tobruk and Lady Musgrave Island.

Servicing the Bundaberg area and offering invaluable advice on local shore and boat dives is Bundaberg Aqua Scuba.