Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - Elbow Cave, North Solitary Island
The North Coast of NSW has some fantastic diving, none of which is better than the hundreds of dive sites on the Solitary Islands. On 15 May 1770, Lieutenant James Cook in HM Bark Endeavour passed a small group of islands off what is now Coffs Harbour and named them the Solitary Islands. Unfortunately the sun was setting as he approached the southern-most islands and he passed by them during the night. A pity as he may have examined them closer and found the delights that today attract divers from all over Australia.
The northern-most of the islands is North Solitary Island. There are a dozen or so dive locations around the island. One of these is the Elbow Cave which is on the western side of the southern section of the island. The site here consists of a reef that basically runs out from the island in a semi-circular direction for about 75 to 100 metres. It has a series gullies that run north-south across the reef top.
The dive boat will tie up to the Elbow Cave mooring. As you descend you will see that you are on the edge of one of the gullies. The Elbow Cave is right under the mooring. It is attached to the rock that forms the Elbow Cave. This cave is really just a small swim-through. It is best accessed from the southern side and you will come out into the gully. The depth on the top is about six metres. The depth in the gully is about 12 metres. Head north along the gully till you come to an open area. This is the main part of the bay on the western side of North Solitary Island and across this deeper section is the Bubble Cave.
|A Spanish dancer found on this dive||Two egg cowries near the Elbow Cave mooring|
In this area you may see some concrete blocks with plaques on them. These were put here by the NSW Marine Parks Authority but this was a poor job. The blocks have moved as they do not appear to have been anchored to the bottom and it appears that no maintenance whatsoever has been done on them as when I last dived here you could not read a single plaque. I scraped four clean before giving up. The plaques are part of an underwater trail, with one bit giving directions to the next and the other giving some information. A good idea poorly executed and not maintained.
All in this area there are tens of thousands of anemones. The anemones are home to more clownfish than you will ever see. There are numerous species, including Clark's anemonefish, red anemonefish, false clown anemonefish, three spot dascyllus, orange anemonefish and more.
Also in this area you will see bits of a fishing trawler that sunk here in about 1988 or 1989. The bits are covered by growth and it is now difficult to tell what is what. From here go south-east till you hit the small wall where the depth rises from 12 or 13 metres to 10 or so metres. Follow this wall to the right and it heads south and then to the west for a little while. As you go, zig-zag back and forward, over the deeper parts and on the wall. You will find some fantastic things like guineafowl moray eels (see the photograph below of the one I found with a cleaner crab in its mouth), many different species of nudibranches and more.
|A clownfish and anemone that can be seen to the north of mooring||A guineafowl moray eel with a cleaner crab inside its mouth|
Head south back to the small wall and follow it to the west and then south. Once you have about 75 bar left, go to the top of the reef and head east. The depth here is about eight metres. There are a few cracks that run north-south here and these can be interesting. After perhaps 30 or 40 metres you will come to a large gully. This is the gully that you swam up when you left the Elbow Cave. The mooring should be easy to see in good visibility. Head south in the gully (about 12 metres deep) and you will see it on your left before you exit the gully onto the deeper sand.
When you get back to the mooring, head east again and within 20 metres you will see the island. You will cross another gully (the Elbow Cave is on a sort of island) and then the reef that slopes to the bottom. You can go over the first bit and you will see yet another gully, right on the edge of the rock that forms the island.
It will now be time to ascend so hang around the top of the reef here at five metres for five minutes. On my dives here I have averaged over 75 minutes and up to 80 minutes. Visibility is normally in the order of 20 to 30 metres, with water temperature ranging from 19°C in late Winter to 25°C in late Summer. Another great dive site.
If you are contemplating a dive trip to northern NSW and want really great diving, you should consider visiting Dive Quest at Mullaway (02 6654 1930). You will get not only excellent diving, but first class and friendly service.