Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - Byron Bay
Next time I visit Byron Bay, make sure I take the following items so I can blend in with the "locals":
I am only joking, but Byron Bay is really a different spot. I first visited Byron Bay in either late December 1974 or January 1975 when I drove my cousins (and my sister) down from their farm at Nimbin to the beach at Wategos. I first visited Byron for diving in 1989 (twice) and even then in 1998. Back in 1989 the backpackers had not taken over the place but the alternate lifestylers were very much in evidence.
My next visit was in May 2008. Nowadays, the town is even more turned over to backpackers. This is not a bad thing, as some of the females we saw (in 1998 - I cannot look now as I am married!) were absolutely stunning (and therefore led to point 6 above). The proliferation of backpacker hostels and hotels is amazing, there seem to be hundreds of them.
Anyway, back a step for the moment. For Sydney divers (and of course anyone else not from the Far North Coast of NSW or the Brisbane to Tweed Heads area), it is a long way to Byron Bay. From Sydney it is about 700 kilometres and the trip takes at least 10 to 11 hours, depending on traffic and stops. In 1998 I left Sydney at 7.30am on a Saturday morning (of a long weekend) and we arrived at Byron at about 7.00pm. The actual trip took about 10 hours and we had a lunch break of about 45 minutes and we spent another 45 minutes waiting for some friends to catch up to us (they left Sydney later than planned).
Therefore, not many Sydney divers tend to go to Byron Bay. This is a pity as the diving is very good as you will read later in some articles I have written. In 1998 we were spending two nights at Byron Bay before moving back down the coast to Wooli and then onto Coffs Harbour. This is the only way we can get to dive these locations due to their distance from Sydney. More about those places in the linked articles.
On my trip there in June 1998, I stayed at a backpackers hostel, the Holiday Village, which was extremely well run. We booked a unit which consisted of two large bedrooms, each with four bunks, a kitchen/lounge, bathroom and laundry. For this we paid $15 a head per night. It was only a few minutes walk into the centre of town and right next to the Woolworths supermarket and a bottle shop. As well, there was a pool, barbecue, common eating area and kitchen (mainly for those in the small non-self contained rooms). In addition, the RSL was a short walk down the road and this had good food at a cheap price. I am not sure that this is now a backpackers.
An alternative that I have not yet tried is Tim and Wandy's Bed and Breakfast called Planula, located just out of town. Tim and Wandy were in the Sydney University Scuba Club and very nice people. Have a look at their Planula Web Site.
In May 2008 Kelly and I went to Byron Bay for our First Anniversary. We had picked up cheap Virgin Blue flights for $49 each way, a total of $204 with credit card charges. It would cost more than that for the fuel for my car! We stayed at Break Free Eco Beach Resort which is neither on the beach nor a resort. We had thought about Planula but as it is out of town a bit, we wanted to be able to walk to dinner and have a few drinks without worries. The "resort" was comfortable, but no better than a 3 star hotel and probably overpriced at $438 for three nights ($146 a night). Probably more like $80 a night worth, but everything is overpriced at Byron.
In 1998 we dived with Bayside Scuba but this shop is no longer there. In 2008 we dived with Byron Bay Dive Centre which is the original dive operator, but in name only. Since I first dived with it in 1989 it has changed hands numerous times and went from being one of the best in NSW to a mear shadow of itself. However, it appears now to be the major operator in town. The other shop is Sundive.
Byron Bay Dive Centre has plenty of parking out back or on the street in front of the shop. The diving at Byron Bay is a bit different to most other dive operations in Australia. Most of the divers who visit Byron Bay are backpackers. They either learn to dive at Byron Bay, do a resort course there or arrive from Cairns where they have just done their course. Therefore, some of the attitudes (is this the right word?) of the local operators towards divers is a bit condescending for experienced divers. It has been this way since the mid-1990s.
However, in 1998 as soon as they learnt the experience of our group (eg, our group had an average experience level of about 1,000 dives each), they let us alone. On most dives the operators seem to insist on a dive master leading you but when you find that their total experience is less than the number of dives you have done already that year, it is a bit pointless. In 2008 we were forced to dive with a dive master who had no idea about how to lead a dive and went in circles, presumably because he either could not navigate or he had no idea of the dive site.
Finally, on the last day we were allowed to dive by ourselves. Guess having done almost 2,700 dives sometimes does help.
The dive boats used at Byron Bay are all ridged inflatables. When the seas are calm, they are excellent, but once you get a bit of chop, the trip can be very wet and quite rough. Luckily, the weather is generally warm and the sea does not get too cold. I would not want to have to use a similar boat further south than here as it would be quite uncomfortable in winter.
The boats launch from the beach at Cape Byron. This spot, The Pass, is a popular area for body surfing and surfers (the waves are normally not too big from what I have seen on my six trips to Byron Bay). After gearing up at the shop, loading everything aboard, you travel to the launching area in the back of the LandCruiser troop carrier. The 'Cruiser then backs the boat trailer into the water, almost submerging the vehicle, before dumping the boat into the small surf. This is where the thing gets comical. Cape Byron State Recreation Area or whatever it is called now (formerly CB Trust), used to have a full time Boat Safety Officer (BSO) who did nothing but the following:
There are a few problems with this. First, you would have to be blind not to see the boat about to be launched. Secondly, the loud hailer warning cannot be heard over the noise of the surf. Thirdly, the toy horn also cannot be heard over the noise of the surf. On the return trip, the crew had to radio the BSO who does the above again and the crew once again blasted on their toy horn. A far better method would be to limit the operation of the boats to one area and the water users to another, designated by flags (a bit like normal surf beaches). If it wasn't for the fact that we, as taxpayers, were paying for this person, it would be a real big joke. As it is, it used to liven up the launching process and give a few laughs. In 2008, there was not BSO but virtually the same things occur.
Anyway, once launched, it is only a few minutes out to the most popular dive site, Julian Rocks. For reports on some of the dive sites, go back to the Byron Dive Site links.
Anyway, while you are in Byron Bay, you may as well visit the Railway Hotel which is a pub built into a disused section of the Byron Bay Railway Station (well, the whole station no longer has trains). An interesting little pub which normally has a band at night. After here, walk up the street to the Byron Bay Hotel (I think this is the name - it is opposite the main beach). This hotel was owned by John "Strop" Cornell and certainly changed from 1989 to 1998.
There are lots of restaurants in town. The Indian in the side street near the Byron Bay Hotel is excellent, the Hogs Breath Cafe nearby is also not too bad, the pizza place out towards Woolworths past the railway station was excellent for a relaxed meal with beers from the grog shop next door.
There is a lot more to do in Byron, especially if you stay for more than a few days. Cape Byron Lighthouse, the reserve, the beaches, the hinterland (it is a short drive to Mount Warning, Nightcap and other fantastic National Parks) and the coastal villages are all well worth seeing.
For our 2008 trip we got cheap ($49 each way) airfares from Sydney with Virgin Blue and hired a car. Much cheaper than driving.