Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - Wooli
In June 1998 I travelled to Wooli on the Far North Coast of New South Wales for a bit of diving. Wooli is a small fishing village in the centre of Yuraygir National Park. The village is very tiny, consisting of a couple of caravan parks, a few shops, a post office, a club and a pub as well as a few dozen houses. This is a location that is a bit too far from Sydney for a weekend (or even a long weekend) due to the driving time. We are on a week-long diving safari and we have previously been at Byron Bay where we dived Julian Rocks. It is only a 90 minutes or so drive down from Byron and we decide to leave there after lunch.
We arrive at Wooli mid-afternoon after a dive in the morning at Byron Bay and find our accommodation at the Bushlands Caravan Park. We have a couple of very comfortable on-site vans and these are located in a very attractive setting under some nice tall gum trees. The dive shop is only metres away on the side of the village's petrol station. The operator, Stan Young, is a well known local identity and in the hotel (about 100 metres from the vans) there is a photograph of him with an enormous four metre tiger shark which he caught off North Solitary Island in 1987.
We have a great barbecue dinner on the supplied gas barbecue and go to bed ready for the next day's diving. At 8 am Stan arrives to collect our gear in his ute and we follow him down to the wharf. Here we see his 36 foot Steber vessel Erebus. This has been purposely built for Stan and is powered by a 400 hp jet propulsion engine. More about this soon. We load all our gear on board and are soon underway down the creek towards the open sea. As we approach the mouth, we are given a full "airplane" style safety display and put on our lifejackets before we cross the bar.
The creek opens onto the ocean and the resulting bar is subject to breaking waves, even in quite small seas. It is also shallow, hence the need for jet propulsion rather than a more traditional propeller. We start out to sea and are dismayed to find that the wind is very strong here, a southerly, and the seas are very rough and getting worse. We have been planning to dive Pimpernel Rock, a dive site renowned for pelagics and sharks, for the first dive. However, it is soon apparent that we will not be going there are there is absolutely no protection at the dive site. On the boat there is group of divers as well as two Israeli divers. They have never seen seas like this but they are not too affected by it.
Stan announces that we will instead go to North Solitary Island (where we had planned to do our second dive) and dive in protected Anemone Bay. It is quite rough on the trip over and it gets worse as we get further from the mainland. Finally, we find some protection from the island and once we enter Anemone Bay, it is quite calm.
For our first dive we decide to go out towards the Shark Gutters and the eastern corner of the Bay. The depth at the mooring is 23 metres and we drop to the sandy bottom at 27 metres. We do not see any grey nurse sharks, even though it is the right time of the year. As normal, and as you would expect from the name of the dive location, there are thousands and thousands of anemones. Each of these has three or four clownfish and they are all hyperactive as usual.
We swim to the south-east from the gutters and see two huge cuttlefish. The depth drops to almost 30 metres and we glimpse a Queensland groper as it swims in and out of view a few times. We turn south and then west and the depth comes up to 23 metres. There are hundreds of species of tropical fish as well as large numbers of bream, surgeonfish and wobbegongs. We gradually come up to 18 and then 15 metres as we head further into the bay. This is an excellent dive as usual (I have dived here more than 20 times) and the fishlife is amazing.
We range out over the whole area and see a number of cleaning stations where fish of all sizes line up to be attended to by cleanerfish. They dart in and out of the fishes' mouth and gills and pick at all parts of their bodies, taking away any dead skin and remains of food. The stations are quite popular, not only with the divers but the fish, with up to three or four fish in line at some spots. I pick out a clear spot and lie on the bottom watching a cleaner station for a few minutes. Fascinating!
I move out a bit deeper towards to the mooring. Here I am "attacked" by a couple of clownfish. I stop to look at these pair and they are extremely protective, biting my fingers continually. Thank God they are only little things, if they were a metre or so in length, they would be more dangerous than great white sharks.
Unfortunately, my bottom time is almost gone and I ascend for a safety stop, exiting the water after 61 minutes. Back on board we have some hot soup and tea as well as piles of cake and snacks. Excellent service from Stan and his boatboy.
After a good surface interval we start our second dive at the mooring further up the bay. For this dive we have decided to look for a couple of clown triggerfish that some others saw on the first dive and then go to the west and around the point a bit. The depth north of the mooring is a maximum 20 metres and we look around for six or seven minutes for the elusive clown triggerfish. No luck! We wander over to the point and see some excellent fishlife there. Just around the corner we see an eagle ray that has a number of fish hooks in it and a trailing fishing line. We attempt to catch it to remove the line but the ray breaks the line after less than a minute. We have succeeded to a certain extent I suppose.
We come back into the bay and head up into the shallows. There are some small cuttlefish and many wobbegongs as well as a few firefish. We poke around everywhere and one of our group finds a .303 rifle round. Another diver also finds one, probably from a fishing boat.
We return to the mooring and do our safety stop above the shallower area to the south-east. After 63 minutes we leave the water, yet another great dive.
The trip back to Wooli is even rougher than the outward journey but the boat handles it extremely well. We are back by early afternoon and wash our gear and then relax till time for dinner. Another excellent barbecue and a few beers sees us out for the night.
The next morning the conditions are much the same as the previous day and we are again forced to dive North Solitary Island, not that this is bad. On the boat we are joined by three Japanese divers as well as a Australian/Japanese who has lived at Coffs Harbour for the past 10 years (he was a bit of a give-away as he spoke English with Australian slang and drove a hotted up Commodore!). The three Japanese have been working at Coffs Harbour for a few months as divemasters but it is obvious that they have not experienced seas like this before.
We moor in Anemone Bay again and for our first dive we head to the east. The depth gradually drops from 18 metres to 23 metres before we come to a shear wall. This drops from 18 metres to 27 metres and then to 40 metres. In all my dives here I have never before been to this spot. There are some kingfish in this area as well as blackfish. We return back to the head of the bay and the rest of the dive is much the same as the second part of the previous dive.
Our second dive is a repeat of the first part of the previous day's second dive and ends under the mooring. Today's dives have 66 and 67 minutes, both excellent with fantastic fishlife.
After returning to Wooli we wash our gear and have some lunch before heading off to Coffs Harbour for the third part of our dive trip. More about that in another article.
The water temperature on all dives has been 20 - 21°C and the visibility between 15 to 25 metres. The service of Stan Young and his Wooli Dive Centre has been excellent, one of the best operations I have ever used in New South Wales. I certainly recommend his services. Note that Stan now has a huge catamaran that is the best dive boat I have been on as well as the Steber.