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    Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - Shiprock

    I am constantly amazed by the quality of some of the Sydney dive sites I visit. Despite hundreds of people diving them each weekend and despite having dived some of them more than 100 times, they still present a face that can astonish me.

    Such is Shiprock, possibly Sydney's most popular dive location in terms of the number of divers that visit per square metres of actual site. Shiprock can normally only be dived for the short period between 25 minutes before and about 30 or so minutes after the peak of high tide (you can also dive at low tide - in fact from 2000 for at least 10 years we have sometimes had better visibility at low tide than high).

    At other times, the water is subjected to very strong tidal currents and very poor visibility. However, if the difference between the previous low tide and the next high tide is less than about 0.5 metre, then you can dive here anytime on the incoming tide without too much effort. Again, if the difference between the tides is little, you can go in early without too much effort.

    Located at the junction of Burraneer Bay and Port Hacking on Sydney's southern outskirts, the name comes, not surprisingly, from a large rock on the shore's edge which, when viewed from the water, resembles a ship. Drive to Shiprock Road at Dolans Bay and park as close to the end of the street (it is a cul-de-sac) as you can. Until September 2011 there used to be a short but steep winding path working its way down from the end of Shiprock Road. At night and in the wet, you had to be very careful when descending and ascending the path. Back in about 1998 a new set of stairs was to have been constructed here by Sutherland Shire Council using funds provided by the Federal Government's Coastcare program but the Council abandoned the project.

    ShiprockClick here to enlarge
    A satellite photo of Shiprock.
    The way down is through the green bush.
    The entry point is to the right of the largest pool.
    Dive is from here south and then west
    A map I drew in the early 1990s
    Note that the reef bends a bit more to the west than shown

    This plan was revived in early 2010 when the woman who lived in the house next door, Mrs Sinclair, died (not sure when she actually died) and left a considerable amount of money and donated the lease of the land at the bottom of her block to the council so that stairs could be constructed and a decent area made for divers at the water's edge.

    Construction began in mid-September 2011. The construction was to finish by Christmas 2011 but in fact it was not complete till 3 April 2012 (really not totally finished till about July 2012). What was built defies imagination, it is the best set of stairs I have ever seen. It is now a lot easier to walk down and up, although it is just as steep. No more pulling yourself up using a rope! There are a number of flat platforms on the way down, with places to rest if needed.

    Originally I wrote that I had concerns that the new structure with a large platform at the bottom (behind number 4 - which has number 2 on its fence) would encourage dive shops to come here more often outside high tides to do courses and thus upset the residents even more than they get now. However, this does not appear to have happened. Please, Sydney dive shops, continue this practice and do not use Shiprock as your training area, it will ruin it for all divers. However, I have noticed that some shops have been using it for training in the 2020s, use Lilli Pilli instead!!

    A photo of a section of the stairsThe second top landing where there are some seats for resting

    There is now a gate at the top which has a sign saying it will be closed from 9:30 pm till sunrise. This was because neighbours complained that divers were drinking here after dives (rubbish, it was the local kids). There is also now a prohibition on drinking alcohol in the reserve and the street.

    As peak tides here are approximately 20 minutes later than at Fort Denison (Sydney Harbour) it is recommended that divers enter the water at the time that the high tide is forecast for Fort Denison and aim for a dive of about 50 to 60 minutes duration (70 minutes is easily achievable). High tide is the preferred time to dive, offering better visibility and currents which assist you. You should ensure that you get in the water exactly at the forecast peak of the tide.

    However, even when you abide by these rules, the tide can sometimes have its own mind and you can still get caught out. It seems that on high tides and when there are very large easterly or north-easterly seas, the change of tide is delayed, with the tide unable to overcome the large seas. Eventually the tide overcomes the seas and it changes. This delay can be between 5 and 40 minutes.

    On normal high tides, do not enter any earlier as you will inevitably have to swim back against a strong current. For some reason, some Sydney dive shops insist on starting their dives here about 30 minutes before the right time to enter and then wonder why their divers do not have a good time! In well over 250 dives here, the system I have outlined above has never failed me. If the difference between the previous low tide and the high is only under one metre, you can generally enter the water up to 15 minutes early or later and not have a problem.

    At low tide you can nearly always enter the water up to 15 minutes before the Fort Denison low tide. Generally you will not encounter any sort of real current on these dives.

    While the current will never be dangerous, it can be a bit annoying to expect the tide to be in your favour for the whole of the outwards first 20 to 25 minutes of the dive and then in your favour for the final 20 to 25 minutes return journey and find that it only assists for the first 10 minutes and then the next 10 minutes are spent fighting the tide or after you turn around it is still running in. I usually aim for 30 minutes moving away from the entry point (which gives 20 minutes assistance, then some slack) before returning on the outgoing tide. As mentioned, best bet is to enter the water at the predicted high tide. Note that sometimes the tide can be in your face for the first 10 minutes before being behind you - this is not always the case.

    Visibility generally never used to be good at all, with 5 to 7 metres being average in the 1990s. However, it seems to have got better in the late 1990s and even more since the early 2000s. Since 2000 I would say that the average is more like 10 metres. I have even experienced in excess of 20 metres a couple of times. On 28 November and 15 and 16 December 2001 and 13 January 2002 I had about 10 metres although only about 7 metres on 3 February 2002 (after a fair bit of rain).

    On 17 February 2002 it was about 5 metres and by 20 February it was up to 7 metres. Pretty amazing considering that over the previous two weeks there had been over 300 mm of rain and on 10 February 2002 the water looked like mud. On 27 December 2002 it was about 7 metres after a fair bit of rain over the previous few days and on 4 May 2003 it was also 7 metres after quite heavy rain over the previous week. In April 2008 I dived here three times in four days and visibility varied from 5 to 12 metres, even though it was raining a lot over each day and for the week before. Just because the top looks dirty does not mean the main dive area will be dirty.

    See the above map of Shiprock dive site and the panoramic photograph below. Once you get to the bottom of the stairs, there are three places to enter the water. The first is the old spot behind Shiprock itself. This now has some stone steps to the water. This is probably better at very high tides as the next spot can be hard as I will explain.

    The second spot is in front of the rock, where the old boat ramp used to be. There are now steps here, although the bottom two are very high and also have a rubble bottom rather than concreted stone. At low or lower high tides this can be a bit harder to safely step down to.

    The third spot is through the pool to the right as you hit the bottom. This is good at any tide, although personally I do not enter the water here.

    A panoramic photo of the water's edge at Shiprock. The pool is on the left, the steps to the water at the far right between the large rock and the water.

    After entering the water from behind the rock, wade around to the front or side of the rock before putting on your mask and fins. If you use the steps in front of the rock, you can go to the bottom step or even the bottom and then put your fins on when resting on the right side and then flop into the water.

    Swim out a few metres from the new steps and start your dive. The water here will only be two to three metres deep but head east and it drops to about six metres and then suddenly drops away to almost 15 metres.

    Extreme care should be taken on this dive to never surface if you have lost your buddy as power boats by the dozens pass here on the weekends, even straight over the top of the dive site. Despite what you may have been taught, under no circumstances should you ever surface directly from the deep part of this dive site. If you must surface, for example, to look for a lost buddy, first head to the west or the north (depending on what part of the site you are at that time) into the shallows (four metres) before coming to the surface. If lost, a good bet is to head north-west and you will eventually find the wall and the shallows.

    Once you drop over the wall, head south, keeping the wall to your right. About 20 metres along a small bubble cave is located at a depth of 15 metres. It is worth examining, even though you can only put your head out of the water. Further along there are a number of very large rocks which are a few metres off the wall. These may not be readily visible in time of poor visibility, so swim out five metres or so every now and then. These rocks are well covered with growth and attract large numbers of fish, especially leatherjackets (all types). There are also sometimes sea horses.

    On my dives here, I go straight out to the bommies and do them before coming back to near the wall. If you do this, there is a small bommie, then a larger one and then a very large one. Each of these is about 10 metres apart and located south from the previous one. The largest one, the third, is the last this fair off the wall. This one has a moray eel normally on the south-western side.

    A pineapplefish at ShiprockImmature Yellowtail Angelfish
    A pineapplefish at ShiprockYellowtail Angelfish taken at Shiprock February 2005

    From this bommie, the next ones are much closer to the wall. If you head west, you will strike either of two bommies. The one to the south contains a plaque in the memory of a past president of the Underwater Research Group, Howard L Couch. He died in 1968. I regularly clean the plaque, the least I can do for someone who was obviously well thought of by his fellow members.

    The area around the bommies also support some rarer fish, including the strange looking anglerfish. The sand can drop down to 18 metres around the base of the rocks and there is usually something worth seeing out there, including red indianfish. You may also see blue swimmer crabs in this area. In November and December they may be mating (you can see up to five pairs on one dive).

    Hermit crabDecorator crab
    One of the thousands of hermit crabs
    you will see at Shiprock on a night dive
    Many different decorator crabs can
    be seen at Shiprock on a night dive

    I usually head out to the dive along the wall until I come to the rocks and then go out to them. After going around each of them, I run parallel to the wall (about five metres off it) with some ocassional returns to the wall. The abundant overhangs along the wall are home to estuary catfish, cuttlefish, decorator crabs, spider crabs, moray and conger eels amongst other things. In April 2008 I found a tiny, 15 mm long Whites sea horse. This was bright yellow and really stood out, despite its small size.

    Just past the last large rock off the wall there is (as of December 2008) a large wharf pile that has been dropped here by a slack contractor. It is painted white on the top, has lots of growth on the middle section and is clean where it was in the sand. It has moved a bit since then, the last time I saw it, it was about 20 metres off the wall and a bit east from where it was originally.

    In this area from ealy 2008 till late 2008 there were at least three pipefish. They could be seen on most dives, but as of December 2008 they could not be seen. However, in 2009 two were able to be found on most dives. They still can be seen in May 2010.

    Just past here you will come across a large truck tyre. Prior to November 2001 I had also seen three rare pineapplefish (knightfish) in one small overhang about five metres past the tyre. This was three times the number of these I have seen before at any one location. See later about pineapplefish.

    Sweet CeratosomaSpotted Dendrodoris
    A Sweet Ceratosoma laying eggsA Spotted Dendrodoris - this is stated
    in Neville Colman's Nudibranchs Encyclopedia
    as being a "rarely encountered species"

    On 15 February 2007 we saw a large female green turtle in this area. It had a lot of growth on its flippers, tail, head and shell. Some of this was mussels, barnacles and algae.

    A little further along are the remains of a stump of a very large tree about two metres off the wall. In November 2001 I saw six pineapplefish all together in one overhang about 15 metres past the stump (this is near the end of the wall) and two more closer to the stump. Eight on the one dive!! Then, on 15 December 2001 I saw one, then seven and then three giving a total of 11 on the one dive. The next day I saw the seven again as well as three more near the start of the dive. In January 2002 I saw eight and on 3 February 2002 a total of seven. These are the same seven mentioned on dives above. On 17 February 2002 I only saw one here but on 20 February I saw five under the bubble cave (see later) and I thought that they were probably part of the seven seen before.

    However, on 12 May 2002 I saw seven in the location past the stump, two just past the stump, two just past the tyre (small ones) and six under the bubble cave. A total of 17 on the one dive!!! On 29 May 2002 the two small ones were in the same place as were the six at the bubble cave but on 9 June there was only one of the two present. There were also six at the end of the wall (instead of the seven seen before) and on 9 June only four here. On that date I saw another four shallower back towards the entry point (that is, near the top of the main wall) and six at the cave. Again, 17 on the one dive, at least four of which were different to ones seen before. On 29 June 2002 I saw 30. These things are breeding like rabbits! On 4 May 2003 I saw 19, seven at the end of the wall, three above in a different overhang, seven below the exit and two elsewhere. Of note is the fact that the two I have seen on nearly every dive (near the tyre) were not seen nor were the ones under the bubble cave. On 28 September 2003 I only saw two, both below the wall near entry point. On 12 and 15 January 2006 and 15 February 2007 I saw none. I saw none till December 2008 when a solitary one was seen on two dives. What has happened to them? Since this time there have been two in this spot.

    Blue swimmers matingA shrimp
    Blue swimmer crabs mating at ShiprockSome sort of shrimp that I have not been able to identify

    The wall turns towards the west and becomes less prominent and then in spots is just a pile of rocks. It gradually becomes shallower (8 metres) and appears less interesting and you may see some moorings. However, this is really a great part of the dive. Keep going till you see a huge tree trunk lying parallel to the wall. It is adjacent to here that I saw a lot of the pineapplefish. A bit further on you will see a floating wharf above you. Another 20 metres brings you to another wharf and four large wooden piles (and one on the sand) which used to contain a large powerboat. I turn around here (normally 30 minutes into dive). By this time, if you are diving high tide, the current will start to run outwards and assist your return to the exit point. Under the boat you used to find huge schools of large bream, luderick and other species (the boat has not been there since at least 2004).

    From here I keep to the top of the wall for 50 to 75 metres before dropping over the wall to the bottom. Look in the shallows and you will be amazed by the fishlife. Along the wall look for spider crabs, decorator crabs and firefish. Keep going right along the wall and in every nook and cranny.

    The best exit point is the pool. This can be found by taking the slope up after you have passed the bubble cave and then turning back to the south and following the top of the wall till there is only a very narrow strip of sand to your right. Turn at right angles to the right and you should see the entrance to the pool. On 16 February 2007 we found a small (75 mm) harlequin ghost pipefish in this shallow area, my first in Sydney. Fantastic!

    An anglerfish at ShiprockPipefish
    A black anglerfish at Shiprock
    They are difficult to photograph due to colour and sand on them
    One of a number of pipefish that have been resident
    at Shiprock for most of 2009 and into 2010

    When finishing your dive, take some time to examine the rocks and kelp near the top of the wall as you can often find sea horses and red Indianfish in this area. We often see huge schools of over one hundred large sand whiting in this area. There are other species of whiting in this area as well.

    The amount of fishlife to be found here is simply amazing for such a small and well used area. There are more leatherjackets than at a Hells Angels' convention! Sponges, sea squirts, ascidians and sea anemones can be seen everywhere and the fish thrive. Fish to be seen include common stingaree, conger eel, moray eel, serpent eel, eastern fortesque, bream, mado, estuary catfish, eastern smooth boxfish, many species of leatherjacket, red morwong, magpie morwong, silver sweep, sand whiting, John Dory, blue trevally, stripey, old wife, white ear, blue swimmer crabs, spider crabs, decorator crabs, hermit crabs, smooth flutemouth, flathead and heaps of different species of nudibranch. You often see large kingfish swimming by.

    VercosMoray eel
    A Vercos Tambja nudibranch - aka Parramatta
    nudibranch laying eggs
    A moray eel that has been here for many years

    This site is home to many tropical species. I have seen moon wrasse, a juvenile painted sweetlip here as well as many times different species of butterflyfish. In January 2002 I saw two parrotfish (not sure what sort) and in August 2011 we saw what appeared to be a green-finned parrotfish in the shallows. In January 2002 I also saw one fish that I think is a blackstripe blenny, normally found in sheltered spots on coral reefs in New Gunea. I have also seen estuary rock cod, another tropical species. In 2000 I saw two small ones and a large one in February 2002. Shiprock is an aquatic reserve and as such all fishlife is protected. On 4 April 2012 we saw two parrotfish here, one just a few metres from the entrance spot.

    Shiprock is an excellent night dive, although as indicated above, care must be taken to ensure the right time is selected to start your dive.

    As this is a very quiet residential area, please respect the residents' rights, especially at night or early in the morning and keep your noise to a minimum. On weekends (especially when seas are up outside), and if the high tide is after about 9 am, parking in this area is at a premium due to Shiprock and the nearby Dolans Bay wharf. It is recommended that you arrive early to get a legal parking spot. This means about 30 minutes before high tide.

    In summary, one of the best dive sites in New South Wales, simply amazing considering its location. Worth doing time and time again. I have now done it more than 250 times.

    Pineapplefish at Shiprock
    1999 to 20019 dives and none seen
    29-Nov-200186 at end of wall
    15-Dec-2001117 at end of wall
    16-Dec-2001107 at end of wall
    20-Feb-20025Under bubble cave
    12-May-2002177 at end of wall
    6 under bubble cave
    29-May-2002146 at end of wall
    6 under bubble cave
    9-Jun-2002154 at end of wall
    6 under bubble cave
    4 top of wall
    29-Jun-20023010 + 7 at end of wall
    7 under bubble cave
    17-Aug-20022810 + 11 at end of wall
    7 under bubble cave
    25-Aug-2002246 + 12 at end of wall
    6 under bubble cave
    27-Dec-2002161 + 2 + 6 + 1 at end of wall
    2 under bubble cave and 4 north of cave
    11-Jan-2003131 + 2 + 7 at end of wall
    4 under bubble cave and 4 north of cave
    1-Feb-200381 + 2 + 5 at end of wall
    Could not check under bubble cave
    4-May-2003197 + 3 at end of wall
    7 near entry
    28-Sep-20032both near entry
    4-Mar-20042both near bubble cave
    7-Mar-20040Covered whole dive site
    16-May-20040Covered whole dive site
    16-Jun-20040Covered whole dive site
    30-Jan-20050Did not go to bottom
    26-Feb-20043Covered whole dive site
    8-Mar-20045Covered whole dive site
    12, 15 and 21-Jan-20060Covered whole dive site
    27-Apr-20060Covered whole dive site
    8-Jun-20060Covered whole dive site
    17-Jun-20062Covered whole dive site
    22-Oct-20061Covered whole dive site
    4-Dec-20081First seen since 2006
    11-Dec-20081Same one as 4 Dec
    28-Dec-20081Same one as 4 Dec
    11-Jan-20091Same one as 4 Dec
    26-Jan-20091Same one as 4 Dec
    7-Feb-20093Two juveniles
    23, 25 and 26-Apr-20092One large and one small only seen 26th
    7-May-20094One large and three small
    10-May-20092One large and one small
    18-Oct-20093Same ones as recent dives
    21-Nov-20092Same ones as recent dives
    15-Dec-20092Same ones as recent dives
    3-Jan-20102Same ones as recent dives
    4-Feb-20103One south of bubble cave
    17-Feb-20103One S of Bubble Cave
    11-Mar-20104One south of bubble cave and one off BC
    28-Mar-20102One south of bubble cave
    15-May-20103One south of bubble cave
    16-May-20104One south of bubble cave and one high
    13-Jun-20103One south of bubble cave
    20-Jun-20103One a baby
    24-Jun-20102One a baby
    4-Apr-20123Located northern most end of site on top of wall
    12-Apr-20121Not one of the ones seen last week
    21 and 22 Apr-20123Located northern most end of site on top of wall
    5 and 9 May-20123Located northern most end of site on top of wall
    10-Jun-20123Located northern most end of site on top of wall
    3/4-Jul-20123Located northern most end of site on top of wall
    1-Aug-201232 Located northern most end of site on top of wall and 1 S of cave
    9, 10/12-Aug-201252 Located northern most end of site on top of wall and 3 S of cave (although on 9/8 3 were N of cave)
    1-Sep-201263 Located northern most end of site on top of wall and 3 S of cave
    7+11-Oct-201263 Located northern most end of site on top of wall and 3 S of cave
    10 + 19-Jan-201373 Located northern most end of site on top of wall and 4 S of cave
    5-Mar-201353 Located northern most end of site on top of wall and 2 S of cave
    18-Apr-201332 Located northern most end of site on top of wall and 1 S of cave
    21-Apr-201344 S of cave
    8-Jun-201371 S of cave, 3 at cave and 3 N
    17-Nov-201355 S of cave
    24-Nov-20133S of cave
    15-Dec-20134S of cave
    8-Jan-2014 to
    5S of cave each of 5 dives
    29-Mar-20142S of cave
    19-Apr-201453 in normal spot and 2 S of it
    1-Dec-20147all in normal spot
    4-Jan-2015108 in normal spot, 2 W end
    Jan to Mar 20157 or 8mostly in normal spot
    26-Nov-20155all in normal spot
    9-Jan-20162where have they gone
    25-Jun-20162Only 1 in normal spot
    Since above date0Numerous dives
    23-Feb-201731 between bubble cave and exit, 2 in shallows near pool, 1 tiny
    23-May-202054 in normal spot, 1 small near pyramid rock
    25-Nov-20222Under Bubble Cave
    9-Dec-2022103 under Bubble Cave, 7 to S near normal spot
    22-Mar-2023102 under Bubble Cave, 3 in crack, 3 below, 2 in normal spot
    23-Mar-2023102 under Bubble Cave, 3 in crack, 3 below, 2 in normal spot
    22-Jul-2023125 in crack, 4 below, 1 in normal spot, 2 elsewhere
    2-Nov-202343 in crack, 1 below
    9-Feb-20245All in crack


    Time lapse photography from 5 May 2012 using GoPro.

    Click here to see video

    Some More Photos from Shiprock

    Moasic EelMoasic Eel
    A moasic eel that was out in the open near
    the Bubble Cave on 7 February 2010
    A moasic eel in the sand near the end of the
    reef - seen 6 January 2010
    The above two photographs are of the same moasic eel - note the patterns to the right of the eye
    Hermit CrabsPineapplefish
    About 8 or 10 hermit crabs, all fighting over an empty
    shell between the two large hermit crabs
    Two pineapplefish in February 2010
    PipefishPygmy leatherjackets
    Another shot of the same pipefish as photo above
    Taken 7 February 2010
    Two pygmy leatherjackets
    A yellow striped anglerfish seen on 14 February 2010A yellow boxfish
    Pygmy leatherjacketDecorator crab
    A yellow pygmy leatherjacketA decorator crab - in daylight
    Yellow anglerfishEel
    A yellow anglerfish seen on 28 February 2010An eel that appears to be blind in its left eye
    Yellow anglerfishEel
    A 65mm yellow painted anglerfish seen on 8 January 2014Another shot of the same angler at left
    One of five pinapplefish seen on 8 January 2014Yellow boxfish

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