Socrates put down his basketball and rolled up his wrestling mat for a day to try out one of Byron Bay’s most unforgettable adventure experiences and asks himself why he hadn’t done it many years earlier. Julian Rocks is reputed to be one of the world’s best scuba diving experiences and while Socrates only took the lesser snorkelling option he was still gobsmacked by the extent and beauty of the wildlife and underwater scenery.
I am a pretty strong swimmer so the thought of snorkelling off Julian Rocks, a world-famous scuba diving location, several kilometres off the coast of Australia’s most easterly point, Byron Bay, did not hold a lot of trepidation. Way back in the deepest recesses of my elderly brain lurked the knowledge that many years ago one of the dive boats that visited this site suffered the worst possible dive-boat nightmare … the loss of one of its customers to a huge great white shark. I surf these waters regularly and have seen a number of large supposed “man-eater” sharks and have never been harassed by a single one. Additionally, I know that thousands of divers and snorkelers over several decades have taken the short trip to ‘The rocks’ and the one terrible loss has never been duplicated. As such, any sense of fear was unfounded. The trip was to be an adventure, that’s for sure, but not one that carried a huge element of risk.
I arrived at Sun Dive base mid-morning and was fitted out with a decent full-length wet suit, a pair of fins, goggles and a snorkel. I was then introduced to the boat captain, Chris, and the dive instructor, Gaye, who would be leading the morning’s dive. A short briefing followed where the 20-odd participants in the dive were given information on where the dive would take place (the layout of the Rocks and its various underwater physical features), what they would be likely to see and given critical information about safety procedures that everyone was expected to observe. Most of those on-board were qualified scuba divers, who would be taking in the underwater views from the bottom of the ocean, while two others, along with me, would be bobbing around on the surface taking the snorkelling option. We were then loaded onto a minibus and transported to the launch location at ‘The Pass’, Byron Bay.
On a day when ‘The Pass’ is offering up a bit of decent swell, the launch itself would be part of the morning’s adventure as the inflatable dive boat has to take on its passengers then negotiate a couple of hundred metres of heaving and churning through breaking waves while avoiding the dozens of ever-present recalcitrant surfers. Unfortunately for us, or perhaps fortunately, the ocean was close to dead flat on this morning, so the launch process was uneventful and not remotely exciting. Oh well. A bit of a rough ride might have been fun, but the sun was shining, the air was cool, the wind was a gentle zephyr from the west and the ocean itself looked crystal clear and inviting so the 10-minute journey out to Julian Rocks was still a delightful experience.
Sometimes the tiniest little things turn out to be a delight when you are doing something you haven’t done before. The thought that peering back at your home town from kilometres out to sea might be really cool never occurred to me before the trip. But here I was in the open ocean speeding across deep ocean swells looking back at the array of Byron Bay beaches, the Eastern Cape, the town itself and the lighthouse and the feeling was deeply pleasurable. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because the place looks so different and extra-beautiful from out there… or maybe it’s because you have a sense that while home is way back yonder, here you are out in the wilderness!
On arriving at Julian Rocks the skipper navigated the craft around to the northern side of the rocks, where our dive would be protected from the prevailing ocean swells. The scuba divers were briefed by their dive leader and, one-by-one, took to the water. My snorkelling companions and I were briefed by boat captain, Chris, who assured us that we had picked a perfect day for a snorkel and then advised us of the different places we might wish to swim (to optimise the amount of sea life we would experience), the procedures we should follow if we needed any assistance and information about where he would be picking us up at the end of our dive. He assured us that he would be carefully watching us all the time and that if we experienced any difficulty we should signal to him immediately to come and get us.
Then we were overboard! As someone who regularly surfs in two-metre-deep water, swims lengths of the beach in maybe three metres of water and swims pool laps in barely one and a half metres of water, flopping into the ocean and seeing the ocean floor 10 metres below is quite a shock. As the bubbles from entering the water clear from around your goggles you are immediately aware of being surrounded by dozens of colourful fish of all shapes and sizes flying here and there in their shadowy blue liquid world that seems to go on to infinity. I followed Chris’ instruction to swim in towards the rocks, where the water is a little shallower and where the wild life clusters around the reefs and inlets that are part of the Julian Rocks structure.
Despite my pre-trip thinking that a snorkelling trip to Julian Rocks would hold no fears, now that I was actually in the water and exploring a new and unfamiliar world I was not as calm as I expected to be. My snorkelling companions, being a couple, were more than happy to drift off by themselves. All of the divers had disappeared into the deep water long ago. The boat captain was sitting in the sun on the dive boat moored some 50 metres away. If I was paddling around in two metres of water with a few whiting or bream darting here and there, the fear factor would be non-existent, yet bobbing around in the ocean swells in five to six metres of water, with large fish feeding off the walls of the Rocks that thrust up vertically from the bottom, I was nervous.
Nervous or not, I wouldn’t have missed the experience for quids. Blue groper with their puffy electric blue lips nibbled away at the rock walls of each reef that I floated across. Coral of many colours, shapes and sizes grew out from rocky underwater walls. Yellow fish, grey fish, multi-coloured fish… some darting about… some feeding on the bottom… some seemingly just having a leisurely swim… and some purposefully intent on some unknown fishy business were everywhere. Puffer fish the size of basketballs slobbed around confidently in almost every underwater canyon I discovered. As I swam between two reefs into one four-metre-deep rocky canyon I saw the shape of two beautiful leopard sharks with their heads disappearing into an underwater cave. Excited by the discovery I decided to go looking for my snorkelling companions to show the sharks to them. I found them near an inlet thirty metres or so further down the rock wall. Before I got the opportunity to show them the leopard sharks they wanted me to check out their discovery. Resting on the sandy bottom in around three metres of water was a huge sandy and dusky-coloured wobbegong shark. My initial thought was to dive down and touch the creature on the back. My second thought was that that would not only be a crass thing to do, but it would also be unwise. While wobbegong are not a dangerous creature of the deep, they are certainly willing to give a foolish interfering human a nasty nip if the human is ill-mannered. So I left the beautiful carpet-patterned animal to its sandy-bottom slumbering and escorted my companions to the leopard shark canyon.
Later… once again by myself… I was swimming away from the rock exploring some deeper water when I saw two large yellow-tailed, torpedo-shaped king fish (each around half a metre in length) swimming briskly in pursuit of a small school of fish that the king fish thought might make a decent breakfast. As I followed the predators over a reef into yet another deep, sandy canyon the sight of the day loomed out of the darkness. A dark brown creature with a hawk-like face and with pink-white spots on its metre-wide dark wings soared out of the distant blue gloom and headed in my direction. When it saw an unwelcome human stranger in its path it elegantly banked to the right revealing the bright white underside of its wings and headed down the canyon and back out into the deeper water, trailing an enormous long, thin and sharp tail behind it. Chris later explained to me that I had seen an eagle ray.
After about 50 minutes of exploring I found that I had worked my way around to a part of the rocks that was more exposed to the ocean swells and the clarity of the water was disturbed by the bubbles of breaking waves and the churning up of the sandy bottom. Given that Chris had now moved the dive boat to a spot in deeper water about thirty metres away from where I was, and given that my throat was dry from the snorkel, I was feeling a little nauseaus from the bobbing around on top of the water, the visibility was not what it had been and I didn’t have time to swim back to a more sheltered viewing spot, I figured it was time to call it a day. The divers and my fellow snorkelling companions were also arriving back at the dive boat at around the same time.
Everyone on board was thrilled by their 60 minutes in the water… with the possible exception of one of my snorkelling companions, who was leaning over the side relieving herself of her breakfast. While she had had a wonderful time for most of her dive her seasickness weakness had put a temporary dampener on her trip. Once she had evacuated her full stomach and the boat got underway (and the rocking stopped) she was fine and happy again.
On the return journey, rather than heading straight back for ‘The Pass’ Chris took a bee-line for the Eastern Cape and then slowly skirted Little Wategos and Wategos Beaches, so that we could observe local dolphins at play and also watch the surfers catching waves from the less familiar oceanside view. In the bright sunshine and warm air Byron Bay observed from the sparkling clear ocean could not have looked more beautiful.
It is simply remarkable that one can live so close to such a remarkable place for so many years without ever having felt the need to go there. I must have been nuts. Julian Rocks really is a magical place.
This amazing snorkelling experience was provided by Sundive, Byron Bay.
The Sundive crew can be contacted on 1800 008 755 or 02 6685 7755
Email: [email protected]