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Nelson Bay
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Nelson Bay has easily accessible historic wrecks (rec: Oakland, rec/tec: Macleay), some of Australia's best shore diving, and a fantastically scenic grey nurse shark aggregation site around Broughton Island. Temperate waters and local marine growth is kelp beds and colourful sponge gardens hosting lots of macro.

Dive Sites

SS Oakland

Depth (27m | 89ft) |
Wreck of a steamer lost 1903 off Cabbage Tree Island Nelson Bay.

·                     Constructed 1890 in Dumbarton, United Kingdom.

·                     Twin screw steamer, steel construction, triple expansion boiler.

·                     Tonnage 231.66 (metric), length 14.3 meters, width 2.23 meters, draft 0.98 meters.

·                     Wrecked 27 May 1903 off Port Stephens, on a voyage from Newcastle to the Clarence River.

The mooring line is fixed to the stern where there is a decent amount of surviving structure.  The wreck is in one piece, with some surviving bulkheads, some decking, and about a foot of hull projecting above the sand in the clear shape of the wreck.  The engine, triple expansion boiler and the base of her smoke stack are all prominent features amidships.

The signature feature of the Oakland is the bow, which remains largely intact, upright and affixed to the rest of the wreck.  Much of the bulkheads and hull around the bow have long disintegrated, however the skeleton of the ship retains its shape.  The upper deck has survived and provides a small overhead environment. 

The wreck is covered with encrusting brown algae, spreading and prominent sponge growth, and small black coral trees.  Large schools of bullseye and yellow tail kingfish are common over the wreck, and there are often hundreds of eastern fortescue resting on the sand close to the wreck.  Other common species are boarfish, old wives, goatfish, wobbygong sharks, Port Jackson sharks, moray eels, spiny gurnard and nudibranches.

History

The Oakland was originally brought to Australia by W. T. Yeager to service the timber industry on the Richmond River.

On her final voyage, the Oakland left Sydney on 25 May 1903, bound for the Clarence and Richmond Rivers. The Oakland carried 18 men and a cargo of 300 tons coal, 9 tons of flour, and 10 tones of gravestones. The stonemason Thomas Gaites was aboard as a passenger sharing the Captain Slater's cabin. During loading, the second officer, John Howes paid particular attention that the gravestones would not shift during transit.

As the Oakland neared Cabbage Tree Island around 3.15 am on 27 May 1903, an unexplained rumbling sound was quickly followed by a severe port-side list. Within about 20 minutes the Oakland was to capsize and sink in 27 meters of water. The exact cause of the Oakland wreck was never identified, although it is likely due to the cargo shifting or a leak.

The only lifeboat to be launched was damaged and barely afloat.

Fourteen men survived the sinking and reached the lifeboat, which was not large enough to hold them all. The survivors clung to the side of the lifeboat as they drifted towards the distant Broughton Island.

Hypothermia claimed seven more lives in one of the most tragic maritime incidents off the coast of New South Wales.

The steamer Bellinger, had attempted to shelter from the rough conditions that night in Port Stephens but was unable to enter the bay. Instead the Bellinger headed for Broughton Island, and seeing floating debris from the wrecked Oakland, the crew kept a sharp lookout for possible survivors. The Bellinger reached the men in the lifeboat as they were entering the surf zone at Broughton Island. The crew of the Bellinger were able to get a line to the lifeboat and pull it out of immediate danger before bringing the seven survivors aboard.

The wreck of the Oakland was purchased for 40 pounds by Captain J Weston several weeks after she sank. Captain Weston  headed to Port Stephens on his steamer Maud Weston with three divers. The divers discovered the wreck on the sand in 27 meters depth and salvaged 100 tons of coal and 300 pounds of winches, anchors, chain blocks and wire hawsers.

References

The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1889 - 1931), Friday 12 June 1903, page 4, available at National Library of Australia <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article4960182>.

The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), Wednesday 28 August 1901, page 7, available at National Library of Australia <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article14406319>.

Pipeline

Depth (16m | 52ft) |
One of the best shore dives in NSW, soft sponge gardens surrounding a disused pipe running out from shore. Excellent macro photography.
 The Pipeline is a structural dive, with soft sponge gardens on a sandy bottom.  Macro photographers can find nudibranchs, cowrie shells, crabs, seahorses, pineapple fish, leatherjackets, and decorator crabs are just the start.  Larger species on the Pipeline include wobbygong sharks, Port Jackson sharks, blind sharks, flathead, blue gropper, octopus and moray eels..

The Pipeline is named for the pipe extending along the seabed out into the bay, which has become encrusted with sponge growth and is now an artificial reef.  The pipe itself is a disused sewer line.

Once you have entered the water you will immediately see an area of sea-grass beds at around the 3 to 6 meter mark.  Spend some time around here to find baby cuttlefish, pipefish and other interesting macro critters.

To the east, is the area known as Seahorse Gardens, a large area of soft pink polyp trees.  If you look amongst the branches, you will find white seahorses and decorator crabs in abundance.  It is easy to spend an entire dive here.

If you head to the west, you will inevitably cross the Pipeline.  Fish traps and concrete blocks are spaced at intervals along the length of the Pipeline, each is surrounded and covered by dense soft sponge growth.  The Pipeline extends well out into the bay, so it is important to remember that it will take at least as much time and air to get back to shore.  You can spend your safety stop exploring the shallow sea grass beds at 5 meters depth.

The Pipeline is very tidal with strong current, so should only be dived on a slack time.  There is a lot of boat traffic over the dive site, so you should only surface as close to shore, and as shallow as possible.

Water temperature ranges from 18 to 22 degrees.  Visibility ranges from 3 to 15 meters.

Location

The Pipeline is accessed from the far (water) end of Teramby Road.  Divers will usually park as close to the co-op wall as possible, gear up, then head for the entry point.

From the end of Teramby Road, follow the concrete path running west along the Co-op wall along the side of the Fisherman's Co-op.  The concrete ends, but there is a well-worn path, and an obvious set of stairs to enter the water.

Broughton Island Looking Glass

Depth (18m | 59ft) |
Grey nurse shark aggregation site north of Nelson Bay. Underwater canyon and boulder pile.
Broughton Island is a well-known grey nurse shark aggregation site north of Nelson Bay.  Historically used as a fishing base, and now managed by National Parks.

It is very common to see dolphins and whales on the boat trip from Nelson Bay to Broughton Island.

Looking Glass

The Looking Glass is a rock canyon splitting the south-eastern islet of the Broughton Island complex.  The rock walls are encrusted with creeping sponge growth, and boulders are strewn over the sandy bottom at 15 meters depth.

The Looking Glass is typically filled with large schools of big eye, yellow tail, red morwong, and snapper.

Anchoring off the western entrance, you will be positioned over the islets sloping boulder field.  The entrance to the Looking Glass is easy to find using natural navigation by heading up the slope until you reach the vertical walls of Looking Glass Isle, then follow the wall until you reach a large, kelp covered bolder at the entrance to the Looking Glass. 

Divers should keep to the edges of the Looking Glass to avoid disturbing the grey nurse sharks that cruise back and forth along the canyon.  Exiting from the eastern end of the canyon, there is a sandy arena also favoured by aggregating grey nurse sharks.

The Looking Glass is susceptible to swell. The water temperature ranges from 16 to 18 degrees.  Visibility ranges from 10 to 25 meters.

Looking Glass Wall

The wall and sloping boulder field around the western entrance to the looking glass provides plenty of overhangs and swim throughs to explore.  Large cuttlefish and eastern blue devil fish can be found in this area. 

Halifax Park

Depth (28m | 92ft) |
Great shore dive. Sponge gardens with huge diversity of marine life.

Halifax Park comprised a series of reef walls supporting sponge gardens, gradually dropping from shore down to 25 meters depth.  The sponge gardens were impressively dense with growth, including large barrel sponges, and attracted huge schools of pelagic fish.  Halifax Park was widely regarded as one of the best shore dives in NSW. 

Unfortunately from 2010 shifting sands rapidly consumed the site.  You would now walk out on sand over areas which in 2009 would have been bomboras and walls at 10 meters depth.  It is believed that sand barriers installed at the nearby boat ramp by Council caused the change in sand distribution.

However, Halifax Park remains an amazing sponge garden from about 15 meters depth.  There is an impressive diversity of nudibranch species on and around the different sponges types.  There are a number of blue grouper that will follow divers around and agitate for attention.  The site still attracts large schools of bullseyes, drummer, bream, and stripeys.  Other notable species include numbrays, octopus, moray eels, cuttlefish, ornate wobbegong, flathead, and leatherjacket.

Halifax Park is best dived on slack high tide, when the bay's tidal currents are stilled and visibility is at its clearest.  The site is excellent for night dives on slack high tide.  In poor visibility conditions or on the slack low tide, this site is a good muck dive.

There is a dirt carpark under the trees adjacent to Halifax Park, and a path has been cleared through the rocks on shore (when they are above the sand).  Once you enter the water, head towards the channel marker.

The dive site is directly under the main boating channel, so divers must always return to the shallows before surfacing.  If you must surface away from shore, it is essential to deploy a SMB before you reach the surface so that boats can avoid the spot.

Visibility ranges from 5 to 15 meters. Water temperature ranges from 16 to 24 degrees.

Fly Point

Depth (28m | 92ft) |
Sandy bottom with rock ledges, lots of sponge and soft coral growth, and areas of sea grass beds closer to shore. Easy setup, entry and exit

The Fly Point dive site is situated just 2 minutes from D'albora Marina, in a nice park for a BBQ, with a large carpark and tables/podium that serve as idea setup benches.

There are stairs leading down to the water, and a sandy channel has been cleared of rocks to facilitate diver entry.  You should remain within this channel otherwise you will be stumbling over boulders as you attempt to walk out to deeper water.  There is a permanent yellow buoy at the end of the channel that marks the boundary of the shoreward no boating area.

Heading north from the channel you will descend over a few ledges before reaching level sand at 8 to 10 meters depth.  Turning west leads to further ledges and the edge of the deeper sponge garden. 

Hunting around the ledges and sponge garden will reveal lobsters, eastern frogfish, moray eels, blind sharks, wobbygong sharks, Port Jackson sharks green turtles, boar fish, old wife, vagabond butterflyfish, dwarf lionfish, anglerfish, octupi, slipper lobster, and many, many nudibranchs.

Returning to shallower water for your safety stop on the seagrass beds at 5 meters depth, you can find baby cuttlefish, seahorses, and massive schools of luderick, bream and butterfish.

Fly Point is perfect for diver training, and try dives, but has a lot of fragile organisms and care should be taken to avoid damage.  If doing skill intensive dives, sites like Shoal Bay or Little Beach are better alternatives.

This site is exposed to strong tidal current and so can only be dived on slack tides.  The best visibility is on a slack high tide.  It is also possible to dive Fly Point in the last two hours of a slow high tide (1.4 meters or less), when there is manageably less water movement.

Alternatively, you can enter at Fly Point, and do a drift dive on an incoming tide towards the Pipeline.  There is a lot of boat traffic over this path so divers must be able to deploy an SMB from 10 meters depth, and should surface as close to shore as possible.

The water temperature is generally between 18 to 22 degrees.  Visibility is between 5 to 20 meters.

On a historical note, Fly Point was once the site of the HMAS Attack amphibious training base.

SS Macleay

Depth (45m | 148ft)
An often challenging wreck dive, but rewarding nonetheless.

·                   Constructed 1883 in London, United Kingdom, originally named the Woodburn.

·                   Twin screw steamer, steel construction, compound engine.

·                   Tonnage 295.67 (metric), length 14.4 meters, width 2.35 meters, draft 0.99 meters.

·                   Wrecked 11 October 1911 off Port Stephens, on a voyage from Newcastle to the Northern Rivers.

The Macleay rests on a sandy bottom surrounded by low rock reef, scattered bombora, and kelp beds. The Macleay is best done as a technical decompression dive, although it is still an exciting site for recreational divers.  

There is a large prominent bombora nearby which is often is often mistaken for the wreck on fish finders and bottom sonars, leading many divers operating off private boats to complete a dive on the "Mc-Rock".  It is considered something of a local rite of passage.

Descending the mooring line will take you directly to the propeller shaft.  A short distance away is the boiler, which is unusually large for a vessel this size, and the engine.  The area is littered with the shattered remains of decks, bulkheads and hull.  Digging around in the rubble can uncover all sorts of interesting artefacts.

Heading towards the bow you will see cargo hatches and deck winches, and eventually reach the large admiralty anchors resting in the sand.

Back past the mooring line and the stern is relatively intact but somewhat separated from the rest of the rubble.  The propeller has been removed. 

The Macleay is somewhat exposed to easterly wind and swell, including back surge from the nearby Little Island.

Water temperature varies from 16 to 24 degrees.

Visibility can vary greatly over the Macleay at different times and depths from 0 to 35 meters.  The site is close enough to the entrance to Nelson Bay to be effected by runoff from the bay so the best visibility is on an incoming tide. 

The most common dive conditions are 20 meters visibility and 20 degrees water temperature in the water column, dropping to 5 meters visibility and 16 degrees in the last 5 meters depth over the wreck.  The shock of the change in conditions tends to exaggerate the narcotic effects of the depth.

History

On her final voyage, the Macleay left Newcastle at 4:00 pm on 11 October 1911, bound for the Clarence River. The Macleay had a crew of seventeen, under the command of Captain Keith Donald. The Macleay carried a main cargo of coal, three horses, and some general cargo.

The Macleay passed the southern headland of Port Stephens on a heading of North-North-East. Captain Donald left the first officer, Henry Goldsmith in command and went down to his cabin. For reasons that were never fully explained to the Court of Marine Enquiry by, Charles Petterson, the only survivor who was present on the bridge, the first officer then apparently changed course to North-East.

The new course took the Macleay directly on the reef at the South East corner of Boondelbah Island.

The Macleay rolled over and sank within ten minutes of striking the reef.

Only two members of the crew survived, and only three bodies were recovered.

References

Max Gleeson (1996) “Shipwrecks, Storms and Seamen”. [This book can be purchased at http://maxgleeson.com/].

The Capricornian (Rockhampton, Qld : 1875 - 1929), Saturday 21 October 1911, page 16, available at National Library of Australia.

Australian Government - Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities; "Australian National Shipwreck Database", available at on 13 March 2012.

Little Beach

Depth (12m | 39ft) |
Great training area and muck dive. Series of artificial reefs covered in marine growth and nudibranchs. Sheltered sandy bottom.
 Little Beach features a series of artificial reefs, including the remains of a sunken houseboat, connected by a fixed rope. Each structure is encrusted with algae, sponge and other marine growth, providing a haven for crabs, moray eels, and nudibranchs. This is a great macro or muck dive site.

Easy beach access, flat sand bottom, the no boating area, and shelter from current make Little Beach ideal for practicing skills and diver training.

Visibility ranges from 3 to 10 meters. The water temperature ranges from 16 to 24 degrees.

Shoal Bay

Depth (5m | 16ft) |
Great shallow training area with minimal current. Sea grass beds.
 Located within Nelson Bay but adjacent to the southern headland, in a wide part of the bay, Shoal Bay is sheltered from most swell and does not experience the strong tidal current present on most other shore dives within the bay. The bottom is flat sand and sea grass beds at about 5 meters depth depending on the tide.

Easy access, shallow depth, calm waters and lack of delicate bottom ecologies make Shoal Bay idea for teaching courses or refreshing skills.

Divers with the patience to comb through the sea grass beds will find pipefish, flathead, baby cuttlefish, and other surprising creatures.

Visibility ranges from 10 to 15 meters. The water temperature ranges from 16 to 24 degrees.

Boat Harbour

Depth (12m | 39ft) |
Easy shore dive, comfortable setup area, bommies and rock walls sheltering lobster and moray eels.
There is an easy shore entry by the beach and short swim out towards the mouth of the funnel formed by the rock cliffs lining Boat harbour.

The centre of the harbour is sandy bottom with sporadic bomboras. The edges are lined with rubble covered with red algae, barnacles and kelp. Further out there are a series of rock walls with plenty of holes in which you can find lobsters and moray eels. Keep an eye out for abalone clinging to the rocks, and abalone shells littering the sandy bottom.

There is an adjacent park with counsel carpark, toilet block, tables and concrete path for setting up gear, and showers for rinsing off. Plan for a post dive barbeque to really round off a great day in the sun.

Be careful of easterly swells which roll straight into the funnel of Boat Harbour to be focused and exaggerated. In such conditions exit by the rocks can be extremely dangerous and backwash from the cliffs and the beach can make it difficult to return to shore.

Visibility ranges from 5 to 25 meters. The water temperature ranges from 17 to 24 degrees.

There are many more dive sites in this area that can be arranged on request either to the skipper on the day of this event for normal dives,
or by Contacting Us for specialist technical dives.
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