South Solitary Island is a grey nurse shark aggregation site all year, and attracts particularly large numbers in winter when the east coast population tends to move north.
The island attracts shovelnose rays, bull rays, eagle rays, wobbygongs, turtles, cuttlefish, moray eels, black cod, jewfish and kingfish. There are also prolific macro species such as crabs, shrimp and nudibranchs as well as reef species hiding amongst the anemones, hard and soft coral.
The features commonly referred to as South Solitary Island are actually three islands and a rock: Birdie Island (north west), Little Birdie Rock (north east), South Solitary Island (largest) and Archie Island (south east).
Nestled between Birdie Island and Little Birdie Rock (the two northern rocks) is a stunning underwater arch surrounded by rock pile. A narrow channel leads straight to and under the arch at 15 meters depth. From the arch there are gutters running down to the sand at 30 meters depth.
The arch and shallower ends of the gutters are perfect sites for large numbers of grey nurse sharks. During winter the shiver of grey nurse sharks here can be as large as 60 individuals.
The area is covered in anemones, plus hard and soft corals with all the associated macro life such as crabs and nudibranches. The arch attracts large schools of pelagic fish and makes for great underwater photography.
Just off the northern point of Little Birdie Rock (the northernmost rock) is the Cleaner Station, an unusual and discrete feature of the island terrain where a blocked gutters runs into a cave, providing a safe zone for grey nurse sharks (in winter), game fish and other pelagics to rest and let resident cleaner wrasse remove any parasites. At around 20 meters depth is a boulder blocking a gutter which runs back into a cave leading a short distance under the island at around 8 meters depth.
The split between Birdie Island and Little Birdie Rock runs off into a number of gutters radiating out from the island down to the sand at 18 meters depth. The area is known for grey nurse sharks, rays and turtles. Scattered boulders shelter a huge variety of macro and reef species.
At the northwestern edge of Birdie Island is a boulder pile running at a consistent 8 to 12 meters depth before dropping off sharply down to 18 meters.
This is a great area with plenty of rock holes, anemones, hard and soft coral to attract cuttlefish, eastern blue devil fish, lobsters, moray eels, nudibranchs, shrimp and crabs.
The Boulder Wall attracts schooling pelagics and turtles. There are also plenty of kingfish, black cod, eagle rays and bull rays that can be seen patrolling or passing the wall.
South Solitary Island is encircled by steeply sloping rock cliffs, with no beaches or natural landing points. It was difficult, slow, expensive and risky to supply the lighthouse facility in the days when it was operational.
The lighthouse was linked to a high jetty. When seas were calm, food and supplies were delivered using the jetty and basket lifts.
Several cranes and gantries were constructed to facilitate resupply, each of which eventually collapsed or was swept away. The wreckage of some of these cranes and their unloading efforts can be seen at 12 to 15 meters depth around the midpoint of the east shore of South Solitary Island.
The wreckage is amidst a boulder pile. Being in the shallower light zone, the area is encrusted with anemones, hard and soft corals and is very active for macro life and turtles.
Heading towards the southern point of South Solitary Island is a 1 to 3 meter high wall that starts in 12 meters depth and runs down to the sand at 30 meters depth. The wall attracts a lot of big and small marine life.
As you move south from the wall you come to another boulder pile. An interesting feature is the remains of an old trawler cable snagged and draped over a large area of boulders.
History of Lighthouse and Living Quarters
The first group of workmen arrived on the island on 11 July 1878 and this is the first known habitation of the island. The lighthouse and its cottages were built of concrete in 1880.
The tower was built of mass concrete using cement and sand conveyed to the island and broken stone from the conglomerate rock of the island. Three large stone cottages were erected for the keepers and due to the extreme weather conditions are surrounded by high stone walls. A wall also runs from the cottages to the lighthouse.
The light commenced operating on 18 March 1880, and appears to be the first in NSW to use kerosene instead of colza oil. The mechanism was not converted to automatic electric until 1975 when the lighthouse was demanned. Therefore the South Solitary Lighthouse was also the last kerosene operated light in NSW.
In the early days supplies arrived by steamer from Sydney every fortnight and eventually weekly or fortnightly supplies were launched from Coffs Harbour, weather permitting.
Due to the steep rock slope of the island, everything including supplies and people had to be lifted in a crane lowered basket from the steamer's launch. Supplies, including drums of kerosene, then had to be carried up the steep concrete path to the lighthouse or cottages.
There is a little school house, a room, near the head-keeper's residence on the island. In 1909 the keepers hired a school-teacher for a year using a government subsidy. Later a governess was engaged, then later children received their education through correspondence.
There was no electricity until the 1950’s with the light and living quarters being lit by kerosene. Coal was used for household cooking and heating. Pedal radio was established in 1937 so the keepers could communicate with Norah Head. This was later replaced by a Bendix radio. Previously the only communication with the mainland was by signalling lamp or heliograph.