south west rocks
sharks. caves. me. wait – how did that happen?!
it all started the week before in sydney when we were having dinner with JB, alana, and pia. i was trying to convince them to come up to cairns and check out the great barrier reef, but work schedules and weather were getting in the way. pia, a veteran diver and ex-instructor, also said that nothing i’d see there would be different than what i’d seen in bali…at least not where we would be going, anyway. she would’ve loved to take me on a live-aboard and explore the less-frequented parts of the reef in the coral sea, where there are giant black cod and oodles of cool underwater creatures to geek out over. unfortunately that trip would have to wait until we had more time and budget. suddenly, her eyes got wide and she looked at me all excited. “i’m going to take you to one of my favorite diving spots, and it’s going to be AWESOME!” she exclaimed in her aussie accent. then she started telling me all about south west rocks and how there are sharks and an underwater cave and it’s amazing and i really have to do it.
i laughed nervously. i mean, i’m all for adventurous, adrenaline-junkie type stuff and i’m obviously into diving, but i’d only been out on four real dives and this seemed like more advanced stuff. from the look on his face alex didn’t seem too pleased with the idea, either. he began to grill pia like a lawyer and apply his legendary logic and argument-winning tactics, which was hilarious. their exchange went something like this:
alex: “if anything happens to your equipment when you’re inside the cave, can you float to the surface and breathe air?”
alex: “if the shark decides to bite you, is there anything preventing the shark from biting you, or do you have to trust the shark NOT to bite you?”
pia: “nah, you just trust the sharks. they’re fiiiine.”
alana and me: (gulp.)
fast forward a week and we were back in sydney from our trip to tasmania and getting ready for our weekend trip to south west rocks. pia wasn’t exaggerating – fish rock cave is considered one of the top ten dive sites in australia, and "heaps" of endangered grey nurse sharks can be seen year-round there. there was no way i could pass that up! alex and i rode with pia in her VW hard-top convertible, and the weather was perfect for a 6-hour drive with the top down. soon we were settling into our comfy digs above the dive shop and cracking open a few beers. i was beyond nervous. before i knew it, it was 6:15am and time to get up. in a few short hours i’d be diving with sharks! luckily for alana and me, pia goes way back with the guys we were diving with, and their funny banter put us a bit more at ease with the situation. we got fitted for our equipment, drove down to the dock, and loaded up the boat. troy and "scuba steve" were our dive masters for the day and were very thorough with everything – not to mention hilarious.
after a 45-minute boat ride we arrived at fish rock, which on the surface looked totally unassuming and harmless aside from the choppy waters. then troy launched into the dive briefing. we were going to do two dives – the first was to simply observe the sharks, and the second was to do the cave dive. this involves swimming along a gutter to the mouth of the cave at a depth of 24m (about 80ft). then you have to turn on your flashlight, enter the pitch-black cave, and slowly make your way up the second chimney (slowly being the key word, as you don’t want to risk getting decompression sickness by ascending too fast). after awhile you reach the “aquarium” – a large, light-filled opening at the end of the cave where large schools of fish and sharks abound. as you exit the current can get pretty strong, so you have to grip the ridge tightly (gloves are a must) and climb over it to get away from the current. otherwise it could take you pretty far out. as troy said, you have to “hold the f--- on!” then you swim back towards the boat and do your safety stop before you reach the surface.
so yeah, that was the plan. as a novice the whole thing sounded terrifying, and my head began to swirl with “what-if” scenarios. soon i was asking a gazillion questions which i later became infamous for among the dive instructors. eventually i ran out of questions and it was time to get in the water. i took a deep breath of real air before dipping below the surface for my first gulp of compressed air. within a couple of minutes a grey nurse shark swam right by me, and i was mesmerized!
we found a perch on the ridge and watched as schools of fish went by and the grey nurses followed suit. it was unbelievably fascinating. the sharks definitely look scary and have all sorts of sharp, jagged teeth, but they keep to themselves and are quite tranquil as long as you don’t threaten them. there were also several large wobbegong sharks that completely blended into the rocks – so much so that alana accidentally kicked one and had no idea! on our way to explore the other side we encountered a strong current, and somehow alana got separated from pia and me as we were holding onto the rock. when it was time to surface and she still hadn’t shown up, we began to worry. but troy assured us she had found scuba steve and was going up with him and his dive student, and thankfully it turned out to be the case. i think that experience coupled with the scary briefing changed alana’s mind about the second dive, and she decided to sit it out.
when it was time to do the cave dive, i felt a little more ready but not much. i was doing fine until we got to the bottom of the gutter. i'd never been this far down before, and panic took over. i was having a hard time breathing normally, so i signaled to troy that i was out. a mixture of relief and dejection swept over me as i watched him lead the other three divers into the cave. pia stayed back too, and soon a couple of grey nurse sharks began to circle the gutter. we kept as still as we could, our eyes following these beautiful creatures as they gracefully swam around. suddenly one started to head towards us. he got closer and closer until he was only about four or five feet away, and i blew out a bunch of bubbles to let him know we were there. at that point he took a sharp turn and swam off, and pia and i looked at each other, giddy with excitement. what an experience! if it hadn’t been just the two of us down in that gutter, the sharks may not have felt comfortable enough for a close encounter. i guess my last-minute decision wasn’t such a bad one after all.
chickening out also meant i was determined to do one more day of diving and tackle the cave, especially now that i’d gotten a handle on what the environment was like. troy also offered to lead me by the hand the whole way through, which made things much less frightening. i’m so glad i did go back and do it, because the dive was spectacular. swimming through pitch-black waters with just our flashlights…creeping through crevices and around giant boulders…being careful not to disturb the resting wobbegongs, giant resident tortoise, and larger-than-life lobsters…coming face to face with a spiky, dangerously beautiful lionfish…the magic of those few minutes exploring the cave was unlike anything i’ve experienced. and to come out of the darkness and into the most beautiful, aqua-colored environment teeming with all kinds of colorful marine life was just incredible. as we left the cave and made our way towards the ridge, the largest black stingray i’ve ever seen elegantly glided over us. i successfully made it over the ridge past the current (i held the f--- on, troy!), and soon i was back on the boat, stunned that i’d actually done it. what an unforgettable two days. thanks to pia and troy, my love of diving has grown exponentially. if you’re ever in new south wales, book a trip at south west rocks dive centre. the dive packages are very reasonable, and the guys there will show you an unforgettable time!
while us ladies were out diving, alex and JB enjoyed sleeping in, exploring the beach at trial bay, and paddle-boarding. the highlight though was going to arakoon national park, where alex befriended an adorable family of kangaroos! to say the weekend was packed with amazing wildlife encounters would be an understatement. eventually sunday afternoon rolled around and it was time to head back to sydney. the sun continued to shine on us and keep me smiling despite my disappointment that our time with my cousins was almost over. i rode with pia on the way back, and it was fun catching up and singing bad pop songs together. along the way she pointed out long cables stretched over the highway that allow koalas to safely climb over the traffic. from that moment on i was on constantly on the lookout, hoping to catch a glimpse of a furry cutie pie crossing.
almost two weeks of our australian adventure were now behind us, and we only had one more week to go. time was flying by, and we couldn’t believe how much fun we were having! it was hard saying goodbye to new south wales and my amazing cousins, but we were looking forward to exploring melbourne, our next destination.
// trip down under to date: 5 flights, 1 country, 2 states, 1 boat, 1 road trip, 1 campervan adventure, 1880km