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Escape to the Rocks

South West Rocks

Text by Justin Gilligan

Located half way between Brisbane and Sydney, the salt rendered town of South West Rocks is the perfect escape from all walks of life. Here, there is something for everyone. Picturesque stretches of isolated beach, iconic Australian, vantage points with panoramic views, and important relics from Australian history. But the best experiences happen below the sea’s surface in the form of spectacular marine encounters that are guaranteed to stay with you long after your visit ends.

Spectacular views of the beach at South West Rocks

The dramatic seascape off the Rocks is home to an abundance of life. Expanses of sand are interrupted by rocky reefs that act as marine oases. Steep walled gutters, isolated pinnacles and a spectacular cave system offer their protection to a profusion of marine life in a variety of shapes and sizes. Diving here is both thrilling and surprising – be prepared to expect the unexpected.

There are no better guides to show you the underwater sites of South West Rocks than two brothers that own and operate the South West Rocks Dive Centre, Pete and Kev Hitchins. The entertaining pair have developed an exceptional knowledge of the area over the past 20 years since learning their trade from father Noel – the first dive store owner in the South West Rocks. When diving with Pete and Kev, you are granted the best knowledge on local conditions and dive sites, along with a few trade secrets when it comes photographing the local area (but don’t tell them I told you that!).

Fantastic view from inside the cave

A luxurious challenge faced when planning to photograph a destination such as the Rocks, is lens selection. I must admit to having trouble opting for anything other than the widest lens possible, due to the consistent opportunities to capture the spectacular vistas off the Rocks. A wobbegong that has drawn a school of bullseyes to attention, the inquisitive look of a hawksbill turtle, and a threatened species of shark in a cave flooded with ephemeral light. These scenes are the reason we dive and they materialise on a regular basis in these waters.

Smaller attractions also inhabit these reefs. Rare encounters can be made with the sad seahorse, mosaic moray eels, and ornate ghost pipefish. One of the best macro dives in the area is Ladies Reef – a small, easily navigable patch reef just off the main beach that packs macro punch!

Fish Rock is the jewel in the Rocks crown. The weathered outcrop barely breaks the surface, but it’s most celebrated attractions lie beneath the breaking waves. Situated 2km off Smokey Cape, its position means that it is exposed to the full brunt of east coast storms and is also swept by strong currents. It’s Fish Rock’s location that is one of its truest virtues. As in Andrew Stanton’s “Finding Nemo” creatures are carried here by ocean currents and seek shelter in its lee. The nutrient rich waters first attract the baitfish and benthic life, and then the predators all the way up the food chain. The mixed conditions ensure that every dive is different; one lucky group had a close encounter with a whale shark last summer.

Grey Nurse sharks are just one of the highlights of Fish Rock cave

The dive sites vary around Fish Rock from colourful sections of shallow reef complimented by swarms of fish, to a remote and current swept pinnacle known as the Land of The Giants. The Giants is located on the seaward side of Fish Rock and offers an amazing drift dive with giant stingrays and cobia, resident Queensland groupers and the occasional school of hammerhead sharks. And if the current becomes too strong for the open areas, you can find protection within a series of gutters and a 110m long cave.

Fish Rock’s stunning cave is one dive not to be missed during your stay. Guided groups enter from the deep entrance of the cave at 24m and exit through a shallower opening in 12m. Schools of bullseyes swarm in front of torch beams that slice through the darkness illuminating armies of crayfish, black cod and resident turtles. As the soft blue light materialises from the shallow exit, divers soon find themselves in a spectacular chamber in the company of lionfish, stingrays, turtles and grey nurse sharks.

Giant friendly turtles are quite often seen cruising around

Several of the reefs off South West Rocks are regular haunts for the protected grey nurse shark. Their fierce appearance is out-weighed by their gentle nature, and photographers will relish the close encounters these sharks afford. They are large, slow moving, and inquisitive, but protected due to their chequered history in the company of people.

A great second dive can be had at either Black Rock located south of Smokey Cape lighthouse, or Green Island just to the north of Smokey Cape lighthouse. Both these locations are shallower than the average dive at Fish Rock, but home to interesting marine life. Resident drummer, luderick, and red morwong swarm the reefs, while eagle rays soar overhead, and turtles laze about the reef.

An escape to the Rocks is guaranteed to result in some memorable underwater encounters no matter which lens you decide. Just expect to be content with your decision on one corner and troubled by that same decision around the next. Either way, you are bound to capture some spectacular moments, and end your escape to the Rocks with a full card of memories.

We run regular group trips to South West Rocks from Sydney, normally over long weekends to maximise our diving time! Check out the dates for our next South West Rocks trip. If you are looking at going up yourself, speak to us and we can point you in the right direction.

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