Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - Bubble Cave to Elbow Cave Drift, North Solitary Island
The North Coast of NSW has some fantastic diving, none of which is better than the hundreds of dive sites on the Solitary Islands. On 15 May 1770, Lieutenant James Cook in HM Bark Endeavour passed a small group of islands off what is now Coffs Harbour and named them the Solitary Islands. Unfortunately the sun was setting as he approached the southern-most islands and he passed by them during the night. A pity as he may have examined them closer and found the delights that today attract divers from all over Australia.
The northern-most of the islands is North Solitary Island. There are a dozen or so dive locations around the island. One of these is The Bubble Cave which is on the western side of the northern end of the island. The site here consists of a series of fingers that extend from the island down to the sand at 15 metres. The gullies in between the fingers are very interesting and the one furthest to the north contains a very large cave with an air bubble.
The dive boat will tie up to the Bubble Cave mooring. As you descend you will see that you are in the middle of one of the gullies. The Bubble Cave can be found by going to the north-west from the mooring over two ridges into the second gutter along from the mooring. Head right up this gutter. The bottom as you get closer to the cave is composed of medium sized round rocks like on the bottom of a river. The depth goes from 13 metres on a slope up to about five metres at the entrance. This is located on the western side of the gutter and is not always that obvious. The whole entrance to the cave can be blocked by fish and even after parting them, there can still be more in the way. The depth inside the cave is about four metres and it slopes up to perhaps three metres and turns a little to the right. It is a fairly large cave. There are normally lots of firefish in the cave, mostly on the walls and top of the cave.
|Kelly McFadyen at the entrance to the Bubble Cave|
Note the bubble at top
|A firefish upsidedown inside the Bubble Cave|
Head back out of the cave and go over the wall to the left and follow this gutter back to the 12 metre depth. The mooring should be over the ridge to your left. Go out south and you will see that there are thousands if not tens of thousands of anemones here (in fact I think more than in the Bay of Anemones) and you can have a very enjoyable dive without travelling too far from the boat. The anemones are home to more clownfish than you will ever see. There are numerous species, including Clark's anemonefish, red anemonefish, false clown anemonefish, three spot dascyllus, orange anemonefish and more.
Head further south for a while and you will see some concrete blocks with plaques on them. These were put here by the NSW Marine Parks Authority but this was a poor job. The blocks have moved as they do not appear to have been anchored to the bottom and it appears that no maintenance whatsoever has been done on them as when I last dived here you could not read a single plaque. I scraped four clean before giving up. The plaques are part of an underwater trail, with one bit giving directions to the next and the other giving some information. A good idea poorly executed and not maintained.
Also in this area you will see bits of a fishing trawler that sunk here in about 1988 or 1989. The bits are covered by growth and it is now difficult to tell what is what. From here go south-east till you hit the small wall where the depth rises from 12 or 13 metres to 10 or so metres. Follow this wall to the right and it heads south and then to the west for a little while. As you go, zig-zag back and forward, over the deeper parts and on the wall. You will find some fantastic things like guineafowl moray eels (see the photograph below of the one I found with a cleaner crab in its mouth), many different species of nudibranches and more.
|A clownfish and anemone near the Bubble Cave||A guineafowl moray eel with a cleaner crab inside its mouth|
Once you get to about 100 bar or 45 minutes, go to the top of the reef and head east. The depth here is about eight metres. There are a few cracks that run north-south here and these can be interesting. After perhaps 30 or 40 metres you will come to a large gully. This is near the Elbow Cave and the mooring at this site should be easy to see in good visibility. Head south in the gully (about 12 metres deep) and you will see it on your left before you exit the gully onto the deeper sand. The mooring is attached to the rock that forms the Elbow Cave. This cave is really just a small swim-through. It is best accessed from the southern side and you will come out into the gully.
After you swim through the cave, head east again and within 20 metres you will see the island. You will cross another gully (the Elbow Cave is on a sort of island) and then the reef that slopes to the bottom. You can go over the first bit and you will see yet another gully, right on the edge of the rock that forms the island.
It will now be time to ascend so hang around the top of the reef here at five metres for five minutes. On my dives here I have averaged over 75 minutes and up to 80 minutes. Visibility is normally in the order of 20 to 30 metres, with water temperature ranging from 19°C in late Winter to 25°C in late Summer. Another great dive site.
If you are contemplating a dive trip to northern NSW and want really great diving, you should consider visiting Dive Quest at Mullaway (02 6654 1930). You will get not only excellent diving, but first class and friendly service.