Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - Rottnest Island
Perth is reputed to be the most isolated capital city in the world. However, in some ways it is closer to the world than cities like Sydney and Melbourne. Far closer to the Asian centres of Singapore and Hong Kong, in a similar time zone, closer to the burgeoning sub-continent and the booming South Africa, Perth has everything going for it. Its reputation suffered somewhat during the explosive 1980s when Alan Bond and Co made dramatic impacts on the Australian business scene.
All through this, Perth's fame as being the most relaxed Australian city, possibly apart from Darwin, stayed intact. In June 1998 I travelled to Western Australia to do some diving. My main aim was to dive the scuttled wreck of HMAS Swan but I also wanted to experience a little of Perth's diving.
We are staying at Fremantle after our first section of the trip and it is a short trip to the dive operator I have selected to use. I had booked some diving at Rottnest Island with Perth Diving Academy before I left Sydney so we arrived at their North Fremantle shop at 9.00 am for a 9.30 am start. This is one hell of a dive shop, unlike anything I have ever seen in New South Wales. It is huge, with its own indoor swimming pool, very large schoolroom, large shower/toilet area and enormous retail area. We are quickly and efficiently allocated tanks and weight-belts and move our gear the short distance to the wharf to await the return of the dive boat from an early dive.
Like the shop, the dive vessel is enormous, much larger than any Sydney dive boat and possibly only equalled in NSW by one or two boats operating out of Narooma. Both of their two boats have amble room on the back deck, a toilet, hot shower and protected cabin area. We quickly load our gear onto the boat, Lionfish III, a 16 metre fibreglass vessel, and are soon underway for our trip to Rottnest Island. The ocean is very calm as we exit the mouth of the Swan River and set course for the island. Tea and coffee is provided for the 40-50 minute trip (depends on where you are diving) and as we near the island we slip into our wetsuits. The boat crew give us a very good dive site briefing and log us into and out of the water.
The first dive is here is planned for Armstrong Point. This is located on the northern side of the island and about halfway between the main settlement area and the north-western corner. The dive location is actually a fair way off the island, about 1000 metres (different to most Sydney dive sites which are between 20 and 200 metres off shore). The reef here is a low rocky reef that sticks up only a few metres from the sand. It runs back towards the island in a south-eastern direction.
We gear up and enter the water. It is about 18°C and the water visibility varies from 7 to 12 metres. The depth where we are anchored is 12 metres and we drop over to the sandy bottom at 15 metres. We decide to follow the edge back towards the island and the depth increases a bit to 16 metres before a gradual rise over a few hundred metres up to 12 metres. Along the way there are a number of small boulders on the sand and some small overhangs on the reef itself. There are a lot of hard corals along the way and we see a lot of bream and leatherjackets. There are some larger fish of species I have not seen before, certainly not seen in Sydney.
We have been searching as we go along for crayfish. We have seen many, about six so far. This is more crayfish than I have seen in all my 700 plus dives in Sydney put together. We come up onto the top of the reef and the depth is just over 8 metres. We start heading back and the depth gradually drops to 14 metres or so. There are many interesting overhangs in which we find even more crayfish.
We return to the anchor and decide to explore a bit in the opposite direction than the first part of the dive. The reef top stays much the same. The fishlife on the dive has not been prolific, but quite interesting, especially the crayfish. After 60 minutes we ascend and as we do we see a crayfish that has either escaped from one of the local diver's catch bag or being released for being too small. We watch the cray as it attempts to reach safety of an overhang. A large fish, a groper from memory, tries to attack the cray and has some attempts to bite it before the lucky crustacean makes it.
We do our safety stop and exit the water after 66 minutes, very satisfied with our dive.
After everyone is back on board, we motor to the main settlement area of Thompson Bay. We tie up to the main wharf and walk to short distance to the small shopping mall. Here we grab a bit to eat and sit in the "town" square and chat to some of the other divers off our boat. As we have never been on the island before, we decide to explore a bit and go for a walk, hoping to find the famous quokkas.
Rottnest Island was first settled by whites in 1830 by farmers and in 1838 it was turned into a gaol for Aboriginals. This was closed in 1903 and the island began life as a tourist attraction.
We walk past some of the historic buildings, some of the various accommodations and see the small train that runs a fair way around the island. We see that the airport is a bit further along this way so we keep walking. Just outside the mini-sized airport terminal we find a number of quokkas under some low bushes. The quokka is a small marsupial, a bit like a minature kangaroo. These animals gave their name to Rottnest Island as the first Dutch sailors who landed on the island thought the quokkas were actually rats, giving the island the name Rottnest Island or in English, Rats' Nest Island.
While we are looking at the quokkas, we speak to the pilot of a small charter plane that operates out of the airport. He tells us of joy flights he provides and we agree to come for a flight. At $18 each, the flight around the island takes 15 minutes and we stay below 500 feet. This gives an excellent view of the island and as we fly over one of the popular dive sites we see the bubbles of the divers below. Other attractions that we see include the World War II coastal defence guns, the lighthouses, the wartime small gauge railway (now used to transport tourists), the large lakes in the middle of the island and the other buildings on the island.
After the flight we hurry back to the wharf as the boat is due to depart for the second dive. We climb aboard and start to change into our wetsuits as the boat moves off. We are diving at a location close to the first dive. This is called Little Armstrong.
We are far closer to the island and the depth is shallower, less than 10 metres. The reef here runs basically parallel to the island's shore and only sits up a metre or two on the edge but comes up almost to the surface away from the edge. We attempt to get to the other side of the reef where the dive boat's crew has told us that there is good diving. We cannot find a way across as it is very surgy in many spots, especially the shallower areas. There are some good swim-throughs and small caves and we see many more crayfish.
The fishlife is quite good in some of the shallower areas, especially in the surgy bits. We range quite a bit over the reef and after 60 minutes we exit the water. The visibility is a bit poorer than the previous dive, only five metres or so.
Back on the boat we get out of our gear into our dry clothes and grab a cup of tea. The trip back to North Fremantle is very enjoyable, sitting on the upper deck, rugged up and chatting to some of the other divers on the trip. Finally, we arrive back at about 4.20 pm and off load all the gear. There are gear washing facilities available but we decide to go straight back to our caravan park so we can have a shower, a beer and then attend to the dive gear.
I can certainly recommend the services of the Perth Diving Academy. Price for a double dive, including tanks and weight belts was $70. Contact their North Fremantle shop (there is also another one at Balcatta on the northern beaches) on 08 9430 6300, the shop is located at 2 Rous Head Road, North Fremantle.
Michael McFadyen travelled to Western Australia using his own funds and dived courtesy of his own money, so he reserves the right to mention the dive operator he actually used and enjoyed.