I will preface this write up with a little information about myself: I am a resident of the Mornington Peninsula (well, I say resident, although I moved to the area just three years ago in 2010, so I guess I’m more of a newbie to the area). My ‘home soil’ is, or was, neighbouring Phillip Island, and I grew up there over long hot summers and short weekends at the family holiday house, learning to surf at the iconic Smiths Beach in the morning, before the almost Bondi-esk crowds arrived and we would retreat back to the Silverleaves bay beach to catch ‘toadies’ in the warm afternoon. However, my appreciation for the peninsula has definitely grown over the past three years, and it is now a place that I hold in high regard.
I will always come back to the peninsula, be it to surf the many breaks such as Point Leo (maybe even Merricks when there’s a huge swell and the rest of the locals are out tackling the pumping sets further afield), to visit one of the national parks littered along it and the sometimes-impenetrable coastal scrubs that house many small mammals, plenty of insects and grubs (not to forget the Eastern Grey Kangaroo, Macropus giganteus, that seems to thrive across all of Eastern Australia), or to dive one of the many beautiful sites that it has to offer. These range from very simple shore dives such as the Portsea pier, all the way up to very deep dives with strong currents that can potentially drag you out to sea, never to be found again.
As our divemaster told us during our SCUBA open water training, “you guys are learning in the toughest diving conditions in the world so you’ll be prepared for any situation”. Given we did learn in winter – a time when the swells are pumping and the strong and bitterly cold southerlies are blowing right through to your bones - he was probably right (as someone from New Zealand, I felt like he had a good idea). It certainly gives you a decent perspective of how rewarding the dive locations are within Victoria, as so many people continue to dive them and enjoy the wealth of life the cold, nutrient-rich waters bring up from Antarctica, despite the less-than-ideal conditions. But enough background on me – now to my contribution to the Wild Melbourne group.
At 10:30 on Sunday morning, after a lovely house warming the night before, I awoke with the sun warming my bedroom and my head giving me a kind reminder that beer is excellent at dehydrating you. I remembered that myself, Chris, and Evatt had agreed to go for a dive down at Diamond Bay that day. To say the least, I was not as excited as Evatt seemed to be. However, Chris and I slowly made our way up and out, stopping by a café in Mornington for an extremely late breakfast. We all picked up in spirits after our meal, however, and were set for an adventure on the cool autumn day. As we drove from Mornington to Diamond bay, I noticed the sun was almost halfway down in the sky: it was only three o’clock! I thought, ‘Damn, I miss summer’.
Driving the roads down on the Peninsula can be an enjoyable day out in itself, with most of the development occurring further back towards Frankston. As you get closer to Point Nepean, the landscape opens up with more farmland, bush areas and temperate schlerophyllous forests covering some areas, giving the insightful observer a peek back in time to what the peninsula may have looked like prior to European settlement. We reached our destination of Diamond Bay, signposted by the aptly named Diamond Bay Road. Evatt and I ran up over the small, concreted sand dune, itching with excitement to see if the Bureau of Meteorology prediction (no swell and no wind) had come to fruition. Indeed it had, as we were greeted with a nice, flat bay looking extremely inviting for a group of keen divers. Diamond Bay and many, if not all, of the other ocean-side beaches on the peninsula, can be easily blown out due to large swells and heavy undercurrents. However, today was our lucky day. We raced back down the hill to get our gear on (as Chris’ large feet sometimes give him trouble with his wettie, he had stayed behind to get changed and was waiting for us to gear up too).
So we all got our gear on, set up our tanks, and made our way back over the hill and down onto the beach. We had planned our dive to take place on the right-hand side of the bay with an aim to move out towards a rock outcrop some 500 to 600 metres out from the shore.
We waded into the water, put our masks and flippers on, and descended into the cold autumn water of Bass Strait.
As I released the air from my BCD into the cool saltwater surrounding me, I began to sink down under the surface, little pockets of air rushing up past my face. I slowly descended to the floor of the bay. Initially, Diamond Bay has a sandy benthos. The bottom, I noted, looked like it had been manicured to be perfectly flat, seemingly undisturbed by the raging swells Bass Strait can produce. This area was also quite barren, with little fish life, the occasional mollusk and minimal algae. This area appeared to be a dangerous place to live, a high predation risk and an even higher threat of being stuck up on dry sand during a receding tide being some possible hazards to the inhabiting wildlife.
We began moving towards the first rock outcrop, the underwater landscape changing as we swam from the smooth, sandy bottom to a much rockier reef, pock-marked with holes, crevices and valleys. The reef itself also began changing colour, from a sandy yellow to a more bruised purple. This was of course due to the algae covering every inch of space available. Large fronds of macroalgae had colonised some of this area (stipitate kelp, Ecklonia radiate, to be exact), gently swaying with the swell and held down by their strong holdfast in amongst the rocky benthos. The holes and crevices provided an ideal habitat for a variety of fish species: the Southern Seacarp (Aplodactylus arctidens), the ever-aggressive Scalyfin (Parma victoria), the Magpie Perch (Cheilodactylus nigripes), juvenile Southern Goatfish (Upeneichthys vlamingii), and plenty more. Within every crag or hole there also seemed to be abalone, their strong muscular foot holding them solid against the reef, ever ready to clamp down like a vice.
As we continued further out, the landscape again changed. It became otherworldly and it felt as if I’d stepped onto what Mars might have been like with water. The reef opened up now into more of a series of ridges and valleys. We swam through these small canyons, observing large leathery kelp swaying in the water, creating barriers between each valley. As I looked around, I remembered seeing scenes like this before: eerie greenish water, kelp forests and big open expanses of water leading out into nothingness.
If anyone else were a shark enthusiast like myself, you would have already put the pieces of the puzzle together, because just down the road (figuratively speaking), there is a large seal colony at Phillip Island. As a result of this, it is frequented by a shark species known to almost all humans. I speak of course of Charcharodon carcharias, or - as it is more commonly known - the Great White Shark.
So as many of you squirm and squeal in your chair, remembering all of those documentaries you might have seen where a shark suddenly explodes from kelp cover and inhales a diver, you can imagine how uneasy I felt. Despite this, encountering such an animal is one of my dreams, so I was also pretty excited, a nervous tingling making its way around my gut for most of the dive.
Unfortunately it was not so, and of course it is almost guaranteed that when you get in the water anywhere in Victoria, you will never run into one of these magnificent creatures (unless you are at Seal Rock). However, I was always keeping a look out, perhaps distracting myself too much from fully appreciating the beauty. We eventually reached a lovely open space of sand containing a few islands of reef with kelp covering the tips, again providing ample habitat for wrasse, abalone and a few Scalyfin that were milling around. It was indeed a nice surprise to have some open space to fully appreciate the small patch of ocean we had been exploring.
Continuing on, we reached what we thought was our rock outcrop, and began making our way back, passing through the valleys carved out by the ocean over millions of years. Spotting fish, abalone and kelp as we went, I was beginning to get cold, feeling my leg muscles straining. We moved past our initial route and out into a more open area in the central part of the bay, the benthos lined with thick kelp and potentially hiding a myriad of creatures, although none were actually seen. I decided that we should come back for further exploration at a later date, and so with my body shuddering from the cold, we moved back to our entry point.
I broke the surface of the water a few times to check our distance before we reached the familiar barren sand area, which had retained its smooth and unbroken appearance. Finally, we arrived at the shoreline, simultaneously discussing what we saw, how pristine it was, and the prospect of being warm again. Our dive was over.
All in all, I found this dive to be an awesome experience based on pure diving merit, but also concerning the appreciation of the wonderful diversity of life and landscapes, both terrestrial and marine. I would recommend that anyone with the ability to get there, do so. If you don’t SCUBA, then grab a snorkel set and some fins, and go down at low tide and experience this beautiful area for what it truly is, both above and below water.