I had been wanting to visit Nelson Bay in Port Stephens, NSW for quite some time, due to their excellent citizen science Nudi Fest events (where divers collect data about the diverse population of exquisite decorative seaslugs) and to visit the amazing population of grey nurse sharks at nearby Broughton Island. So I was both surprised and delighted several weeks ago to receive an invitation out of the blue to travel interstate and dive with Let’s Go Adventures as a special guest for their Women’s Only Shark Dive event on 18 July. This dive was to be part of the inaugural PADI International Womens Dive Day (which just happens to be in the middle of winter in the temperate waters of Australia!) PADI (the world’s leading scuba training organisation) were kind enough to feature an interview with me about my ‘scuba vs tumour’ adventures in their ‘Women in Diving’ series leading up to this very special event.
I decided to book a five night stay which would allow me the opportunity for four days of diving. Rob Miller from Let’s Go Adventures is genuinely one of the friendliest and most considerate people I have ever met, and it was an absolute privilege to dive with this excellent operation (I cannot recommend them highly enough!) Rob introduced me to two pairs of divers who were also visiting the area to be my new dive buddies for the shore dives: Steve and Jayne, a beautiful older couple who caught up with me regularly throughout the trip, and Shar and Sal, two super-gorgeous dive instructor mermaids from my home state of Victoria.
The tide turns quickly in Nelson Bay resulting in two shore dive opportunities each day, not much more than an hour long. Yet this seemed merciful given the coldness of the water that had been somewhat affected by an extremely unusual arctic weather event. But these shore dives are critter-rich and well worth the effort, especially in finer, warmer conditions, with Nelson Bay attracting divers from all over Australia. As I’m used to travelling an hour each way for every dive in Melbourne, it was a joy to find such excellent shore diving with easy access less than five minutes drive from the dive shop at the marina. My first morning dive at The Pipeline was filled to overflowing with pairs of tiny cuttlefish, nudibranchs, seahorses and a blue ringed octopus.
That evening, I re-entered the water at the extremely popular dive spot known as Fly Point with a marine scientist and her assistant who were studying nudibranchs. The water was even colder than it had been that morning, and apart from the appearance of a wide array of nudibranchs the dive was not especially eventful, covering only a small, shallower segment of the world-renowned site. Exiting the water against a bitterly cold wind, I drove my rental car back to my accommodation still in my wetsuit, rather than dare to try changing into dry clothes in the carpark at near freezing temperatures. Days later, no amount of herbal tea, vegetable soups or hot baths seemed able to dispel the cold that had set into my bones from that night dive. Shivering to the core against the night air, I hung all my wet gear out along the fence of the small pool, hoping against all hope that somehow my gear might begin to dry in the winds that blew overnight, ready for my second attempt to dive Fly Point the next day.
I woke the next morning, configured my camera, brought my gear in from the pool fence, half-donned my wetsuit and was just about to load the car when to my horror, the key of my rental car was nowhere to be found. I tipped everything out of every bag and piece of luggage three times before discovering the elusive car key outside on the BBQ near the pool fence. Although I knew that I had well and truly missed my opportunity to join Steve and Jayne on this dive, I drove to the site to observe the conditions. The surface was choppy and dotted with white caps; it certainly did not appear to offer ideal conditions for diving. Hopefully I hadn’t missed too much?
But the reality of what I had missed soon became clear when I caught up with Steve and Jayne at a cafe later that day after consoling myself with lunch and souvenir shopping at the marina. Mating octopuses. A fiddler ray and a rock cod fighting over a fish that Steve then claimed from them and hand-fed to a hungry wobbegong. Nudibranchs too spectacular for words. I comforted myself with the knowledge that tomorrow would bring the much anticipated PADI Women’s Dive Day with the magnificent grey nurse sharks at Broughton Island. Within minutes, I learned that the shark dive had been cancelled due to worsening weather conditions. But somehow my spirits remained buoyant and I felt more than blessed, not only to be on vacation at Nelson Bay but for the very fact that of being alive at all. The photographer and reporter from the local newspaper who came to interview and photograph me at the dive shop to report on my interstate visit told me ‘Well, if positive attitude counts for anything, you’ll probably live forever.’
There is so much that is genuinely beyond our control in life, but what we can control is our response to whatever life presents as it unfolds. My five year roller-coaster journey with recurrent cancer has definitely taught me to go with the flow, and for me a positive attitude beats a happy ending every time. So I embraced the substitute dive with around 14 lovely mermaids at Fly Point, seeing it as an opportunity to make up for the dive missed the previous day due to the misplaced car key. And my spirit stayed bright when this dive was plagued by bad vis and lost dive buddies from the group of five that I was supposed to be in, finding myself without any clue where I was going underwater, but lost in good company with the lovely Rebecca who stayed by my side throughout the entire dive. Even though I took very few photos and was unable to take any video footage during this dive due to the silty conditions, as always the blessings far outweighed any potential disappointments or frustrations. Simply being alive to experience anything at all remotely pleasant is a blessing beyond measure. Although conditions did not allow me to experience Fly Point at its well-versed best, I felt grateful to have had the opportunity to dive at such a special spot at all.
I exited the dive with my buddy Rebecca and we posed on the stairs that led from the water for some more pictures for the newspaper (I’m the little critter on the right). The smiles on our faces tell it all. This is how I feel when I have just emerged from any dive, no matter how bad the vis is, no matter how lost I become, no matter how few critters I may have seen. The newspaper reporter had asked me the previous day ‘What does diving give to you in going through your cancer journey?’ and I had momentarily struggled to find words to convey what can only be explained by the look upon my face in the photo above. ‘Bliss,’ I answered him. ‘Diving gives me bliss.’ And my bliss doubled when the staff at Let’s Go Adventures informed me that the shark dive to Broughton Island had been successfully rescheduled for the following day.
I boarded the boat (genuinely one of the best boats I have dived from) along with just four other divers. Together with our Dive Master Alex and Skipper Steve we headed out across 2.5 mtr swell to Broughton Island in search of the critically endangered resident population of grey nurse sharks (click HERE to learn more about these amazing, docile sharks). I enjoyed sitting in the cabin talking with the Steve for the hour long journey, the conversation helping to keep my mind off the inevitable seasickness that threatened to take its toll. Descending 15 mtrs beneath the surface upon arrival at North Wall, we encountered some serious surge and a long swim past tens of thousands of spectacular schooling yellow tailed bait fish to an underwater canyon where ten large grey nurse sharks awaited us.
There is something intensely serene about spending time in the presence of these beautiful creatures as they appear unexpectedly through shimmering walls of baitfish, or suspend themselves motionless in the centre of the canyon before gliding with the slightest of movements. There is nothing menacing about them, and when the other divers had run out of air half way through the hour long dive, I found myself totally enraptured by having the sharks almost entirely to myself. Wobbegongs, Port Jackson sharks and grouper fish like big blue puppies swam merrily amongst the much larger grey nurses.
While some of the sharks were furtive, one seemed to have much greater confidence in my presence, and together we swam the length of the canyon, then turned around again and swam in the opposite direction at little more than arm’s length apart. This is my serenity – facing what most people fear and finding the simple beauty of deep connection. I cannot do justice in words to how swimming alongside sharks makes me feel, but the words peace, tranquility and bliss all come to mind.
It saddened me that the rest of the group voted not to do their second dive at Broughton Island with the grey nurses, but as less experienced divers they did not seem quite as comfortable as I was to swim with the surge. Yet somehow they all managed to maintain their composure on the boat to the next site while I upheld my lifelong tradition of becoming violently seasick on the way to the Cabbage Tree site with its relatively small pieces of boat wreckage. Although not as exciting to me as the sharks, this dive was nonetheless a milestone. Dive 365 – one dive to celebrate each day of the year. The amiable skipper Steve kindly presented me with two grey nurse shark teeth, one as a momento for each dive, and I received them with joy. My delight was doubled when I later learned that my dive buddy LP had spotted a humpback whale at one of our regular dive spots back home at the same time as I had been gliding with the grey nurses. Such are the blissful miracles of exploring the ocean’s vast wonders and mysteries!
Later that day I learned that, while I had been relaxing with the grey nurses, Aussie surfer Mick Fanning and a shark had almost scared one another half to death in an unexpected close encounter during a world title surfing competition in South Africa. While the media sensationalised the encounter as an ‘attack’, I am inclined to think that the human and the shark just happened to find themselves both in close proximity of the shark’s territory at the same time. While Fanning was justifiably shaken, the fact that he emerged unscathed is testament in my mind to the fact that the shark bore him no malice. It seems as though the shark was merely investigating its natural habitat and probably just became entangled in the surfer’s leg rope. It saddens me that Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ once again sets the tone for the world’s response to this incident in which the unsuspecting shark is villainised despite having shown no aggression and causing no damage to the person it encountered in its home turf where it had every right to be.
As a Sharkaholic, the grey nurse shark dive at Broughton Island was definitely my highlight of the trip (and well worth the trek for anyone who is keen to dive with sharks), but the people I met are equally treasured. I am so grateful to have met and spent time with Rob and Sarah, Steve and Jayne, Sal and Shar, Rebecca and Jacqui, Emma and Adam and several other locals who made a lasting impression on me. My enormous thanks go to the staff and crew of Let’s Go Adventures for making this fantastic adventure possible. And huge congratulations go to PADI for the success of their first ever Women’s Dive Day – may there be many more to follow!
Love and bubbles,
ps Tanks so much for reading this blog post. While you are here, please check out a few more of my ‘scuba vs tumour’ underwater adventures (there are plenty of other shark dive videos and photos to be found on this blog 🙂 )
pps And don’t forget to follow Pink Tank Scuba on Facebook and subscribe to this blog by email for new posts to be delivered directly to your inbox! 😀
ppps I 100% recommend that you put diving with the incredible grey nurse sharks at Broughton Island and my wonderful friends at Let’s Go Adventures on your Bucket List. You should ask about their affordable Dive House accommodation less than 10 minutes from the dive shop which is where I stayed in the Queen Room (and be sure to tell them PT sent you! 😉 )