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Alert Diver is the dive industry’s leading publication. Featuring DAN’s core content of dive safety, research, education and medical information, each issue is a must-read reference, archived and shared by passionate scuba enthusiasts. In addition, Alert Diver showcases fascinating dive destinations and marine environmental topics through images from the world’s greatest underwater photographers and stories from the most experienced and eloquent dive journalists in the business.

THE EDGE OF THE

THE EDGE OF THE Boomerang NORTHERN NEW SOUTH WALES A gray nurse shark patrols Fish Rock – slowly. Opposite: North Solitary Island boasts a unique array of both temperate- and warm-water species. 76 | FALL 2016

[ TEXT BY ALLISON SALLMON PHOTOS BY ANDY AND ALLISON SALLMON [ Tell divers you’re headed to Australia, and they’ll almost certainly ask you about the Great Barrier Reef. Some hardcore divers might wonder if you’re headed to South Australia or Tasmania. But beyond those spots, this huge country is a bit of a dive-tourism mystery for many North Americans. You can hardly blame us; it’s pretty easy to be distracted by the planet’s largest living structure up north and the white sharks and sea dragons down south. Of course, the locals know better, which is why many of their favorite in-country dive destinations go beyond the familiar. Local knowledge is how our attention was first drawn to the details of the “Boomerang Coast,” the curved, populous expanse of coastline extending from Brisbane to Adelaide. Along this shoreline are innumerable renowned dives, including several sites that make it onto Australian Top 10 lists year after year. A full exploration of the region would take months, so we narrow in on a 350-mile stretch of northern New South Wales. This area, where warm water meets cold and the marine life lineup reads like a bucket list, is worthy of our focused attention. WAITING FOR ZOMBIE SHARKS The sleepy town of South West Rocks is celebrated for a single but spectacular dive: Fish Rock, a low-lying, unassuming islet surrounded by underwater ledges and pinnacles, most of which are shallower than 100 feet. The islet itself is a major underwater draw, as a 400-foot-long cave runs through the center of it. This site is a critical habitat for gray nurse sharks, and not just one or two, but hundreds of these threatened creatures swarm around the rock and fill the shallow end of the cave. Well, they normally swarm and fill these places anyway. The water has been unusually warm (79°F when we arrived), and for the first time in more than a decade the gray nurses have disappeared from the area altogether, with no sightings of them for two weeks. Reports of a single shark the previous afternoon has prompted a mood of cautious optimism. Our dive guide briefs us on their behavior: Gray nurse sharks have a disconcerting, snaggletoothed appearance, but because they exert low levels of energy during daylight hours, their movement is sluggish. Rapid movement, bubbles and bright light may startle them. We consider these tips and hatch a cunning plan: When we happen upon a shark, we will stay perfectly still, keep our lights off and try not to exhale. Seems easy enough. We can’t test our strategy right away, as the sharks remain absent that first morning. Fish Rock isn’t considered one of Australia’s best dives for nothing though: Tasselled and spotted wobbegongs are piled on top of ridges and bommies and nearly hidden by swirls of shimmering, angular bullseye. Huge bull rays pass by at a regular interval, as do turtles — several green as well as a stubborn geezer of a loggerhead that practically shoves us out of his way. We see a squadron of eagle rays and swim through a spectacular cave containing more wobbegongs and bull rays, several large black cod and two lovely Spanish dancer nudibranchs. No sharks? No problem. But when we descend hopefully for our afternoon dive, we hit a rush of cool water that wasn’t present earlier, and our guide immediately begins gesturing toward a long, slender lump in between the ledges. Keen observation reveals that the lump is moving ALERTDIVER.COM | 77