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(albeit nearly

(albeit nearly imperceptibly) and that it has a mouthful of sharp choppers — both identifying features of a gray nurse shark. Another one is visible in the distance, so we drop into the surgey gutter between the ledges to put our plan into action. I grip a rock and attempt to stay still. I am occupied by two major contemplations as I wait for the shark’s approach (goodness knows I have plenty of time): One, limited exhalation means limited inhalation, and two, a better name for these dawdling creatures is “zombie sharks.” Over the next two days, the temperature below 30 feet drops, resulting in cruel, 10°F-plus thermoclines. We’re baited by warm, clear water at the surface, which switches to ice-cream-headache-inducing, cold, murky water at depth. We suck it up. This chilly, nutrient-rich water is frustrating for photographers, but it’s happy news for zombie sharks. In an attempt to appear well-rounded, we gamely revisit the wobbegongs and traverse the cave, but it’s the gray nurse sharks that have our devotion. By our final dive day, their numbers are finally swelling, and as we glumly pack our gear into the car, we promise our dive guide that we’ll be back soon. MANTA MAYHEM We arrive to see the dive boat being launched across the beach — more specifically, a kelp-covered beach. I glance toward the captain. “The water’s warm, you say?” “Yep,” he replies. He sees me warily inspecting the kelp and says, “There’s colder water right off the beach. But not out at the islands. They’re in the East Australian Current.” That seems like quite a temperature differential, but it’s what this place is known for. The colder, inshore current comes from the temperate environs of Tasmania, while the East Australian Current 78 | FALL 2016

Left: During the summer, mantas sometimes congregate at Northwest Solitary Island. Below: Soft corals adorn the rocks at Mackerel Run, a dive site at the tip of North Solitary Island. transports warm water from the Coral Sea and Great Barrier Reef. The two collide at the Solitary Islands, producing a unique environment with features and marine life from both regions, key to why this marine park is so fiercely protected. Sure enough, 24 miles offshore the water is as warm and blue as any emblematic tropical destination, with not a shred of kelp in sight. Conditions prevent us from mooring at North West Rocks (the location of legendary site Fish Soup), but we’re able to moor at the northern tip of North Solitary Island to explore equally famous Anemone Bay, a sloping, boulder-strewn reef with a maximum depth of 80 feet. Two large shovelnose guitarfish are patrolling the area, so I spend most of the dive hoping to come face-to-face (or better yet, camerato-face) with one of these bizarre sharklike rays. When I finally throw in the towel on that endeavor, I begin to truly appreciate the beauty of the site’s namesake invertebrates. Overlapping anemones carpet the seafloor, forming a veritable field of McMansions for the exceedingly prosperous local clownfish. Nearby Mackerel Run, a rocky, soft-coral-covered finger that juts into the open ocean, is no less striking. The medium depth (75 feet) is tame enough, but the current off the point is fierce. I squint into it, knowing that on any given day this spot probably bears witness as hordes of amazing marine wildlife swim past. No sooner has that thought entered my mind than a large eagle ray whizzes by, soon followed by a school of barracuda, another eagle ray and a huge black cod. Elbow Cave, on the protected side of the island, grabs my interest as soon as I see a free-swimming wobbegong. Wobbegongs! I’ve completely forgotten to admire this area’s wobbegongs, and they absolutely litter the site (although most are represented by tails sticking out from under ledges). The namesake cave ALERTDIVER.COM | 79