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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.

Clockwise from top left:

Clockwise from top left: A school of bullseye swirl over a resting wobbegong shark at Fish Rock. An octopus busily hunts for its next meal at the Julian Rocks Marine Reserve. A zebra shark passes overhead at Julian Rocks Marine Reserve. A loggerhead turtle circles Fish Rock. here, a sponge-lined grotto stuffed with bullseye, fortunately contains a face-forward wobbegong who glares moodily at me as I photograph him. The next morning the boat heads for Northwest Solitary Island, a tiny spit of land only 18 miles from the mainland. We moor in a shallow bay called Lion’s Den, where mantas were sighted the day before our arrival. Our first dive is manta-free, though certainly pretty enough. The site is an easy 40-foot depth with lots of hard and soft coral, busy schools of bullseye and butterflyfish, and some truly beautiful green turtles. Still — and I know it sounds petulant — I feel a little ripped off: only a few gray nurse sharks up north and weather-limited dive sites here. We want some mantas. Thankfully, the universe agrees. We are halfway through our second dive when the first manta shows up; before long, we have seen five different ones. The next three hours are total bedlam. A manta (or two or three) is within sight at any given time. Soon we’ve memorized them by size and coloration, and I have chosen a favorite — a large melanistic beauty, with a fractured wingtip, that follows me around like a puppy. We make good use of all the extra air in the hold, only calling it a day when the sun is low in the sky and every 80 | FALL 2016

tank on board has been emptied. The boat heads back to the mainland, and we watch wistfully as Lion’s Den disappears on the horizon. HOW THE ZEBRA GOT HIS SPOTS Our guide looks sternly at me as we motor, Perfect- Storm-style, through the surf zone. “I’m glad you’re not gonna debate me on whether they are leopard sharks or zebra sharks. Everyone here calls them leopard sharks.” I dismiss an urge to discuss the “other” leopard sharks, the ones that inhabit the waters off our home state of California. Fact is, we are here to see (apologies to our guide) zebra sharks. Aside from the fact that leopard sharks appear more stereotypically sharklike while zebra sharks’ faces resemble that of the Pillsbury Doughboy, it’s easy to see how a misunderstanding could arise: True leopard sharks are spotted throughout life, and the stripes that adorn juvenile zebra sharks fade to become spots as the animals mature. The end result is the same: spotted sharks that can be reliably seen at certain times of the year, though in different locations. We moor near the eastern edge of the rocks and drop into 30 feet of water, kicking over to Needles, a series of ledges, rocks and sand channels. When we arrive at what seems to be the epicenter of shark action, we settle behind a rock, hoping that our gray nurse shark plan will work equally well here (and feeling quite thankful that zebra sharks swim at a comparatively faster pace). Before long, zebra sharks are swimming overhead at regular intervals. Shortly thereafter other marine life is also passing us, including various rays, hunting octopuses and jellyfishes, the latter occasionally pursued by a hungry turtle. Between the cartoonish faces of the zebra sharks and the nearconstant trigger-pulling motion of depressing a camera shutter button, the whole setup has a bit of a video game vibe: zebra shark, zebra shark, bonus eagle ray, zebra shark, zebra shark, triple bonus loggerhead. This is a lazy, entitled shooter’s delight: The zebra sharks seem to operate on a circuit, so there is little need to move other than to slightly adjust one’s shooting angle. As we climb back on board, another boat has called to tell us about a manta sighted on the other side of the rocks. We look at one other with amusement, smiling benevolently. (ONE manta? And we’d have to move?) The ridiculousness of our reaction is not lost on me. In just two weeks we have become so utterly spoiled that the prospect of a single manta is unexceptional, less than a dozen zombie sharks per dive is thoroughly inadequate, I forget to appreciate wobbegongs, and I compare dozens of zebra sharks to a game of Space Invaders. The Boomerang Coast warrants its name for several reasons; one is that my return is absolutely guaranteed. And next time, no matter how much New South Wales spoils me, I will make it a point to photograph every wobbegong I see. AD HOW TO DIVE IT GETTING THERE: Many international airlines fly into Brisbane and Sydney, and local connections are available to Coffs Harbor (adjacent to the Solitary Islands Marine Park). From Brisbane or Sydney, the drive to South West Rocks can take six hours. Many visitors (including U.S. citizens) will need a short-term visa or an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) to visit Australia. Visit australia.gov.au for details. SEASONS, EXPOSURE PROTECTION AND MARINE LIFE: Water temperatures fluctuate greatly with the seasons in this part of New South Wales, with winter (May-August) low temperatures dipping to the low 60s°F and late summer temperatures getting into the upper 70s°F; a 5 mm wetsuit is adequate in summer, but a 7 mm wetsuit with a hood is a better choice during the winter. Because of the wide differences in water temperatures, the marine life also varies by season. Divers who visit during the winter months are more likely to interact with gray nurse sharks as well as giant cuttlefish at all sites. Summer months may yield manta ray and zebra shark sightings. Wobbegong sharks, black cod and many types of rays can be viewed year-round. The waters around Fish Rock (which can have cool thermoclines yearround) are a good place to view gray nurse sharks regardless of season. (Note: We visited in March.) SKILL LEVEL AND CONDITIONS: Sites in this area can vary widely in terms of depth, current and surge, so be sure to inform the dive operation about your skill level to ensure your dives are enjoyable. The closest hyperbaric chambers are in Sydney and Brisbane. ALERTDIVER.COM | 81