Australia – Part 1 February 4, 2017
– Sydney –
I started my adventure in Sydney and planned to work my way up the coastline to the Great Barrier Reef. I didn’t know how much I’d be diving but I had my gear from Tonga! Oddly enough on my first day I met a fellow freediver at a bar and we made plans to shore dive Shelly Beach, a beautiful small beach that doubles as a marine reserve. To get there I boarded the $3.50 ferry across the harbor and stood at the bow, I was delighted to see the signature Sydney skyline!
Shelly Beach is a peaceful 15 minute walk from Manly Wharf and the cliffs near the beach are decorated with stainless steal artwork. Welcomed by clear shallow water we saw tons of life including blue gropers, spangled emperors, rays, and I even had a catfish try to swim up my black swimmers as we searched for the famous Underwater Motorcycle! If you ever find yourself in Sydney I recommend staying near Grand Central for easy travels and to ride the ferry back from Shelly’s with the setting sun, you’ll have a stunning view of the whole city and the boats in the harbor.
– Coffs Harbor –
I had the pleasure of meeting two beautiful Australian freediving sisters, Rachel & Natalie Vercoe, not at the same time but a year apart in two different countries. I met Rachel in Tonga where she was working as an underwater photographer for Bluewater Explore, then a year later I met Natalie in Quebec while spearing in rivers and dams before we would dive for striped sea bass off Montauk, NY together. They are two of the nicest people you will ever meet!
Now that I was in Australia, they kindly invited me to visit their beautiful home in Coffs Harbor where they have crystal clear swimming holes, and miles of undeveloped beaches to camp on, surf, ride horseback, watch whales, and spearfish! It is no wonder why legendary spearfisher & cameraman, Brett Vercoe, chooses Coffs to call home.
With Brett at the helm, Rachel, Natalie and I checked a few spots before heading out for “Dollies!” (Mahi Mahi). It was a completely different ocean that I knew very little about and was an absolute thrill. I shadowed Rachel watching as she dropped and searched the ocean floor, hoping to learn the local technique. Watching from the surface it wasn’t long before her “rig” took off, the red buoy following the big fish pulling on the other end of the line. She would eventually wrestle a 30 pound Kingfish to the surface and into the fish bag. This would be the fish of the day. As the day progressed, I had my best dolphin encounter, listened to whales sing underwater, and had an incredible opportunity to land a monster Kingfish but couldn’t reel him in.
The next two dive days we had tough conditions with ten foot of visibility through the “cornflake” looking algae but Brett was determined to put me on a nice “Kingie,” and he did twice. Unfortunately I managed to lose another very large fish (around 50lbs), this time the kingfish bent my spear 45 degrees while the other fish found a cave to swim into, they fight just like powerful Amerjacks.
Feeling discouraged about some irrelevant news and my Kingfish luck, I was swimming in my own head. The idea of Great White Sharks patrolling the area did not help my busy mind, the shark attacks up North at Bryon Bay were all over the news and GPS tags showed the White Shark’s yearly migration South towards us. At one point I was diving right next to two Humpbacks and I knew I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between them if I saw either in the murk. To cope I just kept hitting my “reset button” telling myself, “this is going to be the dive.” Thankfully, the only predators that I saw were Wobbegong and Sand Tiger sharks.
Brett had one last trick in his book to deal with the backwards current we had been fighting all of my last day. With the conditions deteriorating, we decided to check one last spot. In the water I was unable to tell were I was so Brett directed me towards the edge of the reef using his GPS and sonar. “The ledge is right under your float” he’d call from the boat, my red float bobbed 75ft down current. I took those final moments to do my pre-dive routine then duck dived under, kicking through the dark water, chin slightly tucked until I was just above the bottom in 60ft.
I righted myself above the jagged rocks that had deep cracks and ledges. I was looking for a Mangrove Jack (a small to medium sized snapper) to salvage dinner on this slow day. As I drifted over the bottom, I saw a gully with six long objects laying horizontally on the sandy floor. They looked like stringers from an old wreck. Finally, I came to the realization they were Mulloway, a prized fish. I lined up my shot, hoping it was the right species and of legal size because it was the first I have ever seen. I shot and connected above the gill. The fish bolted for the ledge, as he kicked I could see the telltale spots down his back confirming it was the right fish! I locked down and put a lot of heat on him bending my spear but altered his course enough. As I kicked up I kept steady pressure on him to make sure he didn’t find the unforgiving rocks below while letting the line slide through my gloves to surface.
After a breath of air and a hoot for the boat, I started gaining line from the surface, then a white glow started to rise, “is that a shark on my fish, oh no?!” For a brief moment I suspected the worst until fish’s outline came into view through the murky water. The fish was just huge and changed from a dark brown color to a combination of white gold and metallic purple!
I couldn’t believe it, this fish put me on cloud nine. Right then and there I knew my Australia trip had been made. On the ride in I finally asked Brett if there were any White Sharks around. I knew there were but I had been trying to keep cool. He just laughed and said “I’m surprised you didn’t see one!”
That same day I would clean the fish, pack my bags, and start a nine hour train and bus ride to Brisbane where I would dive with another spearfishing legend, Tim McDonald, the very next day. Stay tuned for more…
A special thank you to the Vercoe family for their hospitality and for being awesome individuals. I will treasure these memories forever!