Diving the South Coast – Cape Leeuwin to Eyre
Major towns along the Western Australian south coast are Augusta, Walpole, Denmark, Albany, Bremer Bay, Hopetoun and Esperance. There are dive shops currently at Albany, Bremer Bay and Esperance although this can change and you should check before leaving on a long journey.
Where to dive
The coast between Cape Leeuwin and Israelite Bay is characterised by white sandy beaches separated by granite headlands. East of Israelite Bay, long sandy beaches are backed by large sand dunes until replaced by the high limestone cliffs of the southern Nullarbor Plain. Much of the south coast foreshore land is forest and coastal reserve mixed with farmland. This thins as you travel east, becoming increasingly wild towards Israelite Bay.
There are few protected harbours on the south coast, with the exception of Princess Royal and Oyster Harbours in Albany, and in Esperance. A small number of permanently open estuaries provide for a relaxing day of fishing in a small boat but often have dangerous openings to the sea. Marine waters are relatively protected by nearshore headlands and islands around Albany and in the Recherche Archipelago near Esperance. There are larger boat ramps at the major centres, but in many remote places boats are launched from the beach by 4WDs or tractors.
Climate and when to dive
The south coast has a predominantly Mediterranean climate with warm dry summers and cold wet winters. The majority of the rain falls between July and August. Easterly winds are common in summer and westerlies in winter. In hot spring and summer afternoons, nasty sea breezes can quickly whip up from the east or south east, but they will also be experienced as south west and easterly too. Late autumn, winter and early spring see regular north-westerly morning winds. So like most areas, divers need to be early risers. It gets most stormy from April to October. Waves vary with the big Southern Ocean south-westerly swells being noticeable at the Cape Leeuwin end and tending to fade towards Esperance. Sea surface temperatures along the south coast vary between approximately 15ºC and 21ºC, warmer than expected due to the effect of the tropical Leeuwin Current, but cold to the skin of many Australians from warmer climes.
Marine life and diving attractions
The south coast has a low population base and it feels like a wild place with something new to discover just around the corner. This is especially so in the remote eastern part of the coast. The coast teems with inshore fishlife even though it is a relatively unproductive coast by world standards. This may have a lot to do with the fact that it is a mostly pristine coastline that has not been heavily impacted by humans. Rivers are small across the region and while that might affect local fishermen it does a lot to make for very clear water for swimmers and divers, especially in the low rainfall and lower wave energy eastern section of the coast.
The south coast includes many different marine habitats depending on the geology, exposure, depth and complexity of the reefs. Seagrass is common in sheltered waters like Princess Royal Harbour at Albany. Thanks to poor water exchange these meadows aren’t always great dives, although there is often some unique marine life to see and photograph and sometimes interesting small wrecks in the major harbours like Albany. On the open coast, the macroalgal Ecklonia radiata (sometimes commonly called strapweed) is the dominant plant. These shallow well-lit weedy reefs are very common in inshore areas and the caves and crevices of the reefs protect a wide variety of fish and invertebrate life. Lots of divers chase crayfish and abalone here, with the result that they are getting scarcer and smaller in the well-visited spots close to major towns and cities, as are edible fish.
Average inshore depths tend to decrease from west to east, with the sites being deeper closer to the shore in the western end. In deeper depths the kelp gives way to gardens of filter-feeding animals and ‘deep reef’ habitat full of colourful sponges. While deeps can be found in sections of the east too, in the west section of the south coast, the depths tend to be found closer to the shore.
This coast is an area of high biodiversity, and like a lot of temperate Australia, the species here are often unique to the region. The Recherche Archipelago alone has 265 species of fish, 350 species of sponges and 240 species of marine algae. The region has 9 species of seagrass. The sponge fauna amounts to 20% of the described species in Australia. Nearly 400 species of marine molluscs have been recorded in the Albany area alone. These species include the western blue groper which ranges between eastern South Australia and Lancelin; the West Australian dhufish which ranges between the Recherche Archipelago and Shark Bay. Braun’s wrasse is only known from the area between Cheyne Beach and King George Sound. It is estimated that in some areas, such as the Recherche Archipelago, up to one third of the south coast fish species are endemic (unique) and also represent some of the most abundant species. Some species are rare or threatened including southern right whale and the Australian sea-lion, southern giant petrel and shy albatross, the great white shark and leafy seadragon. It is a comparatively unexplored region scientifically.
Tall forest in the west giving way to coastal heath and then the arid land vegetation of the southern Nullarbor Plain. Sixty six catchments enter the ocean entering the sea through placid estuaries, often separated from the ocean especially in the eastern end of the region. The Western Australian south coast incorporates over 600 separate beaches and 580 offshore islands, many of them rarely visited.
Much of the foreshore is wild coastal heath and forest with excellent walking trails for both the fit and hardy and those just wanting to see some big trees and nice beaches not too far away from the car. There are some massive coastal national parks, such D’Entrecasteaux, Fitzgerald River and Cape Arid National Parks.
The coastal scenery is truly magnificent, and that isn’t tourist spin. In my opinion nothing beats a granite shoreline for grandeur. Then pink and orange rocks also erode into coarse white sand, giving the sea a deep azure colour in the clear waters of its many sheltered coves. These bays are generally framed by rugged offshore islands and are often visited by local wildlife, especially in more remote places. The family will love the sheltered beaches and warm weather, giving you an opportunity to duck off and also sample some of the local diving.
If you want the full experience, get off the beaten track and look for the experience of some of the more unique coastal locations. For flora and fauna, especially birds try Stokes Inlet, Wilson Inlet, King George Sound, Princess Royal Harbour, Oyster Harbour, Beaufort Inlet, Blackwood River, Broke Inlet, the Fitzgerald Inlet system and the Culham Inlet system, as they are important wetlands and estuaries. Broke Inlet and St Mary’s Inlet are little altered wild estuaries, increasingly rare in Australia and also around the world more generally. These are better explored by kayak or small boat.
The ocean lover will also appreciate a tour to look for the southern right whales that migrate from Antarctic waters to mate, calve and spend the winter months in warmer waters along the southern Australian coastline. You might also see other offshore spectacles like fish migration bait balls. Western Australian salmon make a westward migration along the south coast during their autumn spawning season and Australian sardine often forms huge schools near the surface along the south coast in summer, staying well submerged during winter. These are attacked by seabirds, whales, dolphins and sharks.
Due mainly to relatively low levels of development, south coast marine environments have not been significantly degraded compared with marine environments elsewhere. Exceptions to this apply in some localised areas like Oyster Harbour, Albany. With increasing human population and industrial development in the region, impacts and pressures on the environment are increasing. Areas with larger coastal cities and towns including Albany, Esperance and Augusta often attract new developments. However, smaller coastal towns such as Bremer Bay, Hopetoun, Walpole and Denmark have expanded rapidly too. Together, coastal cities and towns contain the majority of the region’s population. In addition to the resident population, it is estimated that over 500,000 Australian and overseas tourists visit the south coast region annually.