The Recherche Archipelago
With 140 granite islands and numerous rocky islets the archipelago is touted as one of the top 10 diving sites in Australia. That’s a big ask in a continent with so much great diving, but they might well be on to something. When the weather is cooperating, the waters offer excellent visibility and often terrific fish life. Within the Recherche Archipelago divers will find very photogenic granite formations and wrecks – the largest being the Sanko Harvest. The waters around the islands offer varying habitats with dives sites usually shallower and more sheltered on the weedy reefs of the northern shores of the inshore islands. It also has plenty of oddities. An encrusting coral-like algae, rhodoliths, form beds on sandier inshore areas. Further out, on the exposed shores there are often steep faces of granite, crevices and boulder fields. On very deep outlying islands there are rich sponge and invertebrate gardens where the seaweed doesn’t get enough light, and no longer dominates the reef. The islands boast over 450 types of sponge, sea grasses, and soft corals. Marine mammals associated with the islands include two species of seal, large groups of common dolphins, and whales during their migration season.
Woody Island harbour
Woody Island is located 15 kilometres South-East of Esperance in the Recherche Archipelago. Woody Island is the third largest in the archipelago and the only island that offers easy public access through a regular passenger ferry. Daily cruise access in the warm months covers the15km from Esperance. The island offers safari hut accommodation, visitors centre & kiosk/café. Once you arrive the only transport method is via foot. It is a worthwhile walk as the island is a breeding ground for the Fleshy-footed shearwaters (Puffinus carneipes) and for Little Penguins (Eudyptula minor). Abundant bird life is found due to the tall Eucalyptus trees that dominate the island. Swimming and snorkelling is possible from many locations around the island but the bay where the ferry pulls in is sheltered and ideal if you have heavy scuba gear. There is a no spearfishing zone near the ferry stop. The bottom is rocky with many crevices and boulders along a long wall. The crevices contain swarms of small fish and colourful corals. The area is also occasionally buzzed by sea lions.
The island has a rocky and weed-covered bottom with numerous granite boulders. Crevices and swim-throughs are home to lots of fish and some colourful marine invertebrates including sponges, soft corals, ascidians (sea squirts), hard corals and gorgonian sea fans. There is a wide variety of fish life. It is a regular bad weather alternative dive as it is shallow and sheltered.
Wreck “Lapwing”, Long Island
This 32 foot wooden hulled fishing vessel lies in the lee of Long Island is relatively intact. The vessel is covered in soft coral and sponge growth. Her sheltered location makes the small wreck a popular local dive. Nearby is a rocky reef with plenty of local reef fish and an occasional leafy sea dragon.
In some places the bottom drops into 20M relatively close to the island where the bottom is covered in large rock formations. These make some huge caverns and swim through. The 10M high reef ridges drop away into sand gutters and are fringed with corals and smaller bommies. Larger fish are sometimes seen including Western Blue Groper, Queen Snapper and Harlequin Cod
Sandy Hook Island
This is a small island near Long Island. The rocky ridges drop from 15m into 30 metres or more and there are lots of big caves and crevices to explore.
This exposed site is usually hard to dive and gets a hammering from the swell, with the highest rock only 14M high and usually awash. It is named after an unidentified coaster called the Magistrate that ran aground on the rocks. In calm weather the site enjoys clear waters. The water clarity enhances the spectacular walls around the rocks that drop straight into 30m. The rock walls are undercut with caverns caused by the heavy swells.
The island is surrounded by large granite reefs and small islets. The weedy bottom tends to be quite jagged with rocky ridges and bommies dropping into the depths. Lots of crevice and undercuts attract fish including occasional schools of large pelagics like samson fish and sweep. One of the small islets also has the broken remains of an old wooden fishing boat.
The northern side of the island is shallow and sheltered and the weedy reef is a good place to see lots of small reef fish among the seaweed. The exposed southern side is more spectacular and drops into 50 m of water with big boulders and caves. This deep reef habitat has less weed due to the low light penetration, allowing invertebrates to dominate. The sheer rocky walls have a dense covering of sponges, gorgonians, soft corals and occasionally a black coral tree. The dense fish life includes blue groper, morwong, boarfish, harlequin fish, blue devilfish, silver drummer, yellowtail and bullseyes. Seals appear from time to time as there are seal colonies on nearby islands.
This large granite dome rises from 40m, just the east of Remark. Both dive sites are very similar.
The SANKO HARVEST
13 – 44M
In 1991, the young Korean captain of the 174M long 33,000-ton bulk cargo ship was foolishly taking a shortcut through the inshore waters off Esperance. The ship struck a hidden reef and began to take on water. The vessel was carrying 30,000 tonnes of fertiliser worth $10.5M. Also on board were 570 tonnes of bunker fuel and 74 tonnes of mainly diesel fuel. Hopes were high that the vessel and her cargo of phosphate could be saved. When a wild storm blew up the next day, the vessel was instead battered on the rocks, broke in half, and sank. Oil leaked from the wreck polluting pristine beaches and killing dozens of sea birds and seals. However, quick action from volunteers and the authorities averted a major disaster.
Today the wreck sits in 30-40 m of water, with the bridge resting 50 m away from the hull. She is the biggest wreck in Australia and the world’s second largest accessible wreck dive, her bridge is bigger than the entire HMAS “Perth”. It is a long 21 nautical mile offshore boat ride and a deeper wreck for more experienced divers. The wreck is full of potential entanglements. Disorientation can even be a problem on this large wreck site.
Divers can explore the bridge area, the engine room and the tower cranes. The hull now has a covering of anemones, seaweed, soft coral and ascideans and is still to be fully colonized by invertebrate life. Reef fish usually found on the wreck include boarfish, bullseyes, blue gropers, morwong, sweep, perch and yellowtail. She is well-broken up, but into pretty huge pieces.
Bookings are essential for the wreck dive and a group of at least 4-6 divers, and excellent weather is needed before the charter boats will attempt the journey.
Wreck of the “Penguin”, Middle Island
The “Penguin” was a 120ft long steam tug built in Newcastle in 1897. It was owned by the Western Australian Government and used for surveying, rescue and salvage work and fisheries research. In 1920 she was fitted with refrigerators and sent to survey the fishing potential of Esperance and the Bight. The “Penguin” took shelter from a gale in Goose Island Bay (Middle Island). The gale strengthened and shifted and the “Penguin” was blown ashore and wrecked. There was no loss of life. The remains of the “Penguin” can still be seen in Goose Island Bay, almost level with the eastern end of the salt lake and not far from the “Belinda”. The top of the boiler and a section of the hull are visible above sea level close to the shore.
Wreck of the “Belinda”, Middle Island
GPS position: Lat. 34º 05.405’ S Long. 123º 12.619’ E
The whaling brig “Belinda” was built at Yarmouth in 1810. The brig was armed with two guns and sent to Australia to hunt for seals. In 1824 she went ashore, probably in a gale like the one that wrecked the “Penguin”. The crew were stranded on Middle Island, and unsuccessfully tried to reach Sydney in an open boat. In dire straits, they were luckily picked up by a passing whaler. The wreck of the “Belinda” was discovered in 1989 by archaeologists. The wreck lies at the eastern end of the sandy beach on the north side of Middle Island, some 30 m from the shore on a sand bottom. The wreck is periodically covered and uncovered by shifting sands. In 1989, a 12 m by 6 m section of part of one side of the hull was visible. In 2001 only a couple of concretions were visible. This site is one of the oldest of its type in Australia and is a ‘look and don’t touch’ dive.