The town of South West Rocks first came on my radar when I saw a Facebook video of a school of hammerhead sharks. Say what?! SCHOOLS of hammerhead sharks in Australia? I needed to know more! I discovered that the South West Rocks dive is the place to go scuba diving with these rare schools of hammerhead sharks. Moreover, this dive spot has the largest number of grey nurse sharks in the country and is home to the only ocean cave dive in Australia.
South West Rocks Dive: Fish Rock Cave and Grey Nurse Sharks
What to expect on the South West Rocks Dive?
Your South West Rocks Dive will most likely consist of a dive site named Fish Rock. A jaggedy looking rock formation that you can easily spot in the water from the Smokey Cape lighthouse and Cape Beach. While only one dive site might not seem like the most exciting place from above the water, once submerged, a whole world opens up. Being one of the top 10 best scuba dives of Australia, scuba divers from all over the world come here for good reason.
The dives at Fish Rock will take place either in the morning or at midday. The first dive is generally spent exploring the area around Fish Rock cave. This is when you’ll see several grey nurse sharks amongst so much other fish life. The second dive is dedicated to going into the famous Fish Rock Cave and a few more shark encounters.
Fish Rock Cave Dive
The Fish Rock Cave dive consists of diving into the only “true ocean cave dive” with an impressive length of 125 meters. The dive starts at the deepest and most narrow part of the cave at 24 meters. As the cave is pitch black inside, you will be happy to have a torch in hand to provide some illumination. Swimming to the entrance of the cave, you will see large schools of smaller fish and quite a few grey nurse sharks who are swimming back and forth in the gutter leading up to the entrance.
As I mentioned before, the beginning of the dive is the most narrow section and you will quickly feel whether you are comfortable enough to continue on to the chimney which leads you into the other side of the cave, a 12m deep, much wider entrance. This part of the cave is also known as the Aquarium due to the abundance of fish hanging out in this area.
Soon after entering the cave, there will be plenty of fish life. Keep your eyes open for giant lobsters looking back at you from the darkness. We spotted bull rays, several small schools of fish, countless lobsters and even a crab hanging out in the cave! My favorite section of the cave is definitely the larger, more shallow exit to the cave. The Aquarium offers a beautiful contrast between the darkness of the cave and the bright blue waters outside.
Do the smart thing and ALWAYS get travel insurance before taking off! Even if you have already left, it’s never to late to protect yourself.
I want to add a small disclaimer to this portion of the blog post. If you are claustrophobic or know that you will not be comfortable in a small, dark space, please alert your dive instructors, either in the shop or on the boat. I’m happy to admit that I was not immensely comfortable in the cave, but I was confident enough in my scuba diving abilities to complete the dive. I want to add this as I don’t want anyone to feel pressured. Fish rock is still a fantastic dive site, even if you choose to not take part in the cave dive and there are many other options such as swimming quickly into the Aquarium or just hanging out at the exit of the Aquarium.
Shark Diving in NSW: Cage or No Cage?
The star of the show at the South West Rocks dive is the grey nurse shark. Even though the local groupers might think they are the stars (did anyone say cats of the sea?)! While you can find grey nurse sharks both on the east coast and the west coast of Australia, South West Rocks is one the most popular places in Australia to scuba dive with them. Fish Rock has plenty of big gutters around the island and the grey nurse sharks love it here.
Grey nurse sharks can be found at Fish Rock at all times of the year, which is great if you’re on an east coast road trip. They are also the easiest sharks that you will ever swim with. These beauties are super docile and swim at the chillest tempo. It almost looks like they’re posing for the shot. As long as you’re not blocking their path, they are the happiest chappies in the water. Even if you are right in line with them by accident, they’ll prefer to avert or as one did with me, just swim through your legs!
Are Grey Nurse Sharks Dangerous?
As I mentioned above, the grey nurse shark is absolutely not dangerous. Being in the water with them, you can almost feel how relaxed they are to have you around. Especially the grey nurse sharks in South West Rocks are pretty used to humans and pretend you’re not even there.
That being said, the grey nurse sharks might not be dangerous to humans, but we are dangerous to them. At the moment, grey nurse sharks are on the critically endangered list. I couldn’t find an exact list of how many east coast grey nurse sharks are left. Some reports said 400, others said 292 and then there is a report of 2010 saying that there are between 1146 and 1662 individuals. Regardless of the actual number of sharks left, thinking that you can see around 20 sharks at the South West Rocks dive sites is a pretty spectacular experience!
How we can help the critically endangered East Coast Grey Nurse Sharks.
The biggest threat to the east coast grey nurse shark is 100% us humans. Grey nurse sharks have the unfortunate faith of living in locations that fishermen (both commercial and recreational) love just as much. This results in them becoming bycatch or maybe even being killed on purpose. Another threat is the shark control program that is rolled out across the east coast, including shark nets and drummy lines.
As scuba divers, we are the ones trying to save and protect our beautiful underwater world. Therefore it’s important to know how to swim with these beauties without stressing them out. I found a code of conduct that I’ve added below. Don’t worry too much though, our skipper from South West Rocks Dive School explained all these rules right before we entered the water.
“To comply with the Code of Conduct for Diving with grey nurse sharks divers must not:
- conduct night dives on known aggregation sites
- block entrances to caves or gutters
- interrupt the swimming pattern of the sharks
- feed or touch the sharks, chase or harass the sharks
- interfere with the sharks using mechanical apparatus ie. scooters, horns
- use Shark Pod / Shark Shield Devices in known aggregation sites
- dive in groups totaling more than 10 divers”
Other than your behavior in the water, your actions outside of the water are super important! Many people still consider all sharks, from the great white shark to the grey nurse shark, equally as dangerous. Many fishermen still think that killing a shark is a good thing as they are the ‘bad guys’. I would love to see more people talk about why sharks are important to our ecosystem and why they are not the monsters a lot of people think that they are. Let me know in the comments if you would like to know more about why sharks are so important. In the meantime, I can recommend the Project Aware page dedicated to this vulnerable species.
Other Sharks at Fish Rock
Next to the grey nurse sharks, there are a few other sharks that love visiting or residing at Fish Rock. The wobbegong shark is another resident shark that absolutely adores Fish Rock. You’ll see plenty of them during the dive. Don’t forget to have a good look at their seriously grumpy faces! Don’t accidentally sit or step on them as they do get pretty territorial.
As I mentioned in my intro, my attention was first drawn to the South West Rock dive due to the presence of schools of hammerhead sharks. There is something about these sharks that absolutely fascinates me! I really, really wanted to see one. But unfortunately, I was not so lucky during my dives. I was told that they tend to visit Fish Rock in the days around the full moon during the summer months. If you are going to this dive site to see the bigger sharks, don’t forget to regularly look up! These sharks most likely will be swimming in the stronger currents above you.
We did see one bigger shark in the currents quite far away from us. Because it was so far away, it was hard to make out which shark was swimming across but my divemaster thought it was a bronze whaler shark. The same divemaster thought he saw a bull shark, during a different dive, that was pretty far away, but I did not get a look at that one in the deep blue.
Other Marine Life at Fish Rock
Fish Rock wouldn’t be called Fish Rock without a whole lot more fish swimming around this dive site. In all honesty, I completely understand why both sharks and fishermen absolutely love this site! The sheer size of these schools is super impressive and abundant.
During our three-day visit to the town of South West Rocks, we got super lucky to see dolphins every single day. Making it a mission to see them swim under the water, the speedy dolphins kept teasing us to no belief! Needless to say, they were gone before we managed to get back in the water. Always a glorious sighting though, whether it is from the water or from the beach.
Other regular visitors to Fish Rock we got to catch a glimpse of were ocean turtles, massive bull rays, plenty of needy groupers, a graceful swimming Spanish dancer, lots of anemonefish, nudie branches, moray eels, cuttlefish and so much more. More rare visitors to the South West Rock dive site include manta rays and whale sharks! If you visiting during winter, you will most likely end up spotting a humpback whale as well.
What is the best time to dive South West Rocks
The South West Rocks dive is a great dive site all year round. I’ve had the pleasure of diving Fish Rock during two different times of the year, during the Easter holidays and mid-December. Both times I had great visibility and warm water.
The best time for you to go and dive Fish Rock is probably depending on the types of animals you would like to see and the water temperatures that you can handle. During the summer months, you can expect most of what I saw and if you are luckier, you might catch a glimpse of the elusive hammerhead shark schools. If you can handle cold water and lower visibility, the winter months are great for potentially seeing a humpback whale migrating past Fish Rock and I’ve also read that the concentrations of sharks are higher.
How to get to Fish Rock
Fish Rock is located 2km from the shoreline and can only be reached by boat. During my latest visit to South West Rocks, I chose South West Dive School to get me to the rock. I was thrilled that they were happy to work with me and show me around the gorgeous dive site. Because I was so keen on potentially sighting a hammerhead shark, I booked on a second day of diving as well.
This family-owned dive school has been operating in the area for over 40 years and you can tell! The amount of local knowledge (and stories) that they have is staggering. During my trip with them, I was especially impressed to see how new all of their gear was! They’re constantly working on upgrading their gear so their divers only get the best service. I loved my two days on the water with them (even though I became really seasick on day 1) and can only highly recommend them. Book a dive with them here.
Accommodation in South West Rocks
South West Rocks is a popular little beach town so it’s crucial to get your accommodation sorted asap if you are not camping. Every time I have stayed in South West Rocks, I stayed in a few different spots and enjoyed them all for different reasons. As you guys know, I like to change things up. Therefore, I spent a night at an amazing Airbnb with a pool, a night in a private cabin at a caravan park and on a campground within the national park.
Airbnb Accommodation in South West Rocks
First up, the gorgeous Airbnb! We stayed at an Airbnb called “Bush Retreat Bed and Breakfast Room” near Arakoon National Park and felt like royalty. Surrounded by lush greenery with a pool and outdoor breakfast table, we almost didn’t leave. The dining area and bathroom is shared, but the bedrooms are so large that you will never feel the need for more space. Find them on the map below!
Cabins and Caravan Parks at South West Rocks
My other night was spent in a cabin in the Ingenia Holidays Caravan Park. I remember hauling myself out of the car after a full day of seasickness and being so grateful for a crazy clean cabin with a massive bed and a place to cook food. I hibernated from 2 pm to the next morning leaving super refreshed for my second day of diving. The town also has other caravan parks and smaller hotels if you want to be walking distance from the main beach.
If you are staying in South West Rocks with kids, the Big 4 Campground is also a great option.
Bush Camping at South West Rocks
If you are a super tough cookie and you’re keen to go bush camping, even after a long day on the water, I love Smokey Bay Campground. Within Arakoon National Park, it’s a first-come, first-serve campsite. You always stand a good chance of finding a spot to sleep at Smokey Bay Campground for as little as $6, even if the whole town is almost booked out and they are charging as much as $67 for the last campsites with facilities! Don’t forget the additional $8 car fee to enter the national park if you don’t have an annual pass already.
Traveling up or down the coast? Consider visiting the following spots as well!
– Go into the Outback on an epic road trip from Sydney to Broken Hill
– Visit Newcastle on your way south before hitting Sydney
– Heading north instead? Don’t forget to check out our insider’s guide to Byron Bay
Looking for more scuba diving and snorkeling adventures in Australia?
– Go snorkeling with the fur seals in at Montague Island in Narooma
– Check out our series on The Great Barrier Reef
Planning to go diving soon? Don’t forget to pin this!
Disclaimer: The sources used in this blog post were linked to within the post for easy reference. As mentioned in this article, I have gone to this dive site twice and paid for the services of both South West Rocks Dive School and other dive schools. Only 1 day of diving out of the three days that I was in South West Rocks was in collaboration with South West Rocks Dive Centre. I only recommend South West Dive School because I have the fullest confidence that they will provide you with the best possible experience. There are also some affiliate links in this post, this means that if you purchase something through these links, I will receive a commission for these purchases. Clicking these links comes at no additional links to you.