Shortly after the break of a warm dawn, our dive boat was speeding across the stretch of water between Mullaway beach and North Solitary Island on the New South Wales north coast.
Schools of bonito tuna broke the surface and a lone fisherman on a sea kayak appeared as a silhouette backlit by the sunrise.
Within 20 minutes, green seawater gave way to blue. After days of poor visibility that had resulted from bad weather and fickle currents, hopes rose among the crew they would see perfect diving conditions.
We pounded into the swell for another half an hour before the skipper, Robbie Loos, slowed his vessel and wheeled around the northern end of the island. He was looking for the best spot to release his complement of five scuba divers and three snorkellers.
A fierce tide was wrapping around that side of the island, clearly visible as a channel of broken water flowing like a rapid. Such a strong current ruled out the possibility of anyone getting in the water there.
Instead we headed for a more sheltered mooring near one of the world’s most famous dive sites – Anemone Bay. There the sea was calm and deep and clear but rose up sharply to the shore of North Solitary.
To give the scuba divers more space to ready their gear, the skipper asked the snorkellers to jump in first. The first diver surfaced from her pin drop off the back of the boat, turned to everyone and cried out with uncontrolled excitement: “Oh my god, you should see all the fish.”
As soon as she had finished speaking she plunged back under.
Instantly, the mood on the boat changed and the scuba divers sped up the job of pulling on their tanks so they too could disappear into the world below the hull.
Those words of an awed snorkeller are the exact reason that Loos and his boss, the owner of Dive Quest, Chris Connell, are unreservedly supportive of the Solitary Islands marine park.
After all, the prospect of lots of fish and swimming in a clear, unpolluted ocean environment is the reason tourists are there and it means money in the bank for dive operators.
There are two marine parks around the Solitary Islands. Where we were moored is a park managed by the NSW state government. Beyond the state waters there is also the 152-square-kilometre Solitary Islands commonwealth marine reserve that was declared in 2012.
Scientists, environmentalists and the dive industry, however, have been dismayed that only a square kilometre of the commonwealth marine reserve is zoned as closed to extractive industries such as commercial and recreational fishing and mining.
While the state park is now safe, the future of the adjacent commonwealth’s Solitary Islands marine reserve is in doubt because the Abbott government is reviewing the status of 2.3m sq km of its marine reserves.
Even though most of the commonwealth marine reserve is completely unsuitable for any kind of diving, Connell, sees it as equally important to his business.
“The major reason I want to see the commonwealth marine reserve protected and properly managed is because so much of the life that snorkellers and scuba divers want to see comes from the adjoining, deeper waters,” Connell says.
Sea turtles, sharks and large pelagic fish all move between the commonwealth and state waters, he says.
Life does not differentiate between human jurisdictions – most of the species either move between the offshore and inshore areas or have some part of their lifecycle in both deep and shallow waters.
“Snapper, jewfish, bonito and kingfish all move between the two parks and they are species that divers want to see.”
Each of the marine parks around the continent has its signature animal and at the Solitary Islands it is the endangered grey nurse shark. One of its most important strongholds of this fish is within the commonwealth marine reserve – the lone, minuscule, square-kilometre sanctuary zone, at an outcrop on the sea floor called Pimpernel Rock.
“Pimpernel Rock is one of the main grey nurse shark habitats,” Connell says. “They’re always there and always there in large numbers. Pimpernel Rock is so significant and it is very important that it remains protected.”
Like most dive operations around the country, Connell’s business runs on the smell of an oily rag – out of an office downstairs from his home – but is one of most important to the Coffs Harbour tourism economy.
The Solitary Island marine park supports three dive operations. “Local, national and international guests regard this as one of the world’s best dive sites,” Connell says. “The marine park is a very important tourist attraction and it brings a lot of business into the area.”
Richard Nicholls is the president of the Dive Industry Association of Australia and also runs the Manly Dive Centre. He says the story told by Connell at Coffs Harbour is a tale repeated around the continent.
Well-managed marine parks form the absolute centrepiece of a thriving dive industry and yet that fact is not well recognised by the public or politicians.
“The debate always seem to be about the good old tree huggers on one side and the ‘I fish and I hunt and I vote’ lobby on the other,” Nicholls says.
People forget that a whole industry depends on healthy marine environments, he says. An estimate of the worth of the dive sector to the Australian economy, prepared for the association, was put at $4.2bn a year nationally.
Even though the overwhelming majority of offshore marine reserves are inaccessible to divers, Nicholls’ association is spearheading the battle to ensure that the review of commonwealth marine reserves does not result in a windback of protected areas.
“We need to have those areas protected,” Nicholls says. “To put it bluntly, that’s where the big fish come from.”
But are these arguments from the industry supported by science?
The debate always seem to be about the good old tree huggers on one side and the ‘I fish and I hunt and I vote’ lobby
Richard Nicholls, Dive Industry Association of Australia
A marine ecologist at the University of Technology Sydney, Professor David Booth, is also the president of the Australian Coral Reef Society and has spent his career studying the movements of fish along the east coast of the continent.
He says it is critical to understand that many species have both offshore and onshore components to their lifecycles.
And it is not just fish that move between commonwealth and state waters, Booth says. Many marine invertebrates begin life in the deep ocean before settling in shallow waters.
“Any disturbance that disrupts the link between offshore and onshore areas will have huge ramifications for the marine environment,” he says.
Finally, the scuba divers were all ready to enter the sea from the back of the boat. One by one we leapt off into the ocean. I swam to the mooring line to begin my descent, released the air from my buoyancy control vest and, immediately, started to sink. Before me a world was revealed that was spectacularly different to my usual habitat of forests, roads, houses and people.
It truly was as magnificent as the snorkeller had announced. The seafloor was carpeted in anemones and corals; wobbegongs lurked under rock overhangs and there were fish, lots of them. For an hour we explored the swim-throughs and reefs and floated while immense schools of baitfish swam past.
About halfway through the dive I turned around briefly to look out into the immense ocean that surrounded North Solitary Island and remembered that as a human I was only able to access the very tip of that ocean wilderness, whose future will soon be decided.
After a few moments I turned back to the corals and anemones.
At the bottom of the ocean it is best not to dwell on what is beyond the shadows in the invisible deep.