The Navy Pier at Point Murat is consistently rated as one of the world’s top ten dive sites. It is consistently ranked as Australia’s #1 or #2 dive site. I hadn’t yet been to the Great Barrier Reef but if this pier is ranked so high – there is no way that I was going to pass it up!
The Point Murat Navy Pier was constructed in the 1960′s for the sole purpose of acting as a supply conduit for the massive steel beams that would make up the U.S. Navy’s underwater submarine antennas. The pier was built, ships brought in the parts for the radio antennas and then it was not used much afterwards. Heavy supplies can be offloaded to the pier but its main purpose now is a tourist attraction as a top dive site.
Because the pier is located inside of an active Navy base (now run by the Australians – after they switched the lanes back to the left-hand side) security was tight. Divers are only allowed in as part of an organized tour run by experienced Master Dive instructors. To get access to the site you must sign up at one of the approved dive companies; the dive company will add you to a manifest that is forwarded to the Navy base in advance. Any discrepancies in your name on your dive card and government issued ID (yes, you must bring proper ID and a dive card to get access) must be listed on the manifest. When we arrived at the Navy base a guard came out and checked our ID cards before letting us pass.
At the dive shop we were fitted for wet suits, BCD vests, masks and fins. During the briefing the Dive Master(s) explained to us about the dive site (top photo), how we would progress through the sites, the dive depths and the local fish and fauna that we would expect to see. After we unloaded from out bus on the pier we were allowed to walk to the lower decks to look down into the water were we saw hundreds and hundreds of fish. The pier was constructed very similarly to some that I have worked on in the Persian Gulf and I had some work flashbacks (holding a fishing pole no doubt).
The seas had been rough for the last few days including tornadoes and some high winds so we weren’t sure what to expect. Additionally, it was the lowest tide of the month. We had to make our dive at precisely the high water mark of the day and even then it was quite a jump off of the platform into the water.
In the photo below you can see the “T” shaped pier; the green platform at the bottom left is where we jumped into the water. We loaded all of our gear on the top deck, walked down the stairs and then jumped to the ocean below. It was about a 9′ (3 meter) drop and for the split second after dropping off the side I got the “roller-coaster” feeling in my stomach before crashing into the ocean. It is amazing what a splash you make with mask, fins, air tank, bcd and a wet suit.
Photos of the pier and facing towards the ocean were permitted. Photos shot towards the Navy base on the landed side were strictly verboten. We were warned that any photos of the base would result in a confiscated camera. Video cameras were mounted along the pier and I’m sure some security guard – somewhere – was keeping a close eye on us. So of course, everyone wants to take a photo of the base – isn’t that the natural reaction? What do they expect? :-p
After we hit the water and gave the “ok” sign we deflated some air from our BCDs and began the descent into the 9 meters of water below. As we descended I saw huge schools of Yellow Snapper Fish. They seemed quite content to stay in their school and watch us as we passed them on the way down. All of the fish around the pier seemed quite tranquil and it was easy to swim up to them and have a long look.
Andrea and I were the first into the water in our group; we dropped to the bottom and landed on our knees in the sand and had a look around. The pier beams came down from the surface and disappeared into the sand; crowded around each beam were massive schools of fish and nearby iron building materials littered the ocean floor. The metal on the bottom of the ocean served as building blocks for coral reef and smaller fish used the area as a sanctuary. Everywhere I looked I saw fish of all kinds and varieties.
As we waited, on our knees, at the bottom of the ocean on the sand, we noticed a Moray Eel who was sandwiched under a piece of scrap metal. When two more divers from our team descended, the girl almost sat right on the eel. She landed on her feet and stood there for a minute, the eel quite irritated and showing his teeth to her rear end. If there was sound it would probably have sounded as if he was hissing or growling at her so as to say, “Stay away.” She never had any idea he was there and after the other divers descended, she swam away as the eel hissed at her back side.
The pier beam support girders provided ample hiding places for fish of all sizes and as we swam above and below them we were always running into a thick school of fish or a lone grouper. I saw one school of Yellow Snapper that must have numbered 500; they stacked one on top of the other up against a pier leg and just “hung around” as though they were waiting for a bus. I saw another school of long Baracuda-looking fish that numbered in the hundreds; this school wa so thick that I couldn’t see to the other side.
We saw some huge clams that were almost 3/4 meter (2 feet) across. I wondered if you put your hand inside and it closed if you would get it back. I saw nudibranchs (a sort of colorful worm), Black Sea Catfish, and massive Angel Fish that were as big as a trashcan lid.
We stuck together with our dive master; there were 6 divers plus the guide and every few minutes he would take a head count and point out some interesting creature or site. He pointed to one rock and I looked at it. I looked at it again. It was just a rock. But it had an eye. It had to be the most ingenious camouflage job I’d ever seen. We had been told to watch for a massive grouper – he was said to be about the size of a horse – I didn’t see him but did see some groupers that were easily a meter and a half long.
We traveled along the top of the Pier’s “T” and then down along the center under the cross beams and spars. In the corner of the 90 degree intersection we saw all sorts of fish and predators including this beautiful sand ray. This creatures burrow themselves under the sand so that only their eyes are above; when a prey fish comes swimming along they burst out and snatch it. This ray was spooked by the divers’ presence and moved around a bit exposing his body from under the sand. These timid creatures are rather benign to humans so long as you don’t antagonize them. I’ve swam right up to them and the worst they’ve done is swim away. They have a barb in their tail and so long as you are outside the radius of the length of their tail they can’t swat you.
It was at this intersection that I finally fulfilled a life-long dream: to swim with a shark. I saw a beautiful 2 meter (6 foot long) White Tipped Reef Shark resting on the bottom. He was laying on the sand taking a snooze. I wasn’t afraid at all, I swam up slowly, let a little air out of my BCD and floated down to the bottom and rested on the sand next to him, maybe 4 or 5 feet away. He seemed unconcerned with my presence and a few other divers came over to check him out. We didn’t bother him, just snapped photos and enjoyed this wild creature up close. There were several sharks on the bottom and it was really a treat to see them up close.
Later when we finished our dive and we were cleaning out gear, the sun dropped towards the horizon and the sharks came out to feed. We watched as they swam around near the surface of the water hunting for dusk prey fish. I can’t even remember all of the varieties of fish I saw on this dive but it was the greatest concentration of different species I have ever seen on a single dive. If you ever make it up to Exmouth, be sure to make a dive at the Navy Pier – it will be an experience you never forget.
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