Tasmania. Peninsula. Eagle Hawk Neck
In the popular imagination, Tasmania summons up pictures of the peripatetic Tasmanian devil, a short-lived Looney Tunes animated cartoon character. If divers had it their way, it would conjure up pictures of weedy sea dragons and the other attractions of the waters found off Tasman Peninsula.
Tasmania is a large island located 125 miles south of Melbourne, across Bass Strait. This Australian state boasts large tracts of undisturbed land; nearly 40 percent of Tasmania’s 26,000 square miles is given over to national parks and World Heritage sites. It’s cooler, moister, and lusher than the bigger island to the north. In addition to the Tasmanian devil (yes, there really is such a creature, a carnivorous marsupial the size of a smallish dog), Tasmania has many endemic species of flora and fauna found nowhere else. This level of endemism and diversity extends to Tasmania’s marine environment, which is worlds away from the tropical environs of the Great Barrier Reef. “Our marine flora and fauna is extremely diverse for a cool, temperate environment,” said Karen Gowlett-Holmes. “Tasmania is regarded as having the highest species diversity of invertebrates and algae of any temperate area in the world. It is estimated that only about 30 percent of the marine invertebrates have been formally described scientifically. Our endemic species—either to southern Australia or just southeastern Tasmania—include weedy sea dragons and hand-fish (related to anglerfish and frogfish). These creatures attract many divers to the region.”
The Tasman and Forestier peninsulas are but an hour southwest of Hobart by car, yet capture all the beauty and wildness of “the island off the island,” as Tasmania is sometimes called. The heavily forested cliffs, which rise 1,000 feet from the ocean, are quite spectacular to behold, either from the many hiking trails or from the water. Eagle Hawk Neck rests at the juncture of the two peninsulas. To the east rests the Tasman Sea; to the west, the more sheltered waters of Norfolk Bay. Most of the region’s better-known dive sites are seaside. One facet of the Tasman diving experience most visitors want to experience is the giant kelp forests. Vast stands of Macrocysti pyrifera —ranging from twenty to 175 feet in length—were once common up and down the Tasman and Forestier peninsulas. Regrettably, the forests are in deep decline—over 90 percent have disappeared in the last ten years due to climate change. The forests in Fortescue Bay, midway down the Tasman Peninsula, are still thriving. Here, the kelp can grow some eighty feet from the sandy bottom to the surface. Divers pausing at different levels of the kelp will find a number of creatures, including cuttlefish, cowfish, banded stingarees, octopus, and one of Tasmania’s underwater stars, weedy sea dragons. Weedy sea dragons are closely related to sea horses, and take their name from the leaflike extensions on their heads and bodies that provide camouflage as they move amongst the kelp and weed beds that they call home; if they’re not in motion, they can be easily missed!
“Diving with the weedy sea dragons is one of the most popular activities for visitors,” Karen continued. “We have several sites where there is a very good chance of seeing them. Visitors are amazed at their general appearance and also at their size—fifteen to eighteen inches—as most people expect them to be quite small. If approached carefully, they will ignore divers and continue feeding or just cruising around. In summer, most of the males will be carrying eggs.” Weedy sea dragon range is limited to southern Australian waters, from Geraldton in the west to Sydney in the east, and south to lower Tasmania. Males, incidentally, carry the females’ eggs on their tails—from 100 to 300—for approximately two months, fertilizing them along the way.
Devil’s Kitchen and Tasman Arch are among the Tasman Peninsula’s most notable above-water attractions, and the theme of artful rock formations continues underwater at Waterfall Bay. “The caves and walls at Waterfall Bay are incredibly diverse, with colorful invertebrates—including many nudibranchs—decorating the walls,” Karen continued. “Cathedral Cave is the largest, and leads back into many smaller caverns with narrow tunnels and passages, often with large schools of fish near the entrances. The canyons near Patersori’s Arch also offer a variety of invertebrate life and some excellent swim-throughs.”
No visit to Eagle Hawk Neck would be complete without a visit to Hippolyte Rocks, a mile or so off the entrance to Fortescue Bay. The larger of the rocks supports a colony of a hundred Australian fur seals that are often ready to play. Australian fur seals are the biggest member of the fur seal family, with the largest animals approaching 1,000 pounds; their range is typically from south Australia to Tasmania. When it comes to swimming with marine mammals, dolphins and whales often steal the limelight, but the pinnipeds at Hippolyte give the cetaceans a run for their money. “The fur seals are very curious creatures, and will often approach divers,” Karen added. “Younger seals especially like to play. They seem to enjoy the divers’ bubbles.”
KAREN GOWLETT-HOLMES is co-owner of the Eaglehawk Dive Centre (www.eaglehawkdive.com.au) in Tasmania. She’s been an active diver for more than thirty years, and works part-time as a marine biologist for CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research. Karen is a member of the Australian Institute of Professional Photographers (Master of Photography). She was highly commended in the British Gas Wildlife Photographic Competition for her work and was runner-up in the biomedical and scientific division of the Australian Photographer of the Year Competition 2000 and 2001. Karen was also nominated for a Eureka Award for scientific journalism in 2001. She is a certified divemaster, TDI gas blender, commercial diver, and DAN oxygen provider.
Good Night, Tasmania!
Are you ready? If you go:
Getting There: The Tasmanian capital of Hobart has regular service from Sydney and Melbourne through Qantaslink,Virgin, Jetstar, and Regional Express.
Best Time to Visit: April through August is considered prime time, though diving is available year round.
Accommodations: Eaglehawk Dive Center (+61 36-250-3566; www.eaglehawkdive.com.au) has bunkhouse-style accommodations on site, and Lufra Hotel (+61 36-250-3262; www.lufrahotel.com) offers more elegant lodging. Discover Tasmania (www.discovertasmania.com) has a comprehensive list of accommodations.
Dive Shops/Guides: There are several dive shops around Eagle Hawk Neck, including Eaglehawk Dive Center (+61 36-250-3566; www.eaglehawkdive.com.au) and Go Dive (+61 36-231-9749; www.godivetassie.com).
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