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Thursday, 04 August 2005 00:00

Diving Western Australia - Bunbury

By Peter Buzzacott

Drive 176 km south from Perth, through wooded countryside, and you'll find Bunbury, a picturesque sea-port on the eastern edge of Geographe Bay. The city boasts an energetic live music scene (including a Triple J music venue), and there are restaurants, cafes, and entertainment galore so it is little wonder divers like nothing better than to flock to Bunbury for a weekend of diving and entertainment. From November till April the seas are calmest, when the nearest reefs to shore can be seen clearly even from Ocean Drive, a favoured walking, jogging and cycling path for Bunburyites.

There are many dive sites to tempt the thousands of divers passing through Bunbury each year. Plate Reef sits 12 miles west of Bunbury, rising from 32m to 26m. Named after the turbinaria coral found there, the site is cherished for the deep violet colour of the sea and the size of the wildlife. Big crayfish, western blue devils, fox fish, colourful sponges everywhere, harlequin fish, wrasse of all descriptions and colourful cuttlefish can all be found amongst the plates of cabbage coral. The local PADI Dive Centre, Coastal Water Dive, regularly organise trips to the site or groups might contact the charter boat Cross Country direct.

Another popular spot, this one only 5 minutes from the town centre, is Hungry Hollow, named after the hollow depression in the rock near shore. A short swim out to sea and at 10m divers will find reef teeming with a wide range of nudibranchs, sea tulips, sea-stars and occasionally divers even meet one of the 100 or so bottle-nosed dolphins that live nearby.

Fifteen minutes south in a 4WD and you'll find a couple of fishing huts on the foreshore. By either snorkelling out from the waters edge or launching a small boat off the beach you can expect to find wobbegong and port jackson sharks, all sorts of molluscs, curious moonlighter fish and the ever-present orange ball sponges, cup sponges and grey finger sponges. Divers are assured of seeing an abundance of wildlife in depths ranging from only 1m (ideal for snorkelers on a calm day) to 14m a way offshore.

A 20-minute trip north from Bunbury, in either boat or car, leads to the village of Binningup and a series of limestone reefs covered in staircase sponges, common reef anemones, black lace-coral bryozoans and white feather-hydroids. The coastal sand-dunes north of Bunbury now cover many of the wrecks that fell prey to the northerly gales that lash this coast each July. At Binningup Beach the council have been kind enough to build car-parks and showers where the reef comes closest to shore. Even further north, toward Mandurah, lies the Bouvard Reef, where massive weed-covered boulders lay amongst limestone swim-throughs carpeted with ascidians, algae and sponges of every colour.

To cap it all, in 2003 the Bunbury Chamber of Commerce sunk the Lena, a fishing trawler caught poaching Patagonian toothfish in the Southern Ocean. The Royal Australian Navy had to chase the ship almost to Africa but got them in the end, the catch was auctioned off in Fremantle and the boat towed to Bunbury for scuttling. A year of hard work later and she was as clean as a dive whistle, towed 5Km from the beach and sunk. Today, despite her colourful past, the wreck of the Lena is aging gracefully at 18m, much to the delight of the locals, many of whom are given "Lena passes" for Christmas or birthday presents.

Weekend visitors to Bunbury need not worry about leaving the family on the beach with feigned promises of "only being an hour" because there is more than enough to keep non-divers busy. The Dolphin Discovery Centre is a must for anyone who likes dolphins and, lets face it, who doesn't? Early visitors (8am is best) even get to wade-in knee-deep and have them swim about almost within arms reach, and the costs of a guided tour are less than some desserts. Speaking of food, from the Dolphin Centre it is just a ten minute stroll along Koombanah Bay, past the yachts, free gas barbeques and children's play areas to Aristos' Waterfront, where likely as not you'll spot the big personality himself cooking up a feast.

There are the most southern mangroves on earth to visit, with a well laid-out boardwalk and information signage along the walk, or the "big swamp" (actually, it's more like the big-lake-full-of-birds, with swans, ducks, herons, and even birds from Siberia literally flocking to it), or maybe you'll climb the lookout tower for views over the city and beyond. Dolphin snorkelling trips leave regularly, so do whale-watching tours whenever the whales pass by, which is often, and winery tours leave Bunbury daily. For sun-worshippers, with or without kids, there is well-established Surf Club with monitored swimming areas and all the facilities you could want. The Bunbury Regional Art Gallery (BRAG) is well worth a visit too. Housed in a bright pink building, BRAG regularly hosts nationally touring exhibitions, as well as holding an impressive permanent collection considered by many as a 'must see' before the leisurely trip home through wooded countryside.

Essential contacts:
Bunbury Visitor Information Centre - 9721 7922
Coastal Water Dive (dive centre) - 9721 7786 www.coastalwaterdive.com.au
Cross Country (Bunbury Dive Charters) - 9721 2292
Wander Inn (budget accom) - 9721 3242
Lord Forrest Hotel - 1800 097 811
Prince of Wales Hotel (live music venue) - 9721 2016
Hungry Hollow Tavern (good food) - 9791 5577
Bunbury Regional Art Galleries - 9721 8616 www.brag.org.au
Bunbury Harbour Tours (dolphin spotting) - 9791 1827
Naturaliste Charters (whale watching) - 9755 2276 www.whales-australia.com
Reef Diving - Guided group dives, photography -