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For a slice of Victoria few ever see, pull on a snorkel and goggles.
Story: Greg Muller. Photos: Matt Testoni.
Snorkelling with giant rays and seahorses, through colourful sponge gardens and seagrass meadows, doesn’t sound like your typical Victorian adventure. This state is often overlooked as a snorkelling destination but the variety of marine life accessible year-round, straight off a beach or pier, is world class. You might need a wetsuit but won’t need a plane ticket to Queensland.
A great place to start is the 200-metre-long Octopuses’ Garden Marine Trail along the Rye Pier. Underwater signs lead you along the self-guided tour and explain the sea life in the area including sea horses, sea slugs, hermit crabs and goatfish. Depending on the tide the depth varies from half a metre to three metres.
Victoria’s marine emblem, the common seadragon.
Dromana Pier is the place to go if you want to see the deadly blue-ringed octopus – just don’t touch one as their venom can cause total body paralysis and suffocation. Blue-ringed octopuses are plentiful in Port Phillip Bay but rarely seen due to their timid nature and the fact they’re more active at night. The spectacularly colourful nudibranchs are also common. These creatures use their bright colours and foul-tasting toxins as protection, which means they can forage in the open without fear from predators. As long as you don’t eat them, they’re safe. Snorkelling 200 metres from the end of the pier you will come across pylons from the old jetty and some just recognisable old rail wheels.
In late summer smacks of jellyfish feed in the nutrient-rich water.
The migration of spider crabs is one of the bay’s most amazing spectacles. The mating season begins in April through to July when the crabs moult their shells and march en masse to shallower waters. Thousands of crabs clamber on top of each other, creating ‘towers’ up to 10 crabs high. It’s one of the most spectacular sights in the bay and you don’t need to be an experienced diver to see it – just grab a pair of goggles and swim off the Blairgowrie Pier. This phenomenon can also be seen off the Rye Pier.
A leatherjacket approaches a Haeckel’s Jellyfish.
A big-belly seahorse.
Blairgowrie receives a constant flow of nutrients washing through the heads and as a result has one of the most diverse sponge gardens in the bay. Brightly coloured sponges cover the shaded area under the marina and provide habitat for a vast array of small creatures including leatherjackets and octopuses.
Flinders Pier is a key spot to see the common seadragon.
Closer to Melbourne, the marine sanctuary at Ricketts Point is one of the most frequently visited snorkelling spots in Victoria. Here you’ll find rock platforms, sea caves and offshore reefs that are perfect habitat for schools of the small colourful southern hulafish. Keep a lookout for regular visits of stingrays, Port Jackson sharks, bottlenose dolphins and the odd little penguin (formerly fairy penguin).
Often overlooked is the Point Cook Marine Sanctuary. Just 15 kilometres from Melbourne, this tucked-away spot has plenty of prickly sea urchins, sponges and small (harmless) sharks. In late summer smacks of jellyfish feed in the nutrient-rich water.
When conditions in Port Phillip Bay aren’t ideal, it’s worth checking out the adjacent Westernport Bay. Flinders Pier is getting a reputation as one of the key spots to see Victoria’s marine emblem, the common seadragon. Unlike the sandy bottom of Port Phillip, Flinders Pier has a grassy floor with plenty of colour and life, especially around the pylons. And it’s these seagrass meadows that make it the perfect location to seek out the well-camouflaged and extraterrestrial-looking common seadragon.
A spider crab on the sea floor.
Haeckel’s Jellyfish at Rye Beach.
This is also a good spot to see cuttlefish, toadfish, banjo sharks, starfish and crabs. There are always a couple of giant smooth stingrays or eagle rays gliding along the ocean floor and they’re slow and graceful enough to allow swimmers to follow them through the pylons and over the grasses. The pier is also a popular fishing spot, so stay clear of the hooks and lines.
Another place to spot the weedy seadragon is just around the corner at the Mushroom Reef Marine Sanctuary. There’s also a heap to see on this sub-tidal reef, however caution is needed as it’s an unpatrolled ocean beach with strong currents.
But you don’t even need to get into the water to see a range of fascinating species. Colourful sea stars and anemones as well as numerous species of crabs can be found by searching the many rock pools.
All these spots are great for families, and there’s plenty to see in the shallows. But of course, basic safety precautions should always be practised. When snorkelling around piers, never swim beneath the berths and always keep an eye out for boats, especially on weekends. As far as equipment goes, all you really need is a snorkel and goggles. Fins are useful for darting around at speed or chasing after that elusive seadragon. And a wetsuit is a worthwhile investment. We are in Victoria after all.