Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - Montague Island Seals
Located 350 km south of Sydney is the idealic coastal town of Narooma. As well as a lively fishing industry, Narooma is famous for one specific dive location that people flock to, especially over the Winter and Spring periods. Nine kilometres east of Narooma is probably one of the most exciting dive sites in NSW, Montague Island Nature Reserve. The thrill of diving with marine mammals is one that residents of NSW do not usually get to enjoy. However, Montague Island is home to a large colony of Australian fur seals and New Zealand fur seals that inhabit the rocks and the sea all year round. September and October are generally the best months to visit the island as this is when the seal numbers are greatest.
As indicated above, there are two species of seals to be found at Montague Island. The main colonies are to be found at the northern end of the island, although they can be seen at the other dive sites around the island.
The best spot to dive the Australian fur seals (which are larger than their NZ cousins) used to be in a small channel between the bombora and the land at the very northern end of the island. However, I have been told that in late 2002 a pod of killer whales (orcas) attacked the colony and they moved to where the New Zealand fur seals used to be located. The New Zealand fur seals were found on the north-west corner of the island at a small bay called Pebbly Bay. Starting just north of here the NZ seals used to be seen basking on the rocks and around the first point in another, even smaller, cove. However, the bigger Australian fur seals threw the NZ seals out and took over the area. The NZ seals have moved to the Pinnacles dive site (I think I have not dived here). I think that some of the Australian fur seals may have moved back to their original location.
Anyway, wherever you go to dive here, just sit on the bottom and watch the seals as they scrutinise the funny looking invaders of their domain or try doing a few stupid looking antics and they soon investigate you. Barrel rolls, twists and turns often attract their attention. Sometimes a younger pup will come close enough to you that you can stroke and scratch their backs and stomachs, but be careful as adult seals can be very protective of their young.
At Pebbly Bay the NZ seals used to be be seen basking on the rocks and around the first point in another, even smaller, cove. There were never the same number of NZ seals as Australian fur seals. Once again, after anchoring in Pebbly Bay, drop to the bottom and swim slowly around the bay, especially close to the shore. You do not need to get deeper than 9 metres. The seals will come to you, some even approaching as close as a few centimetres. You can also try swimming on the surface towards the seals.
Both these dives are fantastic, well worth doing.
Other dives off Montague Island include the nearby bubble cave and Neverfail Reef and off the southern part of the island and Anghinish Rock.
Trips to Montague Island can be arranged by local Narooma dive shops and charter boats. If you are taking your own boat, be aware that the Narooma bar is the most dangerous bar in NSW and dozens of vessels have been lost there, including quite a few that were recorded on film and video.
People can now also go onto the island but it is a monopoly operation with only one charter operator able to provide this. As such, I would not recommend this option due to the monopoly nature of the operation.
You can dive Montague Island from Narooma or Bermagui. Bermagui is about 31 kilometres by road south of Narooma. Narooma has one of the most (if not the most) dangerous bars in NSW and many people have died trying to cross in or out of the river. Bermagui has a much safer harbour in all but big northerly seas.
However, do not believe people who tell you that the distance from Narooma to Montague Island is nine nautical miles whereas it is only 14 nm from Bermagui. This would make it about 18 kilometres from Narooma and only 23 km from Bermagui. In reality it is about nine kilometres from Narooma and 24 km from Bermagui. I have dived the island from both places, I would never go from Bermagui again, even though it may sometimes mean that you can get there from Bermagui while Narooma is closed to boats.