>fantastical creatures in the sea.
>Tasmania is a place "like nowhere else on Earth," the brochures claim. It's a lofty boast, but from where I swim, awash in the weird and wonderful 125 feet below the surface of the Tasman Sea, I must agree.
>The goal was to broaden our dive horizons by jumping off the beaten path. In Tasmania we were destined to succeed big time. Tucked beneath the bulk of mainland Australia, this island serves up some of the world's best temperate-water diving.
>Waterfall Bay on the Tasman Peninsula is home to some of the best temperate-water diving on the planet.
>The seed of inspiration for a trek to Tassie was planted 20 years ago by photos I saw in National Geographic — pictures of strange creatures, shadowy kelp forests and invertebrate-plastered rocky reefs under a heaving ocean and towering sea cliffs. It took a while to reach these distant shores, but we're finally here, down under the land down under. Irrefutable proof of our location are the road signs we passed on yesterday's drive from Hobart, the capital, to Eaglehawk Neck, warning of crossing Tasmanian devils. Further corroboration is the tiny red handfish now posing in front of my camera. It's one of the world's rarest fish; the Australian Department of the Environment estimates that fewer than 1,000 exist in the wild, and they're all in Tasmania. It's a real beauty, even if it appears to have a bad case of measles. But it seems happy enough as it walks stiffly along the bottom on scarlet-fingered fins.
>"Not in a hundred years," I answer unequivocally.
>"That's about average," Baron continues. "Takes a while to figure them out. You're off to a good start having seen a handfish already." With a combined 75 years of diving between them, Baron and his business partner, Karen Gowlett-Holmes, know a thing or two about this unique corner of the underwater world.
>We descend on the resplendent Deep Glen Bay North Wall, a colorful tapestry of fish and invertebrate life. Drawing on Gowlett-Holmes' encyclopedic knowledge I'm able to put names to the faces of Shaw's cowfish, banded morwongs and gorgeous "crays" (rock lobsters), which I find crammed into a crevice.
>With a weather forecast calling for another nice day before winds and swell begin to build, we plan visits to two of the more exposed sites. Because of the depth as well as surge and strong currents that Baron says are impossible to predict, Sisters and Thumbs are both advanced dives. Here we plummet through darkness to stunning sponge gardens that bloom brightly at around 130 feet. We come back up with eyes wide in wonder — and a new list of species we've never seen before.
>As we drop anchor near a floating mat of golden kelp fronds in Fortescue Bay, I proudly exclaim to all, "Giant kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera!" I am redeemed, finally having recognized something in Tasmania's marine ecosystem.
>Twilight of the Kelp Kingdom
>Minutes later I'm swaying in the surge 40 feet beneath the canopy, gazing up at the magnificent algae I know so well. I'm smiling but confused. What's that fish over there? And that sponge to my left? Though the neighborhood's architecture is familiar (this is indeed the very same kelp species that flourishes on the other side of the Pacific in my old stomping grounds, California),
>Back on board, I seek confirmation on the last sighting. Baron affirms, "Sure enough, bastard trumpeters. We also have real bastard trumpeters. Different species." I start laughing all over again. Australians have a way with the English language, and their panache is quite charming. But my good humor ebbs when I learn about Tasmania's disappearing kelp forests.
>Without delay we head for the water, climbing onto Iruka, a sturdy, custom-built Devil Cat boat with a splendid Shaw's cowfish painted on its hull. (I learned something in my Tassie marine biology 101 course at Eaglehawk.) Bruce Priestley greets us warmly. He's a giant of a man, reminiscent of Cape Pillar, and he crushes my hand with a smile. "Welcome. Ready to go? We'll be at Toblerone shortly."
>Fast forward five minutes and we're dropping through the blue, 120 feet straight down. Outcroppings shaped like pyramids rise from a flat sandy plain. Each is an oasis of life, a riot of garishly colored invertebrates over which a variety of fish swarm — wrasses, filefish and even a family of boarfish awkwardly parade back and forth under a bristling hedge of brilliant finger sponges.
>The Canyon has great "bottomography" — a mix of miniwalls, rock piles, alleyways and underhangs with no substrate left uncolonized. Life is stacked upon life. On Trap Reef we are mobbed by a dense school of pink butterfly perch. A pile of monolithic boulders at Bird Rock creates swim-throughs with walls carpeted in countless jeweled anemones. A cavelike chamber called the Ballroom has a ceiling plastered with them, too. Bullseye sweeper fish lurk in the shadows above plate-sized abalone. A massive cray creeps from a crevice, antennae twitching in irritation at our intrusion.
>Upon reluctant return to the surface world, Priestley grins at us and asks drily, "Worth the effort?"
>"Absolutely. Absolutely amazing," Melissa answers.
>Casually, our captain agrees, "It's a really speccy dive." Though the colloquial tongue is sometimes a bit hard to follow, this time we need no translation: It was really spectacular indeed.
>The blue fairy penguins waddling across the road are yet another reminder we're not in Kansas anymore. We stop the car and hang out of the window, managing a quick photo before they scramble into the underbrush. Just another night on the town in Bicheno. The little guys have just returned from dinner at sea, where we happen to be headed for a night dive.
>Here Be Penguins (and Dragons)
>Everyone knows about the Tasmanian devil, this island's signature marsupial that resembles a vicious hyena-rat hybrid. But less well known are the island's penguins — and dragons. No joke, dragons fly through the Tasman Sea. We've already done three superb, shallow shore dives in Waub's Bay this week for seadragons while offgassing between deeper dives. And we've signed up for one more, this time by moonlight.
>My wife outdoes me handily when she parts a curtain of kelp fronds to reveal a weedy seadragon. So improbable in appearance it must be magical, this creature is an Australian aboriginal painting of some fantastical beast come to life. Its psychedelic coloration is indescribable. Its body shape defies logic. It is so exceedingly strange it can't possibly exist. We find three more by the time we emerge exhausted but victorious 80 minutes later. Melissa sums things up eloquently: "I'd travel all the way to Tasmania just for the dragons. They really are the weirdest things I've ever seen."
>Some say that from the air, Tassie resembles the footprint of a beast or a shark's tooth. Maybe. But I know with certainty that from below, beneath the waves, it looks like nowhere else on Earth.
>How To Dive It
>Depths range from 10 to 140 feet, and currents range from mild to wild depending on the site and Poseidon's whim, so pay attention to briefings, and dive within your limits. Required skill level is intermediate to advanced. Water temperatures average 55°F to 65°F year-round, so a drysuit or full 7 mm wetsuit is recommended. Visibility ranges from 30 feet to more than 100 feet, with the best clarity in winter (June through September). There is a hyperbaric chamber at the Royal Hobart Hospital.
>Fly into Hobart (HBA), rent a car, and drive to Eaglehawk (approximately one hour) or Bicheno (approximately three hours).
>On the Tasman Peninsula:
- Hike the Cape Hauy track for breathtaking views of the Candlestick and Totem Pole sea stacks.
- Take an ecocruise between Eaglehawk Neck and Port Arthur to see majestic sea cliffs and abundant wildlife such as albatrosses, seals and dolphins.
- Stroll back through time at the Port Arthur historic site, a former timber station and penal colony.
- Come face to face with everyone's favorite carnivorous marsupial at the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park, and see other native wildlife including quolls, wombats, pademelons and more.
- Take a nighttime tour to see wild blue fairy penguins.
- Feast on killer, creative pizzas and local, organic fare at Pasini's Café.
- Paddle a sea kayak for a day (or longer) in the Bay of Fires Conservation Area.
- Explore picturesque Freycinet National Park, where you can picnic on a perfect beach in Wineglass Bay, photograph the pink granite peaks of the Hazards Range and trek for days.
>Discover more of the wild and wonderful in Brandon Cole's bonus photo gallery.
>Watch Tasmania's iconic red handfish walk on the ocean floor.
>© Alert Diver — Q4 Fall 2015