Best Dive Sites in South Australia for Underwater Photographers
South Australia may seem far from other destinations; however, it offers numerous attractions, including great dive sites for underwater photography.
Its unique aquatic ecosystem is filled with diving and photographic opportunities.
Perhaps the best-known critters are the iconic but shy leafy sea dragons, the choreography of giant cuttlefish in mating, and the adrenaline rush of cage diving to see great white sharks patrolling their domain.
Beyond these, there are a multitude of other photographic experiences to be captured.
What to expect
The best diving for photographers is mostly shore-based. There are many shallow jetties that are home to South Australia’s aquatic life.
The clashing colours on the jetty pylons and schools of fish make for compelling wide-angle images, and the colourful sponges, algae and corals create some wonderful backgrounds for finding shrimp, nudibranchs, small fish and all sorts of other weird stuff.
We have a lot of shipwrecks in South Australia, but they need to be dived by boat. Boats are operated by the local dive shops and different dive shops will go to different wrecks.
Wrecks include HMS Hobart, The South Australian, The Lumb and Seawolf. These were all sunk for divers and are easily dived. There are many more, but most of those can be challenging to find a boat to take you there.
Water temperatures vary from around 22-25°C in summer and 10-15°C in the winter months. Air temperatures in summer can be as high as 40°C and winter can see single figures, so be mindful of this when packing your bags.
The best time of year for diving is December to March as the weather is more reliable. Or June/July for the Whyalla cuttlefish.
Another interesting fact is that South Australia has what is known as a ‘dodge’ tide; for one day a month, there is no or hardly any tidal movement.
Jetty diving often requires a lengthy walk from the car parks, so be prepared. Many divers here are now using fishing trolleys to wheel their gear and cameras along some of the longer jetties.
Due to the shallow waters of the jetties, dive times can be hours depending on your air consumption or how cold you get.
Find a guide
To make the absolute best of your time diving in South Australia, it is recommended that you find a local dive guide with knowledge of the different areas.
They should understand the weather and wind directions and the best opportunities for diving on any given day, and they should have great knowledge of aquatic life and the ability to find critters.
Good organization will make your time more productive and enjoyable.
Shore diving is best divided into geographical areas: Yorke Peninsula, Fleurieu Peninsula, Eyre Peninsula, and the South East. And no – it’s not possible to dive all the sites in a week, so take your pick and be prepared for some road trips!
1. Yorke Peninsula
2.5 – 3 hours drive from Adelaide is Yorke Peninsula, and this area includes Edithburgh, Wool Bay, Port Hughes, Port Victoria, and Wallaroo. Air fills are only available at Edithburgh and Pt Victoria. Edithburgh is a good place to stay while diving in this area.
Edithburgh and Port Hughes are the two most important jetties on the Yorke Peninsula for diving. They are on opposite sides of the peninsula, so you can usually get to dive one of them depending on the wind direction.
This is an absolute must, and all lenses will work.
The quantity and variety of macro life is amazing. This is where we can find rare pyjama squid, occasionally during the day but mostly at night. Also leafy sea dragons, seahorses, octopus, blue-rings, anglers, schools of fish, colorful pylons, and sometimes a sea lion.
Night diving here is regarded among the best in Australia.
Slightly less famous than Edithburgh but no less amazing., Port Hughes is a much brighter jetty and has quite a different feel.
A huge school of horse mackerel swim through the pylons, which makes for an exciting wide-angle, especially when the sun is shining and the water is flat.
Wool Bay can be excellent for leafy sea dragons, but it’s best to check with the locals because sometimes they leave. It must be dived at high tide due to depth. Maximum depth at high tide is 4 meters.
This location can be amazing or average, but it’s always worth a try. Leafy and weedy (common) sea dragons can be found in the seagrasses.
Wallaroo is very much a macro muck dive.
It’s quite dark with tightly packed pylons. Lots of interesting macro critters can be found here once you get your eye in.
2. Fleurieu Peninsula
Around a 1.5-hour drive from Adelaide, this area includes Rapid Bay, Second Valley, and Victor Harbor.
Air fills are available at Second Valley or Adelaide.
This is probably the most famous dive site in South Australia, once voted top 10 dive sites in the world. There are nearly always leafy sea dragons here.
When the sun shines, this is another amazing wide-angle site with the sun rays piercing the tall jetty pylons and schools of fish swimming amongst them. Depth here is 9 meters.
Second Valley is another leafy sea dragon site. However, they can be hard to find as most of the site is just shallow seagrass.
There is a headland that can be dived, and on the far side of the headland, there are some shallow caves. A small reef, Lassiters, is in the seagrass area but is very hard to find. It is normally dived by boat. A compass is advised for Second Valley. The depth here is 4-6 meters.
If you can’t find leafies at Rapid Bay or Second Valley, this is the place to go. Leafies and crayfish can be abundant, hiding in the kelp and weed along the wall behind the “jetty.”
Beach entry/exit is advised here. Depth here is 4-10 meters.
This is a little more complicated as it requires a ferry ride. Kingscote Jetty is a beautiful dive when you can get in. The visibility can be zero depending on tides and wind.
You will need to be totally self-sufficient with your scuba equipment, including cylinders, which can be tricky to fill. Don’t expect to visit Kangaroo Island and “just go for a dive.”
3. Eyre Peninsula
Either 5-7 hour drive from Adelaide or a short flight to Pt Lincoln lands you in the Eyre Peninsula. This includes Whyalla, Tumby Bay, and Port Lincoln.
Air fills are available in Whyalla (only during cuttlefish season) and Port Lincoln.
Come here between June and August to witness the giant cuttlefish mating season. This is an amazing experience that can easily be snorkelled too.
The cuttlefish are unafraid of divers, and you can easily hang out with a group to watch the whole mating ritual happen.
Wide-angle/fisheye lenses are recommended here, and the best depth for action is 4 meters. Dry suits or thick wetsuits are necessary.
A relatively easy shore entry can be made at Point Lowly, but other sites along the coastline can be hazardous with big cameras.
I would recommend asking Whyalla Diving Services if they can take you for a boat dive. There are other sites to see by boat, including seals and the kingfish farm.
Read more: How to Photograph Cuttlefish
This jetty is a great macro site. Leafy sea dragons can be found here.
Both macro and wide-angle lenses can be used. It is a great alternative to cuttlefish diving if the winds are inclement for Whyalla.
This is where the boats leave from for shark cage diving at the Neptune Islands.
Beyond Port Lincoln
Snorkelling with dolphins at Baird Bay is possible, and other small jetties may be diveable all the way to Fowlers Bay.
4. The South East: Mount Gambier
A 5-hour drive from Adelaide, South East is one of the major cave diving destinations in the world. To dive the caves, you will need special permission and possibly guidance from the Cave Divers Association of Australia (CDAA).
However, there are some very beautiful freshwater ponds and sinkholes that are open to the public.
Please note that the rules change frequently, and they need to be checked just prior to your trip. The ponds may close from time to time for various reasons, including regrowth and algae blooms.
They also require permits and online indemnity forms. All photography here is wide-angle/fisheye. Visit the South Australia Parks website for the latest information.
Piccaninnie Ponds (snorkelling) and Ewens Ponds (snorkelling and diving)
Clear water, pondweed, and interesting patterns dominate the photo opportunities in this trio of ponds. Each pond is linked by a shallow corridor of grasses.
When diving, great care must be taken at the bottom of each pond as they are coated with very fine silt.
Situated in the middle of a sheep farm, snorkelling and diving are both possible but are strictly guided. Again, this should be checked prior to travelling.
When the sun is shining, beams of light penetrate the clear water to create some very dramatic images.
Wide-angle lenses only, and your buddy will probably need to model for you.
Photographing sea dragons
As you might have gathered, sea dragons can be found in many of the above great dive sites. But before photographing them, bear in mind these top tips for diving with them.
Rule No. 1 (and most important of all)
Do not try to move the dragons to get a better background.
They have an extremely delicate swim bladder which is highly susceptible to rapid depth changes. This can kill them and should never be attempted. It is recommended to stay between 2-3 meters away from them at all times.
Patience is a virtue
Upon spotting a dragon, sit back and wait a while. They are curious and will watch you. Some are shy, while others are less so. It’s all about picking your moment. If you crowd them, they will turn away, and all you will get is tail photos.
Any lens is a good lens! Beautiful portraits can be taken with a macro lens, and at certain times of the year, it is possible to find tiny babies or a large male with eggs.
Be aware that if a male dragon with eggs feels threatened, it can drop its eggs to escape, and those eggs are lost forever. To shoot a full-body adult in all its glory, you will need a wide-angle lens or fisheye.
Lots of strobe action is not good for them
Exert patience. Try to shoot when you think you have a good chance, and don’t just spray and pray.
Take a few shots, and move away for a few minutes to give the dragon a chance to settle itself and return to its calm state. You can always come back in a few minutes and try again.
And of course, take great care while finning. It’s very possible to pass right over a dragon and not even see it.
You can find an approved code of conduct while diving around dragons if you want to read more on this subject.
A note on sharks
The fact is that great white sharks inhabit our waters. In South Australia, attacks are extremely rare.
There are a few areas and some aquatic activities, such as spearfishing, that are more susceptible for obvious reasons, but taking care and knowing your surroundings or using a credible guide is advised.
Millions of scuba dives have been undertaken in South Australia with very few fatalities. Some people wear deterrents such as Shark Shields, but most prefer not to.
Those who choose to use them tend to use a fishing float to hold the lead up off the bottom and avoid potentially disturbing other marine life on the bottom.
Dragons are particularly susceptible to the electrical field the trailing leads create, so be very careful if using them around dragons or in areas known for dragons to inhabit.
Read more: How to Photograph Sharks
To dive South Australia is to love South Australia.
Make sure that you have plenty of time to visit all the places that you think you will enjoy and make sure you get up-to-date advice before you travel.
Also, do your research and find experienced guides who are particularly knowledgeable about both dragons and underwater photographers’ needs.