Swimming With the Fish at Port Stephens

You’ve heard of a “winter wonderland”.  In Australia, it’s more of a “Water Wonderland”.
This certainly holds true with Port Stephens.  Think of Port Stephens as a region made up of a collection of quaint ocean side villages. Looking down from the lighthouse of Nelson Bay, we could nearly see them all.  We certainly saw a lot of sparkling water.
Humpback whales can be spotted along the coastline from May to November as they migrate north to rub barnacles from their sides on the offshore reef.  There is plenty of room for all of these species to habitat, the waterways of Port Stephens are twice the size of Sydney Harbor.
We chose to camp at Halifax Holiday Park for its convenient location.   Driving into Halifax was like driving into a tin of sardines.  It was jam-packed.  It sort of smelled like a tin of sardines too.  Plenty of fishing boats were seen everywhere. You can click to view the different types of fishing boats that there were.  This makes sense because our stay corresponded with a fishing event taking place over the weekend.  If only we’d known…
Camping, for us anyway, attracts the foulest weather.  Without fail, we will experience, at a minimum, high winds, huge downpours, frequent lightening, and the eminent threat of whatever wild life exists in the area. On one trip in West Texas, a pack of wild boar ripped through our tent.  On another, kookaburras snatched our sausages straight out of our fingers.  (Actually, this eventually happens to everyone who barbeques outdoors in Australia).  On Australia’s South Coast, possums, under the cover of darkness, sat themselves down at our picnic table, helping themselves to whatever morsel they could find.
Of course, because of our incessant bad luck on camping trips, we realized we needed additional protection from the elements.  What’s that you say?  Buy a canopy that pops up in minutes?  No, we are far too frugal for that. Looking at Pinterest, we discovered that all we needed to do was spend a few dollars on telescoping poles and some guy wires.  (Oh, and some bungee cords that we also had left over from a previous failed over-engineering project that we happened to have forgotten on this trip).
By now, we’re pros at putting up the tent; we had it up and secured in five minutes flat.  Were we ready to start exploring Port Stephens? Ah, no.  We still have to erect our tarp.  It’s two and half hours later and the sun is going down.  The grey nomads in our campground ‘neighborhood’ sat in their lawn chairs under caravan awnings, beer in hand, gawking at us with their mouths agape.
I could hear them thinking, “What in the hell are they doing?”  Why haven’t they bought a pop-up canopy like everyone else?  I want to scream at them, “I forgot the bloody bungee cords!  It would work if I had them! And please, just mind your own bloody business, we’re not the afternoon’s entertainment!”
Well, long story short, we finally managed to rig the tarp over the tent, leaving a screen that blocked us from the scorn of those judgmental onlookers.  The tarp was up at least, we just wondered for how long.
Luckily, we still had a bit of daylight left so we decided to take a walk.  We started out on Shoal Bay Beach.  We found ourselves a bit tired from wrestling with the tarp so we found a bench.  A couple of teens came down with their puppies from the apartments situated behind us.
I don’t think there is anything better than watching happy dogs playing on the beach.  When they weren’t chasing each other, the Labrador pup merrily chased the waves.  He looked like a little kid with a boogie board, a big smile on his face, as he rode wave after wave until his owners called him in.
Since we were here with snorkeling in mind, we went in search of Fly Point.  We had read that this was the spot for snorkeling in the area.  Fly Point is part of Port Stephens – Great Lakes Marine Park.  The park encompasses 98000 hectares of protected waters.  Many species call this Park home:  dolphins, turtles, fish, seabirds, and sponge gardens thrive here.
We passed by Little Beach on the way, a perfect spot for a picnic.  After a lovely stroll through the bush, the lorikeets screeching as we passed, we met a pair of scuba divers.  How’s the water, I asked?  One of them looked down sheepishly, the other replies, “the water’s great, but we got turned around and came up here.  This is a walk of shame.”  They could have fooled me as they practically skipped up the hill despite the weight of their gear.  It looked like they had a great dive.  The anticipation for our time in the water amplified.
As we came down the hill, we began to hear voices coming from the water below.  We couldn’t see them yet but given the late hour, we assumed it was just some people on the beach hanging out.  We came to a sign next to the road indicating all the species of fish that could be seen in the cove.  Someone exclaimed, “Did you see it?”, in an excited voice.
We looked up and saw a group of 6 snorkelers in a bunch, all wearing fluorescent green fins, their heads bobbing up and down, nodding enthusiastically, only to submerge their heads back under water.  It was all I could do to keep from jumping into the water with them to find out what they saw.
The next day we rose early.  We went back down to Shoal Bay beach just as the sun started to peak around Tomaree Head.  The beach was marvelously empty as we enjoyed the sunrise.  The sea, however, was quite busy.  We watched at least 25 fishing boats of all shapes and sizes race toward the rising sun in search of their catch of the day.
We would meet some of these boats when we arrived at Fly Point for our snorkel after breakfast.  They sent their wakes in our direction as they sped across the bay chasing after their schools of fish.  Propellers left the water choppy and silty, but since this was our first time truly snorkeling in Australia, we didn’t let it bother us. We had once considered snorkeling while we were on a Phi Phi Island boat tour last year, but due to time constraints could not go through with it.
The abundant fish seemed just as curious about us as we were of them.  They circled around us, creeping closer ever so cautiously, then darting away.  Every so often, I would remember that there were actually sharks in these waters.  I would spin around furiously, looking for a dorsal fin piercing the water as it headed my way.  As all the fish scattered away from me, I must have looked quite ridiculous.
At one point, I just stood in the water while schools of bream and luderick swam around me.  It seemed like I could have scooped one up very easily but I was content to let nature be and savor the moment.
We’d go from one end of the cove, drift back on the current, and swim back again against it.  After a while of this, we took a break.  As we rested, a Dolphin Watching cruiser came into view.  It was a bit further out but within seconds a dolphin swam into our area.
The dolphin surfaced almost exactly where we had been snorkeling just moments before.  Holy Toledo Batman!  My first thought, “thank goodness we came in cause if I saw a dolphin swimming at me I would probably have mistaken it for a shark and messed myself!  My second thought was “HA!  You suckers paid big bucks for a cruise and I saw him sitting on the beach for free!” We couldn’t wait to jump back in after that.
After a remarkably unsatisfactory lunch of fish & chips at a place called Bub’s (who claim to be the ‘Best Fish and Chips in NSW’) near the Nelson Bay Marina, we wandered around, looking at the boats for sale.  Apparently, $200K doesn’t get you a lot.  And, since we don’t have that kind of cash on hand anyway, we decided to move on. We decide to buy from boat dealers Melbourne instead as they have boats for every budget.
Walking up to Tomaree Head is breathtaking, I mean that literally.  I had to stop a couple of times to catch my breath.  It’s a 2km up hill climb to reach the summit.  But, it’s worth the effort.  You are rewarded with panoramic views of the bays and beaches of Port Stephens and the Nature Reserve Islands nearby.
The majority of the of the trek sports brick pavers to walk on.  After that, metal stairs and catwalks take you the rest of the way.  You can see remnants of the radar building left from WWII. A slight detour before reaching the summit brings you to see the gun emplacements, although there was never a shot fired from here during the war.
The day was winding down, but we didn’t feel like sitting around the crowded campground.  We drove over to Anna Bay to see what we could find.  Here we discovered Birubi Beach, the gateway to the Stockton Bight Sand Dunes, now called the Worimi Conservation Lands.
The dunes stretch for 32km and can reach heights of up to 40 meters.  This alien-like world has special importance to the Worimi people, who were here thousands of years before Europeans landed here.  We were treated to black/gray stormy skies hovering over the massive dunes.  The contrast between the dark sky and the glowing white dunes was spectacular.
To end the day, we returned to Shoal Bay, grabbed our wine and other picnic essentials and walked over to Little Beach for supper.  We weren’t the only ones out enjoying the serenity of the bay.
Fisherman lined the beach casting their lines.
A picnic table of giggling teens celebrated a birthday.
A party of retirees drank and laughed at a table nearby.
We said more than once that there was an enviable air about this place.  Parents didn’t have to worry so much about their kids.  Perhaps residents don’t even lock their doors at night.
To illustrate the point, a pair of Dolphins sauntered by really close to shore, as if to say, yes, this is a special place.  We will keep watch for you.
It was quite a pleasant way to end the day.
P.S. Our track record of misfortune with camping holds true.  Just as we were drifting into slumber, furious winds kicked up.  The tent was nearly on top of us.  The tarp was being forced down by the wind pressure, compressing the tent to a dangerous degree.  We were afraid the tent poles would snap if it continued, so we piled out of the tent in the middle of the night and took the bloody tarp down.
You should have seen the grins on those grey nomads faces the next day.  We may be buying that pop up canopy after all.

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