Melbourne’s underwater wonders

Chris Beattie and Sheree Marris | VOLUME 26, ISSUE 5
Sheree Marris. The brightest stars of Port Phillip Bay are found in the sea, not the sky.
A new book aims to encourage people to slip beneath the waves for a view of the natural features and creatures of Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay.

Club Marine is delighted to be supporting Melbourne Down Under, an adventurous project to be launched on October 27, which aims to increase awareness of the bountiful underwater marine life that flourishes under the surface of Victoria’s Port Phillip Bay.

Brought to life by former Young Australian of the Year (Environment) and award winning aquatic scientist, Sheree Marris, Melbourne Down Under will showcase the hidden secrets nature has tucked away in Melbourne’s watery front yard, and invites locals, tourists and businesses to discover the abundance of life and beauty hidden below the surface of the bay.

Included in the project is a stunning book, not surprisingly titled Melbourne Down Under, with images ranging from towering kelp forests to the spectacularly decorated weedy sea dragon. Melbourne Down Under will also include a travelling exhibition showcasing stunning underwater photography, as well as video footage featuring on the big screen at Melbourne’s Federation Square.

Given the marine flavour of the project, Club Marine has jumped aboard as a corporate sponsor and we encourage all members with an interest in the marine environment to visit: to check out the full scope of the project.

“As a marine insurance company, Club Marine is committed to supporting initiatives with a focus on preserving our marine environment and we have been a major sponsor of, and active participant in, the great Australian marine lifestyle for over 40 years,” said Club Marine CEO, Greg Fisher.

Project Manager Sheree Marris said she is thrilled to have Club Marine on board the Melbourne Down Under project. “Working together, we will be able to educate the community about the incredibly colourful and diverse marine values we have in Port Phillip Bay, while creating a marine stewardship ethic in the community that will protect this unique environment for future generations,” commented Marris.

“Club Marine’s commitment to supporting local communities and marine environments makes it the perfect project partner.”


Marris describes the teeming life that lurks beneath the bay’s waters as like a busy metropolis filled with sponge gardens that explode in a kaleidoscope of colours.

“Port Phillip Bay is a place where towering kelp forests hide mystical dragons that sparkle like jewels and where rocky reefs provide refuge for some of the world’s most highly prized delicacies,” she says.

Marris says many people think of the Great Barrier Reef, the Caribbean or of exotic tropical locations when it comes to areas rich in marine life, but it comes as a surprise to many to know that the waters around Melbourne abound with many unique variations of sea creatures.

For instance, mere minutes from downtown Melbourne lurks a watery world of contradictions, with fish that fish, colour-blind chameleons, fathers who give birth to their young and psychedelic sea slugs that breathe through their backs.

“It really is amazing,” said Marris. “When I dived into the water and explored this magical world I was compelled to reveal its incredible uniqueness, colour and diversity to the rest of the world.”

Which is how Melbourne Down Under, the book, came to be. It’s a stunning 200-page visual feast of the incredible colour and diversity of marine life found in Port Phillip Bay. Captured by some of Australia’s finest photographers and complemented with poetic and engaging commentary, it reveals Melbourne’s best kept secrets.

Port Phillip’s unique location in the middle of the Victorian coastline, where the cool waters of the west intertwine with warmer waters of the east, creates a spectacular showcase of unique marine biodiversity. In fact, over 80 per cent of marine life found along these southern shores is found nowhere else in the world. It’s a veritable biological melting pot; a stunning marine biosphere that features over 500 species of fish, 1000 species of marine plants and other animals, including Victoria’s state marine emblem, the vibrant weedy seadragon.


The southern bay area and around the notorious Heads are home to sheer rock walls, reefs and ledges that create a canvas for brightly coloured sponges, sea stars, branching gorgonian corals and other marine animals that dwell together to create a breathtaking mosaic. Searching amongst the cracks and crevices reveals many treasures, including one of the bay’s most iconic fish, the brilliant blue devil, plus delicate nudibranchs.

In other areas, sandy plains present a desertlike appearance, yet boast incredible biodiversity. Stingarees, flounder and flathead, with their camouflaged cloaks, are a perfect match for their surroundings, while stargazers – sandy-bottomed astronomers – use the soft sand to lie in ambush of passing prey. Sailfin gobies are one of the most common fish in the bay, with their brilliant iridescent blue markings and trademark dorsal fins.

Giant kelp forests around the Heads create magical swaying canopies that are irresistible to eager explorers and provide safe refuge for many cryptic creatures. Here visitors need to look closely because everything is not what it seems.

Aptly-named weedfish blend seamlessly with the background, while thorn fish and collared catsharks are among the more easily spotted denizens of this deep. Schooling old wives, named from the grunting noises they make when pulled up on a line, are often seen hovering silently over the kelp.

Manmade structures around the bay, such as piers, are magnets for marine life and a natural drawcard for snorkellers and divers. The deeper you go, the more saturated with colour the pylons become as sponges, ascidians, fan worms and marine algae paint the surfaces. Red bait crabs and blennies that hide in holes along the pylons are common residents, while pot-bellied seahorses, whose claim to fame is a male that gets pregnant, are a treasured find.

For the curious, St Leonards, Portsea, Rye and Frankston piers, as well as the Blairgowrie Yacht Squadron, are worth the effort to explore.

It’s no surprise, given its uniqueness and dazzling diversity, that a representative sample of these areas has been set aside and protected. Port Phillip Marine National Park is a combination of six separate areas, including Point Nepean and Point Lonsdale – respectively the eastern and western opposing jewels in Port Phillip Bay’s crown that sit guarding the Heads. The park boasts spectacular wall diving that is unparalleled. Brightly-coloured yellow zooanthids, sea whips and sponges combine to create a dazzling kaleidoscope of colour to rival any tropical reef.

One of the smallest areas within the park is Pope’s Eye, an artificial, horseshoe-shaped basalt reef just inside the mouth of the bay. What this little gem lacks in size it makes up for in variety. Schooling leatherjackets, resident Australasian gannets, sea stars and brightly-coloured sponge gardens are just a snapshot of the underwater delights on offer here.

In the northern waters of the bay, Point Cook and Jawbone Marine Sanctuaries are well worth a look. They are a combination of rocky reefs, seagrass meadows and sandy plains. Sea urchins, rays, flathead and schools of zebra fish call these places home. Explorers should keep an eye out for stony corals that come in a range of bright and bold colours. Both sanctuaries are easily accessible from shore and divers are likely to see something new and exciting on every visit.

Sloping cliffs in Beaumaris in the east of the bay give way to Ricketts Point Marine Sanctuary. The sandy shores and seagrass meadows merge with offshore reefs and caves that provide refuge for a range of animals, including brittle stars, fiddler rays, hula fish and, at the right time of year, harmless Port Jackson sharks.


Bottlenose dolphins and Australian fur seals, some of the ocean’s most playful animals, are also found here in the bay. Getting up close to these majestic marine animals is a must and a once-in-a-lifetime experience that the entire family can treasure.

You can also jump into the water at Chinaman’s Hat with local seals. These playful pinnipeds are always keen to put on a show and perform some impressive underwater antics. Please note, though – they can be quite vain. It’s not uncommon for snorkellers to find themselves face-to-face with these long-whiskered comedians as they check their reflection in divers’ face masks.

The southern end of the bay, on the Mornington Peninsula, boasts a range of piers to explore, including the Octopuses Garden marine trail at Rye Pier. Underwater signs mounted on the pylons guide divers on a magical journey of discovery.

Port Phillip Bay really is a bustling marine metropolis offering non-stop adventure. All through the year there is something new and fascinating to see, including the spectacular sight of armies of spider crabs as they gather in their thousands for their annual mating frenzy. It is staggering to observe these crustaceans as they clamber over each other trying to find a suitable mate. Once found, the male will carry his cute crab around waiting for her to undress out of her armoured skeleton so they can grapple in the ‘crab tango’.

More adventurous souls can arm themselves with an underwater torch to explore at night. The reward is seeing intriguing creatures like the delicate dumpling squid, octopus and calamari. And it’s not unusual to find yourself surrounded by hundreds of small schooling fish that are attracted to the light.

Melbourne Down Under has been a labour of love for Marris, but she was also keen to acknowledge the assistance of various organisations that contributed to the project.

“My accomplices in getting this fabulous book out into the world include Club Marine, EPA Victoria, Parks Victoria, Unico and several local Victorian councils, including Mornington Peninsula, Hobsons Bay, Wyndham, Geelong and Frankston,” she said.


“With Christmas coming up, I believe Melbourne Down Under will make the perfect gift and readers can feel even more satisfied and festive knowing that a percentage of the funds generated from sales will be redirected back into local communities to seed marine education and engagement projects.”

She was equally enthusiastic about encouraging locals and visitors to see for themselves the many aquatic treasures on offer in the bay.

“I’d urge everyone to dust off their masks and snorkels to see what the bay has to offer. Or if you’re visiting Melbourne, make sure you put Port Phillip Bay on your ‘must see’ list. If you make the effort, you’ll be captivated with the wonders of this unique underwater world. There is definitely something for the entire family to see and for all levels of snorkelling and diving experience.”

The Melbourne Down Under project will be launched officially in Melbourne on October 27. Club Marine members will enjoy an exclusive 10 per cent discount on the book, which is priced at $39.95, as well as on the DVDs, which are currently being compiled. All members need do is quote the codeword ‘clubmarine’ when ordering at: And as an added bonus, if you mention Club Marine Magazine, you’ll have your copy of the book personally autographed by the author.

Creature Features