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The Swan River, with its mouth at the Port of Fremantle, flows through the city of Perth and has over 30 large tributaries running into it. Approximately 240km long, the river is classified as a salt-water tidal river with an average depth of five meters. A diverse population of life - plants, fish, crustaceans, amphibians and several varieties of birds make their home in the Swan. Dutchman William de Vlamingh originally named it the Black Swan River, due to the majestic Black Swans that inhabited the river. Unfortunately due to the increase in activity on the river a much smaller population of black swans are now in residence. The river is a hive of activity for yachting, fishing, skiing, parasailing, jet skiing and swimming, with an annual fire works display conducted from its centre to interest both young and old. With all these activities there are still only a few who think outside the square and add diving in it. To most of the diving locals a quick look conjures up thoughts of a worthless dive with visibility of about 2- 3 meters on a sandy bottom with little more to see than the odd fish passing by!

Well think again………

Recently I took a group of students on their PADI® Open Water Course down to the river to complete the first set of compulsory dives. My suggested location was met with a few moans and groans, although after some persuasion they reluctantly agreed. Our destination was Bicton Baths, a short distance down river from the Port of Fremantle. From previous experience, I knew this was an ideal location for the beginner diver, complete with a grassed zone directly in front of the car park providing a ready made area for kitting up. Then it's just a very short stroll to the jetty which just happens to be the right height to practice giant stride entries. From this point the river bottom contour slopes gently down to a depth of between two and fifteen meters. Our chosen day was calm and sunny with little more than a ripple disturbing the surface. Conditions were great. Still there was a little hesitation about diving here when the ocean was but a short distance away. After some cajoling, the students quickly kitted up and entered via a giant stride and descended down to the bottom where we encountered our first surprise. A nudibranch was slowly moving its way around a large sea anemone not more than a meter from our entry point. This specimen was met with awe by the students who were captivated by its uniqueness; light brown in colour with its back displaying the stark contrast of blue and purple spots, with a white strip surrounding its body. The group spent some time studying this beautiful creature before we started our exercises. A mere 5 minutes later we were greeted by a small school of Bream and the ever-present Blowfish (or "Blowie"). There wasn't a student without a look of amazement on their face with the quantity and variety of life that had greeted us. During the compulsory exercises two of the students waiting their turn were entertained by a stunning lilac and white Anemone with its fronds swaying with the current and a small school of Blowies. Blowies are known as the rat of the fish world and the bane of many an angler. Soon they were nibbling the ends of our gloves. A bolder one swam up to my wife's mask and peered in without even a moment's hesitation: taking a good long curious look at what was invading their world. Up until then my wife (along for the dive), found blowfish to be little more than the pest it was reputed to be. After this deep and meaningful experience where blue eyes met with fluorescent green she discovered that they are perhaps worth a second look, for the diver at least. After 15 minutes of exercises we headed off to discover what other creatures the river would share with us this day. A colony of mussels with blennies darting in and out of them first, then a little further on, a flathead coyly peering up at us from its well-camouflaged position on the bottom was next. We happened upon a Flounder that blended so well into its surroundings we may have missed it altogether had it not been frightened and scurried off at the sight of us. What seemed out of nowhere, a Dragonet passed us by. I was surprised by this, knowing that dragonets are found in the northern parts of Australia not the southern. But to my amazement, here it was in our river. We followed the little Dragonet with its green and red spots for some distance before stopping to admire a brightly coloured orange Sea Horse swaying in the weed. I halted the students who would have kept on swimming, unaware of what they were missing. A closer inspection of the weed revealed not one but five of these captivating crustaceans holding on with their tails, detaching briefly to find a better hiding spot. One of the Sea Horses decided to put on a show, darting in and out of the weed and wrapping its tail around my finger before gently floating away. After about half an hour we headed back and passed the small jetty we had entered via. This time we stopped to take a look and found it was alive with a variety of small fish and encased in black mussels and a variety of sponges. Several schools of baby Yellow Tailed Grunters were hanging virtually motionless in the slight current. There was so much aquatic life, and all within 50 meters of our training site. The swim back to shore revealed even more, with the bottom constantly changing composition as small Sea Anemones darted back into the river bed as we approached. In one location there were hundreds of them creating a veritable visual feast as we swam over. Jellyfish overhead appeared iridescent as the sun caught them gracefully pulsating past. Several Starfish slowly made their way along the bottom. Another nudibranch was there to greet us as we stopped to ascend and end the dive. When we surfaced, I had trouble getting a word in as the group discussed what they had seen. One student, speaking for us all, exclaimed that the only thing wrong with diving is that you can't say "WOW" underwater. They became even more enthused when I explained that there was a whole different world to be seen at night when prawns and crabs make an appearance, and a plethora of divers converge on the area attempting to catch them. It is even possible to do a drift dive here when the tide is changing, and with a bit of luck you may come face to face with the Dolphins that occasionally pass by. This group's opinion of the river has changed forever: It was no longer a site that seemed a pointless dive not 50 minutes before. So next time you consider passing up a dive site because of perceived conditions, take a little time to think again. Try a dive in the Swan River and stop to take a closer look. You could well be missing something really special.