Welcome to picturesque Bowen; consistently rated as having some of Queensland’s best beaches, is a fisherman’s paradise, yet is possibly one of the most under-rated shore based dive sites on the North QLD coast. This might be due in part to its very shallow coastal gradient which means depths beyond about 6m are hard to find without heading offshore. There are also no local dive shops in the area since the closure of Aussie Reef Dive, so you need to be fairly self-sufficient with your gear, and plan your dives with enough cylinders to cater for them, unless your plan includes a run to the Whitsundays. It takes around 2 hours from Townsville to reach Bowen. This makes it an ideal weekend trip destination, easy to reach on a Friday afternoon, with a simple return trip on a Sunday evening. As you approach the Bowen Aerodrome, take the Lower Don Road off to the left. Follow the signs all the way to the beaches. Bowen has several bays, coves, and beaches, but the following dive information focusses on these three sites; Horseshoe Bay, Murray Bay, and Rose Bay.
Horseshoe Bay is a beautiful little bay on the North Eastern tip of a small cape which forms the Southern end of Queens Bay. It can sometimes be buffeted by a South Westerly breeze, so our dives here have generally been more successful in the early morning. It is a QLD Surf Life Saving patrolled beach on weekends and over holiday periods, and is serviced by a great little café, plus there are many nearby accommodation options. This all means the bay receives a lot of visitors, so an early morning dip will probably give you better access to the car park, a place to gear up, and also the beach itself. The bottom at the middle of the bay is sand at about 5m, so in calm conditions, you are likely to see some dive training being conducted by Townsville based operators as this is a popular spot not only for entry level dive courses, but also for advanced and rescue courses.
Horseshoe Bay is best dived by a buddy pair towing a dive flag, and a surface watch on the beach. This allows the surface watch to keep an eye on your progress and to signal your presence to boats if they haven’t seen the flag, and are approaching your divers as they move across the mouth of the bay. Towing a flag whilst shore diving in and around rocky structure requires a bit of practice and after a while you will learn how much line to pay out, and how wide of structures you need to swim to prevent the line from snagging. Your line should be positively buoyant (which many white nylon ropes are), instead of ropes with a cotton core as these often sink and therefore snag more easily.
A good plan for Horseshoe Bay is to enter the water from the Eastern end of the bay, swim along the right hand rock wall, then head North across the mouth of the bay to the left hand rock wall, before returning on a South Westerly bearing along that wall. You can navigate in this bay using the sand ripples as a reference as they run parallel to the beach, but a simple orienteering compass on a retractable lanyard is very useful as well.
Visibility around Bowen typically ranges from 2m after a period of high wind and heavy seas, to 7m or 8m in ideal conditions. To get the most out of diving in reduced visibility, the key is to move slowly and really study the underwater scenery. Horseshoe Bay seems to attract a large number of painted crayfish in the early stages of their life cycle and small crayfish can be found under plate corals and rocky over-hangs. It also has a large number of colourful sea slugs and nudibranchs, with the white and cream, plus purple and black coloured animals being the most common. Fish life in the bay is quite varied, with schools of fusilier, many species of small wrasse, damsel fish, surgeon fish, drummer, and small coral trout. Again, this bay seems to be a bit of a nursery for fish, perhaps to achieve enough size prior to heading out to the reef. Be wary of damsel fish in this bay, they really are the little fish with the big-man attitude and will go out of their way to peck and prod you away from their little piece of coral real estate. See this You-Tube clip for an idea of what they look like;
Both rock walls at each side of the bay contain small yet colourful and healthy looking hard corals, and as you approach the beach the sand gives way to a rock base which has shallow cracks and gutters. We’ve made some surprising finds in these cracks and gutters right in close, such as cleaner shrimp and honeycomb moray eel.
One final recommendation; unless coral spawn is your thing, we recommend avoiding Horseshoe Bay just after the annual GBR coral spawning event in late November or early December, as this bay seems to completely fill with spawn and remains so for some time after the event. We’ve tried to dive in these conditions and as well as the reduced visibility, it takes an extraordinary amount of washing to remove the smell from your gear!
Around 900m south of Horseshoe Bay lies Murray Bay. This bay has a sandy beach comparable in size to Horseshoe Bay, and on a high tide and in calm conditions; this bay is a stunning little hidden gem. A walking track runs from Horseshoe Bay to Murray Bay hugging the coast, and you can get great views of both bays from the Rotary Lookout near the start of the track above the Horseshoe Bay car park.
A rough vehicle track runs off Horseshoe Bay Road at a point in Queen Bay called the Pocket, and heads up and over the hill behind Murray Bay to finish at a small car park in front of a motel. If shore diving, this car park is the closest you will be able to transport your gear by vehicle to the water’s edge, as the motel no longer operates (correct as at May 2018).
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, NQUEC used to run three-day trips to Murray Bay each Australia Day Long Weekend, as the club enjoyed a strong relationship with the owners of the motel at the time, who would often allow the club to book out the entire complex, even if not all rooms were filled. During this period, a beautifully maintained grass lawn complete with coconut palms separated the rooms from the beach, and all you needed to do was don your gear and walk out your front door and into the water! Today you will need to carry your gear about 250m to the beach on a track which skirts the western edge of the motel grounds. The track starts from the boom gate at the front of a dis-used red brick building. We suggest diving Murray Bay by incorporating a few circuits of the small offshore rock formation (known locally as Solitary Rock) around 100m due north of the point at the eastern edge of the bay. Aim to dive Murray Bay on a high tide, as the higher water level will make it easier to work your way along the eastern edge and out into the mouth of the bay. You can either swim along the bottom here or snorkel at the surface until you reach the tip of the point. Take your time finning around and out of the bay, as there are often interesting scenes such as large schools of diamond fish and juvenile jacks moving around the rocks where the high tide has given them access to the shallows. It is also worth mentioning that in this bay I once stumbled across a really big olive sea snake, many times larger than the ones resident to the wreck of the Yongala. Its size and obvious interest in the reflection of my mask gave me a bit of a shock, all to the amusement of my dive buddy!
Once you arrive at the point, shoot a bearing to Solitary Rock, but as a rough guide 60 degrees will get you close. The bottom in between the point and the rock has large cracks and gutters, which harbour fish, so check these out as you move along. Depth between the point and Solitary Rock averages around 5m, and you’ll swim over patches of blue-tipped staghorn coral. As you approach the rock, you will start to notice more plate corals, which often have sweetlips hiding under them. The rock has a crack wide enough to swim through, and provides refuge for a number of small fish such as margined coral fish, fusilier, damsel fish, diamond fish, drummer, surgeon fish, and bi-colour angel fish. As with Horseshoe Bay, Murray Bay seems to attract nudibranchs, and depending on the time of year, you may even see them mating. On one dive here in November, we found many white and black spotted nudibranchs joined together, one lying on top of the other, and even to our un-trained eyes it was clear they were doing what nature does. You can also find tiger cowrie shells around the rock, along with sea whip corals.
Once you have completed your exploration of the rock, a bearing of 240 degrees will put you back in Murray Bay, and a slight correction south once you approach the left hand edge of the bay will return you to the beach.
Rose Bay is a small community just south of Murray Bay. Follow the Rose Bay Road until it changes name to Bluewater Parade where you will find a small car park in front of an island turn-around, and a grassy area you can use to gear up. The Rose Bay place name seems to apply equally to both the small bay and the large bay in front of the community, even though most maps show the name over the first bay directly in front of the Rose Bay Resort. We prefer to dive the northern end of the large bay here, because the rocky point gives at-least some shelter from an easterly breeze.
Rather than walking your gear up to the point, we suggest entering the bay in front of the car park, and either tracking north-east across to the rocky shoreline, or swimming east out into the mouth of the bay before turning north towards the point. A towed dive flag here is a must, as we have found plenty of evidence of fishing such as tackle and small anchors in the bay. The dominant hard coral in this bay is definitely staghorn, but you will also find the occasional patch of lettuce coral. As with Murray and Horseshoe Bays, Rose Bay also houses big numbers of nudibranchs, and we’ve also made the surprising find of a honeycomb eel here too.
Depth in this northern end of the bay is around 5m to 7m. If you take your time and dive on the slack water at the top of the tide, we’ve found you can work your way around the point and partly into the next bay with enough air remaining to comfortably return to the beach. On your return leg, you can either follow the rocky shoreline all the way back to the northern corner of the beach followed by a walk home, or leave the point and head south into the bay before finally turning west for the centre of the beach. If you choose the later, then a compass is highly recommended because for some reason; this section of Rose Bay can be Bowen’s Bermuda Triangle! I’ve met several divers who have dived here without a compass and complained of having trouble maintaining a course into the beach along the bottom, even in very good conditions with clear shallow water.
Cyclone disclaimer: Please note that some of the Bowen content above is based on dives conducted before TC Debbie; therefore, areas in these sites which contained delicate corals such as lettuce, plate, and staghorn may have changed since the cyclone.