On Nobby’s Reef with Tom Dyer

“As of five years now I’ve been sober. I had about ten years of what you’d call a rough patch. I found that my relationship with the ocean during that period wasn’t what it is now, and reconnecting with it has helped me grow into a better person”.

Tom Dyer says that there is salt water is in his blood. He’s speaking poetically, trying to describe his strong connection to the ocean, but I believe it. When we talk about his life and history, there’s seldom a story that doesn’t relate back to the water in some way. There’s also a long generational link that has been passed down from his surfer father, his wharfie grandfather, and sailors down the line before them. In one form or another, the sea was always part of his destiny.

Tom’s own personal relationship with the sea comes through fishing, specifically spearfishing. More than just a hobby or a way to gather food — though it does satisfy both of those needs — for Tom it is about culture and community. It has also been an integral part of maintaining his sobriety as well as a way of forging a deeper connection with his Aboriginal heritage. To hear him talk about it, you get the sense that being on land is just a way to mark time until he can dive back into the blue.

One sunny Saturday, Tom kindly agreed to skip his morning trip to the beach to talk about his journey, provide a beginner’s guide to spearfishing, and share some of his encounters with sharks, shipwrecks, and the many strange things you find under the waves.

Tom at Swansea Heads with a 25kg Yellowtail Kingfish catch

Where does your love for the ocean begin?

I was born and raised in Newcastle. I grew up in Kotara, so a little further inland, but we lived right next to the 317 bus line which got me where I needed to be. I think from around age 14 Mum let me catch the bus by myself. I’d spend as long as I could on the beach surfing and diving. My first encounter was when my dad taught me how to swim. This was out at Merewether. I would have been three or four and just held onto his shoulders as we went out through the waves. I remember feeling like we were hundreds of meters out to sea but realistically it was probably about 25 at most. Dad told me when to hold my breath as the waves came in and that’s what I did. 

So it was your father’s passion that was sort of imprinted onto you?

Absolutely. He’s a surfer and was out there as often as possible. But it runs through my whole family. My grandfather was a wharfie and so were all his brothers. His dad was a merchant sailor. Somewhere back down the line was a ship’s captain by the name of Sterling who was from Carrington. It’s in the blood.

Merewether Beach, where Tom learned to swim, in the 1800s

Was it your father who taught you how to fish?

It was. We lived in Port Stephens when I was around seven and I can remember fishing from the inside of the breakwater at Nelson Bay Marina. I loved it, and I still do. From there it morphed into spearfishing.

How did you discover spearfishing?

I was snorkeling and I kept thinking about the fact that I was seeing so many fish and yet we could never catch any when we were on the shore. Then one day out at Cowrie Hole I saw an older guy come out of the water and he had this massive big brace of fish. There was Drummer and Bream and all these different kinds that would have taken us weeks and weeks to catch with lines. I was enthralled. I wanted to know how he did it. So I asked and that’s where I first learned about it. I went out and picked up all the gear that I could and got started. I got the results I wanted quickly too which helped me keep going. I’ve dived pretty much anywhere that I can since then, all over the east coast.

Could you describe the experience of diving, what it’s like for you?

When you’re on land there are so many sounds and so many sensations. It’s hot. There’s a wind blowing. You’ve taken all this time to drive out, find a park, put on your wetsuit, get your gear and carry it down. But you get down to the water and just the sight of it sparks this joy that you know so well. And when you dive in there’s an immediate sensory change. You go from overload to relaxation. You can just lie there. Just breathe through the snorkel. Calm down. Visually you get this mixing of greens and blues that you don’t really see anywhere else. There’s nothing like it after a stressful week. I’ll go for a dive and everything is better. It’s almost as if just getting in the water is the solution to all life’s problems.

It sounds very therapeutic.

It is, and it’s always there. You can get the same feeling up and down the coast and almost anywhere in the world. To put your face into the ocean and slip into that enveloping cool — it’s almost the same experience wherever you go. It’s hard to describe but I think it’s primal, a connection deep inside us. When it comes down to it, I’m just a wet monkey in the ocean.

Northern view of the Newcastle coastline in the 1950s
Southern view of the Newcastle coastline. Photo by Tom Dyer

Where are some of your favourite spots to dive and fish in Newcastle?

Big Ben, at the northern end of Nobby’s Reef. The outside of Nobbys headland along the breakwater creates a pretty good spot. Cowrie Hole, as I mentioned. All those little rocky headlands from the top down to around King Edward Park and the Bogie Hole are good, but it starts to get a bit shallower from there and a bit less user-friendly. Most of our beaches are sort of crescent moon shapes and the headlands create pressure points, so this is where baitfish assemble and the larger fish go to feed. There are often rocky reefs and bomboras that are good to hold certain species of fish that you can’t find elsewhere. 

What sort of fish are available here and which ones are of particular interest to spearfishers?

The biggest trophy fish would probably be the Yellowtail Kingfish with the ​​Mulloway coming in closely after that. There are a lot of Bream, Flathead, and Whiting here. We don’t really target things like Snapper – they’re a very flighty fish and hard to get close to. Spearfishers will often target types like the Rock Black Fish or Drummer and Red Rock Scorpion Fish or Red Rock Cod as they were known. Luderick too, which have had some terrible names in the past. Last November I shot a 25-kilo kingfish. I’ve been hunting for one that’s over 20 kilos for 15 years since, ever since I started diving. I finally got it and that is now that’s it, that’s my trophy. I don’t need to shoot one that big anymore. 

Are they in abundance here?

More so than they were. A lot of fisheries have improved. Especially the kingfish. In the early 2000s, there was the abolishment of floating traps which are traps that hold entire schools, massive schools of 15, 20, 25-kilo fish. And they were nearly wiped out but they seem to have finally bounced back. I know they have a very quick reproductive span which I think has had a lot to do with it. There are increasing numbers of divers in the water which is starting to put a bit of pressure on certain species. Mullaway for example are vulnerable to overfishing — especially by commercial fishers — but work is being done on that, including changing bag limits, size requirements, and so on.

What sort of things does a first-timer need to know before heading into the ocean?

Firstly you need a fishing license, then there are a couple basic rules to follow. You can only spear within 20 metres of the last ocean fronting beach. You cannot spear under pressure there, so you can’t take a speargun with you while scuba diving — it’s an unfair advantage. Then there are local area regulations, so you need to look those up and follow them.

In terms of equipment, you need a wetsuit, a good set of flippers, a mask, and a snorkel. Those are the essentials. A weight belt can be handy. It makes the dive a bit easier.

You’ve definitely got to know how to read the ocean: the tides and currents. One of the first things I ever learned was how to look at a barometric map and see when there’s going to be good diving by pressure and things like that. I use Willy Weather for all my seasonal and forecasting information, and other than that the online surf cams are really useful. They’re often good enough to tell you the general swell direction and size.

When you do a dive, it’s always better to dive with someone else. Even a group of people, just to have that mob of safety around you. It’s important to remember that you’re out there in the ocean, putting pressures on your body that it’s not used to. It can be very dangerous. 

How do you go about building your skills and knowledge from there?

The best way that I’ve found to learn was to join a club. There are spearfishing clubs up and down the coast and they’ve always got fantastic members, guys who have been doing it for 30 years who are willing to help out, teach new people, and spread their knowledge. The one that I’ve been involved with is the Newcastle Neptunes. This is our local spearfishing club and I believe they are the oldest existing spearfishing club in Australia, starting back in 1957. They’ve got a great range of characters. I’ve met lifelong friends through the club. they are just the font of all knowledge as far as I’m concerned.

When is the best time of year to fish?

I think just before it gets really hot. Spring is a good time. As the water gets warmer the fish are more prolific, but I personally don’t like to be getting in and out of a wetsuit during the hottest parts of summer. I do plan trips away at certain times of the year, to go to different areas for specific fish. Locally though it’s a mixed bag, and usually a case of discovering that my freezer’s empty and I need to catch some fish. I don’t eat seafood that I haven’t procured myself. That’s an ethical choice. I don’t think people fully realise the destructive nature of fish farming, which was presented to us as this pathway for the future. Richard Flannagan’s new book Toxic about the Tasmanian salmon farming industry is great and really brings a lot of the issues to light.

Do you encounter much pollution down there?

You get a lot of runoff out of the harbor and there’s always plastic debris and discarded fishing lines and odd things. I’ve found credit cards just floating along in the water. I try to take out as much as I can. I think there’s a lack of respect out there, generally, people who don’t seem to care or feel responsible for the oceans. I think we just need to make the knowledge about marine environments more available and for people to understand that everyone plays a role in this. One person’s individual actions might not seem like much but collectively those actions make a big difference. 

What have been some of the most memorable experiences you’ve had under the water?

It was a fair few years ago now and some people had been washed off the rocks at Catherine Hill Bay. I think it was a couple of fishermen who came up from Sydney. There was a big search for weeks and sadly they were never recovered. A month or two after that I went out diving with a friend and I remember having this eerie feeling in the back of my mind. I just kept thinking I don’t want to look down in a cave and have someone looking back at me. There are a few drop-offs there, overhangs basically, and there’s an old ship boiler that had been dumped into the bay. As I swam down I saw something hanging out of the back of the boiler. Immediately my body went into panic mode and I thought “oh no, this is it” but someone had actually stuffed an old mannequin in there. So there was a plastic mannequin with legs hanging out five or six meters down. To this day I still just remember this sheer panic that ran through my body. I’ve seen massive sharks and I’ve had run-ins with boats but this was something that has imprinted in my mind. I don’t think you’d find that sort of joker attitude anywhere else. That would be strongly Australian if not uniquely Novacastrian.

I also found a full set of golf clubs once, 150 meters offshore, perfectly in the bag sitting on the bottom like they were waiting for someone to come back to collect them. I don’t know where they came from, or how they got here, but again, I imagine that someone has just thought this is going to be funny if anyone catches them and reels it up.

What’s it like to encounter a shark and what’s the best response for someone who finds themselves in that situation? 

It depends on the situation and the reaction of the shark. I’ve had antagonistic responses from smaller sharks. I had a few Grey Nurse sharks, about three or four years ago, who were snapping at my heels trying to get the fish that I was carrying. I’ve had a four and a half meter Great White who just cruised past and had a look at me. I wondered that day if I should have taken up golf as a hobby instead!

I think we have an immediate primal fear of sharks, which is natural, but when you’re spending time out there you have to learn how to read their body language. They need to be respected more than feared. All sharks are different but as a general rule, I treat them the same way as you would an unfamiliar dog. Don’t approach them. I have let them come to me and get a sense of whether or not they look vicious or if they’re on the hunt, in which case I’ll just push them out of the way. A little jab with my speargun. We know that we’re not going to be friends but we’ll just have to find a way to exist together in the ocean.

What’s a great recipe for someone who’s just gone spearfishing and caught their first fish?

I think you just have to go simple. One of my favorite recipes is for a fish that’s often overlooked, and that’s the humble Sea Mullet, which is a big, prolific sustainable fish. It’s very cultural too, mullet runs were a great joining part of society for Indigenous Australia. I use a charcoal grill but you can use any sort of barbecue or gas-fired grill. Open fire. Salt, pepper, a little brown sugar, and some soy sauce. Mix it all together and slather it over your fish and put it skin-side down over the fire. When it starts to render though, flip it over for a little bit. Add lemon and then flake through a salad. Unbeatable.

You’re still young, but I’m wondering what changes you’ve observed over the years, specifically around the beach and harbour areas of Newcastle.

I can remember around the late ‘90s and early ‘00s that the beaches were busy but not as packed as they are now. There was that great spread out into the suburbs for a while but now people have moved back in, so there’s simply more people using the place. But strangely enough, I have found that the ocean has generally been cleaner, at least more recently. I think that people have cleaned up their act a bit. Or they have started to. Newcastle has undoubtedly cleaned up a lot as it has transitioned away from heavy industry. It’s not perfect but it’s getting better. I think with the change comes a sense of pride, a pride of place, that people want to maintain.

Newcastle Baths photographed by Tom Dyer

Does this mean you’re optimistic about the future of our oceans?

Yes and no. I’m glad to see that we’re slowly getting that forward thought of the ocean now. people are beginning to see that it’s not this unending buffet that we can take from. That it’s a limited resource and a delicate system. But what people do with that knowledge and how successful we are in using it – I think that’s still to be determined.

Now your connection to the ocean has taken on a new dimension, where you’ve started to photograph and film the ocean. Are you working on a particular project at the moment?

I’m working on a short documentary, based around Newcastle, about my relationship with the ocean and how that has helped with my personal growth. As of five years now I’ve been sober. I had about ten years of what you’d call a rough patch. I found that my relationship with the ocean during that period wasn’t what it is now, and reconnecting with it has helped me grow into a better person. So I’m going to go into how it has helped me deal with sobriety and become the person that I want to be. Newcastle does, traditionally, have this culture of surfing and partying hard. I leaned into that, and I burnt out too. I’d like to look at my experience and see how it overlaps with the growth and change of the city itself.

I’m a Taungurung Indigenous man but my people are from the mountains of Victoria. I’ve always had a strong connection with that place but the more I learn about Newcastle, the deeper my connection here grows. And I don’t know if that’s just within me, or if that’s a part of 120,000 years of continual heritage.

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Categorized as Seafolk
Heath Killen

By Heath Killen

Heath Killen is the founder and editor of On A Floating World. Born and raised in Newcastle, he is passionate about the coastline and waterways surrounding his home. Elsewhere he helps people develop brands, campaigns, and projects based on their passions.