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ROWLEY SHOALS – UNDERWATER SMORGASBORD

By Nigel Marsh

 

From my very first dive at the Rowley Shoals I knew I was exploring somewhere very special. For a start there were fish everywhere - colourful reef fish and large pelagic fish, plus a very healthy population of sharks. However, these creatures see so few divers at this remote destination that they proved to be very camera shy. Less camera shy were the fabulous corals - wonderful gardens of hard corals, beautiful gorgonians and spectacular fields of soft corals. I hate to use the word pristine, as it tends to be overused and not appropriate to most dive destinations, but this was the perfect word to describe this underwater smorgasbord.

 

First discovered by Anglo-Irish naval officer Captain Josias Rowley (later Admiral Sir Josias Rowley, 1st Baronet, GCB, GCMG) from the ship HMS Imperieuse in 1800, the three reefs of the Rowley Shoals are located 300km west of Broome, off the northern coast of Western Australia. Like the wonderful Coral Sea Reefs found off Australia’s east coast, the Rowley Shoals were once the peaks of ancient mountains, which slipped beneath the waves after the end of the last Ice Age. Located on the edge of the continental shelf, these reefs rise from deep water and attract a great variety of ocean wanderers.

 

A marine park, the three reefs of the Rowley Shoals are Mermaid Reef, Clerke Reef and Imperieuse Reef. Each of these reefs is oval shaped and covers an area of approximately 90 square kilometres. The reefs lie 30km apart, and while all offer spectacular diving, Clerke Reef and Mermaid Reef are the most popular with visiting charter boats, as they have sheltered lagoons for safe overnight anchorage.

 

Divers first started to explore the Rowley Shoals in the 1970s and discovered reefs very different to the rest of Australia. The reefs are a mixing pot of species from both Australia and Asia, with over 230 species of coral and close to 700 species of fish. Only a handful of liveaboard charter boats visit these remote reefs each year, and only over the months of September, October and November, when calm conditions prevail.

 

One liveaboard vessel that journeys to the Rowley Shoals is True North, which I was fortunate to join for a six night trip to this remote destination in September. True North is easily the most luxurious and well-appointed liveaboard I have ever been on. The vessel is 50m long, and has large spacious cabins spread over three levels, plus a huge dining room, comfortable lounge, bar, helipad, alfresco dining area and a massive dive deck. True North only operates a limited number of trips to the Rowley Shoals each year, as it also ventures to the Kimberly and other parts of Australia, plus trips to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

 

After a day seeing the sights of Broome, I boarded True North in the afternoon and met my fellow passengers, a mixed group of divers, anglers and snorkelers. I quickly discovered this was a typical mix for a voyage on this vessel, and over half the passengers were repeat customers, returning to once again enjoy the luxury of a True North adventure. We were soon underway, enjoying a glass of champagne as the sun set, and then the first of many fabulous meals cooked by the three chefs.

 

The overnight crossing to the Rowley Shoals was very calm, and the next morning we arrived at Clerke Reef to be greeted by a pod of migrating humpback whales. Once moored in the lagoon the tender boats, six in total, were launched and we got ready to explore this unique part of Australia.

 

Our first dive at Blue Lagoon set the scene for four days of brilliant diving. This was our checkout dive, but it was unlike any checkout dive I have ever done before. This wonderful site offered coral gardens and coral heads to explore in less than 25m of water. I was first impressed by the fish life - schools of trevally, barracuda, sweetlips, fusiliers and snappers, plus potato cod, coral trout, mackerel, wahoo, garden eels and a great range of reef fish. I was also impressed to see numerous sharks - several whitetip reef sharks and grey reef sharks zooming around the reef. And finally I was extremely impressed by the corals. Healthy hard corals, gorgonians, sea whips, whip corals and best of all, spectacular soft corals. I love spikey soft corals, they have the most exquisite colours, and all around me at Blue Lagoon were red, pink, yellow, white and orange examples. Not only that, the water was warm at 27°C and the visibility was stunning, over 40m. I could see why divers raved about the Rowley Shoals.

 

Blue Lagoon was typical of the dive sites we explored at Clerke Reef, as each had great corals, wonderful fish life and numerous sharks. Another site with wonderful coral gardens was Plectropoma Pass. This site had an even better collection of soft corals, and I was very surprised to see a gang of six juvenile grey reef sharks that were less than 50cm long. It was great to see so many sharks on each dive. They were a little camera shy, which was frustrating for photographs, but still wonderful to see. Whitetip reef sharks were particularly abundant, and several of the females were observed with fresh mating bites around their gills, a good sign for the future generations.

 

At other dive sites we explored dramatic coral canyons, but with Clerke Reef rising 390m above the surrounding seafloor most dives were wall dives. Drifting along Clerke Wall there were wonderful corals to be seen - large gorgonians, sponges, whip corals, sea whips and more beautiful soft corals. Numerous reef fish were on show, plus there was a constant parade of pelagic fish, including Spanish mackerel, trevally, wahoo, rainbow runners, jobfish and dogtooth tuna. On each dive I found myself constantly scanning the blue water, hoping to see either a humpback whale, as we could hear them singing on every dive or some magnificent beast of the deep. The anglers were fortunate to hook, and release, a sailfish, but we didn’t get to see one of these incredible creatures. Also cruising this wall were groupers, Maori wrasse, humphead parrotfish, turtles, whitetip reef sharks and grey reef sharks. The crew informed me that manta rays also glide along this wall. We didn’t see any while diving, but saw quite a few feeding on the surface and managed to snorkel with two.

 

On other wall dives at The Bommie, South Park, Sheer Delight and Main Channel Wall we saw moray eels, stingrays, gropers, sweetlips, coral trout, schools of snappers and fusiliers. I didn’t see a good variety of invertebrate species, but I must confess that I mainly had a wide angle lens on my camera so I wasn’t really looking hard. I did see coral crabs, hermit crabs, clams, featherstars, sea stars and a few nudibranchs, and a night dive did reveal a good assortment of crustaceans and molluscs.

 

The most exciting wall dive we did was at the northern end of Clerke Reef at a site called Jimmy Goes to China. Strong currents rip around the reef at this site, and we dropped down the wall to 40m to be surrounded by a dozen grey reef sharks and two larger silvertip sharks. This site also had wonderful corals and schools of barracuda, snappers and fusiliers. Our bottom time was way too short at this action packed site.

 

Each day at the Rowley Shoals we did three to four dives, not hard core diving, but balanced out with other activities and a feast of food. Many of the divers also enjoyed the snorkelling and fishing, and whale watching was also popular with many pods of migrating humpback whales spotted each day. We also visited Bedwell Island, a long spit of sand that is home to hermit crabs and nesting sea birds. The crew also hosted sunset cocktails on the island one afternoon, which led to a few sore heads the next morning.

 

Our final dive at Clerke Wall provided a nice farewell to the Rowley Shoals. Drifting along the wall we saw the usual pretty corals, reef fish, pelagic fish and reef sharks, but right at the end of the dive we found a fabulous broadclub cuttlefish. This wonderful cephalopod was unconcerned to have three excited underwater photographers blasting it like a group of paparazzi, and flashed a dazzling array of colours. After five minutes with this amazing creature we reluctantly surfaced, sad to be departing the Rowley Shoals when we had so much more to explore. But I felt I had join a very exclusive club, as only a few hundred divers get to enjoy these spectacular reefs each year.

 

BROOME

Broome is a very colourful town, with a very colourful history that many divers will find interesting. The town was established in 1883, after pearl oysters were found to be abundant in the surrounding waters. The area quickly grew to have the largest pearl lugger fleet in the country. The pearl oysters were collected to be turned into buttons, and were first gathered by Aboriginal free divers. Later Japanese divers arrived and used standard dress to collect the shells. Many died from the bends or drowning, and today rest in the Japanese Cemetery. During the Second World War Broome was attacked on four occasions by Japanese planes and not long after the war the pearl shell industry collapsed when plastic buttons were invented. However, the town survived and is today famous for its cultivated pearls, and is one of the only places in the world where pearl divers are still employed to collect shells. Broome is located 2240km north of Perth and is a popular tourist town, with people coming to see the pearl farms, the famous Cable Beach and to explore the nearby Kimberly region.

 

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