The Rowley Shoals is one of Australia’s most remote and stunning dive locations.
The Rowley Shoals is one of Australia’s most remote dive locations, and with one of the shortest dive seasons in the world, fewer than 200 people dive this isolated and pristine location each year.
This group of three coral atolls is located about 260 km west of Broome on the north-western Australian coast, at the edge of one of the widest continental shelves in the world. Life here is governed by the extreme tides, which pour in and out of the oval-shaped atolls via narrow natural channels, creating racing currents, which makes for some truly adrenalin-filled drift diving.
Much of the diving is done on the outside of the atoll, where the walls plunge down into 50-400m depth, and drifting through the channels. The drifts can be gentle, or swift, depending on the state of the tide, and the water is a very comfortable 27-28C.
With more than 200 species of coral and 700 species of fish, residents of the reefs include coral trout, clownfish, humphead parrotfish, Maori wrasse, Spanish mackerel, giant potato cod, dogtooth tuna and green turtles.
There is a small selection of dive liveaboards to choose from, all of which operate cruises of the rugged Kimberley Coast for most of the year outside the Rowley Shoals season. These include Odyssey Expeditions, a mid-range 24m catamaran with spacious airconditioned cabins and shared facilities, Great Escape, a 26m catamaran with ensuite air-conditioned cabins, and for a truly high-end luxury cruise experience, True North.
Top Tip: because the season is so short, spots on the Rowley Shoals liveaboards quickly get booked up. It pays to plan ahead and book at least a year in advance.
Three Ancient Atolls.
The Rowley Shoals shelf atolls arise from depths of between 300 and 700 metres. They are the most perfect examples of shelf atolls in Australian waters, believed to have formed over 10 million years ago. In comparison, the Great Barrier Reef is believed to have formed only 2 million years ago. There are three atolls:
Mermaid Reef is 15 km long and 8 km wide, with no landmass that remains after high tide, which makes it a National Marine Reserve under Commonwealth management. Therefore, no fishing of any sort is permitted on this reef and out to a designated zone approximately 1km off the reefs’ outer perimeter.
Clerke Reef is 16 km long and 8 km wide and has a permanent sandy cay at the northern end of the atoll named Bedwell Island.
Imperieuse Reef is 18 km long and 8 km wide, with small portion of sand that remains after the high-water mark called Cunningham Island. Originally it was on this sandy cay that a scientific recording post was established, one of only two stainless steel lighthouses that exist in Australia. Over the years, Cunningham Island has shifted around and now the lighthouse juts up out of shallow water.
Diving Rowley Shoals
Most liveaboard itineraries focus on Clerk and Mermaid Atolls, with a rare few also including Imperious Atoll. Here’s a guide to the sites you’re likely to experience on a Rowley Shoals liveaboard expedition.
Typical Rowley Shoals itineraries include three to four days diving Clerke Atoll, over half the week-long liveaboard trip, and you’ll see why – with such an abundance and diversity of dive sites.
Clerke Aquarium is usually the first dive, a check-out dive in a shallow, protected area inside the atoll. Here you get a feel for the environment, navigating around the base of a large bommie in 12m depth. Large hard corals dominate, although many had been “flattened” by the strong tides, and on the white sand surrounding the bommie, there are thick forests of staghorn, with plenty of reef fish darting around.
The Bat Cave
Often the first venture to the outside edge of the atoll. Jump off the boat into clear blue water, and you’ll immediately notice the pristine condition of the corals. The reef slopes down to a wall, then drops off onto the blue, to 50m. A kaleidoscope of colourful coral grows out from the wall, including bright red gorgonian fans, yellow plate corals, and fushcia-pink soft corals. On your way back up the reef, explore the shallower gutters on your safety stop, with white-tip reef sharks resting on the sandy floors.
Clerke Channel drift snorkel
On this exciting drift snorkel, as soon as you jump in the water, the current will tug you away from the boat. Drift from the outside of the atoll, through the channel, to the inside of the atoll (preferable to drifting out of the atoll, out to sea!) With the incoming tide bringing in clear oceanic waters, the visibility is great, a good 20 to 30m.
The walls of the channel are lined with coral and you’ll see schools of snapper sheltering under coral outcrops and schools of huge bumphead parrotfish chomping loudly on the coral. Continue drifting fast through the channel – no need to kick, just relax and go with the flow – until getting pushed out into the inside of the atoll, where you slow down gently as the current dissipates. The boat will then pick you up and drop you in again into a narrower channel to repeat the ride.
A relatively shallow dive (12m), where the reef is full of tunnels, gutters and caves. Light beams penetrated through holes in the cave ceilings, and you’ll likely be joined by a school of trevally circling around in the sunbeams, a picturesque dive. One of the larger cave entrances is framed with an array of red gorgonian fans providing a beautifully framed view, looking out as Trevally circle the entrance.
For this dive, you’re dropped into the channel to drift outwards towards the edge of the atoll. This is one of the fastest drifts you’ll ever experience! There’s no other option but to surrender to the tide, and zoom past the coral bommies, past the schools of sweetlips, bumphead parrotfish, and white-tip reef sharks. So much fun! When you get spat out of the channel exit, you’ll find yourself at a site called “Coral Gardens”, where you slow to a gentle drift along a colourful wall (which drops down to 50m+).
At this cleaning station, large grey puffer fish make use of the coral outcrops to lie and be cleaned by smaller wrasse and cod stop with their mouths wide open for the tiny wrasse to pick scraps from their teeth, a relaxing second half of the dive after the “adrenalin drift”. The max depth is 23m.
Blue Lagoon is a spectacular site. There are multiple lagoons with white corral-rubble floors at 8-12m, enclosed by sheer walls of coral. There is abundant fish life, including anemonefish, a large school of trevally, white tip reef sharks. After the dive, you’re normally allowed to drift with the current all the way back to the “mother-ship” Reef Prince, instead of being driven back the usual way in the dive tender.
This dive is named after its cupcake-shaped coral bommies, but the main portion of the site is a stunning gradual sloping reef that disappears into the depths. As on all the sites here, there are large healthy corals and abundant fish life, including lots of curious batfish. The maximum depth is approx. 23m, although the reef slopes off to 50m.
This wall is, again, covered in wonderfully healthy and colourful corals and slopes steeply into the dark blue depths. There are so many tiny schooling fish around the corals here, sparkling in the sun, as they flit around, like each coral fan has its own light show going on. As with most of the dives you can pick your depth (the wall descends from the shallows to 50m+), but it’s worth staying in the 5-20m range as there is so much to see here.
After winding through coral bommies in the shallows, you’ll reach a white sandy expanse that slopes off onto the deep. All over the sand at 20m depth, are hundreds of little garden eels poking their bodies above the sand.
Minis & Mighties
This dive site gently slopes, then plunges down to 50m. The water is so clear, at 20m, you can look down and see the sandy sea floor, with corals as vibrant and colourful as usual.
Mermaid Atoll is a three-hour steam north of Clerke Atoll and the dive sites here are spectacular, a great place to end a great week of diving.
Cod Hole is like a cauldron – coral walls and white sandy base – churning with massive bumphead parrotfish, reef sharks, barracuda, and trevally. There is a lot of action on this dive, just watching the fish swirl around you is an incredible experience. Halfway through the dive, the current picks up and the dive turns into a fast drift, through gutters leading back towards the boat. On the drift, look out for more bumphead parrotfish, white tip reef sharks and the odd nurse shark laying on the sand.
At Mermaid atoll, the drop-offs are deeper, with a sheer wall of coral plunging down 400m. Of all the walls at Rowley Shoals, this is one of the most vibrant and colourful. The wall is covered in large red gorgonian fans and bright pink soft corals sprouting out between myriad hard coral formations. Grey reef sharks circle in the dark blue below as you drift gently along the wall, with trevally gliding above you.
Written By Deborah Dickenson Smith
Photo Credit Scott Portelli
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