The Rowley Shoals is one of those names you have heard thrown around but probably never really known what it’s all about. That could be because if you try and look for it on a map, it’s nearly invisible. Located about 260km off the coast of Broome, Western Australia the Rowley Shoals are a chain of three coral atolls named Mermaid Reef, Clerke Reef and Imperieuse Reef.
The atolls are on the edge of one of the world’s widest continental shelves and rise nearly vertically from over 400m meters deep from the ocean floor. Home to an incredible 233 species of coral and over 600 species of fish, it is considered to be some of the least disturbed waters in the world. Two of the atolls are protected marine sanctuary zones and have become open water aquariums.
The season to dive the Rowley Shoals is limited by the raging tides. The window of calm weather is around October – November and through this time a couple of charter boats take people out for an experience of a lifetime.
Our journey started when we landed in Broome, Western Australia. Only a 2.5hour flight from Perth but flying in to Broome feels like you are flying in to a completely different county. The contrast of the red rock and white sand against the blue sea is incredible.
One thing I was looking forward to was the iconic sunset at Cable Beach, and it was all I imagined! As the sun sets over the water, the shadow on the water creates the ‘Staircase to the Moon’ and the glowing red in the sunset is something I had never seen before. This usually happens during the peak time to travel to Broome between March and October.
We couldn’t leave Broome without paying a visit to Matso’s Brewery! So next day we stopped at the Brewery to sample the world’s hottest chilli beer, mango beer and ginger beer in the Broome sunshine!
We were all briefed and on the boat that afternoon, and with only 20 customers on board and 6 crew I knew we were in for a fantastic week with Odyssey Expeditions. Cruising out of the Broome harbour we watched the sunset and left Broome behind. We made ourselves at home in our cabins, and through that night the boat travelled out to the Rowley Shoals and arrived about mid-day the next day.
Arriving at the Rowley Shoals was unbelievable. As the boat slowly travelled through the channel of Clerke Reef, I felt a sense of privilege thinking to myself I’m one of only 200 divers who make it out here each year. Everyone was keen to get in for a dive, so we loaded up the dive boat ‘Homer’ and headed to the inside of the atoll for the first dive. Jumping in I straight away noticed the abundance of corals and how healthy they were and was very excited to dive the outside walls of the atoll.
The best part about diving off a smaller boat is the ability to be dropped off anywhere for the dive, slip in exactly where the wall drops off, and then when we surfaced Homer was there ready to collect us. Jumping in at Mermaid Reef was a huge rush, this is the dive site everyone talks about after they have dived the Rowley Shoals, and I can see why. Cruising along the wall I didn’t know where to look first, in between dodging the huge gorgonian fans there were batfish, soft corals, plate corals, moray eels, clownfish and anemones I have never seen in such stunning colours.
The end of the dive was spent in the shallows of the reef, where light was streaming through and there was a hive of activity from the hundreds of blue striped snapper, angelfish, butterfly fish, pipefish, and reef sharks that didn’t seem to mind us being there.
In between dives we got to make the most of the incoming tides and drift snorkelled back in to the atoll. Drift snorkelling is like flying, especially when you duck dive down and just go with the current. As we approached one area it looked like there was a heard of buffalos tramping across the shallow reef and when we got closer I realised they were huge Maori Wrasse! Never had I seen anything like it.
On one of our last evenings at the Rowley Shoals we stepped on to Bedwell Island for a picnic and some backyard cricket. Bedwell is not technically big enough to be called an island, it’s a sand cay rising approximately 2m above the water. The only land for miles, the island is home to the rare red tail tropicbird, and makes a fabulous spot to watch the sunset. It’s not until you search the co-ordinates of the island that you realise exactly how isolated you are.
After 7 days of amazing diving, exceptional food, and great company, it was time to make the journey back. Travelling through the night to return to Broome, waking up on the mainland made the week we had just had feel like a dream. Certainly a place I’ll be retuning to.