Orange and black clown fish dart in and out of enormous turquoise anemones. Crimson, yellow and green fish, whose patterns are reminiscent of those on Versace fabric, weave between elaborate coral pinnacles. A pair of Moorish idols, with their elongated dorsal fins, slowly surveys the reef wall, like a couple of nosy neighbours. A ghost ray ripples past.
I descend – five, 10, 15 metres – into the cobalt depths. A solid school of silver giant trevally zips past me like a bullet train. All types of coral, including huge lime plates and wafting golden elephant ears, catch my eye. A white-tipped reef shark zigzags below. A large but delicate mauve gorgonian fan – the first I’ve seen here – waves gently in the current.
This is the Rowley Shoals and, unless you are a dive aficionado, you’ll probably never have heard of it. Three teardrop-shaped coral atolls – Clerke, Imperieuse and Mermaid – soar more than 400 metres from the ocean floor on the outer tip of the Australian continental shelf, 260 kilometres north-west of Broome. The lip of each reef encloses a massive 80-square-kilometre lagoon where the water is a balmy 26ºC and the underwater visibility is a dazzling 25 to 50 metres. Such pristine conditions create a huge variety of marine life – about 230 types of coral and 700 species of fish in all. The reefs are also among just a few in the world washed by five-metre tides, which rise and fall in six hours. All that flowing seawater brings with it massive amounts of nutrients for corals to feed on, so they grow larger than elsewhere. The fish are similarly bigger and bolder.
It is November and the water is like glass. I am one of just 14 divers and snorkellers, plus the crew, and we have the place to ourselves. It may be a bit of a rock’n’roll 15-hour overnight boat trip to the Rowley Shoals from Broome, but for those who savour pristine underwater adventures and a delicious sense of space, it is well worth the journey.
Only a handful of operators visit each year and only during the Doldrums, the calm before the wet season, when there are no prevailing trade winds and the water is swimming-pool calm. There is never more than one boat here at a time.
I have chosen a five-day adventure on MV Great Escape, a 26-metre luxury motor catamaran with three tenders (small boats) on board, giving guests loads of adventure choices. Owned by Broome locals Trippy and Jezza Tucker, it is used for a number of cruises along the Kimberley coast, but the Rowley Shoals adventure is the crew favourite.
“You can swim, snorkel, dive, fish, beachcomb and you are the only people in the middle of nowhere,” says crew member Taylor Merrutia. “It’s like being on holiday – even for us.”
The catamaran has seven staterooms with en suites, plus a spacious lounge and dining room stocked with reference books to help you identify all the colourful species you discover below. Wandjina art decorates the walls. There’s a spa on the front deck, a rooftop heli pad for sunset viewing and stargazing, and an airy back area where most meals are enjoyed. Luckily there are plenty of them, since all the activity grows appetites to gargantuan proportions. Young Welsh chef Will Bacon serves up pancakes, poached eggs and crispy bacon for breakfast, chicken caesar salad and seafood marinara pasta for lunch, sunset appetisers like curried won tons, and dinners of Thai duck salad and pistachio-crusted lamb, finished off with coffee crème caramel and pavlovas for dessert. All the guests can bring their own drinks on board at no extra charge.
As the most serious dive boat to access the Rowley Shoals, Great Escape offers four dives a day, sometimes starting as early as 6.30am. For those who are game, there’s often also the option of heading back into the water after dark. Snorkellers have a dedicated tender and snorkel master to look after their needs. But the two big highlights here are the drift snorkels and wall dives.
On the outgoing tide, all 14 of us jump out of the tenders, are captured by the current and swept along the coral channels viewing the thriving life below. We zip past a kaleidoscope of parrot fish at various stages of their sex change from female to male (the males are the prettiest in various iridescent shades of turquoise and mauve). We also see them doing their day job, rasping algae from coral with their ‘beaks’. Dozens of giant clams litter the sandy floor, beckoning to us with their gaudy lips. The palest of pink fish, with big bedroom eyes, swim right up to our masks and tag along for the ride. The only hardcore folk are the green turtles, all nobbly and gnarly, and always just out of reach in the current ahead. At the end of each drift snorkel, we hop in the tenders as eager as kids at a theme park to get on the next ride.
With panoramic coral gardens harboured within each lagoon, the snorkellers continue on other surface adventures, while the divers get excited about some of the best wall dives on the planet.
At Clerke Wall I marvel at staghorn coral and weave among huge hump-headed Maori wrasse. On the Jimmy Goes to China site (so named because if you don’t get off the drift you may just end up in the Orient) there’s an entire colony of multicoloured gorgonian fans and a speckled cuttlefish changing its spots to blend in with new surroundings. The highlights of the Mermaid Wall dive are neon-bright nudibranchs and garden eels tucked among a jungle of corals, both soft and hard. At the Cod Hole I meet Agro, the grey-spotted potato cod, who takes such a liking to my pink mask he follows me around like an oversized underwater puppy.
While the drama is all below the surface at the Rowley Shoals, it is blissfully serene above. We toast our good fortune with sunset drinks on a sliver of blinding white sand that has been tantalising us for days. Bedwell Islet is our very own desert island, and we raise our glasses to this glorious watery wilderness as the sun’s golden orb melts into the sea and the inky sky above is pricked with stars.
Virgin Australia has flights from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne to Broome via Perth.
The Great Escape Charter Company offers five- and seven-day trips to the Rowley Shoals in November. Tanks, gas and weight belts are supplied, but you must bring your own mask, snorkel, fins, wetsuit, regulator, buoyancy vest and computer or arrange for rentals in Broome. Prices for a five-day itinerary start at US$2600 a person.
You’ll probably want to stop over in Broome for at least one night before heading off into the wide blue yonder. Pinctada Cable Beach, owned by Marilynne Paspaley of the renowned pearling family, is a classy Broome resort with Kimberley-style corrugated iron buildings surrounding a tropical garden and swimming pool. During November double rooms start at US$156.