The Rowley Shoals: Australia’s Secret Underwater Paradise

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In the middle of the open ocean I’m flying along a coral channel whose water is so clear I could be a large black bird finning through the sky. Below me giant clams flash by with their gaudy dance hall smiles, aquamarine parrot fish nibble on coral bommies, white-tipped reef sharks lurk in shadows and schools of tiny neon-bright yellow fish dart amongst intricate coralline structures.

Just ahead, I try to catch up with the “Hey Dude” turtle in Little Nemo. Only we are nowhere near the Eastern Australian Current on the Great Barrier Reef.

What and where are the Rowley Shoals?

Fourteen of us are drift snorkeling on the other side of the continent at the Rowley Shoals, 250 kilometers northwest of Broome. They are three tear-drop-shaped reefs which thrust up a dizzying 400 meters from the ocean floor on the edge of the world’s widest continental shelf. This reef ride is one of the few in the world that is courtesy of a five-meter tide, which rises and falls in six hours. The water is a balmy 26 degrees and we are the only people here. A 15-hour overnight boat trip from Broome, the Rowley Shoals may not be the easiest place to access but, amongst those in the know, they are renowned for offering some of the best snorkeling and diving in Australia.

coming-in-from-a-dive-72When I asked fellow guest Greg Souter from Noosa how he had heard about them, he explained, “A friend who was a National Geographic photographer said, ‘If you like to dive, this is the place.’”

Each of the three shoals—Clerke, Mermaid and Imperieuse – are colorful coral mountains that enclose gigantic 80-square-kilometer lagoons. Enormous aquariums, really, that are home to 230 varieties of coral and 700 species of fish. And those massive tides deliver such rich nutrients that the corals grow larger and the fish are bigger and bolder since they scarcely see any humans.

A mere handful of operators visit each November during the calm before the build-up of the Wet when there are no prevailing trade winds and the water is like sheer blue glass. No more than 300 people visit each year and there is never more than one boat here at a time.

The Great Escape

Back on the 26-meter luxury motor catamaran, Chef Will Bacon has seafood marinara pasta and chicken Caesar salad ready for us to devour before our next underwater adventure. great-escape-72The Great Escape, owned by Broome locals Trippy and Jezza Tucker, offers a wide range of adventures up the Kimberley coast but it is their four Rowley Shoals trips that the skipper and crew look forward to all year long.

Says crew member Taylor Merrutia, “We love our Kimberley trips but the Rowley Shoals…well, look at it out here,” as he sweeps his hand across more shades of blue than Eskimos have names for snow.  “You can swim, snorkel, dive, fish, beachcomb and you are the only people in the middle of nowhere. It’s like being on holiday, even for us!”

The catamaran has seven staterooms with big windows, flat-screen televisions and en-suite bathrooms plus a spacious lounge and dining room decorated with Kimberley Wandjina art and stocked with reference books to help you identify all the colourful species you discover below. There’s a spa on the front deck, a roof-top heli deck for sunset viewing and star-gazing, and an airy back deck where we enjoy most of our meals.

And the food, well, it certainly ticks all the boxes. Think pancakes on the griddle, poached eggs and crispy bacon for breakfast, melon and prosciutto canapés and curried won tons, Thai duck salad and pistachio-crusted lamb for dinner and lemon meringue pie and individual Pavlovas for dessert. There’s even after-dinner entertainment with floodlights attracting thrashing trevally and tuna.

As the most serious dive boat to access the Rowley Shoals, the Great Escape offers four dives and/or snorkels a day, sometimes starting as early as 6.30 am and including a night dive. They also cater well to snorkelers, with a dedicated tender and an affectionately named snorkel master. Indeed, the snorkelers often snag the best viewings in the translucent shallows although the sheer wall dives here are among the best in the world. There are ten divers among the fourteen guests on my trip which include a mining executive and his wife, a Western Australian architect and accountant, entrepreneurs from the East Coast and two American doctors who are diving fanatics.

Nemo-plays-hide-and-seek at the Rowley ShoalsThe dive and snorkel sites

Dive master Adsy Rigby draws up a map of each dive site on the white board.

At Clerke Wall I swim amidst a school of silver trevally, marvel at cobalt staghorn coral, and weave amongst huge hump-headed Maori wrasse.

At the Jimmy Goes to China site (if you don’t get off the drift tide you may just end up in China) I discover delicate purple and crimson gorgonian fans growing sideways from the wall precipice and see a speckled cuttlefish change its spots to blend in with new surroundings.

Above coral gardens in the lagoon I swim above a spotted ray watching its ruffled wingtips gracefully propelling it along while on the Black Coral Wall I marvel at blue anemone bowls sprouting butter-yellow fronds that hide orange and black clown fish.

And at the Cod Hole I meet Agro the big old ugly grey-spotted potato cod who takes a liking to my pink mask and follows me around like a loyal underwater Dalmatian.

It is downright meditative each time I drop through the velvety royal-blue water to meander in the Rowley Shoals’ mellow depths. Yet the magic is not just below the surface.

One evening we escape from The Great Escape on a sliver of sand called Bedwell Islet to toast the sun’s orange orb as it sinks into a pearlescent sea. And on the way back to our floating home, flying fish leap in front of the dinghies, phosphorescence glows in the water and the Milky Way lights up the dark sky. I

If you would like more information about the Rowley Shoals, Broome and the entire Kimberley region of Northwest Australia, go to my app Australia’s Best Places.


Sunset at Bedwell Islet

My trip to the Rowley Shoals was courtesy of Great Escape.

The Rowley Shoals

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The Rowley Shoals -17.497389, 120.915527

Sue Gough Henly

Sue Gough Henly is award-winning travel writer and photographer whose bi-line has appeared in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, The Guardian, The Toronto Star and all the major Australian publications. Her travel blog, Genuine Journeys, is full of insider tips on the best places for authentic experiences and luxury splurges. She is also the author of Australia’s Best Places travel app. When she doesn’t have sand between her toes or a pack on her back, she writes about food, wine and culture.

2 comments to The Rowley Shoals: Australia’s Secret Underwater Paradise

  • Jamie Hampson  says:

    Thanks heaps for the heads up about the Rowley Shoals. I am always after super cool dive spots off the beaten path and this definitely looks like it fits the bill.

    • Sue Gough Henly  says:

      This place is really terrific. Especially if you are after somewhere to dive without any other people around.

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