An online visitor's guide to Western Australia's parks, reserves and other recreation areas.
The Rowley Shoals are a chain of coral atolls on the edge of one of the widest continental shelves in the world.
The three pear-shaped atolls have shallow lagoons inhabited by corals and abundant marine life. Each atoll covers an area of around 80 to 90 square kilometres. The three shoals are strikingly similar in dimension, shape, orientation and distance apart. Each atoll is north-south orientated, pear-shaped, with the narrow end towards the north. The Shoals rise with nearly vertical sides from very deep water. Mermaid Reef, the most northerly, rises from about 440 metres, Clerke from 390 metres and Imperieuse from about 230 metres.
The Rowley Shoals were named in 1818 by Captain Philip Parker King, who first described their relative positions. He discovered and named the most north-easterly of the trio Mermaid Reef, after his ship. He gave the middle shoal the name Clerke Reef after Captain Clerke, who had reported it from a whaler sometime between 1800 and 1809. The south-western shoal was dubbed Imperieuse Reef after the vessel from which it was sighted by Captain Rowley in 1800.According to Captain H.V. Howe, a former pearler on the north-west coast at the turn of the century, some of the pearling luggers working out of Cossack from the mid-1800s to about 1930 regularly called at the Rowley Shoals and Scott Reef, to the north, to collect beche-de-mer and fish, before returning their Indonesian pearl divers to Kupang in Timor.
From about 1977 charter boats based from Broome began operating deep sea fishing and diving expeditions to the area. Since this time interest has expanded enormously and the Rowley Shoals has gained a well-deserved reputation as offering some of the best diving in Australia. Today the Shoals rank among the most remote and pristine marine areas in the world. Lying on the very edge of Australia's continental shelf, they are regarded as the most perfect examples of shelf atolls in Australian waters.
Clerke and Imperieuse Reefs form the Rowley Shoals Marine Park, declared in 1990 and extended four-fold in 2004. It is managed by the WA Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC). The nearby Mermaid Reef Marine National Nature Reserve (encompassing the northernmost reef) is managed by the Commonwealth Department of the Environment and Water Resources (DEW) with the assistance of DEC. Both Border Proection and the WA Fisheries Department also assist with management of the Shoals.
The coral atolls of the Rowley Shoals are famed for their almost untouched coral gardens, giant clams and other shellfish. Giant potato cod and maori wrasse sometimes follow divers around, while colourful reef fish show little fear, and trevally, mackerel and tuna hover in schools. An exceptional 233 species of coral and 688 species of fish inhabit the shoals--including many species not found on nearshore coral reefs. There are at least 28 species of staghorn coral alone. As well as being inhabited by a number of species found nowhere else, the coral and fish communities of the Rowley Shoals are unique in their composition, and in the relative abundance of species. The marine communities of the Rowley Shoals are more characteristic of south-east Asia than any other WA reefs.
The outside walls of the shoals are alive with soft corals in every imaginable colour. At low tide the water becomes ponded within the reef walls, the water gushing over them like waterfalls. At high tide, the reefs disappear beneath the sea, with only the sandy islands of Clerke and Imperieuse visible.
Bedwell Island, in Clerke Reef, is home to one of only two colonies of red-tailed tropicbirds in Western Australia. The sandy cay is used for nesting by the tropicbirds, and also various other seabirds such as wedge-tailed shearwaters, white-bellied sea-eagles, ruddy turnstone, various terns, sandy plovers, eastern reef-egrets and even a pair of white-tailed tropicbirds. Bedwell Island is also considered to be an important resting site for migratory birds making their mammoth annual flights from south-east Asia and even as far north as Siberia.
The Wreck of the Lively
In the early 1980s, a Broome charter boat operator advised the Western Australian Maritime Museum that he had seen man-made objects lying on top of the Mermaid atoll in the Rowley Shoals at low tide. Maritime archaeologists found two anchors, three and a half metres long, lying together on the reef top. Their shape showed they had been made in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. Iron knees which once fastened the deck to the walls of a wooden sailing ship were seen nearby.
Further pieces of wreckage were strewn around a nearby underwater gully. They included two whalers trypots, once used for boiling down whale blubber to produce whale oil; five iron cannon; and a third anchor, among other artefacts. The wreck is believed to be of a 240-tonne ship known as the Lively, armed with 10 cannon, fastened with iron bolts and sheathed with copper, which embarked on a whaling voyage to the southern hemisphere around 1808-09.
Aerial shot of Rowley Shoals
Gorgonian on the outer reef
Christmas tree worm
Fish inside one of the shoals
Potato cod and humpheaded parrotfish
Gorgonians and soft coral
Anchors from the wreck of the Lively
Juvenile tropicbird on Bedwell Island
260 kilometres (170 nautical miles) west-north-west offshore from Broome.
The boat trip to the Rowley Shoals takes approximately 12 hours. Charter operators usually depart from Broome at sunset and arrive at the Shoals at around sunrise.
Because of their remote location, most visitors go to the Rowley Shoals by charter boat, and trips are generally a minimum of five days. Mermaid and Clerke Reefs are the most visited sites. Charter operators are based in Broome and further information about charter boat operations can be obtained from Broome Tourist Bureau, phone (08) 9192 2222. Public moorings are available outside Clerke and Imperieuse Reefs and inside Clerke Reef lagoon. Bookings are required. For information on availability, locations and usage guidelines, please call the DEC Broome Office on (08) 9195 5500. To avoid disappointment, bookings in advance of your visit are greatly encouraged. No anchoring is permitted in the marine park unless in an emergency.
Most operators visit the Shoals from September to November/December.
Diving, snorkelling and swimming are the most popular activities. Fishing is not permitted anywhere within the Mermaid Reef Marine National Nature Reserve. You can fish outside sanctuary zones at Clerke and Imperieuse Reefs, although potato cod, maori wrasse, coral trout, Queensland groper and all shellfish within 1.6 kilometres of the reefs are fully protected. You should carefully release these species back immediately. Bag limits also apply for most other species. Check with the WA Department of Fisheries Broome office (08) 9192 1121 for the latest fishing rules and regulations. You may land on the sand cays, but you should not walk on the exposed reef, as these fragile areas are easily damaged. Public moorings are available outside Clerke and Imperieuse Reefs and inside Clerke Reef lagoon. Bookings are required. For information on availability, locations and usage guidelines, please call the DEC Broome Office on (08) 9195 5500. To avoid disappointment, bookings in advance of your visit are greatly encouraged. No anchoring is permitted in the marine park unless in an emergency. Collection of any shells or specimens from the islands or reefs is not permitted. Helicopter or seaplane access is not permitted in the marine park.
Regardless of whether you are snorkelling or scuba diving, always display a dive flag to warn boaters you are below and dive with a buddy. If diving from a vessel, make sure someone is left to watch the boat.
Sun sea and Surf