Australia's Rowley Shoals
by William W. Hartley
Our trip to Oz, (short for Australia,) had been planned long before the terrorist attack on the United States occurred last year. But under its shadow, my wife and I had to strongly reconsider leaving our two children at home with their grandparents, while we traveled to the other side of the world.
Our first choice was to bring the kids with us, something we had previously considered, but we'd elected to spend some quality time together as grown-ups. Although William, age 5, was too young to dive (diving was our ultimate travel plan), he would have happily spent every possible minute snorkeling or SASY diving while aboard the dive boat. And boy, what a beautiful boat the True North turned out to be. She was designed from the keel up to accommodate passengers in comfort for travel and diving, practically a bouquet boat if ever there was one. She's new, clean and state of the art, with all of the necessary amenities, including a Hilo pad and gourmet kitchen and a gourmet chef, serving fresh fruits and or vegetables with every meal.
My daughter Jacqueline, on the other hand was 8, and a certified PADI Seal Diver - one of the youngest divers in the world, with open water ocean dives already in the double digits. She would gladly join mom and dad on every dive if we would allow her.
It's never that easy though. The boat would have gladly accommodated the children; all we needed were two more airline tickets. No problem from New York to Sydney, but every airline in Oz was overbooked; the only possibility was stand-by. Not an option.
Ultimately, we elected to break up the family, Jacqueline got to join me in Oz, "Daddy, I've always wanted to dive Australia; my whole life," (remember she's eight). William got quality time with Mommy, and Mommy now has a big stick to hold over Daddy.
So off to Oz we went. It's a long flight, five hours from NY to LA, 15 hours from LA to Sydney, 5 hours from Sydney to Perth, and finally 2.5 hours from Perth to Broome. And that's not including layover times. I would strongly suggest you consider an upgrade for this trip. The extra legroom and reclining seats on Quantas Air made our trip a lot more tolerable. The food was good and there is a lot of it. Best of all, while in transit, we had access to the airline's private lounges, where we could relax, take a hot shower, have a snack, get a drink (all comps) and just plain unwind without the hustle of the airport crowds. Jacqueline liked the fact that she had her own TV and could watch whatever she wanted.
Broome was our port of call, located in the Kimberly region of the northwest corner of Australia. This port town was once the pearling capital of the world. In the 1950's plastic replaced pearls and pearl shells for buttons and Broome became a shadow of her former self. Now this former Boomtown is reemerging as a recreational destination.
Broome is known as the gateway to Kimberly's natural wonders. It is a region filled with wonderful red-rock geology, cascading majestic waterfalls, and strange forests that lead into a true out-back that only the aborigine people could endure.
The harsh seasonal weather can make certain areas of Kimberly difficult if not impossible to enter. Accessibility into the Rowley Shoals (our ultimate dive site) for instance is limited to only a few months in early spring, Oz time, or late fall our time. We entered the shoals in early October.
The night travel from the mainland to the shoals made our open ocean crossing more comfortable than it might have been. We left port as the sun set and approached our first dive sight as the sun rose the next morning for our check out dive.
In critiquing the dive sites I looked to my travel buddy, Jacqueline. She changed her mind a few times. At first her favorite was a quick snorkel dive of rushing tidal water that streamed out through a small channel like a kind of a thrill park ride. After experiencing this ride you realize that thrill parks have nothing over Mother Nature!
The shallow depths of the continental shelf lie off the western coast of Oz in this region, so that when the tides change in the Indian Ocean there is a large volume of water that has no where to go. This water is pushed up creating ten-meter tides. When the tides reverse they create great currents of rushing clear waters - a series of raging rivers leaving and entering the bays. We all enjoyed this high adventure snorkel so much; we did it four times in a row.
Her favorite dive then changed to one called 'The Aquarium'. The Aquarium is actually an extremely productive shallow water bay. The depth is an average of 2 meters, the water crystal clear, and there is only a limited current. It supports an abundance of reefs that are teaming with a variety of fish, including thousands of tiny green/blue damsels darting into and out of vast colonies of corals. The very reason this dive site has been christened, The Aquarium, is the simple fact that when you dive it, it feels like you're diving in a living aquarium. There is simply too much, too tame, in this one location for it to appear wild.
In the long run, Jacqueline's favorite dive overall wasn't any of the wall dives, filled with soft corals and sea fans. It wasn't the up close and personal dive with four species of sharks. It wasn't even the manta ray or clown fish dives. It was the very last dive of our trip. The one in which three giant potato cods decided to visit and swim with us for the entire dive. These codfish were so close and docile that Jacqueline was able to reach out and touch a passing 400-pound potato cod. She swam along and among them. If she slowed, they slowed, when she ascended, they ascended. It was an interactive experience that the fish sought after, and we were the beneficiaries.
The most impressive aspect of diving Australia's Rowley Shoals is its truly pristine marine reef ecosystem. With thousands of dives, I have only seen a few totally unspoiled reef systems throughout the world and this is one of them. The coral atolls of Clarke and Mermaid exhibited no sign or evidence of fishing damage, degradation from chemical kills or erosion. Neither were there any signs of dive destruction or pressure. In fact, there was no sign of human involvement or even of our existence anywhere throughout this marine reef ecosystem.
The Shoal's unique equatorial tidal surges carry vast quantities of nutrient rich waters throughout the reef system, which encourages and accelerates marine growth. The complexities of these ecosystems are such that colonies of soft corals stand in small, forested patches, not just as single trees and large fans wavering in short hedgerows, or individual plants. Hundreds of species of hard corals flourish and thrive throughout; creating submerged rifts and valleys, pinnacles and caverns. It is simply a massive marine wilderness ecosystem, home and habitat to equally impressive fish species.
I would rate all of the dives from good to excellent with the exception of our check out dive. When we first did our check out dive the water visibility was only about 60 feet, but that improved, by week's end every dive was in 100+ foot visibility. The tidal currents were never a problem either, although swift at times, we always rode with them, and the True North was right there to pick us up. Entrances and exists were made easy because the dive deck split the water surface and the stairs had open sides with a center channel to allow for diver egress with fins.
My daughter had the time of her life, memories I'm sure she'll carry with her forever and hopefully become fonder of as she realizes the significance later in life. For me, after several thousand open water dives I finally had a long awaited humpback whale encounter. She and her calf ascended under me from the deep blue abyss. Within a few feet of me, they breached the surf, took a breath and slowly descended back into the turquoise depths. A fleeting moment in time, etched forever in my mind and on a roll of film. But, of all the memories I'll hold dearest, about the Rowley Shoals are of those I spent sharing the dives with my little girl.