By Gary Browne
The Rowley Shoals trip started out as an off the cuff remark I made to Jodie Anne owner skipper Ron Kitcher when I suggested that I would try and get ten people together to make up a charter for some time in September, that was way back in March this year, prior to the boat leaving Fremantle for the winter program of charter work in the North West and Kimberley coast. I soon got to work spreading the story far and wide, I started with the Dive-Oz web site and got a list of all the dive clubs they had listed and their email addresses and sent all their secretaries an email outlining the details, I posted messages on the various scuba diving newsgroups and put a notice in the newsletter of my dive club, Underwater Explorers Club of W.A, this newsletter is sent to various other dive clubs around Australia so the story soon spread. Over the next couple of months I started gathering names of people who had registered an interest in going and by mid June it all started falling into place, we were definitely going to the Rowley Shoals.
Friday the 7th of September arrived before we knew it and we were on our way, we had five people from W.A. Kerry and Suzie Ashton, Bill and Margaret Pettigrew and yours truly, all members of UECWA, Kerry is our Club Training Officer, from South Australia we had Pauline McGregor (President) and Anne Wilson (Training and Safety Officer) of the UECSA, our sister club in South Australia., Terri Allen and Geoff Chambers came from Melbourne and skipper Ron's wife Sally made up the ten people. After a casual afternoon of introductions and taking in the sights of Broome we had a pre trip dinner at the Roebuck Hotel then headed off to the Broome wharf where we were met by Ron Kitcher and ferried out to Jodie Anne our home for the next eight days. My son Craig who works on Jodie Anne had met us at the airport and transferred all our dive gear out and stowed it onboard earlier.
Jodie Anne is a very well appointed 25 metre steel hulled ketch rigged motor sailer.
We departed Broome at midnight for the 18 hour run out to the Rowley Shoals, the trip out was a little rough with one or two people succumbing to seasickness however Jodie Anne handled the conditions superbly, we arrived at Mermaid Reef about half an hour before sunset on Saturday evening and made our entrance through the narrow passage into the calm clear waters of the lagoon, those people that had been a little off colour quickly recovered once Jodie Anne. was riding to her anchor and all motion had ceased. Chef extraordinaire Mick, produced a great dinner that night, the first of many that kept a bunch of hungry divers well nourished.
Next morning everyone was up at 0700 and after a light breakfast we piled into the two zodiacs and headed to the outer edge of the entrance channel to Mermaid Reef and descended down to a large amphitheatre with lots of white tip sharks and the more inquisitive grey reef sharks, a very shy Leopard shark, large bump headed Maori Wrasse, huge Potato Cod, lots of pelagics, very pretty gorgonian fans, staghorn, seawhips, colourful soft corals and big clams. What a buzz for the first dive and the viz was around 25 to 30 metres. To finish off we had a drift dive back through the channel into the lagoon and were then whisked back to Jodie Anne where a hearty cooked breakfast awaited us.
After breakfast we upped anchor and headed off to Clerke Reef, the middle of the three reefs that make up the Rowley Shoals group. We had our first wall dive here at Clerke Reef on a wall that dropped down to 50 metres I got down to 33 metres on this dive, my buddy for a lot of my dives was my sons lovely girlfriend Sandy she had only completed her open water course a few weeks before we left , how many people can say that their first few dives include the magic that the Rowley Shoals has to offer. While on this wall dive we could clearly hear whales calling to each other in the distance, people on the surface told us later that the whales were only 50m away. After this dive we had a snorkel drift dive in the channel back into the lagoon, saw several sharks, lovely Emperor Angel fish, Many Spotted sweet lips etc.
Part 2There is a fairly big sandy cay inside Clerke Reef called Bedwell Island, several people took the zodiac into the beach for an exploratory walk but by all accounts there wasn't much to see apart from some bird life, I spent the time snorkelling around a few bombies close to where we were anchored, I am amazed at the diversity of fish and coral life that abounds, it is probably just as well that this site is so remote from the mainland. I can only hope that it will remain in its pristine state for generations to come, although there was some evidence of damage to the reef in a few areas of the lagoon at Clerke Reef, wether this was caused by careless anchoring or by natural means I don't know. The next dive was on the outer northern side of Clerke Reef I was diving with Sandy a new diver and Kerry who had his video camera running when a grey reef shark got a bit annoyed with us being in his territory at about 32 metres, he buzzed us in ever decreasing circles, I grabbed Sandy and ascended to a ledge and watched as Kerry kept his video camera between himself and a very aggressive shark, once we had all ascended to about 20 metres he left us alone.
Also on this dive we saw lots of pretty gorgonian fans, a huge array of soft corals including yellow and purple Alcynarias , Pennant Bannerfish, Many Spotted Sweet Lips, Fusiliers, Blue Angelfish, Emerald Angelfish, Turtles, Triggerfish, Moorish Idols, Damsels and Chromis to name but a few. Last dive at Clerke Reef was a drift dive from the outer channel into the lagoon on scuba, what a buzz!! Maximum depth was only 10 metres but the fish life was just phenomenal some of the highlights of this dive were a couple of small banded pipefish hiding in amongst the staghorn coral and a beautiful anemone with a bright blue/purple underside complete with pretty clown fish. After this dive we motored back up to Mermaid Reef where we stayed for the remainder of the trip. The highlight for me over the next few days was on a sheer wall that dropped down to 90 metres, I managed to do my deepest ever dive here to 43 metres no current and great vis, only stayed at 43 metres for five minutes then back up to about 25 metres in a great system of caves and swim throughs, a flight of inquisitive Round Faced Batfish hung around for most of this dive.
The very last dive here was also one of the best, it started out as a wall dive but ended up in water less than 12 metres deep in a system of gullies and caverns with all sorts of interesting fish and coral life I saw the biggest lump of brain coral, it took up about 10 metres on a wall and was covered in pretty Christmas Tree worms, we found a big Pin Cushion Sea Star and an unusual looking juvenile Olive Scribbled Wrasse it has a spiny green and white ridge along its back and two stalks sticking out from the top of its head like antennae, reluctantly we surfaced from this last dive and motor sailed back into Broome arriving at 0800 on Saturday morning and discovered the full horror of what had happened in New York and that Ansett had collapsed so our means of returning home had gone.
We spent the next couple of days sorting out how we were all going to get home and arranging alternative transport which put a dampener on an otherwise very enjoyable holiday.
I would like to once again thank all the people who made the trip an experience I will never forget, I enjoyed your company and hope to do it again one day.
The photographs that appear in this report where all taken by Anne Wilson, she has kindly given her permission for me to use them, thank you Anne.
Bill & Margaret, Gary, Suzie, Pauline, Geoff and Terri - Enjoying a drink after a hard days diving