Cameron Wilson’s once-in-a-lifetime diving adventure

Cruise reviews

Adventure travel writer Cameron Wilson joined us aboard The Great Escape for a 5 night dive and snorkel adventure, and writes about his experience in this weekend’s national newspapers.

“TRY finding Rowley Shoals on a map of Australia, and you’ll most likely take a while. To pinpoint their location, take a northwest bearing from Broome, then it’s 260km to three coral atolls that dot the outer edge of the Australian continental shelf.

From the air, Mermaid, Clerke and Imperieuse reefs all appear remarkably similar tear-drop shaped, each covering an area of about 80sq km.

The reefs are home to almost 700 species of fish and more than 230 coral varieties, but perhaps the most distinctive feature of Rowley Shoals is that they’re subject to some of the biggest tides in Australia the sea level can rise or fall up to 5m in just six hours. This tidal surge makes for some of the most exhilarating coral channel and coral wall drift diving on the planet.

Owner and skipper of dive boat Great Escape, Chris “Trippy” Tucker brilliantly nicknamed after Tripitaka, a character from the cult ’80s television series Monkey reckons the shoals offer the best diving in Australia.

“You won’t have been in water this clear or warm. On some trips, we’ve had 30-degree sea temps and visibility (greater than) 50m. The Great Barrier Reef has nothing like the variety of corals and fish life we see,” he says.

Of the 12 passengers on board Great Escape carries no more than 14 nine are diving, including a four-person crew from Channel 9 travel program Postcards WA. There’s nervous excitement as we chat over dinner, knowing we’re headed into the deep blue of the Indian Ocean. Most have experience diving fringing reefs near the mainland. By contrast, these atolls rise with near-vertical sides from the continental shelf Imperieuse Reef from 230m, Clerke Reef from 390m and Mermaid Reef from 440m.

After motoring through the night, we reach Mermaid Reef about 9.30am. Dive master Adrian (“Adsy”) sketches our first dive site on a whiteboard, a section of reef christened “V in the Wall”.

Moorings are few and far between out here, so the moment we’re suited up we splash in off the transom, with the boat still moving, and slip into the current.

Descending to 26m, we follow one side of the V as it cuts into the reef wall. Clams ranging in size from 10cm to 40cm are everywhere, resplendent in shades of purple, green and blue or else creamy browns flecked with yellow. Slimline white-tip reef sharks glide along the sandy bottom, while a pair of silver-tip whaler sharks broader and altogether more “sharky” swish by overhead with a hint of menace.

Back on board, everyone’s giddy about the warmth and clarity of the ocean and the fact we’re set to spend the next four days a long way from anywhere. After lunch, a turning tide means conditions are ideal for a visit to the “Cod Hole”. We have only to sink to the bottom of a lagoon and wait to be ogled by enormous black-and-white potato cod while reef sharks emerge then vanish amid the bommies (coral bomboras).

The atolls were first charted in 1818 by Captain Phillip King of the British navy. King named them after Captain Rowley, who had reported them during his own expedition 18 years earlier. Rowley was commander of HMS Imperieuse and King’s vessel was HMS Mermaid (Clerke Reef was named for a whaling boat captain who frequented the shoals in the early 1800s).

Although we’re far from home, on Great Escape no one’s slumming it. For dinner there’s Kimberley barramundi fillets followed by passionfruit pannacotta. Booze is BYO, and all of us have. There’s after-dinner entertainment, too, as the floodlights on the rear deck attract first tiny bait fish then dozens of trevally.

Soon a full-blown feeding frenzy is under way, enlivened by juvenile reef sharks patrolling the perimeter, calculating the moment to launch a lightning attack.

Next morning at breakfast, Adsy confirms the tide is running fast and we’re set for a dive that will require Trippy to position us just right to make the channel entry. We hit the water and fin like mad to the bottom, at 22m, then get sucked into the trench by a 6-knot current. Coral and fish are zooming past and cameraman Andrew puts his body on the line for Channel 9, nearly losing an arm when he tries to grab a ledge to steady himself. I adopt a cross-legged position 1m off the bottom and take my first-ever armchair ride through a coral reef. As the current eases, we pass over coral clumps teeming with electric-blue tetras, black-and-white damsel fish and groups of stunning yellow-and-black moorish idols, their dorsal wands streaming in the underwater breeze.

Gearing up for our last dive on day two, I decide to ditch the wetsuit and go in a pair of shorts. It’s a glorious feeling to be properly enveloped by the 28C Indian Ocean, and this 60m-deep reef wall is pure artistry, its gullies and plate coral overhangs perfectly illuminated in the soft afternoon light.

Early on day three I’m buddied up with Nick, the chef on Great Escape, and together we descend into Blue Lagoon, a photogenic patchwork of coral gardens and sandy lagoons. We’ve barely reached the bottom when I wave Nick over to an isolated bommie, where a green moray eel has obligingly poked its head out to take a look at us. We make our way up on to the reef flat at about 6m depth, then potter about and explore. There are hundreds of clams in a huge variety of colours and I spot my first nudibranch a tiny miracle of design, mottled emerald and pale green.

Towards the end of the dive, Nick leads the way into a tight swim-through, only to find himself faced with a 2m grey reef shark coming the other way. From my vantage point above, it looks like a hilarious Mexican stand-off, until the shark recognises it’s outnumbered and withdraws, leaving Nick with his dignity intact.

An hour before sunset, the crew pile table and chairs and a couple of coolers into a dinghy and we set up for an evening on Bedwell Islet, the only place we’ll make landfall before Broome.

Too small to be classed as an island, Bedwell is a skerrick of sand just above sea level that’s used as a rest stop by sea eagles, shearwaters, tropicbirds, and ship-bound divers.

On our last morning, I skip the early dive and join a foursome of snorkellers being dropped by dinghy at a channel entrance. Cruising the current on the surface proves a surreal experience like riding a see-through conveyor belt over the top of an aquarium.

The looks of alarm on the faces of the fish trying to fin against the rushing tide are hysterically funny, and suggest they haven’t retained much memory of the last time they battled the current at Clerke Reef.

Our final dive is, fittingly, on a steep wall scoured by a fast-moving tide. Plate corals the size of coffee tables, schooling blue-stripe snapper and anemones glowing translucent orange and purple come into view as we drift along at between 30 and 20m.

Between here and the mainland there’s nothing but open sea, so Trippy sets course for Broome then joins us on the heli-pad for a post-trip celebration. For a while, a pair of spinner dolphins keeps pace alongside then, after dark, there are flying fish about, one or two landing on the deck.

It’s 12 hours to port but, as we’re rocked to sleep one last time in the vast, fathomless reaches of the Indian Ocean, I’m in no hurry to get home.”

Written by Cameron Wilson