It’s half past the hour and I’m 25m underwater, stuck in a Mexican standoff with a giant potato cod. His name is Agro, I’m told, and he occasionally likes to bite. I watch as he floats slowly towards me, so close now that I can almost touch him (and him, me).
It’s day two of a five-day diving trip at the Rowley Shoals, a marine park made up of the Clerke, Imperieuse and Mermaid reef atolls. These real-life aquariums measure approximately 80sqm each, and are located on the edge of one of the widest continental shelves in the world.
I find Agro within the Clerke Reef atoll, at a dive site aptly named ‘The Cod Hole’.
“Agro has been around since we first came out here,” says co-owner of The Great Escape Charter Company, Chris ‘Trippy’ Tucker. “That was more than 30 years ago.”
Skipper Jeremy ‘Jezza’ Tucker swimming past a coral wall.
According to Trippy, there used to be almost a dozen potato cod in these parts, but due to illegal fishing and an apparent orca attack, Agro is the lone survivor. Luckily for me, he doesn’t hold grudges. As I swim after my dive group, so does Agro, following us silently as we move past coral-encrusted walls and rocky reefs, until it’s time for us to surface.
Above the water, the company’s 26m catamaran, the MV Great Escape, is waiting. The luxury vessel is one of only a handful of boats licensed to travel to the Rowley Shoals.
“Very rarely do you see more than two boats out here, which is fantastic,” says Trippy. “It’s untouched.”
Post-dive paddleboarding near Bedwell Island.
Swimming among schools of fish is a common occurence. Photography Undersea Productions.
It’s no wonder then, that this remote location (it takes 12 hours by boat just to
get here) attracts dive fanatics from all around the world.
“If you were to pick different dive sites to go to for different reasons, this one is just so pristine,” says Trippy’s brother, co-owner and skipper, Jeremy ‘Jezza’ Tucker. “The corals are in such good condition, and there’s thousands of species of fish down there.”
I ask the brothers if we’ll come across anything bigger than fish.
“Occasionally you’ll see a reasonable hammerhead or tiger shark that’ll come and have a good look at you,” says Trippy. “But most things are hopefully full.”
I remember that on our next dive, ‘Jimmy Goes to China’.
I’m with a group of 12 divers, ranging in skill from amateur to veteran, and we descend down to what feels like five metres, but is actually eighteen. To our right is a coral wall that plummets straight down for another 20m; to our left, the open ocean. The water before me appears like a giant moving mirage. Chills suddenly hit my body, and I realise what I’m seeing is actually temperature changes in the water.
I’m snapped out of my thoughts by a flailing Trippy, who is madly pointing
into the distance. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust before I realise what’s swimming towards us.
I see the panic in my dive buddy’s eyes, but Trippy’s calmness reassures me I’m in for a special treat. A dark shadow slowly emerges, a long body with a spotted tail and a distinctive square head. I watch as the 8m creature glides gracefully overhead, before disappearing again into the darkness.
“That’s the third time I’ve seen a whale shark out here in 30 years,” Trippy says
once we’ve surfaced. “One in every ten years isn’t so bad.”
I’m stoked – and the trip is not even close to being over.
Before I know it, we’re back in the water, just outside Clerke Reef’s main lagoon. It’s 6am and I’m half asleep, but the prospect of doing my very first drift dive (where strong currents transport you from one point to another) is just too alluring to miss.
We start at the bottom of the lagoon, and move slowly past the reef wall to the Main Channel. Straight away, I’m on what can only be described as an underwater freeway. There are coral walls on either side of me, like giant barricades, but there’s no hard shoulder and I don’t have any brakes.
“If you lose your buddy, don’t worry,” I recall the crew telling me. “You won’t be able to get to them, so just enjoy the ride.”
I look around and my buddy is gone. I’ve long stopped kicking and instead float like a starfish – arms stretched out and legs dangling. I’m soon zooming past clownfish, reef fish and their little coral homes, before the walls break away to a sandy bottom.
Want to dive with Agro? Make sure you’re a certified open-water or advanced open-water diver – the dive master on board will request to see your certification before you’re allowed to dive. It’s highly advisable to spend a day or two in Broome before and after the cruise, to organise dive gear and to ensure your body has got used to normal pressures again after diving. If you’re susceptible to seasickness, take medication, as it gets a little bumpy on the way out. And don’t forget to slip, slop, slap!
The tide still pushes me forward, so I cross my legs behind me and pretend to be a mermaid as schools of fish glide past.
Back on board, everyone is wide awake. After a hearty breakfast of gourmet pancakes, smoked maple syrup and crispy strips of bacon (courtesy of chef extraordinaire Bek Creighton), we jump into two dinghies and get taken to the edge of the atoll, where there are narrow cracks in the reef. We snorkel above these smaller, shallower versions of the main channel, drifting at four knots.
That evening, our feet touch the closest bit of dry land for miles – Bedwell Island. The sandy cay is made up of crushed coral, deposited over time. We explore the barren knoll, finding a couple of tropical birds nesting in the sand, then watch the sunset with stubbies and wine glasses in hand.
I ask the brothers why they return every year.
“It’s so clear,” Jezza says. “You can see how everything interacts with everything else and how everything lives together, it’s amazing.”
“What I like the most is people’s expressions after they’ve had a really nice, casual dive and see what there is down there,” Trippy says. “I don’t know what they expect when they first come, but once they get here, it’s quite special.”
I have a ridiculous smile plastered across my face, so I understand exactly what Trippy means.
As the stars light up the sky, we return to the dinghies. White phosphorus (single-celled organisms) illuminates the water, like little glowing fish swimming in the waves. It’s surreal, and something I suspect I won’t see again for a very long time.
The next day, Jezza takes us to a dive site called the ‘V in the Wall’. We swim through caves and grottos, uncovering secret gardens of gorgonias and flower-like corals. The sun shines down, its rays streaming through cracks in between rocks and caverns. It’s a magical sight, a magical place, and not for the first time
I think how lucky we are to have it.
Clownfish in their anemone home.
NEED TO KNOW
The Great Escape Charter Company runs Rowley Shoals Underwater Adventure cruises for divers and snorkellers for five and seven nights, aboard the seven-bedroom, luxury catamaran. The 2016 season runs from October 31 to November 25, with prices starting from $4120 per person, twin share, with airport/accommodation transfers, food and drink, tanks and weight belts included. Additional dive gear can be hired.
Qantas flies from Perth to Broome three times per day, taking approximately two
and a half hours. At the airport Sit back and relax in the Qantas Domestic Business Lounge, which features a crisp new interior inspired by the West Australian landscape. Grab a bite to eat in the dining area, which includes a make-your-own juice station, a state-of-the-art Italian pizza bar, and even a barista coffee station. Free wi-fi is also available.
The Mangrove Hotel was recently voted the Tourism Council of WA’s Best Deluxe Accommodation for 2015. The hotel’s $7 million refurbishment boasts clean,
crisp, beach-inspired rooms and suites filled with designer furniture and local art. Grab a bite or sneaky drink at The Bay Club restaurant and bar, where you can lap up the best views of Roebuck Bay.
Lily was flown to Broome courtesy of Qantas, and her accommodation was
provided by the Mangrove Hotel.