Published: Monday, 22 November 2021

If you think you’ve seen and experienced enough of Western Australia’s share of ocean wonders, think again. 

Have you been to Rowley Shoals? It ticks all the boxes for people who are into diving, snorkelling and fishing in remote or out-of-this-world destinations along the great west coast.

Located around 260 kilometres west of Broome in Western Australia, Rowley Shoals is a remote location one can’t easily get to. But if you do decide to make the trip, you can get there from Broome on a Rowley Shoals liveaboard safari or boat charter. 

From Broome, a boat trip to the atolls (including Rowley Shoals snorkelling tours) usually takes about 12 hours, so allocating a couple of days to an entire week for enjoying all that it has to offer will be well worth it.


Overview of Rowley Shoals

Three pear-shaped, atoll-like coral reefs comprise Rowley Shoals, with each atoll covering an area of approximately 80 to 90 square kilometres of the reef. The Rowley Shoals were named after one Captain Rowley by Captain Phillip Parker King in 1818. Captain Rowley was said to have first sighted the Imperieuse Reef (one of the atolls) back in 1800.

Prior to Western exploration, the Rowley Shoals reefs were said to have been frequented by Indonesian fishermen from around the mid-18th century. These fisherfolk were believed to have been hunting for sea cucumbers, shark fin, turtle shell and trochus shells.

The three coral atolls making up the Rowley Shoals are:

1. Mermaid Reef

This reef located on the northeastern end has a massive lagoon enclosed with coral and with many drying patches. It is characterised by a steep rise from the ocean floor, with a depth of 440 metres. Mermaid Reef is listed on Australia’s Commonwealth Heritage List.

2. Clerke Reef or Minstrel Shoal

About 23 kilometres southwest of the Mermaid Reef is the Clerke Reef. There are several boulders that fall dry on the eastern and western sides of the reef. It also rises steeply from the ocean floor from a depth of 390 metres. Clerke forms part of the Rowley Shoals Marine Park, with the other part being Imperieuse Reef.

3. Imperieuse Reef

The Imperieuse is the southwestern-most atoll of the Rowley Shoals, and it has two lagoons. There are several coral boulders on the south-eastern edge of the reef, rising about 3 metres above the water mark.

Large sections of the Imperieuse fall dry at low water. A small island cay called Cunningham Islet located on the extreme northern side of the reef houses the Imperieuse Reef Light (a lighthouse). Imperieuse Reef rises from the ocean floor from a depth of 230 metres.


Rowley Shoals – A haven for marine life

To anyone who’s been to Rowley Shoals for diving or Broome snorkelling experiences, the coral reefs are a veritable ocean lover’s paradise. The shallow crystal clear lagoons that harbour magnificent and untouched, colourful coral gardens are teeming with marine life in a way that makes it feel like nature’s swimming pool.

Hawksbill turtle swimming in ocean reef at Rowley Shoals

Here, you’ll find more than 200 species of coral and over 600 species of fish, including giant clams and several other species endemic only to Rowley Shoals. Some reef residents include giant potato cod, coral trout, dogtooth tuna, clownfish, humphead parrotfish, Spanish mackerel, Maori wrasse and green turtles.


Things to do at Rowley Shoals

As a rich, biodiverse haven for marine life and an unpeopled, unspoilt location, Rowley Shoals offers deep blue sea lovers and fishing enthusiasts unique diving, snorkelling and fishing experiences that are some of the best around the Indian Ocean.

Napoleon fish with diver at Rowley Shoals

• Rowley Shoals diving

Take Rowley Shoals dive charters to experience the magnificence of the atolls in person. The variety of dive sites at Rowley Shoals gives everyone – from novices to even the most experienced divemaster – a chance to explore the deepwater and depths of the ocean floor.

To dive here, you will need to have logged at least 10 to 20 dives.

Coral-reef diving here mostly consists of wall and drift dives, with the most popular dive sites located in Mermaid Reef and Clerke Reef.

  • Mermaid Reef: The crystal-clear lagoon bounded by corals is fascinating in and of itself. But venture out further and you’ll meet sailfish and humpback whales. You’ll also see giant gorgonian fans and a lot of fish. Venture into Cod Hole to see huge but friendly potato cod, or head to the Northern Wall at a steep drop of 80 metres and check out all sorts of reef fish. With its strong tidal flow and currents, Mermaid Reef is a site for exhilarating drift dives starting from outside the atoll going into the lagoon.
  • Clerke Reef: Highly recommended for wall diving, Clerke Reef features hundreds of fish and various coral reef residents like the grey reef sharks. The water is so pristine that the visibility reaches as much as 50 metres. If you happen to dive at this site, keep your eyes peeled for giant clams reaching up to 1.5 metres in length.

As a whole, the Rowley Shoals offers divers the chance to swim among different types of marine animals and pelagic species, including trevallies, dolphins, whales, sea turtles, manta rays and various types of sharks, including blacktips, whitetips and silvertips. On occasion, hammerhead and tiger sharks also venture into the area.

• Rowley Shoals snorkelling

Explore the fascinating underwater world of the Rowley Shoals Marine Park by engaging in some snorkelling fun. You don’t need to be a scuba diver to get the chance to experience one of the world’s greatest collections of coral atolls firsthand.

The warm, calm waters of the shallow lagoons are great for snorkelling, as just beneath the surface, you have the luxury of spending hours exploring the coral gardens. Here, you’ll see giant clams and a variety of colourful tropical fish.

• Rowley Shoals fishing

Rowley Shoals is a great place for recreational fishing. However, there’s some crucial information you need to take note of:

  • The Rowley Shoals Marine Park (Clerke Reef and Imperieuse Reef) has three types of zones: ‘no-take’ sanctuary zones, recreation zones and a general use zone. You may have to limit recreational fishing to designated sections of the marine park, so get to know the zones before engaging in any fishing activity. All types of cod, groper and wrasse, coral trout, certain molluscs (except for cuttlefish, squid and octopus) and corals are fully protected in all Rowley Shoals Marine Park zones. Moreover, state-wide recreational fishing rules also apply at the marine park.
  • Mermaid Reef is part of the Commonwealth marine reserve and managed under Commonwealth legislation. The Mermaid Reef Marine Park is a National Park Zone, so fishing and taking any marine specimens is strictly prohibited.

The best thing to do before going Rowley Shoals fishing is to check out the Broome Visitor Centre.


Time to book your Rowley Shoals getaway!

If you’re travelling by road with a caravan, you can check into Broome Caravan Park and then head to Rowley Shoals by boat charter, or book a diving, snorkelling or fishing tour. Or enjoy your stay in a park home or chalet with access to power and amenities. The period from September to December is the best time to explore Rowley Shoals - so book your stay today.

While you’re here, add some other things to do in Broome to your travel bucketlist.

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