By Andrew ‘ET’ Ettingshausen
Rowley Shoals is made up of three coral atolls; Clerke Reef, Mermaid Reef and Imperieuse Reef. The three atolls are several kilometres apart and collectively cover an area of some 85 square kilometres. But the brilliance of Rowley Shoals is that it is relatively untouched because of its remoteness; it is located some 260km north-west of Broome, making it inaccessible to all but a few large live-aboard vessels.
Recently, I had the pleasure of joining skipper Ross Newton, partner Tracey and deck hand Scott Nesire onboard their 53-foot boat Reel Teaser on an amazing trip to Clerke Reef. Crossing the Indian Ocean in calm seas made the 20-hour voyage a breeze. A breathtaking sight greeted us early morning as we headed through the crystal clear lagoon entrance, with a forest of coral gardens spread before us drenched in a multitude of colours and marine life.
With Reel Teaser anchored, we gathered the fishing gear and headed out in the two custom-built dories to try our hand at popper fishing. Ross took us outside the ‘no fishing’ marine park zone, and then the idea was to skip the Halco Roosta popper lures across the top of the water like a fleeing baitfish. The first cast saw three coral trout pounce on the lure and each battled the others to eat the artificial bait all the way back to the boat. Incredible stuff!
Every few casts saw a different species hooked and, with our barbless hooks and best release practices – which are an important part of fishing a unique area like the Rowleys – the fish were released in good condition. Maori wrasse, red bass, long nose emperor, blue fin trevally, varied types of cod, trout and sea perch hit the lures on each pass. This kind of lagoon fishing is what you should expect from an area as remote as this, but in just over a metre of water it was still difficult to come to terms with the sheer abundance and mixture of species of large fish.
I was using a 15-kilo Shimano T Curve rod and Stella reel, just in case something bigger was lurking, and it sure came in handy when a 20-kilo giant trevally crashed the lure. A torrid battle across shallow coral bommies saw this huge fish finally succumb and, after a few pictures, it was great to see her swim away. GTs (or giant trevally) are the largest of the trevally family, with fish over 50kg recorded. They are found in warm waters throughout Australia and are one of the most powerful fish, testing the skills of any angler. GTs are one of my favourite sportfish to chase and their surface strikes are a sight to behold.
Arriving back at the anchorage for lunch, the water was teeming with fish queuing up to join us for a feed. Red bass, trevally and the biggest barracuda I have seen – nicknamed “Barry” of course – swam in the current waiting for a fish frame to have a chew on. The surrounding water was so inviting that on the rising tide after lunch we decided to do a drift snorkel in the torrent of water racing through the tight channel entrance into the lagoon. This was great fun.
We were dropped off at the channel entrance and hardly had to kick our legs as we were propelled at speed back into the lagoon. The ride was about 150 metres long and we passed hundreds of fish and small sharks, all cruising in the current. When we’d run out of current, the dories would pick us up and take us back out again.
You could dive down deep and, holding your breath, travel 30 metres easily while watching aquatic life go through the motions undisturbed. What a great thrill – our own personal roller coaster 285 kilometres from the mainland.
We decided to spend the next few days chasing sailfish on the outside of Clerke Reef. The action came thick and fast, with a triple hook-up the most memorable moment. Yellowfin tuna turned up in numbers, but unfortunately the wahoo population had moved on. Wahoo are true bluewater speedsters and are usually in large numbers at Clerke. We anchored in the lee of the reef and at night fished off the back of Reel Teaser. Green jobfish, trevally and dogtooth tuna were hooked, landed and lost in a hectic session, and flying fish literally flew into the boat under the floodlights. It’s impossible to get tired of this type of fishing action, and I had to drag myself away late each night because we had to do it all again the next day. Hey, it’s a tough life…
Sailfish often hunt in packs, so coming across a feeding pod is not uncommon. With their cobalt blue dorsal fins spread wide, they surround shoals of pilchards, herring, garfish or yellowtail and wedge them into tight balls. They then slash through the baitfish with their bills, feeding on the move.
The sailfish is a superb, brilliantly coloured sportfish, growing to over 100kg, but more commonly encountered between 20 and 40 kilos. We fished for them with six-kilo line to give the fish a fighting chance, but it’s more than adequate if you have your drag set at one-third breaking strain.
After a few days outside, I was keen to do some more snorkelling and visit the sand cay on the inside of the lagoon. ‘The Aquarium’ was the name of a shallow arrangement of reef that featured a stunning assortment of hard and soft coral gardens. Living in this pristine environment were thousands of fish and crustaceans of all shapes and colours. Delicate cabbage corals, plate corals and stag horns, with thousands of electric blue chromis swaying to and fro in the current, defined the prettiest reef system I have seen. Giant clams, starfish and schools of hump head wrasse and surgeonfish were everywhere. I could stand in waist-deep water in many of the shallower sandy sections and the visibility was flawless.
Along for this trip was our television show’s marine biologist, Giovanna Fasanelli. Giovanna was doing two stories for Escape with ET and found the snorkelling breathtaking. She has dived all over the Pacific and could not believe the amount of abundant life in such a shallow ecosystem. I joined her for a look at the rare red tail tropic bird that nests on these remote atolls and was happy to see that many of the birds had chicks. The wind can howl at times across the sand cay and it was amazing to see the mature females huddled up in their makeshift homes protecting the small, fluffy young. Cyclones in this region are always a chance in the early part of each year and have caused major problems to red tail numbers in the past. We counted a dozen red tails with chicks, which is a great sign for the future for these rare and beautiful sea birds.
It was nice to put our feet on dry land and look at Clerke Reef from a different perspective. What an amazing experience and still on home soil. There are few spots left in the world like this that can be visited and which offer such a diverse, pristine array of marine life.
The sea had picked up a few days after arriving on Clerke, making it difficult for us to travel to Mermaid and Imperieuse Reefs. I believe that these atolls are just as awe inspiring as Clerke, but they will have to wait until next time. Rowley Shoals is a must-see for those seeking a perfect example of coral atolls that are almost untouched by man. In fact, they would be virtually unchanged from when Captain Rowley first sighted Imperieuse Reef in 1800. It is certainly a trip that will live long in my memory.
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