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April 1999 Vol. 14, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Diving Western Australia's True North

it's more than just skurfing, whale sharks and waterfalls

from the April, 1999 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

It was a crazy Aussie who talked me into trying to stand on a surfboard while he got in a tinnie and towed me at warp speed across a lagoon in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Had I been able to stand up, it would have been great for my ego. But the pictures taken by all my dive mates -- well, they tell the truth.

As it turned out, I wasn’t much of a “skurfer,” as they call it. But I had ventured to Western Australia to dive, and let me tell you ... it’s got it all over skurfing.

From Sydney, Australia’s west coast is a five-hour cross-country flight. It’s the quintessential Wild West, wide open and barely disturbed by humans. Cross the city limits of any town, and you’ll find no power poles, no billboards, no traffic, no litter. Emus and kangaroos are the biggest travel hazards. But phones, doctors, and decent supermarkets are there for your pleasure. And so is good diving ... if you know where to look. Go too far north, and you’ll swim with oceangoing crocodiles; too far south, and the winter water temperature plummets. Diving Western Australia's True NorthBut the water between Exmouth and Broome is croc-free and temperate ... and home to Rowley Shoals.

After spending three days in the hot and humid quaint old pearling town of Broome, the other guests and I were rounded up at our different hotels by staffer Colleen McKay. She hauled my dive gear, took us booze shopping (this is a BYOB boat), and made sure we had everything else we needed. Then she drove us to the True North, a 60 ft., steel-hulled powerboat, where she introduced us to young Captain Craig Howson. Reared in Broome, he’s a bright, true-blue Aussie who loves his boat and is full of stories and fond of beer and diving. Once settled in, we headed for our seven-night, six-day adventure. Rowley Shoals is comprised of three atolls about 180 nautical miles northwest of Broome. I got a fitful sleep during the rough, 14- hour, dusk-to-dawn ride, but awoke to brilliant morning sun and an azure swimming pool the size of Manhattan. Welcome to Klerke Reef, the middle atoll.

Now I won’t write much about the True North. You see, after my October journey she was replaced by a new, 114-foot craft holding up to 30 people. But key crew members remain, and so do the reefs, some of the best diving anywhere -- and I’ve been around, believe me.

The first day began when American Holly Tharp (Craig’s sweetheart), giving a wink and a smile, laid out fresh fruits, yogurt, cereals, toast, and juices. Then we grabbed snorkel gear and loaded into one of two 12-foot, flat-bottomed, aluminum tinnies with carpeted benches for a ride to the channel. With the current ripping, we fell into the water and rode the channel at six knots for seven minutes along with angels, trumpets, parrots, butterflies, and sharks (mainly white tips and black tips). The tinnies picked us up, and we went at it again. Returning to the boat, we discovered another breakfast: eggs, pancakes, bacon, ham, potatoes, and toast with more fruit and juices. (Holly has become tour director on the boat, replaced by what Colleen calls a “qualified chef.”)

Then came the diving. C-cards were checked. Briefings were brief: it’s this deep, the current is going this way, here’s what you’ll see, watch your time and depth. Australians from the east coast were nervous -- they knew well of the American divers who were left on the Great Barrier Reef -- but the efficient crew put them at ease. Each diver was religiously checked in and out of the water face-to-face with the keeper of the dive sheet, who logged name, time, and bar (psi). Take care of yourself, no babysitting, dive your own profiles (80 cu. ft. alum. tanks) but they’d say “let’s make this 30-60 minutes, let’s everyone be back on boat by 2.” A down computer meant galley duty for the day -- no argument. P.S.: if you get bent, you wait for the Australian Navy to come get you.

Eight of the ten guests (Aussies, Kiwis, Japanese, and me, the lone Yank) were divers. Generally, the plan was to dive the deep outer walls twice in the morning and then dive the inner slopes during the afternoon and evening. Typically four, maybe five dives a day, with a night dive.

On the dive “Jimmy Goes To China,” at 80 feet the wall dropped into infinite depths, most likely where Jimmy had gone. Hard corals at the surface gave way to a riot of whip, fan, rope, black, and flower corals. Because this wall is openocean fed, I saw sharks, bump head parrots, oversized groupers, giant trevally, and spotted sweetlips by the cubic meter. I even swam with a geriatric trio of human-sized tuna, moving slowly as if their scarred and tattered bodies were arthritic. Swimthroughs, cracks, valleys, and pockets make these dives a navigational nightmare but create dreamy topography. In one a coffin-sized cutout an enormous Queensland Grouper had a spotted puffer in his mouth, half swallowed and fully inflated. Indeed: a magnificent big-fish dive. (Visibility ran 40’ inside the atolls and 150' outside, with gentle currents.)

Back on board, Holly brought on lunch: handmade dim sum, a fresh veggie salad with homemade dressing, a chicken stir-fry on a king-sized pillow of noodles, cookies, and slices of frosted cake.

A terrific snorkel is “The Aquarium” inside Klerke Reef. This untouched chunk of coral sitting in a bowl of sugar-white sand is filled with giant clams, five-fingered jacks (spider), helmets, thorny oysters, coral clams, trumpets, augers, cones, and too many cowries to count. The coral heads were clouded with puffs of brilliant fish, and garden eels, octopus, and tiny squid dwelled nearby. The water? A constant 82 degrees throughout the trip.

At the equivalent of the Great Barrier Reef’s Cod Hole, my buddy and I were greeted by two spotted groupers, each of whom easily outweighed us. Eyeball to lens, I watched a funny underwater dance as fish and diver tried to see who could get the closest. Divemaster Greg Lee Steere came with a dead bait fish stuffed in his snorkel. The groupers flocked to him, extricated the treat carefully, then played tag. Fish-wise, everywhere there were unique ones: a skunk anemonefish with a broad white stripe that runs from head to tail. Then there were Chinese grouper, spotted unicorn, Indian steephead parrots, red emperors, and black and white snapper. Between dives, I strolled on deserted Klerke’s Reef past nests of the Red-tailed Tropic Bird.

Diving Western Australia's True NorthFish at Rowley were different than other places I’ve been diving. Where in Caribbean destinations such as Belize, Roatán, and Cayman you’re likely to see a large school of a single type of fish, at Rowley you’d often see five different kinds of grouper, including Coral, Potato, Queensland, Freckled, and White Spot. While I wasn’t quite as surrounded by fish as I’ve been in the Galapagos, the variety of fish life was stunning. So was the quantity, though there weren’t quite as many fish as there were in Papua New Guinea, for example. While larger fish roamed outside the reef, the inside of the reef seemed to serve as a giant playpen for juveniles: I took one photo swimming through a solid mass of juvenile striped catfish about an inch long. Invertebrate life was also spectacular, as it tends to be in places that aren’t dived a lot. There were lots of conch and cowries and many live shells.

One night before dark the crew anchored buoys with glow sticks attached. We headed out in tinnies, the glow sticks reflecting off the water like double vision. When the engines were cut, the silence deafened. I could even hear the activity on the reef from the surface. Once down, I saw dish-sized basket stars, open and feeding, perched out on precarious coral cliffs. Potato cods cruised by like misshapen ghosts, and in the coral shell, covered critters began foraging. My video light drew inch-long, wormlike creatures that followed the beam to their deaths into the claws of tiny crabs and grasping polyps of corals.

Day four started early with a three-hour crossing to the isolated northern atoll, Mermaid Reef, where the coral was healthy and friendly fish seemed surprised to see us. When mantas swoop back around for a second look or turtles do a double take over their shoulder, you know they haven’t seen many of us.

While our small vessel provided intimacy hard to replicate on larger vessels, the new True North will provide big boat amenities. This looks like a tremendous boat on paper, and I can vouch for the excellent crew. And that diving at Rowley? Having traveled the world, it rates among the top few in pristine character and big and unique fish. And where else will a bunch of happy Aussies let you have a hand at skurfing? Give it a go. And good luck.

— D.A.

Diving Western Australia's True NorthDiver’s Compass: For info on the True North, contact North Star Charters, P.O. Box 654, Broome, Western Australia 6725; phone 618 9192 1829; fax 618 9192 1830; e-mail truenorthwa@bigpond.com; web address is www.users.bigpond.com/truenorthwa... Cost of trip was $1645/person (U.S.)...Always snacks available: crackers, cookies, popcorn, leftovers arranged on plate. Coffee, tea, and soft drinks available in big ice chests on deck, no diet Coke, BYO beer and booze; they stopped at a liquor store with you ahead of time...A hat party allowed us 4 hours to create a hat with materials on boat. We had fish parts, lights on head, colored pens, you figure ...While I flew from Sydney to Alice Springs to Darwin to Broome, an easier route is Sydney-Perth-Broome.

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