Trevor Paddenburg heads to the edge of civilisation – albeit with five-star trappings – for the dive of a lifetime. Photography by Stewart Allen.
The humpback whale and her calf surface 10 metres from where we’re anchored, expelling spent air and taking a fresh breath before their incredible bulk glides under the boat. It would be an amazing wildlife encounter if not for the fact that the animals are in peril and our five-night luxury dive trip with The Great Escape Charter Company has turned into an impromptu whale rescue mission.
The location is the Rowley Shoals: three pristine, teardrop-shaped coral atolls, the deepest of them rising 440 metres from the ocean floor. They sit on the edge of the continental shelf, 260 kilometres off the coast of Broome in Western Australia’s rugged North West.
Layla and her calf, Charlie – as the boat crew has named the whales – appear healthy but their plight is dire. They’ve become trapped at Mermaid Reef, the most north-easterly of the three atolls, by swimming through a narrow channel to the sandy inner lagoon. The animals won’t survive in the balmy 27ºC-plus water for long and they must navigate back to open water to continue their migration south to Antarctica to feed.
On the previous dive charter, the creatures approached within metres of snorkellers while the Great Escape, a 26-metre custom-built power catamaran, was moored. “They’re quite curious about us so we’re going to try to use the boat to guide them out of the channel to open water,” explains divemaster and owner Chris “Trippy” Tucker as he welcomes us aboard at Broome port with a glass of Champagne.
Trippy has spent his life at sea, working on lobster boats, in the oil and gas industry, as a pearl diver and finally as a charter-boat skipper before launching his own company in 2000 with his wife, Kylie Bartle. They take small groups on “relaxed luxury” Kimberley sightseeing tours and finish the season with diving trips (snorkellers are welcome, too) to the Rowley Shoals.
It takes about 12 hours to reach the shoals (which were named after the captain who first sighted the reefs in 1800). Trippy and his skipper, Dan Barrett-Lennard, guide the cat out of port and into a turbulent swell, forecasting “a bit of a bumpy ride”. Although dinner on the first night is a simple roast-chicken affair that’s designed to be gentle on the stomach, one of the 10 guests is soon reaching for a sick bag. The rolling continues throughout the night, making for a rough sleep despite the comfortable beds and air-conditioned cabins.
But all that is forgotten the next morning when our destination, Clerke Reef, the closest of the atolls, materialises from the azure water.
After a breakfast of bacon-and-egg wraps – served alongside espresso coffee and the daily smorgasbord of fresh fruit, yoghurt, toast and cereals – Trippy summons us to the rear deck. We have a briefing before our first scuba-dive of the trip at a spot named the Coral Gardens.
The magic of the Rowleys, says Trippy, is that they’re on the very edge of civilisation. “You never know what might pop up. A few seasons ago, we had a pod of orcas that hung around for a week. The first time I spotted them, I saw this big fin and thought, ‘I hope it isn’t hungry.’ When the divers came up, they all had a smile from ear to ear.”
We buddy up, enter the warm, bath-like water and descend a vertical wall crammed with a dazzling array of hard and soft corals. Researchers have identified 233 species of coral and 688 species of fish at the shoals. Visibility is a remarkable 40 metres.
Bright fans of fire coral lazily wave in the gentle current and giant clams stand agape on the ocean floor. A two-metre leopard shark – distinctive for its flat head and spotted pattern – cruises past before fading into the endless blue. Then a majestic manta ray with a three-metre wingspan drops in. Fishing is restricted in the Rowleys and the marine life here has no fear of people. “We’re just warming up,” says first mate Nathan Cass as I enthuse about what we’ve seen. “Last trip, we had a school of 70 small hammerheads all in formation.”
Nathan has a habit of taking an empty plastic bottle on dives and scrunching it between his hands to produce a noise and vibration. It attracts reef sharks in their dozens, earning him the moniker of “shark whisperer”. Although his previous job was skippering a boat owned by singer Björk around Europe, he reckons cruising the Rowleys is way better. “You should see how busy Monaco is with boats during the grand prix.”
As we dry off, the crew steers the cat through a narrow channel in the reef, past bommies dotted with brain coral and staghorns, into the technicolour waters of the atoll’s inner lagoon. As if on cue, Irish chef Martina Page delivers lunch platters of slow-cooked barbecue beef ribs, salad, couscous croquettes and sweet potato.
There is time for a nap or natter. Then, before we know it, we’re suiting up for the next dive. This spot is known simply as The Wall. A vertical stretch of coral plunges into the blue and we play hide-and-seek with gaily-spotted coral trout, elongated trumpet fish and wildly colourful, slug-like nudibranchs.
In between dives is a visit to Bedwell Island. There’s not a scrap of vegetation on the tiny coral cay but it’s home to one of WA’s two colonies of red-tailed tropicbirds, which resemble seagulls except for their scarlet beak and long matching tail plume.
Dinner is another feast: rolled pork belly stuffed with apricots and served with herb potatoes and homemade apple sauce. Sleep soon beckons after a day of saltwater adventures, great food and a BYO beverage or two. (Guests pre-order their booze from a bottle shop in Broome and it’s waiting on the boat when they arrive. Liz, a Broome local and dive instructor, has come on the trip armed with more bottles than I can count. “We have a saying in the Kimberley,” she quips. “It’s better to be looking at it than looking for it.”)
The next few days blur into a routine of gourmet meals, stunning diving – and snorkelling, too, for anyone without PADI certification – sundowners and laughs. The fun-loving crew is always keen to backflip off the boat or encourage a spot of wakeboarding behind the dinghy.
Main Boat Channel is like a scuba-diving theme-park ride as the rushing tide shoots us through a twisting, turning coral chasm, sending us flying over giant clams the size of lawnmowers. Jimmy Goes to China is a spot named after one of Trippy’s friends, who dropped to the ocean floor on a dive but set off in the wrong direction and needed rescuing. Needless to say, we listen closely during the briefing, when we’re told to hug the sheer underwater wall, and are soon in the midst of a dozen grey reef and silvertip sharks, which ooze power and grace.
At Sheer Delight, coral gardens are home to hundreds of spawning sweetlips, patterned like leopards from the African savanna. Giant gorgonias, a delicate fan-like coral that grows in locations with current, dot the wall.
The departing sun signals that it’s time for our first night dive at The Pinnacle, a striking bommie surrounded by steep drop-offs. There’s something so surreal about rolling out of a perfectly good dinghy and descending into the black depths on the edge of the continental shelf, miles from civilisation. But it’s not spooky. Instead, I’m overcome by a sense of calm and awe. Torch beams play over parrot fish tucked into coral beds for the night. We find the fiery, red-striped lionfish on the hunt for prey and a large spotted moray eel emerging from its cave.
The next day, thoughts turn to the stranded whales as Trippy heads for Mermaid Reef. We hit a rare patch of ocean where fishing is allowed and, within minutes, line is whizzing off two reels, each with a yellowfin tuna on the hook – that’s lunch sorted.
Two hours later, Dan pilots the catamaran through a narrow channel in the coral and into the lagoon. As soon as we tie up to a mooring, the whales come to investigate, diving under the boat. But when their interest wanes and they move off to another part of the lagoon, Trippy decides to leave the rescue mission for the morning.
Overhead, a government plane scours the seas. It’s the first sign of civilisation we’ve seen. Private boats are rare in these parts and just three other operators run charters in the Rowley Shoals during the narrow September-to-November season (due to weather and tidal conditions) so solitude is a given.
The final day dawns and with it the last chance for a whale rescue. But although we linger at the channel for much of the day between dives, the mammals can’t be enticed out.
Despite the failed attempt, the trip has been a feast of mind-blowing diving and delicious cuisine in an unspoilt wilderness. And there’s still hope for the whales. “We’ve got one more trip this season,” says Trippy as he plots a course back to Broome. “We’ll do our best to get them out.” ￼
Good news! Layla and her calf, Charlie, finally left the Rowley Shoals, bound for Antarctica.