The Rowley Shoals consist of three pear-shaped atolls that lie on the edge of the Australian continental shelf, 170 nautical miles due west of Broome, Western Australia.
The Rowley Shoals shelf atolls arise from depths of between 300 and 700 metres. They are the most perfect examples of shelf atolls in Australian waters, believed to have formed over 10 million years ago. In comparison, the Great Barrier Reef is believed to have formed only 2 million years ago. There are three atolls:
Mermaid Reef is approximately 15 km long and 8 km wide. There is no landmass that remains after high tide, which makes it a National Marine Reserve under Commonwealth management. Therefore no fishing of any sort is permitted on this reef and out to a designated zone approximately 1km off the reefs outer perimeter.
Clerke Reef is approximately 16 km long and 8 km wide. It has a permanent sandy cay at the northern end of the atoll named Bedwell Island.
Imperieuse Reef is approximately 18 km long and 8 km wide. A small portion of sand that remains after the high water mark is Cunningham Island. Originally it was on this sandy cay that a scientific recording post was established. It is one of only two stainless steel structures or ‘lighthouses’ that exist in Australia. Over the years, Cunningham Island has shifted around and now the lighthouse juts up out of shallow water.
Because Clerke and Imperieuse have land mass, they both fall under Western Australian State Management.
The Rowley Shoals has more than 200 species of coral and 600 species of fish.
Over the last 18 years, Bedwell Island has become a safe nesting haven for the red-tailed tropicbird. Recently it has been recorded that the rare white-tailed tropicbirds have also settled in. We are all hoping to see an increase in this population. Other ocean-oriented birds are commonly seen in the area.
Discovery of the Rowley Shoals
The Rowley Shoals were given their collective name in 1818 by Captain Phillip Parker King. He named them the Rowley Shoals after Captain Rowley who first sighted them in 1800.
Captain Phillip Parker King also named the three individual atolls:
- Mermaid Reef is named from his ship HMS Mermaid
- Clerke Reef is named from Captain Clerke who first reported it
- Imperieuse Reef is named from the name of Captain Rowley’s ship, HMS Imperieuse.
Rowley Shoals Tourism
In 1977 Western Australia opened a portion of the Rowley Shoals for tourism. Boats from Broome chartered people for both fishing and diving expeditions in the coral reefs and surrounding areas. Since then, it acquired its title as one of Australia’s marine treasures and among the most pristine in the world.
Australia is the largest island-country that is surrounded by numerous water bodies around its land borders. With the abundance of natural water resources, the country is home to some of the best underwater sights in the world. Among these is the largest unspoiled coral reef, the Rowley Shoals.