Lord Howe Island

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An Awe-Inspiring Wonder - Lord Howe Island

Essay and photographs by Michael AW

I have dived the world. From the Antarctic to the Arctic, the Pacific to the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea. In the 30 years of arduous travel with over 100 kilograms of camera and diving equipment, I have explored almost every underwater realm on our planet with infinite gusto. But there was still one place in the back of my mind I had yet to explore.

I first learnt of this far-flung outpost from the late Neville Coleman way back in 1989 on a shootout competition in Flores, Indonesia. He raved mostly about the kaleidoscopic diversity of nudibranchs he found around this island that is just a two-hour flight from my home, Sydney, Australia. Too near, too easy and it will always be there. So, I decided to save it for a rainy day. Well, rainy days came in 2020. Seven months of ‘rain’ to be exact…we could not go anywhere, locked down by a microscopic organism. The sun came out on 1st October when Lord Howe finally reopened after months of isolation. With a couple of calls, and half a dozen emails, I was on my way to the world’s southernmost coral reef (-31°32'59.99" S 159°03'60.00" E). After the first dive, I surfaced gobsmacked. I should have come 31 years ago!  Fortunately, I was not late.

Seven-hundred eighty kilometres from Sydney, this off-the-beaten-track, isolated, volcanic outcropping, rises from the deep ocean. Lord Howe is the part of Australia most Australians have never heard of, and of those that have, few cared to visit. Located in the middle of nowhere, it is like a Jurassic Park movie set above the rippling South Pacific Ocean. The main island is 11 kilometres long, two kilometres wide, encompassing a large lagoonal reef system along its leeward side, with 28 small islets along its coast. Lord Howe is a peculiar and ecologically unique outlier of Australia.

The protruding Lord Howe Island Group was formed by an underwater volcanic eruption seven million years ago. Gradually, the sea wore away most of the original volcano, leaving a few small islands. The largest of the islands, Lord Howe, is marked by a pair of dramatic volcanic peaks, Mount Gower and Mount Lidgbird, rising 868 metres and 775 metres above the sea, respectively. Its spectacular sub-tropical terrain harbours caves, lofty mountains overlooking a tranquil lagoon encapsulated by a seamless crescent beach, a verdant interior crisscrossed with walking trails, and the world's most extraordinary barrier reef system.

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Though geographically Lord Howe is situated in the temperate zone, the islands are flushed with warm and cold currents, allowing both tropical and temperate fishes and invertebrate species to co-exist.  These currents comprise the main tropical East Australian Current (as made famous by the Finding Nemo movie) from the north, the West Wind Drift, The Trade Wind Drift from the east, and The Convergence from the Tasman Sea in the south are the major contributors.

This convergence creates a melting pot of marine species, and sustains the southernmost coral reefs on Earth in a temperate environment. The magnificent technicolour labyrinths encircling the island’s mesmerising lagoon are overrun with small and large colourful fishes, nudibranchs, sponges, and crustaceans over a spectrum of reef-building corals. This mix influences the assortment of marine species that can be simply summarized in a single word: AMAZING! Balls of striped catfish from the south coast of Australia swim alongside exotic angelfishes and wrasses of the tropical north. Lush soft coral gardens are neighbours to luminous algae and seagrasses from cooler waters. According to Park Australia, Lord Howe is home to at least 500 species of fishes, of which 400 are inshore species and 15 are endemic. The diversity of marine invertebrate species is equally impressive for the region; 83 species of reef-building corals and 65 species of echinoderms of which 70 percent are tropical, 24 percent are temperate and 6 percent are endemic. This environment is most unique, found nowhere else in the world. So it’s no wonder that even this well-travelled underwater photographer was spellbound and speechless after the first dive! 

By the third day, I was convinced that Lord Howe Island is one of the world’s most exceptional and diverse natural heritage sites. I was not in Galapagos, but on most dives, I saw Galapagos sharks. I was not in Bunaken Marine Park of North Sulawesi, or Tubbataha of the Philippines, but I saw Green and Hawksbill turtles. Even the huge fan-tailed and bull rays like those of the Maldives and Cocos are found here at most sites. Then there are algal reefs, coral reefs, blue water, schooling sharks, and endemic fishes where both cool and warm-water species congregate. Of course, for the macro aficionados, among substrates covered with a plethora of seagrass, sponges and soft corals, worms, nudibranchs, frogfishes, cowries and tiny crustaceans are in abundance. For me, the most important task for this sojourn was to seek out a fish missing in my collection of clownfishes; the McCulloch anemonefish (Amphiprion mccullochi). It has been my life long quest to capture every single family member of the Amphiprion family. The first fish I met face to face on my first ocean dive was a clownfish, the Amphiprion mccullochi. I was happy to declare “mission accomplished” on my very first dive in the lagoon of Lord Howe!

Ball’s Pyramid of Lord Howe is like the Darwin and Wolf to the Galapagos. I was repeatedly asked by friends and peers if I made it to the pyramid. Rising 551 metres out of the ocean some 23 kilometres south of Lord Howe, Ball’s Pyramid is like a magic mountain in a fairy tale land. Geologically, the pyramid is the tallest ocean ‘stack’ in the world, an eroded remnant of a volcano. Its environs of islets are part of a submerged mountain ridge that extends for 1,000 kilometres, a product of the Indo-Australian tectonic plate moving northward over a stationary hotspot. Whilst the tall, steep, solitary stack is impressive, the majesty of the stack lies hidden beneath the Pacific swell.

The weather Gods were kind. I did make the trip to the Pyramid with Aaron Ralph on his sturdy ProDive boat, appropriately named The Pinnacle. Aaron enthused that Ball’s Pyramid is the only place in the world where I could find the enigmatic black and white Ballina angelfish in shallow water. The panda-like fish with a yellow tail is a deep-water species generally found at depths of over 100 metres. But at Ball’s Pyramid, they hang out at about eight metres. The isolation of this seamount is an oasis for a plethora of reef and pelagic fishes of myriad families living or taking temporary refuge among huge black coral trees, steep drop-offs, giant boulders, caves and swim-throughs. On my second dive here, I was momentarily awestruck when I descended through a “fish soup” to almost land on top of a dugong-sized Queensland grouper (Epinephelus lanceolatus). I suppose I should not have been surprised to find a Queenslander, as Galapagos sharks are a common denizen of the stack. In my opinion, Ball’s Pyramid should be on every dive fanatic’s bucket list. I have a good excuse to return; I have yet to capture the Ballina Angelfish!

One afternoon, David Doubilet, the National Geographic photographer who brought Lord Howe to the world’s attention with his over-under picture the twin peaks of Mt Gower and Mount Lidgbird on the surface and a Double-headed wrasse over stony corals beneath¹*, left a message on my Facebook wall: “Go to Ned’s Beach”. It must be special. The next afternoon, I commandeered Aaron Ralph’s pick-up van and sped to Ned’s Beach.

I waded in waist-deep, and as soon as I put my face underwater, I wished the afternoon would never end. Schools of kingfish, mullets and silver drums parted for a large blue wrasse to swim right up my SEACAM 10” dome port. These fish stay in the shallows at Ned’s Beach because some years back, an old man started tossing food scraps into the water as an afternoon amusement. The fish caught on, and now it is one of the island’s major attractions. Fish feeding at Ned’s Beach is a trait of Lord Howe social culture. No convincing was required when Justin Gilligan, the boss of the marine park, offered to pick me up at 5am for a sunrise shoot at Ned’s. 

I was duly impressed by the very well protected natural environment of Lord Howe, which attests to the success of local conservation initiatives. In my opinion, it is a perfect model for sustainable tourism. By choice, there are only 400 licensed tourist beds in the few hotels and apartment accommodations i.e. only 400 tourists are allowed on the island at any one time! The tourist cap was put in place by the island’s management to protect its delicate ecosystem, which is instrumental in preserving threatened species and natural habitats.

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In recognition of the natural significance of the island’s beauty and biodiversity, Lord Howe was listed as an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982. This site now includes the main island, offshore islets and Ball’s Pyramid, totalling about 1,455 hectares of land.  In 1999, the waters within three nautical miles of Lord Howe Island (465.45 km2) were declared a marine park under the NSW Marine Park Act 1997 to protect its unique marine biodiversity, with the park currently being managed by the New South Wales Marine Parks Authority. The waters from three to 12 nautical miles were further declared as a federal marine park on 21 June, 2000. With this protection, more than 75 percent of the island’s original natural vegetation remains intact. Similarly, the coral reefs, biomass and marine environment are preserved in pristine condition.

While rigorous protection may be rewarding, to some, it may seem a modern inconvenience. Restricted accommodation and flight capacity mean that a visit here requires forward planning and a price tag to match for the peace and tranquillity. There is no cell signal, no traffic jams, and no traffic lights, but for those who must stay connected with the outside world, there are stable satellite wi-fi hot spots though only at designated sites on the main island. In 2018, for its long history of sustainable and conservation programmes, the Lord Howe Island Board received Australia’s top eco award, the Gold Banksia. In late 2019, the international tourism spotlight focused for the first time on the remote island when Lonely Planet placed it in their Top Ten places to visit in 2020.

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All too soon, it was time for me to leave this most underrated attraction of Australia. I am leaving inspired to confirm an extraordinary fact that is sadly rare these days. Most of the wild places I have explored in the last 30 years have deteriorated with increased tourism and unsustainable development. With the limit of 400 guest at any one time, community-oriented and superb environmental policies, Lord Howe will remain uncrowded, undeveloped, and adorably retro. 

Intrepid travellers have called Lord Howe Australia’s most picturesque island, a statement I readily concur. It almost does not seem real. Even long-time residents still sense that bit of magic. As for the scuba divers, access to the underwater world of Lord Howe Island is stupendously rewarding, teeming with fish life, matched with friendly services by the island’s one and only professional operator. All the known sites are equally exceptional, but there are many still to be explored with stories yet untold. When underwater, I am never quite sure what is waiting around the corner; the intrinsic mystique of Lord Howe is one of its truest merits.

Diving and Staying at LORD HOWE

Although there are only 400 tourist beds on the island, the choice of accommodation is diverse, ranging from a five-star resort and lodges, to guesthouses and self-contained apartments. For me, I was delighted to stay at Leanda-Lei Apartments, (leandalei.com.au), as the island’s one and only supermarket, Joy’s Shop, is right across the road. For other accommodations and more information, check out lordhoweisland.info

Scuba divers should book their dives before arrival. Capacity is limited especially for Ball’s Pyramid. Book with prodivelordhoweisland.com.au

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