Lord Howe Island, NSW

By: Emma Ryan, Photography by: Various

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  • Trade-A-Boat

Jagged volcanic mountains stand guard over pristine barrier reef at Lord Howe Island, where diving, fishing and hiking are the order of the day.

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Imagine hooking up to a mooring line in temperate tropical waters, with the shape of the reef below creating a hundred shades of sparkling blue in the midday sun, seducing you into your bathers like a siren does a wayward sailor toward the rocks.

Below, schools of metre-long yellowtail kingfish terrorise tropical species, who share their pristine coral home with turtles, rays and reef sharks. You’d be forgiven for thinking you were sailing the Great Barrier Reef – save for the kingies, of course – but the jagged volcanic mountains that stretch 800-odd metres into the sky above your vessel, give it away.

You’re at Lord Howe Island, 600km east of Port Macquarie on the Mid North Coast of NSW. From Sydney, you’ve sailed five days into a headwind to arrive in a subtropical paradise.

But don’t expect the water to be as chilly as the Harbour City; it’s more reminiscent of the tropics thanks to the convergence of five major ocean currents. Home to the world’s southernmost barrier coral reef, the island benefits from the East Australian Current which brings warm water down the coast of Australia from the tropics and kicks out to the east around Newcastle, enveloping Lord Howe Island and fostering the growth of coral and survival of many tropical fish species. It also makes for near perfect swimming conditions for nine months of the year.

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Cooler currents from the south bring with them southern species like the aforementioned yellowtail kingfish, snapper and trevally. The marine ecosystem also benefits from Lord Howe’s isolation; it’s part of a cluster of lonesome structures that attract big ocean roamers like manta rays, whales, sharks and turtles. The result is an incredible abundance of marine life, with more than 90 species of coral and 500 temperate, tropical and subtropical fish species, many of which are endemic to the area, like the double-headed wrasse. The island’s southern location has meant the effects of coral bleaching have not yet reached it, and the coral here is some of the healthiest and most pristine I’ve ever encountered. All of this amounts to a veritable paradise for boaties with an appetite for fishing, snorkeling and, most of all, scuba diving.

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Credit: Kate Tinson

The latter was the primary reason for my visit; I was a guest of Dive Week hosted by the island’s oldest and best lodge, Pinetrees, in partnership with Pro Dive Lord Howe Island. And my first dive of the week would set the bar high indeed.

CLEAR WATER AND ANCIENT REEFS

My heart thumped in my chest as I adjusted my mask and stared into the azure world below where the eerily majestic shape of Galapagos sharks circled in curiosity. My vision was unimpeded in the incredible 25m visibility. We had entered the water via a moving drop from the survey-spec rigid inflatable, the adrenalin was pumping. I deflated my BCD and let the weight in my pockets pull me under, bidding temporary adieu to the staggering twin peaks that loom over every corner of this island like omnipotent demigods.

We sank 30m into the blue until we reached the floor of the ancient ‘relict reef’ that encircles Lord Howe Island; far older, deeper and more extensive than the active coral barrier reef that protects the Lagoon on the western side of the island.

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The full extent of this ancient geological behemoth was only recently discovered by researchers from the University of Wollongong and Geoscience Australia, following the 2008 geomorphology scan of the seafloor surrounding the island. The study revealed the existence of a fossil reef, some 9000 years old, which completely encircles the island and is 20 times larger than the current reef. It is thought this relict reef drowned 7000 years ago, after rapid sea-level rise, meant coral – which thrives in shallow water – could not survive.

And while the study has revealed key insights into the ability of coral reefs to flourish farther from the equator than previously expected, for recreational diving it has meant the identification of 300-plus potential new dive sites; most of which have never been dived before. Aaron Ralph, owner and operator of Pro Dive Lord Howe Island, regaled me of these findings over a sunset beer at his waterfront dive shop one evening, eyes wide with excitement like a mad pirate on a treasure hunt as his finger traced a map dotted with waypoints next to question marks.

We were the first humans to drop onto this particular waypoint, a few kilometres southwest of the island. The structure the geomorphology scan had detected, was a set of bommies where we encountered an abundance of predatory species including the aforementioned Galapagos sharks, a silky shark and schools of big kingfish, which are wonderful to dive with thanks to their brutish curiosity. And while we would have more spectacular dives that week with a greater variety of fish and incredibly healthy coral in shallower water, this deep exploratory dive in breathtakingly clear water with some of Lord Howe’s fiercest critters, will long stay with me. A true diving adventure.

FIERY BEGINNINGS

Lord Howe is comprised of the crumbling remains of a seven-million-year-old volcano. The 14km² crescent-shaped landmass is defined by towering peaks and jagged cliffs thickly forested in subtropical rainforest, in which around half of the native plants are endemic. The island was uninhabited until the British stumbled upon it en route to the penal settlement of Norfolk Island in 1788, with communities in the South Pacific apparently unaware of its existence prior to that. Settled in the 1830s, some land was cleared on Lord Howe, but for the most part it’s virgin forest, so you’re going to want to pack your hiking boots – there are numerous excellent tracks to explore by foot. The island is a refuge for vast numbers of birds – in excess of 200 species, in fact – from the ethereal white terns to the charismatic red-tailed tropicbirds, which perform acrobatic courting rituals alongside the island’s sheer cliffs like psychedelic pterodactyls.

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Credit: Luke Hanson

These volcanic beginnings have created an incredible underwater topography offering caverns, crevices, trenches and drop-offs for divers to explore. All of this in world-class visibility, where 40m is not uncommon. It’s fair to say Lord Howe Island is heaven for divers of all levels, with an incredible diversity of sites to explore.

THE '411' ON ARRIVING BY BOAT

Those looking to sail to Lord Howe Island need to be well prepared; there are limited moorings, strict anchoring regulations and no slipway or repairs services. But don’t let that put you off – with the right level of self-sufficiency and forward planning, Lord Howe Island is a boaties’ paradise.

There are 18 public moorings available in the Lagoon on the western side of the island, which must be booked before departure through the governing Lord Howe Island Board (LHIB). These are assigned based on vessel size and cost $45 per night, plus a $35 booking fee and a $42 per person environment levy. There’s a two-week maximum stay, except with permission from the LHIB. Moorings are located approximately 1km from the jetty, so a capable dingy must be carried.

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There are toilets, showers and laundry facilities for public use at the jetty, as well as fresh and bore water, however as Lord Howe Island relies on rainfall for fresh water, be mindful not to waste it. Fuel and gas are available from Gower Wilsons (see contacts box).   

Radio communications are on Channels 12 and 16, which enable you to call the Lord Howe Island Police / Port Operations Manager (POM) and assistant (APOM). You must contact the POM on approaching the island, as entry to the lagoon is not permitted without the approval of the POM who can advise the safest passage for the conditions.

Lord Howe Island and Balls Pyramid are protected by the Marine Park from the high water mark to 12 nautical miles seaward. There are sanctuary zones within the Marine Park, so be sure to observe these closely and refrain from fishing or anchoring in these areas. A Marine Park map / visitors guide can be downloaded from the LHIB website (see contacts box).

Vessels in excess of 5m may not anchor in the lagoon, and any vessel anchoring must do so in clear, sandy areas, avoiding delicate sea grass and coral. There are 12 public day-use moorings in the lagoon, signified by pink floats. These mark excellent snorkeling sites, but priority must be given to commercial operators.

Tide times for LHI are 16 minutes ahead of the Fort Denison chart and 46 minutes ahead during Daylight Saving periods. Tide heights can vary greatly subject to atmospheric pressure, wind and sea conditions.

Check out the full feature in issue #502 of Trade-A-Boat magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest boating news, reviews and travel inspiration.

 


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