In Rowley Shoals, Western Australia Islands

Photo courtesy from NASA Earth Observatory

If we talk about Australia especially when it comes to remote outdoor adventures, the Aussie Outback is the signature experience where adventurers around the globe will have a hard time choosing where to go in the vast flatlands down under. This is relatively true if you want to explore the Western regions of Australia.

While the Western Aussie outback adventure is mostly concentrated on the mainland, there are some sites that takes you to the marine environment and still gives you a remote setting. What we are talking about are the offshore landmass of Rowley Shoals.

Located 260 kilometers (161 miles) west of Broome in Kimberley Australia, Rowley shoals sits on the edge in one of the world’s largest continental shelf. Unlike Abrolhos and Montebello islands where each of them is composed of hundreds of small islands, Rowley shoals is not archipelagic in nature and only has 3 ring-shaped islands called an atoll.

To Surface or Not to Surface

This phrase, which is derived and modified from a famous theatrical soliloquy, is not just a saying famous speakers use in an operatic presentation, but also a description that fits the atolls and reefs of Rowley Shoals, as follows:

Atoll of Mermaid Reef

Location: Northeast portion of Rowley Shoal

Photo courtesy from The Age

Considered to be at the edge of Rowley Shoal where the topography of the continental shelf starts to drop at greater depths, Mermaid Reef is like a large pinnacle that rises from 440 meters (1,443 feet) from the seafloor. Although it steeply rises from the bottom of the ocean, only a small portion of it is exposed to air. At surface, you will see a large lagoon that is enclosed by a rim of corals and tidal fluctuation causes the reef to be submerged during high tide and exposed during low tide.

During high tide, you can enter the lagoon courtesy from its 60 meter (200 feet) wide entrance. Just don’t plan for anchorage inside the lagoon as most of the areas dry up especially on extreme low tide.

Historical records will tell you that Mermaid reef was named not from a legendary aquatic creature, but from a ship. Mermaid reef was only place in the world map when it was discovered by an Australian Explorer in 1818 in the name of Admiral Philip Parker King and named the reef after his ship, HMS Mermaid.

Atoll of Clerke Reef

Location: Central portion of Rowley Shoal

Photo courtesy from

Also called as Minstrel Shoal, Clerke Reef is situated 23 kilometers (14 miles) southwest of Mermaid reef. It has an elongated shape having a dimension of 15 x 6 kilometers (9 x 3 miles). The long structure of Clerke Reef houses an islet at the northern end called Bedwell and a sand cay that rises as high as 2 meters (6 feet) during low tide. Contrary to the sandy origins of its northern portion, the eastern and western parts of Clerke reef are predominantly made of boulders that comes in and out with the fluctuation of tides.

Similar to Mermaid reef, Clerke reef is like a huge pinnacle that rises 390 meters (1,280 feet) from the seafloor. However, most of its peaks are exposed to dry air and only a small part are completely submerged. It has a wide passage at the southern end that offers safe anchorage for boats.

Imperieuse Reef

Location: Southwest portion of Rowley Shoal

Photo courtesy from

When it comes to marine topography, there is no doubt that Imperieuse reef offers more features than Clerke and Mermaid reef. First, it is slightly bigger than the two previous atolls having a dimension of 16 x 8 kilometers (10 x 5 miles). Second, it has more protruding structures like boulders that rises slightly higher than Mermaid and Clerke reef at 3 meters (10 feet). Third, it has a semi-circular sand cay that creates its own small lagoon and an islet that houses a navigational tower – the Imperieuse Lighthouse. And lastly which is the one that attracts adventurers the most, is it has not just one but two lagoons where a large reef ecosystem thrives underwater.

Three Atolls and Two Marine Park Declaration

When it comes to protection and conservation of a particular area, we always think that its management comes from a single declaration under existing law. While this is generally true in Australia’s nature parks, this is not the case for Rowley Shoals. Mermaid reef is a Commonwealth Marine Reserve declared last March 21, 1991 while Clerke and Imperieuse reefs are marine parks declared last 1990 and being managed by the Department of Environment and Conservation of Western Australia.

But how is this possible since Rowley Shoal comes from one single area and they all together arise from a single landmass? The answer lies in one of the subjects in the title.

If you try to examine the amount of exposed and submerged landmass caused by the flooding and ebbing of tide, it seems that there is a big difference between Mermaid reef as compared to Clerke and Imperieuse reefs combined. Majority of the landmass in Mermaid reef mostly experience submersion underwater therefore is considered a part of the Commonwealth of Australia. On the other hand, Clerke and Imperieuse reefs only has a small portion submerged underwater and has a landmass that is permanently exposed above the water placing them under the jurisdiction of Western Australia.

More Protection means Better Playground

The multiple protection under law of Rowley shoals is better than none. This insures that its natural bounty will thrive, sustain and will continue to exist for the next generation to come. But before our children’s grandchildren can enjoy the richness of Rowley Shoals’ atolls, let us allow the present generation to enjoy and experience a true Western Marine Aussie Outback.

For more information, please read our related article about Scuba Diving in Rowley Shoals.



Parks and Wildlife Service – Government of Western Australia:

The Great Escape:

Video courtesy from Reel Teaser Fishing Adventures

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