Oozing into the water, the stream of liquefied bait spreads an oily slick behind our boat. Since there are ten-foot tides each day here at Rowley Shoals in western Australia, the broadcast of a free meal propagates swiftly along the reef line and on out to sea. It may take time, but we are hoping on this years expedition to feed the huge tiger shark that eluded us a year ago.
Rowley Shoals is a series of three atolls which rise out of thousand-foot depths some 170 miles off the coast of northwestern Australia. Imperious, Clerke and Mermaid reefs are sheer-sided undersea mountains laved by nourishing currents, crowned in some areas with spectacular coral reefs whose color and density of marine life rival the best in the world.
The three atolls are placed conveniently about as far away from the United States as it is possible to fly without departing the planet. My European clients feel the same way, until I point out to them that it is only their remoteness which has up to now protected these precious, unspoiled places.
Taking advantage of all this privacy, we have arrived here with two goals. We want to dive these sensational walls, of course. However, if there is a tiger shark out there we want to bring it to our boat and the sturdy cage which the owner of True North has built for us. Our dive cruiser is sturdy and fast, a friendly domicile for up to ten avid divers. She has a pleasant air-conditioned salon and cabins, and her main deck handles all of our gear plus the massive cage that towers over us as we look out over the water...
Our 1996 cruise was also designed to search for the tiger sharks, but we only got as close as having one share a beautiful sunlit lagoon with us. He came tantalizingly close, a great dark shadow moving ever so slowly above an aquamarine sandy bottom.We would have killed to get him to come to our bait, but perhaps this tiger had already dinned. The intervening months our captain, Chris, had traveled to South Australia on a great white shark cruise with my friend Rodney Fox truly learning shark-baiting at the feet of the Master.
We know that there are awesome tiger sharks in western Australia. They harass lobster fishermen who work in murky water near the town of Broome, and some months ago there was an historic attack by a pack of tigers on a vast school of anchovy North of the city of Perth.
We are hoping to get these ghosts of the murky domain to come to us in the crystal-clear waters of the Shoals. We know that while they are concentrated along the coast, they do come out to the Shoals, and last years sighting really whetted our appetites.
Even if we fail, well still have the other sharks, the fabulous walls, and the roaring drift dives through the channels where the massive tides ebb and flow. The tidal floods in these passes run at up to eight knots (nautical miles per hour) which for divers is a thrill ride indeed. Even better, there are large coral formations in the channels. To add spice, you find yourself hurtling toward a small mountain of coral, only to be saved as the maelstrom swooshes you around the obstacle at the last moment. Other divers can be heard squealing as they, too, are rocketed past the coral formations.
After a harrowing and exhilarating run of perhaps four or five minutes we all emerge into a garden of coral and tropical fish inside the lagoon. Moments before, we were wildly out of control; now we are dreamily examining nudibranchs and small fish amid lovely coral gardens. This is Paradise, indeed!
Outside the atolls, the plunging walls are a phenomenal contrast to either the channel-swooshes or the shark-feeding. During certain times of year the Rowley Shoals endure severe cyclones which damage the outer perimeter, the shallow corals which face the sea. As a consequence, Rowley's best coral formations are found at depths beyond 60 feet. Along some reef sectors, these walls are sheer verticals, profusely overgrown with soft corals. An azure color predominates here, though a copious palette of intense hues can be found. The effect is genuinely dazzling for someone like me who has never met a soft coral he didn't like.
With the soft corals you find a kaleidoscopic potpourri of tropical reef fish species, octopus and starfish everywhere. Still, you must periodically remind yourself to keep casting your eyes out into the blue, where mantas, big turtles or hammerhead sharks can wander by any time.
Did I mention the silvertips? After two days of filling the ocean with chum we were approached by a young silvertip. He was pretty hungry, and so a few fish carcasses reserved for the shy tiger shark were, um, diverted. The shark was wondrously appreciative repeatedly charging right up to the window of our shark cage. Not a tiger shark, but not bad.
At some point our captain remarked that if we liked silvertips he had a "really good spot." Since this captain was given to understatement, visions of sugarplums danced in our heads. Next day we anchored our cage and motored around to the western side of the atoll, where we set up a forty-pound chumsicle of frozen bait accompanied by several of the precious whole fish carcasses we had brought along.
After some minutes during which we wondered whether these were the safest waters to be found anywhere on earth, a distinctive gray shape, bulky, with eerie white fin-tips began circling agitatedly below us.
Battle stations. Battle stations. This is no drill.
Soon the big silvertip is stalking us, weaving this way and that, its fierce eye staking in each of us as it passes. What visions are framed in that cold, primitive brain stem? What battles has it fought in the night?
Its sinuous passes get closer as it homes in on the bait. It veers, bores in, and deliberately takes a fish carcass. For an electric moment, the sturdy rope holds shark and coral reef together with a white line that twangs with tension The image is frozen in my mind, but the end of this tableau is always known. The bulk and power of the big shark snaps the line and the moment. All of the exhalations seem to occur simultaneously, as if we all had stopped breathing when he charged.
The shark retreats, swallows the carcass, seems energized. He's back now, more confident, he's tested the situation and likes it. You can feel the momentum shifting to the shark. We are playing defense now.
On it goes, this ritual, for twenty minutes. The shark bobbing and weaving. A huge moray eel snaking up through the labyrinthine reef tries to eat the bait before the shark gets it. Out in the blue water behind the shark a massive tuna sweeps back and forth. A gray shark moves in like a jackal, looking for his chance. The drama is playing out on different levels now, and we find ourselves trying somehow to track all the players at once.
Can't be done; besides, your eyes always instinctively return to the gray eminence with the cold, flickering eyes, wearing the white fin-tips. He's the one. He's the gunfighter. Watch him.
In moments like these, and when I relive them later, I am always impressed with how alive and alert I feel, adrenalized to the eyeballs, nerves on high alert. In this the primordial defensive response, Nature gave us an almost magical network of nerves to face that which we fear the most. Did the cave man lumbering along the ancient beach catch his breath and go on super time when he saw the sinister shadow in the sea?
I'll bet he did.
Reluctantly, oh, so reluctantly, we heed the call of air gauges and decom meters; drifting toward the surface we pause to photograph the tuna, who is making close sweeps by us only fifteen feet below the surface. Another indelible image to remember on a cold winters night.
I have to face it. In the end, the tiger shark won. He's still out there, a challenge for the next trip.
There was a moment during the cruise when Captain Chris was talking about the attacks on the lobster fishermen, near Broome, along the coast in the muddy water. I found myself grinning like a fool as the punch line of an old joke forced itself into my consciousness.
Its the one about the man who came out of a bar and found a drunk on his hands and knees, searching for something under the streetlight. Offering to help, the man asked the drunk what he'd lost.
"My car keys!"
"Where did you drop them?"
The drunk squints, then looks at a dark area near the building. "Over there."
The man says "What? If you dropped them over there, why are you looking for them under the streetlight?"
The drunk looks at him condescendingly. "Because the light's better here!"
Here we are, out to sea in the brilliant blue water. Of course, most of the tigers are in along the coast, in water where your camera is next to useless. What were hoping for is the outlaw, the outlier who roams far from a normal tigers natural habitat.
OK, it won this round.
But we won, too. True North, its fine skipper and wonderful crew served us with competence and good cheer. Our days were a riot of unforgettable images, contrasts catching and releasing big sailfish and jacks, only to see the sailfish leaping joyfully out of the water later. Racing like maddened sea otters through three different high-speed channels. Drifting along the timeless deep parapets festooned everywhere with battle-banners of soft coral, magnificent castles in the sea.
For those who wish to enjoy such wonders for themselves (and perhaps get those elusive tiger shark pictures!), please contact me and I'll be most happy to help you book a cruise.
BE SURE TO VISIT THE ROWLEY SHOALS PHOTO GALLERY PAGE!
AND ENJOY THE RECENTLY UPDATED PHOTO GALLERY OF VANUATU !!!!
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