Rowley Shoals

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Rowley Shoals is located in Indian Ocean
Rowley Shoals
Rowley Shoals
Location of the Rowley Shoals
Rowley Shoals

The Rowley Shoals is a group of three atoll-like coral reefs south of the Timor Sea, about 260 km west of Broome on the northwestern Australian coast, centered on 17°20′S 119°20′E / 17.333°S 119.333°E / -17.333; 119.333, on the edge of one of the widest continental shelves in the world. Each atoll covers an area of around 80 to 90 km² within the rim of the reef, including the lagoons, while the land areas are negligible. They belong to Western Australia. They all rise steeply from the surrounding ocean floor. To the northeast lie the Scott and Seringapatam Reefs which are located on the same undersea platform.

Naming and history[edit]

The Rowley Shoals were so named by Captain Phillip Parker King in 1818 in honour of Captain Rowley who first sighted the 'Imperieuse' reef in 1800.[1] It is believed that the Rowley Shoals reefs have been visited by fishermen from Indonesia, from at least the mid-18th century.[citation needed] The fishermen were also collecting or hunting for Trepang (holothurians or sea cucumbers), turtle shell, trochus shell and shark fin.

These early visitors apparently knew the Rowley Shoals as Pulau Pulo Dhaoh. In later years, fishermen from Roti Island, south of Timor, also visited the Rowley Shoals, which they knew as Pulau Bawa Angin. The individual reefs were also given names, Mermaid being called Pulau Manjariti, Clerke Reef was Pulau Tengah and Imperieuse Reef was Pulau Matsohor.[citation needed]


  • Mermaid Reef, the northeastern one of the three reefs at 17°06′S 119°37′E / 17.100°S 119.617°E / -17.100; 119.617, is an atoll with a large lagoon enclosed by a rim of coral, which falls dry. There are many drying patches in the lagoon. On the northeast side of the reef, there is a passage, about 60 m wide, leading into the lagoon. Mermaid Reef rises steeply from the surrounding ocean floor, which is 440 m deep. The atoll was named in 1818 by Captain Philip Parker King, who discovered the reef and named it after his ship HMS Mermaid.
  • Clerke Reef (also called Minstrel Shoal), at 17°19′S 119°21′E / 17.317°S 119.350°E / -17.317; 119.350, lies about 23 km southwest of Mermaid Reef. The reef has a length of about 15 km north-south, and a width of about 6 km. Near the northern end of the reef lies Bedwell Islet, a bare sand cay about 2 m high. On the eastern and western sides of the reef there are a number of boulders which fall dry. A narrow passage leads to a lagoon, with many detached coral patches within the reef. Clerke Reef rises steeply from the surrounding ocean floor, which is 390 m deep. It was also named by Captain Philip Parker King, after Captain Clerke, who had reported it from a whaler between 1800 and 1809.
  • Imperieuse Reef, at 17°35′S 118°55′E / 17.583°S 118.917°E / -17.583; 118.917, lies about 35 km southwest of Clerke Reef and is the southwesternmost of Rowley Shoals. It is about 16 km in length north-south and has a width of about 8 km. On the southeastern edge of the reef there are numerous coral boulders, which rise about 3 m above the water mark. Large areas of the reef fall dry at low water and there are two lagoons, which each contain many coral patches within. Cunningham Islet, a small sand cay 3.7 m high and devoid of vegetation, is located close within the northern extremity of the reef, and is surrounded by a small lagoon, 93 m wide. The islet is the location of a lighthouse, Imperieuse Reef Light. Imperieuse Reef rises steeply from the surrounding ocean floor, which is 230 m deep. The reef was named by Captain Phillip Parker King after the ship (HMS Imperieuse) from which it was sighted by Captain Rowley in 1800.

Legislative protection[edit]

WA Marine parks[edit]

Clerke and Imperieuse Reefs form the Rowley Shoals Marine Park, declared in 1990 and extended in 2004. The park is managed by the Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM) now known as the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) of Western Australia.

Commonwealth marine park[edit]

Mermaid Reef Commonwealth Marine Reserve (formerly the Mermaid Reef Marine National Nature Reserve, also known as Mermaid) was declared on 21 March 1991 to protect its marine life and coral formations.[2] Mermaid is assigned the IUCN category Ia - Strict Nature Reserve, which means that it is a protected area managed mainly for scientific research or environmental monitoring. The Director of National Parks is responsible for managing all Commonwealth reserves including marine protected areas as specified by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). Mermaid Reef is listed on Australia's Commonwealth Heritage List and all three reefs of the Rowley Shoals were registered on the former Register of the National Estate. The Shoals are the only known origin and home of several unusual species, including the Western Australian sculpin, and so are of major ecological value.

It is managed by the Director of National Parks [3] and the staff of Parks Australia (formerly the Australian Nature Conservation Agency (ANCA)) with the assistance of the WA Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC). A number of other agencies also assist in the management of Mermaid, including the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service and the Royal Australian Navy.

Interim management arrangements under the EPBC Act for Mermaid commenced on 17 May 2007 following the expiry of the first management plan. These interim management arrangements are consistent with the first management plan for Mermaid. Under the interim management arrangements, visitors to Mermaid require authorisation from the Director of National Parks to conduct certain activities. These arrangements will remain in place until a new management plan is finalised at the conclusion of the marine bioregional planning process for the north-west marine region.

The EPBC Act prohibits certain activities from being done in a Commonwealth reserve except in accordance with the management plan for the reserve. These include activities that affect native species, commercial activities and mining operations.

A range of activities in Commonwealth reserves are also controlled, or able to be controlled by the Director, under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Regulations 2000 (EPBC Regulations), including the use of vessels, commercial activities, commercial fishing, recreational fishing and scientific research. Many of these activities are prohibited unless certain exemptions apply, including where the Director has issued a permit authorising the activity, or where a management plan in force for a reserve allows the activity.


Since about 1977 charter boats based from Broome began operating deep sea fishing and diving expeditions to the reefs and seas around. Since this time interest in the area has grown considerably and the Rowley Shoals has achieved a reputation for offering some of the best diving in Australia. The reefs are among the most remote and pristine marine areas in the world.


  1. ^ Phillip Parker King (1826) Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia Performed between the years 1818 and 1822. Project Gutenberg. February 21, 2004 [eBook #11203].
  2. ^ "Mermaid Reef Commonwealth Marine Reserve". Commonwealth of Australia, Department of the Environment. Retrieved 17 March 2015. 
  3. ^ "The Director of National Parks, working to enhance, protect and promote Australia's environment". 2012-05-02. Retrieved 2012-05-29. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Berry, P.F. Ed. (1986) Faunal surveys of the Rowley Shoals, Scott Reef, and Seringapatam Reef, North-western Australia Perth, W.A. : Western Australian Museum, Records of the Western Australian Museum. Supplement, 0313-122X ; no. 25. ISBN 0-7309-0340-0

External links[edit]