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Destinations Marine Life

Lord Howe’s Lagoon

In fact, this Australian World Heritage Area is much more than a lagoon, and whether you’re above or below the water Lord Howe Island can take your breath away. And its remote location offers surprising marine life encounters.

Text and Photography by Justin Gilligan 

I cycle barefoot down an empty street, along a lush green path of palm trees, roll past a pair of nesting white terns tending their young and pull over. Camera and snorkel gear unloaded, I step onto a beach that is a picture perfect postcard scene. But for a young couple further along it’s deserted. I stroll down to the water’s edge and slip into the brilliant blue. As I swim through the still lagoon I wonder what I might find. As if on cue an inquisitive sea turtle approaches, inspects me fearlessly and, seemingly unimpressed, drifts off to feed on the seagrass below.

My attention turns to a school of brightly coloured three-striped butterflyfish. This remote speck in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean is the only place on Earth where you can observe these fish; and I’ve been snorkelling for just five minutes. It’s shallow so I stand in the waist-deep water; the dive seems almost make believe – dreamy – like the rest of my experience in this unique island paradise called Lord Howe Island.

Best Of Both Worlds

The crystal clarity of this lagoon and waters surrounding Lord Howe attract an abundance of marine life. From colossal kingfish, fresh from the cool waters of New Zealand, to friendly turtles returning from the Great Barrier Reef.  Finding Nemo here may be a challenge, but his close cousins – Lord Howe’s own McCulloch’s anemonefish – populate this unique marine habitat – the world’s southernmost coral reef.

Lord Howe sits far off Australia’s east coast at the confluence of several currents that change from year to year depending on the seasonal influences that direct them. The West Wind Drift (from the west), The Trade Wind Drift (from the east), The East Australian Current (from the north) and The Tropical Convergence (from the south) are the major contributors.

This mix influences the assortment of marine species you’ll find at Lord Howe. Balls of striped catfish from southern Australia swim alongside exotic lionfish from the tropical north. Lush coral gardens are neighbours to colourful algae from cooler waters. Sixteen endemic species of fish can be seen here, and nowhere else on Earth.

Lagoon Waters

The Lord Howe Island lagoon offers easily accessible, yet spectacular underwater encounters. Many of the endemic species can be observed in these sparkling waters, such as the double-header wrasse and the Lord Howe moray eel. Diving in the lagoon is in three 33-foot (10m) deep seabed depressions the locals call Erscott’s Hole, Sylph’s Hole and Commet’s Hole. They offer something for everyone.

Tas Douglass and Lauren Gatherer, owners of Pro Dive Lord Howe Island, say the more distant Admiralty Islands and Balls Pyramid offer some of the most popular local diving, but are quick to add that there are spectacular sites in the lagoon just minutes from their dive shed. As if words aren’t enough Lauren escorts me down to Sylph’s Hole to meet a local – a friendly green sea turtle.

As we approach the water’s edge, several turtles are milling around the shallows, occasionally poking their heads out of the water to catch a breath. We slip on our masks and fins and duck underwater where, in moments, we’re swimming alongside a green turtle with a shell patterned and coloured like a kaleidoscope vision. It simply accepts our presence and continues to feed on seagrass while our cameras reel away.

Feeding Time

Fish feeding is part of Lord Howe Island culture. The shallow waters of Ned’s Beach offer some amazing encounters with marine life. I watch as a young girl stands knee-deep in the water, one hand clutching her father’s, the other feeding a kingfish bigger than her. There’s something special about these interactions and while there are plenty of photo ops too, there’s palpable concern over the effect this behaviour has on the marine wild life.

The Amazing Admiralty’s

Little more than a mile (2km) off the northern tip of Lord Howe is a group of eight rocky outcrops known as the Admiralty Islands. Swept by warm currents that are populated by a tropical marine menagerie, they are home to some of Lord Howe’s most popular dive sites. Among these reef residents are endemic half banded angelfish and unusual Japanese boarfish. Stunning soft corals and fan corals grow here and among this growth, critters forage and hide. This is a hotspot for nudibranchs where several new species have been found.

The Great Pyramid

Some 14 miles (23km) south of Lord Howe is Balls Pyramid, an imposing rocky spike rising more than 1,800 feet (551m) out of the ocean. This eroded remnant of a former island is the tallest ‘stack’ in the world. But for many, the pyramid’s true majesty is submerged. The pyramid is the only place in the world to observe and photograph the charismatic Ballina angelfish. Indeed, diving enthusiasts and fish fanatics the world over travel to this remote locale for a glimpse of this ‘holy grail’ species.

I make the trip with Brian ‘Busty’ Busteed of Howea Divers, who discovered the resident Ballina angelfish. A pod of dolphins accompany us as we motor away from the protected waters of Lord Howe, and travel south towards the exposed stack of rock that on arrival, I discover, is truly immense.

Quickly we don our gear and plunge into current swept water. Immediately we’re engulfed by schools of bluefish and drummer in water so clear that streaks of sun appear as brilliant white lasers igniting the sea from surface to seafloor. The scene is spectacular. I long for a wide-angle lens but I’m equipped to capture the small, but no less spectacular Ballina angelfish.

As the current pushes us along a vertical reef wall we find ourselves in an amazing coral garden with hidden treasures such as a delicate Spanish dancer nudibranch laying its shawl of pink eggs and a pair of hermit crabs engaged in a heated territorial dispute. Momentarily I catch a glimpse of white, a flash in the corner of my eye. Holding my breath and bubbles, I crawl over the boulder strewn sea floor to find myself face to face with a striking pair of Ballina angelfish. A few fleeting moments with these fish and they’re gone, swimming down the reef.

Back on the surface we talk about these memorable sights. Diving at Balls is always exciting, he says. “You’re always thinking, what’s going to happen next?”

And that’s the thing about the underwater world of Lord Howe Island. You’re never quite sure what’s waiting around the corner. The island’s intrinsic mystique is one its truest virtues.

As we return to the island’s sandy shores I realize this extraordinary place is many things to many people. It’s tropical rainforests, soaring mountain peaks and searing azure seas are immediately striking, unimpeachable in their beauty. Beneath the surface lies another world

teeming with life – awaiting exploration – whose story is untold and ever changing.

If You Go

Best Time Of Year – Visit in summer (Southern Hemisphere) between September and May. Peak season is December to March.

Currency: Australian dollars.

Advance Bookings: Due to the limit on the number of visitors, accommodation must be booked in advance. Diving should also be booked in advance.

Getting There: QantasLink ( offers year round, daily flights departing Sydney and Brisbane.

Other Activities: Scenic walks, bird watching, kayaking, glass bottom boat tours, fishing, snorkelling and surfing.

Accomodation: There’s a range of accommodation available at 18 family-owned lodges from luxury units to modest self-contained apartments.

Water Temperatures and Wetsuits: Being the most southerly barrier reef in the world a 5mm wetsuit is recommended year round, with the addition of a hood for winter diving.

Further Information:

Lord Howe Island Tourism Association
Howea Diver
Ph: (+61) 8 6563 2290

Pro Dive Lord Howe Island
Ph: (+61) 8 6563 2253

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