ELIZABETH REEF 

After three turbulent days at sea, three weary sailors approach Lord Howe Island

My mum has seen enough photos of me swimming with and being rammed by sharks, heard enough stories of boats flipping and being stranded that like any adrenaline junkies parent, she’s built up a tolerance to the anxiety. So it offered a well injected, moment of introspection when, after all the crazy things I’ve said I would do and have done, that my mum said “are you sure this is safe” when I left for my last adventure. It was Christmas coming up, and as she gifted me what would be an almost lifesaving present of a waterproof spray-jacket, I reassured her, and half-heartedly myself, that this adventure would be just as successful as any other. I say this in a bit of jest really, as a catastrophic and uncomfortable expedition can still be successfully adventurous.

With little more than my dive gear packed, a mate and I jumped aboard the “Waratah Lass,” a beautiful Nicholson 32 recently acquired by Alex Gray, a 21-year-old captain and good friend from back home. We had talked of going diving together for some time, since our last adventure ended abruptly with me nearly losing my legs to some whalers. This would be different, I was hoping. Three to Four weeks sailing from Coffs Harbour, out to Lord Howe Island, 600km almost directly off shore, and returning via Elizabeth reef. Just before Cyclone season.

'Warratah Lass' is adorned with two 6'4 monsters, its captain alex and the spirit of adventure. There was almost enough dive gear on board to sink her. Photograph: Julia Wheeler Photography

'Warratah Lass' is adorned with two 6'4 monsters, its captain alex and the spirit of adventure. There was almost enough dive gear on board to sink her. Photograph: Julia Wheeler Photography

Rising from 4000m deep to the surface, these seamounts sit within the constantly fluctuating throws of northern tropical currents and the southern ocean. Here, an amazing assemblage of tropical fish are confronted by their southern counterparts. Big black cod, kingfish, and yellow-fin tuna, mix with marlin, wahoo, coral and coronation trout, big emperor species and the endemic double-header wrasse. Oh did I forget sharks? Yep, lots of them, too! Lots!

Blake's slumbering awakened the the Gods... who, once angered sent in the front line.

Blake's slumbering awakened the the Gods... who, once angered sent in the front line.

The boundary between warm and cold, as you can imagine is not just exciting for sea-life. The weather can be just as diverse, colourful and exciting.

The sail was one that taught me a lot of things, about sailing, about the ocean and about preparation. We departed on Christmas morning after a brief delay due to adjustments and repairs. After two days in mild 15knot winds and a gentle forgiving ocean Alex and I were on deck admiring the stars and the stillness of night. We had a following breeze and a following sea, which despite its apparent lightness had kept us moving, sails set gull-winged, poled out, at a steady 7-7.5knots. At the change of watch, Blake crawled from the sea berth aka the wombat burrow to relieve us of duties and in doing so summoned the tempest of the southern oceans.

Captain Alex. Photograph: Julia Wheeler Photography

Kitchen, workspace and living quaters

Kitchen, workspace and living quaters

1am saw the wind gusting apparent to 40knots and the sea, while still following, beginning to rise and carry “Waratah Lass” with every swell. Now double reefed and with only a small amount of jib we were making up to 9knots but still had a night and days sail ahead of us. Plenty of times, while harnessed and tethered, we had white-water break over the cockpit and send our books, torches and cups flying. Soaked and cold, the idea of sleep became a luxury I had since forgotten and when the island was sighted it seemed to stay unimaginably small, like chasing the base of a rainbow. I reminded myself that this was an adventure, and even uncomfortable, sometimes scary and dangerous events are successfully adventurous, and that is what I had signed up for.

Being guided in through the passage at Lord Howe on dusk by Wayne, the local policeman, we were cheered by the resident yachts for successfully piloting the passage and enduring the rough and testing seas. Alex had mastered the job well, and I was more than relieved to finally tie up to a mooring and explore the island for something to eat. Sitting on the tiled floor of a hot shower and falling over flat with sea legs was the beginning of two amazing weeks spent on the island.

Kay Cottee & Shackleton, our two feathered friends

Lord Howe Island, showing off it's full beauty

Lord Howe Island, showing off it's full beauty

Frigate birds circled above cliffs that with the faintest hint of imagination could have been pterodactyls. Crystal clear waters harboured an amazing abundance of fishlife and crayfish, and the locals were great for a laugh to say the least. To suppliment our diet of tinned soup and freshly caught fish (fishing is allowed in some areas of the Lord Howe Marine Park) we brought a few hand caught crayfish to the local restaurant ‘The Anchorage’. Julia, who had flown over to join and photograph the trip had met the chef David Chlumsky and with a bit of bartering had arranged what, to this day, would have to be the best meal I have ever eaten. My freshly caught crayfish transformed into a truffle poached delicacy with all manner of sides. The flavours and textures were as whimsical and delicate as what could be expected from a hallucinating child’s imagination, all blending perfectly in synchronicity.

Where's Wally.... Me, climbing the cliffs of Mount Gower. Photograph: Julia Wheeler Photography

Where's Wally.... Me, climbing the cliffs of Mount Gower. Photograph: Julia Wheeler Photography

But this was only one small part of our journey, the target for me, was to dive Elizabeth Reef. After applying previously for a permit to visit and fish, we picked a weather window and set sail. An accompanying vessel “Take it Easy” had arrived the night before us and we soon found out that Wade, who had taken his tender up to the shallows had had his motor mouthed by one of the local sharks within the first few minutes. He wasn’t keen on the idea of diving with us after this, so set sail back to Sydney.

Story after story of big tiger sharks here were running through my head as I suited up. With no sounder and only a rough map, we decided to play it safe and jump in close to the reef edge and work our way deeper. It was like an aquarium, but much more than that. The remoteness of this reef, and the difficulty in getting here had left the place relatively untouched for many years. Although it is home to scores of shipwrecks, it was hard to imagine a more pristine looking reef. Reflecting immediately, I compared what I saw with how our reefs are back home.

The ever curious Galapagos whaler sharks. Photograph: Julia Wheeler Photography

Coronation Trout : 5.8kg

Coronation Trout : 5.8kg

Gold Spot Wrasse : 4.6kg

Gold Spot Wrasse : 4.6kg

Getting the catch ready for dinner. Photograph: Julia Wheeler Photography

Getting the catch ready for dinner. Photograph: Julia Wheeler Photography

Black cod (Epinephelus Daemelei) up to 50kg hung in the shallows under nearly every ledge, and schools of thousands of silver drummer (sydneyanus) and surgeon fish circled around us. A golden colour morph of the drummer hanging in the school totally blew me away. The reef fell away quickly to about 20m and in the caves that touched the sand there were big schools of red bass (Lutjanus Bohar) parrot fish, the occasional Double header and coronation trout. A few minutes after our search, some kingfish came in to look at us, as did a growing congregation of Galapagos whalers. Of all sharks I have dove with, their curiosity has been unsurpassed.

We had limited freezer space, and we didn’t really need much for the few days sail home so between us we would only really take one or two fish each. I had wanted to find a few new or unique species so for the first few hours was more than happy teaching the other guys better techniques to help their diving, playing with the sharks and searching for something new. Toward the end of the day we had amassed quite a following. The Galapagos whalers don’t seem to lose curiosity, but instead just join the pack, coming right up to your fins at times. They seem to just funnel in and keep about the same speed as you swim. Almost like ducklings following a mother duck. By the time I had found a fish I wanted there were probably 30 of them close on my heels and surrounds. I made the dive to a little over 20m (the visibility would have easily surpassed 50m) and lay motionless on the bottom.

The pups wait patiently for us to throw them a stick. Photograph: Julia Wheeler Photography

The pups wait patiently for us to throw them a stick. Photograph: Julia Wheeler Photography

I flicked some sand, right angled my gun towards my target and waited. The Japanese seabream I saw were cautious, but after long enough time on the bottom digging in the sand I pulled the trigger and made the rush for the surface. The water around me exploded with action as every shark, picking up on the vibration rushed in to try to take the speared fish. Not wanting to lose my first Japanese sea-bream, I pulled it in to me as quick as possible and fended off the sharks until we could get the prize into the tender. Julia was busy snapping away, surrounded in sharks and getting some great pictures of the action. Just before Sunset, we drifted over some rubble that looked promising. When I made the drop, a very respectable green jobfish came in to have a look. Making the shot, even tho I stoned the fish, the same battle with the sharks ensued.

Sharks, in every direction. Photograph: Julia Wheeler Photography

One of my favourite fish to hunt. They are quite weary, and a long time on the bottom is required to bring them in. Green Jobfish

We didn’t have long left out here, with no internet we had no updates on weather, and being fairly exposed Alex was keen to make a move, so on the morning we left I jumped in quickly at a different part of the reef, a little deeper to be greated with what I can honestly say is every spearfishermans dream. I had been diving consistently for about 3 weeks now every day, and wanted to push a little further and in the deeper caves found some amazing fish. Big coronation trout sat beside goliath sized purple cod (Epinephelus cyanopodus) and gold spot wrasse. Jobfish, Kingfish and Yellow Fin Tuna sailed through the waters above my head. A nice sized and incredibly tasty black wrasse made an appearance too and I was lucky enough to take a personal best Coronation trout of 5.8kg and Gold Spot Wrasse of 4.6kg. I sat, with a purple cod at the end of my spear tip that I estimate to be somewhere around 10-12kg, a once in a lifetime fish, but was happy to watch it swim away. I had taken two great fish already, and had no need to be greedy. The most important part of being a hunter after-all is not knowing how and when to hunt, but when not to.

Officially weighed

: Coronation trout 5.80kg (potential NSW record)

: Japanese Sea-Bream 3.15kg (potential NSW record)

The Island.... Photograph: Julia Wheeler Photography

The Island.... Photograph: Julia Wheeler Photography