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Lord Howe Island ...
Aerial of Lord Howe Island Aerial view of Lord Howe Island.

Surrounded by incredibly deep water, Lord Howe Island's undersea topography attracts all sorts of strange creatures, many of them endemic. The coral lagoon on the western side of the island is like a miniature Great Barrier Reef - a large and beautiful structure, the most southerly coral reef on Earth.

Photograph beneath the ocean and above the ocean at Lord Howe IslandDiver’s Paradise: Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1982 the Lord Howe group, made up of 28 volcanic islands and outcrops, is recognised as being of extreme universal value.

Despite the coral, many of Lord Howe's marine inhabitants can't exactly be described as tropical. The island lies about 1,000 kilometres beyond the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef and is often bathed in cool Tasman Sea water. Its lifeline to warmth is a strong current streaming down from the Coral Sea, along the Australian coast where it often extends east to Lord Howe. Like a giant umbilical cord it links the island to the tropics. The meeting of warm and cold ocean currents create a very unusual marine environment. Lord Howe is one of the few places where tropical and temperate ocean life can be seen living together.

About 60 Kinds of coral share the crystal-clear waters with some 200 different algae. Admittedly the number of coral species hardly compare with that of the Great Barrier Reef, but they still exhibit many of the brilliant shapes and colours that only a mass of tiny polyps can mastermind. Underwater photographer Gary Bell can’t recall exactly how often he’s been to Lord Howe Island. “But it’s at least five or six times – the place is so unique I just keep going back.” It’s the fish, living on and among Lord Howe’s coral and algae, that Gary views most enthusiastically. “Never before have I seen so many colourful species of wrasse swimming together in one area. Doubleheader, moon, bird, yellow-green, green-blocked and elegant wrasse are all very common in the lagoon. And best of all they’re totally unafraid of divers.”

The island’s fish – both large and small – are inquisitive things, equally attracted by divers and snorkellers, especially when a handful of food is offered. And for those reluctant to go underwater, they can sail by glass-bottom boat to places like Erscott’s Hole, one of the lagoon’s most popular feeding sites. Or if you don’t mind getting wet ankles and soggy knees, you can always try hand feeding a frenzy of sea mullet at Neds Beach. Or, at five every afternoon on the same beach, you can watch a local man throwing food into the water which attracts large trevally and reef sharks. It’s a regular affair – he’s been doing it for 13 years!

Gary says he usually feeds the fish seafood scraps from fishing boats. “It’s very important to keep their diet a natural as possible, so it doesn’t upset their eating behaviour. You should never offer them unnatural things like chicken and bread for example.”

Diving beyond the confines of the lagoon is a different experience entirely. “This is where the water starts deep and just gets deeper,” says Gary, in a wish-I-was-there tone. “The diving out there is brilliant, with depths of between about 10 and 30 metres, and beyond.”

Two of a kind: Japanese boarfish Evistias acutirostris (bottom) and golden drummer Kyphosus syneyanus (top left) are two of the many unusual fish species living around the Lord Howe group. The 55 centimetre long Japanese boarfish swim in pairs of small groups. Japanese boarfish

The seas surrounding the Admiralty Islets, about three kilometres off Lord Howe’s most northerly point, feature a rugged underwater terrain. There are sheer cliffs, crevices and canyons that form just below sea level can plunge 30 or more metres. The islands are usually bathed in a clear, warm current the clarity of which every diver yearns to experience.

“One of the more curious fish living in the area is silver drummer Kyphosus sydneyanus. They’re common throughout Australian waters, but at Lord Howe there is one very unusual difference. Every now and then you see schools of normal silver drummer accompanied by a single canary-yellow golden drummer. Lord Howe Island is the only location I have seen this fish which, colour aside, is exactly the same as the silver drummer. I believe it’s unique to this area.”

Japanese boarfish Evistias acutirostris also feature a pretty unusual trait. With dented facial features, murky yellow fins, and black and white stripes, their appearance boarders on ugly. They live around the sandy sea floor at depths of about 30 metres. For some strange reason – still awaiting explanation – Japanese boarfish are common around Lord Howe Island and in far away Japan and Hawaii. They’re otherwise unknown in other parts of the Pacific.

Red-tailed Tropicbird Phaeton rubricauda with chick Red-tailed Tropicbird Phaeton rubricauda with chick.

Back in shallower waters sea slugs are definitely worth looking out for. Ugly in name alone, many sea slugs feature a rarely rivalled mixture of colour and grace. “Flamingo-coloured Spanish dancers Hexabranchus sanguineus are undoubtedly the princesses of the slugs,” Gary Says, “and they’re the biggest nudibranchs I’ve ever seen. At about 25 centimetres long they’re usually found ‘vacuuming’ the lagoon floor looking for food. Occasionally they rise from the seabed and swim in a graceful dance-like manner. It’s quite a sight.” Nudibranchs, thanks to their remarkable patterns and brilliant colours, are viewed with considerable enthusiasm by both divers and rock-pool fossickers. But unlike the unusually large Spanish dancer, most are only about the size of a few bits of macaroni strung together. They come in countless shapes, colours and sizes: some with stripes, others with spots and speckles.

Striped catfish All Whiskers and stripes:
Striped catfish Plotosus lineatus group together and form amazing fish-balls that measure two metres or more in diameter. They stay like this until after dark when they disperse across the lagoon's sand flats to look for food. Approach the ball of catfish and they become very active, turning into a swirling mass of whiskers and stripes.

On occasions, when the weather turns sour, even the protected water around the lagoon jetty offers interesting viewing. By the hundreds communal striped catfish Plotosus lineatus shelter in the shadowy darkness of the wharf. As they swarm over one another they form a large black and white pulsating ball. Ease you hand towards the ball an in unison they slowly move in the opposite direction.

Gary Bell uses two words – “unique” and “spectacular” – to sum up his thoughts on Lord Howe Island. “Landing at Lord Howe is like stepping into the pages of a fairytale book,” he says. “When you get a chance to go there, visit one of the many quiet beaches, sit down and enjoy the two towering peaks to one side and the endless blue ocean all round. Looking out to sea, I often think: "If I were to spot a pirate ship right now, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.”

Text: Michael Johns and Gary Bell
Photography: Gary Bell

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