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Middleton Reef, Lord Howe Island...
Aerial of Lord Howe Island lagoon Aerial view of Lord Howe Island lagoon.

My first glimpse of Middleton Reef was from a high-flying aircraft chartered from Lord Howe Island in 1989. Words could hardly describe its beauty. The kidney shaped reef was fringed by a barrier of white surf and looked like a floating opal in a vast ocean. The exquisite colours and patterns captured my imagination and I wondered about the underwater world that existed in the surrounding blue water. Fortunately, during a photographic shoot at Lord Howe Island the following year, I was able to take part in an organised diving charter that was bound for this jewel of the South Pacific.

Middleton Reef is a coral atoll that is situated in a lonely ocean 120 nautical miles north of Lord Howe Island. Like Lord Howe Island, its foundation is a submerged seamount that sits on the western edge of the Lord Howe Rise. The reef is flat, about 5km by 3km in size, has a very large lagoon and is only exposed during the period of low tide.

Runic shipwreck
The wreck of the "Runic", high and dry on the reef flat.
Runic shipwreck

When approaching Middleton Reef by boat, the first thing you see is the spectacular remains of the “Runic”, a 13,587 ton ocean steamer that sits high and dry on the reef in a upright position. She was caught in a 1961 cyclone between Auckland and Brisbane and came to grief on the reef’s north west side. The whole stern section has broken completely away from the main structure and stands separate, constantly reminding visitors of the powerful seas that regularly pass through the area. Since the time of European settlement in Australia, many other unsuspecting ocean going vessels have fallen victim to this treacherous reef.

When our charter boat, the “Capella 111”, arrived at Middleton, I couldn’t believe our luck, conditions were perfect. This continued over the next three days and we were able to dive anywhere around the outside perimeter. We didn’t find any large gorgonian fans or brightly coloured soft corals, but the fish life was excellent and there was plenty of opportunity for photography.

Yellow flutemouth Aulostomus chinesnsis tries to avoid detection amongst schooling Blue-striped snapper Lutjanus kasmira.
Yellow flutemouth and schooling snapper

One shipwreck that we snorkelled was unknown to us. She was completely broken up with her remains scattered all over the sea floor. In the shallow gutters of the surf zone were twisted lengths of metal with the odd bronze porthole just sitting there. The sight of two large anchors resting beneath the breaking waves had me wondering of what must have been a horrifying moment when the vessel struck the reef.

During an exploratory dive along the northern perimeter, we came across a completely intact Japanese long-liner tucked away in a protected area of reef only 12 metres beneath the surface. The spectacular fish live in and around the wreck, including a family of large Black Cod that were very friendly. Middleton Reef is probably the last place where these magnificent fish can still be seen in numbers. The species is very inquisitive which made them easy targets for the spearfishermen of the 60’s and 70’s, when they were almost completely wiped out along the New South Wales coast. Today they are a totally protected species.

Galapagos sharks
Carcharhinus galapagensis
are extremely common in the waters of Middleton Reef.
Galapagos shark

The Galapagos Shark Carcharhinus galapagensis was also very common in these waters. At the beginning of one particular dive, only minutes after entering the water from the stern of the “Capella”, a school of more that 20 of these sleek beauties cruised in and circled us in a similar fashion to Barracuda. They posed no threat, but their curious behaviour did seem strange. No “chumming’ took place, they were just there.

During our diving we saw few tropical fish species that we didn’t see at Lord Howe Island. However, if a thorough marine photographic survey was conducted, Middleton Reef could reveal many secrets.

Being situated a good distance further north from Lord Howe Island, you would expect to see considerable displays of coral, but this wasn’t so. The bottom petered away from the reef crest gradually and we found no big drop-offs close in. The huge ocean swells that normally roll in, pound the reef’s outside perimeter and this together with large numbers of Crown-of-thorns sea stars, hardly allows for coral colonisation to take place. We saw very few corals on the outside.

The protected area inside the lagoon could be very different but unfortunately, a cyclone further north had adverse weather heading our way and we were unable to find out.

Black Cod Epinephelus daemelii.
Black Cod Epinephelus daemelii

During a time of extreme weather conditions, Middleton Reef is certainly the last place I would like to get caught out. Although the lagoon does offer reasonable protection, it would have been unwise to try and sit out the weather, which may have taken a week or more. We decided to high tail it out of there while the going was good and make a run for the protected waters at Lord Howe Island. About half way back, our nice calm area suddenly began to turn into turmoil of giant ocean swells!

Back on Lord Howe Island, to the delight of some ardent islanders, the huge swells continued to roll in over the next seven days. Lord Howe Island had turned into a mecca for surfers and for adventure seekers. With a telephoto lens fixed to my camera, I sat on the beach and watched in awe.

Text: Gary Bell
Photography: Gary Bell

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