The unequivocal beauty of Lord Howe Island isn’t purely confined to the area visible above the turquoise sea. Under the transparent waters is a magnificent marine world, just waiting to be explored. Lord Howe is home to the world’s southernmost coral reef, and boasts some 500 species of fish, 16 of them endemic to the island’s reef, and 90 species of coral. The incredible diversity is attributed in part to the convergence of five currents, with the flux of warmer and cooler waters driving up the variety of native ocean life.
Having not yet explored the undersea world, aside from our beloved Ned’s Beach, we made the last-minute decision to dedicate our final day on the island to checking out some of the premier snorkeling sites. We booked a tour with Peter, a naturalist with Islander Cruises, and our small group of set off to explore some of the reefs of The Lagoon, running along the western side of the island. Although we only dove/snorkeled a few sites at the Great Barrier Reef, we believed that Lord Howe’s fringing reefs easily rivaled their more famous neighbor to the north (and quickly wished we had more time to do some diving off the island).
Just off the northwestern shores of the island, the wreck of The Favorite, a tuna vessel that dropped anchor on the shallow reef in 1965, rests just below the waves. Though the ship’s engine is all that remains of the ill-fated vessel, the small wreckage – now home to a number of fish and coral – is still quite interesting to explore.
Toward the southern portion of The Lagoon, Erscott’s Hole is perhaps one of Lord Howe’s most celebrated snorkel sites… and rightfully so. With an average depth of only six meters and unbelievable visibility, the colorful corals of Erscott’s Hole were exceedingly spectacular, and there was also a tremendous assortment of fish swimming about the reef. Giant clams with iridescent, fluted mantles dotted the reef’s base. The site is also home to a number of doubleheader wrasse, including an exceptionally large inhabitant that the locals have affectionately named ‘Fred [the Head].’
Another shallow reef on the southern side of Blackburn Island, Horseshoe Reef was teeming with a variety of fish, including the striking Lord Howe butterflyfish, shimmering black-spotted goatfish, and painted morong. A friendly spotted sweetlips even emerged from beneath his cozy rock to investigate his human visitors.
With a depth of roughly eight meters, Comet’s Hole was the deepest snorkel site we visited. It was also the coolest, due to a freshwater upwelling. Located in the more central part of The Lagoon, Comet’s Hole consisted of a steep wall of coral that was absolutely littered with giant schools of fish, unquestionably the greatest number of any site we visited. We also encountered a handful of Galápagos sharks swimming sleekly through the clear water. Before we jumped off the boat, Peter informed us we may see a larger reef shark (about six feet long) swimming with his smaller companions, and added that they were non-aggressive. Indeed, after spotting a couple small sharks, the larger of the group passed several meters below us along the reef’s edge. As we made our way down the wall, a school of five other sharks congregated within a shallower portion of the reef, swimming in circles around one of the projections. This was the first time either of us had been in the water with a group of sharks, and while we both felt fairly comfortable around the intriguing creatures, it was a bit intimidating when one would instantly appear significantly closer without any warning.
Toward the northern end of The Lagoon, our final stop for the day was at Stephen’s Hole, an especially shallow reef with depths of only two to three meters. The vibrant coral gardens here were absolutely stunning. Because they were so close to the surface, the bright afternoon sun illuminated every nook and cranny of the reef. Scores of butterflyfish floated about the vivid pink and purple coral, while McCulloch’s anemonefish darted in and out of swaying tubes of anemone. A curious pair of Valentinni’s sharp-nose puffers carefully examined a portion of the colorful garden, as well as the unfamiliar-yet-fascinating GoPro.