I THOUGHT I HAD EITHER DIVED or heard about every diving destination in Australia, so I was quite surprised to receive an invitation from the Pilbara Tourism Association to dive the Mackerel Islands.
I didn’t even know where the Mackerel Islands were, let alone that there was diving there. The website told me that they lie just north of the famous Ningaloo Reef off Western Australia.
It also informed me that there was a resort on Thevenard Island, 14 miles off the town of Onslow, and that the islands were a popular fishing site. Diving information was limited – just the mention of “world-class diving”.
That’s quite a big boast, I thought, but if the diving was half as good as Ningaloo Reef’s, it could be true. It also mentioned that the dive operation was opening soon. I was intrigued, so replied that I would love to dive the Mackerel Islands. My wife Helen and I were booked in for a week in May.
Getting out there was no easy task, even for someone living on Australia’s east coast. It took a five-hour flight to Perth, a two-hour flight to Karratha, a three-hour drive to Onslow where we stayed overnight, and then a one-hour boat transfer to Thevenard Island.
We could have flown to London in the time it took to reach this location in our own country!
We were surprised to discover that Thevenard not only has a resort but also a Chevron Texaco oil storage and refinery facility. I had read something about this on the website, and knew that this part of the country does contain Australia’s richest oil fields, but I hadn’t expected the facility to be right next to the resort!
Club Thevenard is an ex-mining camp, and is still shared with the oil-field workers. It has 11 beach bungalows and 30 motel rooms in the village complex, which also includes a pool, bar, games room, dining room, general store and, now, a dive shop.
Although basic, the resort is quite comfortable, but the island is no tropical paradise – covered in low scrub, it’s more like a desert surrounded by water.
Dive Manager Greg Lowry turned up to take us for a late-afternoon dive to the eastern end of the island. He had arrived only the previous week to set up the dive operation, but said he had done numerous trips to the Mackerel Islands over the years, and assured us that this area was an undiscovered gem.
The first dive did nothing to convince us of that. The East Coral Gardens greeted us with 2m visibility. The coral, only 4m deep, looked very healthy, and reef fish and invertebrates were plentiful, but they were hard to appreciate in the poor water clarity.
Greg later said that visibility was poor because of recent coral-spawning and onshore winds, but he was confident that it would return to 12-15m as the winds dropped.
Next day we headed off to explore nearby Trap Reef. The water was still green, but the vis had improved to 8m. The reef top at only 4m was covered in lush hard corals.
We dropped over the edge to the sand at 8m and explored the rocky wall. The indifferent visibility couldn’t hide just how rich in life the Mackerel Island were. The wall was completely covered in spiky soft corals, gorgonians, ascidians, sponges, tubastra corals and hydroids – an amazing kaleidoscope of colour in such shallow water.
And between the corals were hundreds of nudibranchs. Nudis would feature on every dive, and it wasn’t only the numbers but the diversity that impressed – we recorded more than 20 species.
There were also flatworms, shrimps, crabs, seastars, featherstars, crayfish and octopus, but the real highlight was the volume of reef fish darting about the reef. I have never seen so many angelfish in one spot. There were sweetlips, snapper, rabbitfish, surgeonfish, fusiliers, wrasse, butterflyfish, rock cod, hawkfish, lionfish, gobies, blennies, coral trout, coral cod – the list could go on and on.

MOST IMPRESSIVE OF ALL was a school of threadfin pearl perch, a species generally found only in this part of Australia. These were the first I had ever seen.
This reef was richer than any of the sites I had dived on Ningaloo Reef.
Our next couple of dives on the local reefs were just as good. Each was covered in wonderful corals and thriving with invertebrate species and reef fish. At Sultan’s Reef we also encountered a crocodilefish, several moray eels and an olive sea snake, which are quite common to the area.
After a few days the water started to clear, remaining green but with fewer suspended particles. This allowed us to explore more of the sites around Thevenard Island.
The 7.5-mile-long Thevenard is a nature reserve where seabirds and turtles nest, and the entire island is fringed by coral reef.
At a site called Great Australia Bight, we had fun diving around an endless collection of bommies in 8m of water. Many of these were coloured by soft corals and gorgonians and housed a good range of invertebrate species.
But the highlight continued to be the incredible fish life, which amazed us, because the islands have been fished for a long time. We encountered Chinamen snapper, angelfish, trevally, lionfish, tuskfish, gropers, rock cod, stingrays and reef sharks.
At Rob’s Bommie we investigated several bommies packed with colourful corals and fish in 6m. The standout feature of this site was a 2m tawny nurse shark and two northern wobbegongs, the smallest, rarest and cutest member of this shark family.
With much of the Mackerel Islands unexplored we had a chance to accompany Greg as he looked for new dive sites. Exploratory diving is a gamble, and for every good site you generally have to do plenty of duds, but this was not the case at Bessers Island.
Our first site was off its north-west end, where the sounder showed some interesting terrain. Fortunately the visibility had improved to 15m. We hit the bottom at 19m to find a flat plain with numerous bommies rising several metres off the bottom.
The first we explored was covered in cardinalfish and soft corals and home to a group of angelfish. We investigated several more before moving onto an area of coral ridges.
These were swarming with fish – snapper, sweetlips, coral trout, red emperor, fusiliers and whitetip reef sharks. One of the locals, a very large potato cod, was surprised to see us. It followed us around the reef, peering over my shoulder every time I took a photo. We called the site Tukula Corner, after this friendly potato cod.
A ridge of rock off the northern end of Bessers provided another wonderful dive, with more lovely soft corals and sponges, plus moray eels, gropers, reef sharks, sting rays, mackerel, batfish, coral trout and even a mantis shrimp.
But the reptiles stole the show, with performances from an olive sea snake, a green turtle, a hawksbill turtle and, finally, a very curious loggerhead that circled us several times.

THE THIRD DIVE WAS JUST AS GOOD, on a group of bommies on the north-east end of the island in 15m. These included some of the biggest mounds of porites coral I have ever seen – they looked like giant dollops of ice cream, so we called the site the Scoops. Here again we dived among snapper, sweetlips, parrotfish, gropers, mackerel and reef sharks. We even saw two mobula rays glide over one of the bommies.
With the clear water hanging in, it was time to head to Black Flag, reckoned to be the area’s premier dive site. Greg hadn’t quite prepared us for how good it was. As soon as we descended we were surrounded by a massive school of stripy snapper and, circling them, schools of batfish, silver drummer and fusiliers.
Settling on the bottom we had a quick look around us and could see coral trout, angelfish, pufferfish, rock cod, red emperors, pearl perch, surgeonfish, mangrove jacks, sweetlips, coral cod and plenty of other species.
The rocky reef at this site is 9m on top and 17m on the sand, and riddled with caves, ledges, canyons and swim-throughs.
We found the first swim-through to be packed with bullseyes, cardinalfish, sweetlips and mangrove jacks, and home to two large estuary gropers.
If the reef structure itself wasn’t interesting enough, it was also covered in soft corals, gorgonians, sponges and black coral trees – the most colourful reef we had seen so far. With so much to see we didn’t even bother photographing the invertebrate species, but they were also well represented.
For more than an hour we explored this amazing reef, following the reef edge and encountering turtles, sting rays, a tawny nurse shark, a tasselled wobbegong, a dozen whitetip reef sharks, several grey reef sharks and plenty of pelagic fish such as trevally, mackerel and jobfish.
I surfaced with a huge smile – this was not only world-class diving but among the best dive sites I had ever seen. Greg assured us that there were usually also sea snakes, leopard sharks and giant Queensland gropers at the site.
A dive at Greg’s Grotto, another reef packed with colourful corals and fish, revealed why these reefs are so rich – it’s the very strong currents. The tidal flow in this region is immense, and until now we had been enjoying the neaps.
On our final day we carried out another exploratory dive in only 8m.
We hit Brewis Reef on high tide to avoid the currents. The distinctive feature of this site was a collection of bommies arranged like some ancient druid temple – we called it Stonehenge.
The bommies were covered in colourful corals, the most interesting being blue gorgonians. As we swam in and out of them we encountered two tasselled wobbegongs, a grey reef shark, a bull shark and several turtles.
We were also joined by mackerel, cobia, jobfish and a thick school of trevally. It seemed that you could jump in anywhere around the Mackerel Islands and enjoy
a fantastic dive!

OUR LAST DIVE HAD US LOOKING for a sheltered site with little current. Greg knew of a ledge that had never been dived, and suspected that, being deeper, it might be more sheltered. He was right.
We didn’t know what to expect as we descended onto a rocky ridge that dropped from 16m to 18m, but what we found was astonishing!
What looked like millions of cardinalfish were swarming over the ridge and the caves that cut under it. Swimming between them were estuary gropers, coral trout, coral cod, sweetlips, pearl perch, lionfish, snapper and red emperors.
Most impressive of all were the rankin cod. These large fish are rarely seen by divers as they are heavily targeted by fishermen, and here were 40 of them staring at us as if we had gatecrashed their party!
On the ridge we found whitetips, barramundi cod, crocodilefish, curious olive sea snakes, a thorny sting ray and a sleepy loggerhead, and the whole time we were being followed by the rankin cod.
This was great fun, but they were frustrating to photograph. As I found on many dives in the area, while the fish had never seen a diver before, they were not quite curious enough to let me get close enough for a decent picture.
A parade of pelagic fish zoomed by – mackerel, trevally, grey reef sharks, barracuda and even a school of rare queenfish. We called this incredible dive site Rankin Road, but it could as easily have been called the Fish Shop.
Our week of diving the Mackerel Islands had started out as pretty average and ended up revealing some of the best diving we have seen in Australia. The claim to “world-class diving” was fully justified.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Perth, the capital of Western Australia, is serviced by most international airlines and within Australia by Qantas, www.qantas.com. au and Virgin Blue, www.virginblue.com. au. Qantas also flies to Karratha, 190 miles north of Onslow. It is hoped that direct flights into Onslow will become available..
DIVING & ACCOMODATION: MI Dive, www.mackerelislandsdive.com.au, Club Thevenard (closed November-March), www.mackerelislands.com.au
WHEN TO GO Any time, though the cyclone season in the Australian summer can affect the diving. Air temperatures can hit 40°C or more at that time. Water temperature varies from summer highs of 31°C to winter lows of 23°C. Visibility varies from 2-30m, with the average about 12-15m.
MONEY: Australian dollar.
PRICES: A standard room (two sharing) for a week at Club Thevenard in October costs Aus $1630 (£1060). A triple boat dive including all gear with M1 dive costs Aus $300.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.australia.com