A little over 600 kilometres from the north coast of NSW, rising through the clear waters of the southwest Pacific Ocean, lies the remains of an extinct volcano.
This enormous marine mountain ascends more than four kilometres vertically from the seafloor, terminating in a flat top just 40 metres below the waves.
Near the middle of this plateau, flanked by luxuriant coral growth, is the Lord Howe Group of Islands.
The marine environment of this far-flung part of NSW is utterly unlike any other part Australia, with a variety of tropical and temperate species brought on converging currents, and a large number of plants and animals which occur no where else.
The entirety of the waters of this special place are managed within a Marine Park, established in 1999, extending three nautical miles out to sea from the mean high water mark, and covering an area of approximately 48,000 hectares.
A wide variety of seabirds, which are rare near the mainland, roost and nest on the islands in their thousands, fed by abundant schools of surface fish and squid.
Lord Howe Island has been settled since the mid 1800s and today supports a permanent population of around 350.
The small human population and limited visitor numbers have ensured that marine resources are only lightly exploited, so swimming and snorkelling with myriad colourful fish is the norm.
Large fish, which are scarce and avoid humans in other parts of the world, are easily approached at Lord Howe, making underwater photography easy.
An extensive barrier coral reef, the southernmost on the planet, protects a broad sheltered lagoon and sandy beach on the western side of the island, while fringing coral reefs lie immediately offshore of the beaches on the eastern side. Lord Howe is the only place in Australia where such a diversity of fish, coral, algae and associated creatures can be seen by snorkelling just a few metres from the beach.
A number of tour operators offer round-island sight-seeing trips in calm weather and further offshore, game fishing charter boats fish for kingfish, yellowfin tuna, wahoo and a variety of other oceanic species. Of those fish which are not released, many end up on island restaurant menus, since not many visitors want to take home a 20kg fish with their luggage.
Glass bottomed boats operate in the lagoon, providing a “birds eye” view of some of the most vigorous coral growth with a wide variety of associated fish and other animals.
Other operators offer guided snorkel tours for small groups to a number of areas where rare and unusual species are reliably seen. These activities provide intriguing and educational insights into the ecological systems behind the spectacle.
Two dive operators offer scuba diving to a selection of over 50 dive sites, from “resort dives” in shallow water from the beach, to more adventurous locations such as under the vertical rock spire of Balls Pyramid.
Clear, open-ocean water and a wide range of underwater geography provides an unusually wide choice of SCUBA diving experiences.
Dive instructors who have spent ten years exploring the underwater environment of Lord Howe still frequently discover new species.