Published in Divelog Australasia April 2024

by Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

Rolling over the side of the boat we were astonished to find the visibility close to 40m. Below we could see an interesting terrain of rock and coral, numerous fishes, and something very special – eight Galapagos sharks. As we descended the sharks slowly patrolled around us and throughout the dive they cruised overhead. It was great to see these special sharks that are only seen at a few locations. However, they were not the only special and unique fishes we saw during our visit to Norfolk Island.

Norfolk Island is a remote rocky outcrop in the Pacific Ocean, located on an undersea ridge that runs from New Caledonia to New Zealand. While situated in a subtropical zone, the island has a fascinating mixture of tropic and temperate fishes, including many that are endemic and unique to the area. It was these wonderful fishes that drew us to book a week-long holiday to Norfolk Island in February.

An Australian External Territory, Norfolk Island is accessible on flights from Brisbane and Sydney. As a holiday destination it has a lot going for it; a pleasant climate, interesting land and seascapes, numerous seabirds and a fascinating colonial history, with many of the islanders descendants of the HMS Bounty mutineers. The island’s economy is based on tourism, and we had a wonderful week exploring Norfolk Island above and below the water line.

Before arriving on the island, we tried to book some boat dives with the only dive operation on the island – Norfolk Island Diving. However, Mitch Graham, the owner/operator of the business, works full time and only runs the dive operation part time, mostly on weekends. Also, the diving is very weather dependant, as there are only two jetties where the boat can be launched. So, booking ahead was not really an option.


The weather when we arrived on the island was not ideal for diving, with strong easterly winds wiping out both jetties. We rang Mitch on arrival to book a few dives, and fortunately for us the weather was looking good for the weekend when Mitch mostly runs the boat. With several days before the weekend, we did the next best thing – a snorkel at Emily Bay and Slaughter Bay.

Most of the coastline of Norfolk Island is rocky cliffs, however there are a few sheltered bays, with the best being Emily Bay and Slaughter Bay. These two elongated inter-connected bays are fringed by a rocky reef that keeps them safe for swimming and snorkelling under most sea conditions. The best time to snorkel in the bays is at low tide, when the reef stops any swell from stirring up the sand and the visibility is exceptional.

We did our first snorkel at Emily Bay on the afternoon we arrived, and were instantly impressed with this lovely spot. This sheltered bay has pretty hard coral gardens and many sandy patches with seaweed, and plays host to a wide variety of marine life. While we saw many invertebrate species, including numerous sea hares, it was the unique fishes that most enthralled us.

Within minutes of entering the water we encountered many fish species that are common at Norfolk Island, but are rarely seen at other destinations. These included surge wrasse, green wrasse, Norfolk cardinalfish, notchheaded marblefish, Norfolk chromis, painted morwong and yellowbanded wirrah. There were also many familiar fishes that are seen on the subtropical reefs of southern Queensland and northern New South Wales, including species of mullet, butterflyfish, damsels, surgeonfish, unicornfish, goatfish, lizardfish and wrasse.


Emily Bay is only 4m deep, so an easy snorkelling spot, and towards the end of this first exploration we found a species we had hoped to see – the Lord Howe moray. This moray is mostly seen here and at Lord Howe Island, and is one that has eluded us for many years. We were delighted to find not one, but three, including one that was out in the open on the sand.

Over the next few days, we snorkelled both Emily Bay and Slaughter Bay every chance we got, enjoying 20m visibility at times. We observed and photographed over twenty fish species we had never seen before, including blue drummer, masked moki (morwong), Norfolk Island blennies, knife wrasse, seagrass wrasse, a tropical conger eel and a convict snake eel. On these snorkels we also saw green turtles, a southern eagle ray, grey morays, stout morays, trevally, dart, flutemouthes, rockcods, scorpionfish and numerous banded snake eels.

One of the most impressive fish of these bays is the doubleheader. A member of the wrasse family, the doubleheader is occasionally found off northern New South Wales, but is only common at Norfolk and Lord Howe Island. The male gets a lump on the head and can grow to 90cm long. We saw males, females and juveniles that had a black and white colour pattern, completely different to the blue of the adults.


As much as we enjoyed the snorkels, it was great to finally get out on the dive boat and strap on a tank. Boat dives at Norfolk Island are a little different, as the dive boat is craned into the water from the jetty. Norfolk Island Diving operate an open boat that caters for small groups. Departing Kingston Jetty, it was a quick trip over to our dive sites at nearby Nepean Island.

Here we dived Fish Bowl, a pretty rock and coral reef with numerous caves, ledges and overhangs to explore. This is the site where we were greeted by 40m visibility and eight Galapagos sharks. Exploring this site with a maximum depth of 18m, we saw schools of damsels, fusiliers, trevally, kingfish and numerous reef fishes. Other marine life included a blotched-fantail stingray, a slipper cray, a large nudibranch and several morays. Always on the lookout for new fishes we were impressed to find two striped boarfish under a ledge and a rare goldribbon cod, a type of soapfish, in another cave.

Back at the jetty after the dive we witnessed a very unusual shark feed. When the fishing charter boats return, they clean the fish at the jetty and throw the scraps to the sharks. When we were first told about this, we thought there might be a few small sharks and we could get in the water with them. But we were very wrong, as there must have been over twenty dusky whalers and Galapagos sharks, and they varied in size from 2m to 3m. It was quite a savage display and we decided to stay dry on the jetty.


The next day we returned for another single dive at Nepean Island, this time doing a drift dive on the northern side of the island ending up at a site called The Crack. Here we saw a complete carpet of hard corals and lots of small reef fish. Unfortunately, no sharks on this side of the island, but in the shallows were numerous caves to explore.

In these caves we saw yellowbanded wirrah, marblefish, bullseyes, morays, clown tobies and three more goldribbon cod. There were also black cod, scorpionfish, sea stars, nudibranchs and several green turtles. At the end of the dive we got to explore The Crack, which is a large bay with gutters and caves. Here we saw a large doubleheader and numerous other wrasses, but the highlight was three splendid hawkfish, a rarely seen species that grows to 20cm long.

While we only did two dives and over a dozen snorkels, we still had a wonderful week at Norfolk Island. We also bushwalked the national park, went bird watching, explored the ruins of the old prison and generally had a very relaxing time. However, the highlight for us was all the wonderful fishes of this unique island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.