Lord Howe



David Whitley finds himself gawping at near-extinct creatures on a tiny speck of land in the middle of the Tasman Sea


Ambling along the wooden walkway from the room to the restaurant, a little brown thing scurries through the foliage. It’s a bird; more specifically, the Lord Howe Woodhen. It’s not the most spectacular creature we’ll ever see, but the fact that only around 250 of them exist in the world makes the spotting truly remarkable. It’s this sort of thing that people come to Lord Howe Island for. It’s a romantic getaway destination, with a population of around 350 people, a maximum of 400 visitors at any one time and no mobile phone coverage.


The air of solitude is inescapable – Lord Howe lies on its own in the Pacific Ocean, around 375 miles off the coast of New South Wales – but it’s not just that the couples come for. It’s a staggeringly beautiful island, almost encircled by a lagoon and boasting the world’s most southerly coral reef. The world’s most popular indoor palm trees – the Kentia palms – come from here, and the trek up through the forest to the top of Mount Gower is often regarded as Australia’s most exhilarating day walk. But it is the wildlife that is truly extraordinary. The island is only 11km long, and a maximum of 2km wide, yet 450 different species of fish have been recorded around the island. 40% of these are native only to the Tasman Sea.


The numbers stack up elsewhere too. There are more seabird species, breeding in higher numbers, than anywhere else in Australia. There are also over 1,600 species of insect, around 60% of which can be found nowhere else, and 241 species of plant life. Of the latter, 47% are native only to Lord Howe Island. This remarkable array of unique fauna and flora means that Lord Howe is essentially in the same bracket as Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. Indeed, both gained World Heritage listing at the same time in 1982 in recognition of their unmatched biodiversity and beauty.


Part of this range is due to its isolation. Lord Howe has never been part of a continent, and the species that have made it here have come from an awful long way away. The other reason is that it sits at an oceanic crossroads. Warm and cool oceanic currents meet; the East Australian current converges with the chillier ones from further south. This accounts for the coral and all the fish, and makes Lord Howe an extremely underrated diving destination. Nearby Ball’s Pyramid – essentially a big rock in the sea – is particularly good.


Another prime wildlife spot is North Bay. It’s a beach flanked by the ubiquitous Kentia palms and an outcrop of Norfolk Pines. The pines are an introduced species, brought over initially to provide a replacement in case a ship broke its mast or boom. They’re regarded as noxious weeds, but for now they’ll not be cut down – too many birds use them for nesting. On a warm day, North prime sunbathing territory, but the birds don’t come to soak up the sun. This is where they nurture their eggs, and bring up their young. There can be few places in the world where it is possible to get up so close to so many seabirds as they guard their eggs. Certainly towards the top end of the beach, every available branch seems to be taken up with a nest. The sooty terns, for example, take seagrass and guano and fashion it into something suitably comfortable. They only lay one egg, and need to protected well.


Through the trees and in the rookeries along the beach, there are thousands of birds. There are Black Noddy Terns, Bar Tailed Godwits and Red Tailed Tropic birds amongst others. Many of them are happy to just sit there posing for a photo, although there’s always the occasional crank. One of the more protective in the melee decides to hover above us, making menacing cawing sounds. He may as well be saying: “Get lost, paparazzi scum!”


You don’t need to go on a tour to take part in one of the island’s most memorable wildlife encounters, however. Ned’s Beach has been voted as Australia’s cleanest beach in the past and inside the little shack on the shore there is a poster of different varieties of fish that can be found in Lord Howe’s waters. On that poster is the king fish, and it’s a little smaller than the ones in the shallows. For these king fish, Ned’s Beach is a fine dining restaurant. They’re either extremely well fed by the tourists that keep coming down with bread, or they’re cross bred with sharks and leviathans. 


Step into the shallows, not even to waste deep and they swarm around you. The small ones get the rough end of the deal, fighting for the scraps. The big ones use brute force and the medium-sized ones are a little more agile – their reactions usually see them first to the party. They all have one thing in common, though. If you’re brave enough to keep steady, they will come up and take the tasty morsels right out of your hand. There are only ever two or three feeders in at a time, and this is an indication of how peaceful Lord Howe is. Anywhere else, this would be a complete circus, with busloads fighting over each other for the chance to feed the metre-long sea giants. Even so, it has now got to the stage where the fish are getting a little too fat – the islanders are now encouraging visitors to use special fish food pellets rather than bread. The pellets can be bought at the Thompson’s Store.


It’s lucky that the islanders appreciate what they have on their hands. Programmes are in place to help maintain and increase levels of native species, and in the past eradication schemes have been carried out to rid the island of interlopers.Native plants and animals have been damaged horrendously over the years by introduced species, often brought in by shipwrecks. Some creatures are either officially extinct or presumed to be so. But the eradication schemes have ridden the island of feral cats, pigs and goats, and discussions are underway about clearing out another major introduced pest: the rat. It’s not as easy as it sounds, of course, but the heart is in the right place. The limit on visitor numbers is just part of a broad plan to preserve a truly unique piece of that paradise.