Dampier Archipelago and the Montebellos

Dampier Archipelago ,

dampier archipelago map

The Burrup Peninsula and the Dampier Archipelago form one of the main physical features of the Pilbara coast. They are popular recreational and tourist areas, whose attractions include white sandy beaches and coral reefs. The Dampier Archipelago is made up of 42 pristine islands off the coast of Dampier, 25 of the islands are protected as part of the Dampier Archipelago Marine Park. Camping is available on some of the islands of the Dampier Archipelago. Dugong and bottlenose dolphins are often sighted in the waters of the Dampier Archipelago, while humpback whales are regularly seen between July and September, as they make their way north to breed. Green, loggerhead, flatback and hawksbill turtles use the beaches during the nesting season, from September to April. And for the keen bird watcher, there are 26 species of seabirds to be spotted throughout the archipelago. A range of tidal and subtidal habitats occur within exposed and semi-protected areas along virtually every shoreline. The seaward reefs of Kendrew, Rosemary, Legendre and Delambre Islands are exposed to considerable wave action whereas inlets on the Burrup Peninsula, such as Withnell Bay, are sheltered. One of the most common habitats in the Pilbara is the rocky shores. These shores are sometimes steep, with cliffs, or flat pavements, like Enderby and the Lewis Islands. The archipelago has a diversity of corals, occurring mostly at depths between 0–10 m. Pocillopora is confined to the outer reefs, for example, Kendrew Island that are exposed to considerable wave action. Others (e.g. Caulastrea tumida Matthai, 1928) occur only in turbid inshorewaters, such as King Bay. Coral reef development is greatest on the seaward slopes of the outer archipelago, for example, at Kendrew Island. Typical fringing reefs are found on the northwest side of Enderby Island, the seaward side of Kendrew Island, at Sailfish Reef, Hamersley Shoal and on the west and east slopes of Delambre Island. These rich reefs often have a calm lagoon.

The climate of the Dampier Archipelago is described as tropical semi-desert. The southeast trades predominate between April and August and then change to monsoon winds from the west and southwest from September to March.  In general, easterly winds in winter have increase in speed (often >20 knots) during the morning to early afternoon before abating and changing to northwesterly sea breezes in the late afternoon or evening. The summer is just plain windy with the prevailing westerly winds blowing day and night. Periods of variable winds and calm seas occur during April and August with the changeover of these wind patterns.

The nearby towns are Dampier, Karratha and the nearby townships of Wickham and Roebourne. Most households own a small boat capable of reaching the outer islands and charter boats additionally cater for tourist needs.

Enderby Is,

5-17 m

Good diving can be had here in the good weather. Fringing reefs surround Enderby Island dominated by hard and soft corals. The sheltered areas at Enderby are predominantly gorgonian sea fans, sponges and soft corals.  On the north side there is coral rubble in the shallows with some coral regrowth on sand. There is excellent marine life with plenty of corals and reef fish, butterflyfish, angelfish, sweetlips and stingrays. The deeper areas offer sponge and soft corals. These inshore islands can be affected by poor visibility at times.


Kendrew Is,


Gutters and pinnacles can be found around Kendrew Island in depths from 10-20 m. Many reef fish gather around them. Coral trout, angelfish, parrotfish, stingrays and shovelnose rays are commonly seen. The occasional leopard shark can be found along the bottom. He seaward side of the island is very exposed and rocky with the deeper sections of the reef offering great coral gardens.


West Lewis Is,


The inner islands of the Dampier Archipelago have shallow fringing coral gardens around them. Commonly seen on these reefs are anemonefish, damsels, wrasse, rock cod, butterflyfish, lionfish, scorpionfish and surgeonfish. The inside tends to be shallower and sandy with patchy corals. There are some large hard coral gardens on the more exposed northern shore.


Bare Rock,


In the deeper limestone reef areas there are massive coral outcrops. Reef fish inhabit the deeper gutters and ledges along the drop-off at Bare Rock including trevally, gropers, batfish, turtles and stingrays.




The north side is noted for gardens of branching acropora coral. The is nice fringing reef on the west and east slopes of Delambre Island too, covered in fish.


Legendre Island


This 14km x 1 km island lies at the northern entrance to Nicol Bay about 25nm from the Dampier Public boat ramp. The clearer water is found at the West end of Legendre. In good weather the remainder of the northern side of Legendre Island has reef dropping into 30 m with excellent soft and hard corals, sponges and gorgonians. This whole area is great diving and Lighthouse Bay is mostly protected from the sea breeze. Barracuda, trevally, mackerel and batfish school along the reef wall. There are large cod, coral trout, shovel nose rays, lionfish, wobbegong, moray eels, sea stars, feather stars and turtles. It is shallower on the inside with branching Acropora hard coral gardens.


Rosemary Is,


A variety of reefs are found around Rosemary Island. The fringing reef is covered in soft corals and teems with reef fish. Sandy bays offer a sheltered anchorage for and a shallower dive on colourful corals and other invertebrates.


Mermaid Passage

The sandy bottom of Mermaid Passage offers a drift ‘muck’ dive with plenty of unique and colourful species found along the sediments. Mostly a dive for the photographer and naturalist it has whips, anemones, gorgonians, sponges, soft corals, sea pens, nudibranchs, sea stars, brittle stars and seahorses.




The Monte Bello Islands are an archipelago of 174 small limestone islands lying 130 kilometres off the Pilbara coast of north-western Australia, a four hour boat trip from Dampier. The climate is hot and arid with an annual average rainfall of about 320 mm. The amazing thing about the Montebello Islands is that they are a hotspot of biodiversity, despite about the worst possible history of human contact. The islands are notorious as a nuclear test site. Three British nuclear weapons tests were carried out here in 1952 and 1956. Radiation is no longer considered dangerous to divers. Remains of the associated military activities including scrap metal, disused roads and the foundations of former British military operational headquarters. Divers should limit onshore visits to ground zero sites (the three test sites Alpha and Trimouille Islands and off the coast of Main beach) to one hour per day, other areas have virtually no radiation.

The Montebello Islands Marine Park was created in December 2004 after the area was declared safe. Approximately half of the marine park has been set aside in sanctuary (no take) zones. A 1993 WA Museum survey recorded 456 fish species.  Five of the six species of marine turtles found in WA inhabit the marine park and adjacent areas. WA’s hawksbill turtle population is the only large population of the species remaining in the Indian Ocean. Several species of whales pass through the park, with Humpbacks arriving during their annual migration north to the warm tropical waters off the Pilbara and Kimberley coasts in June and July.  Dugongs are frequently seen in the shallow, warm waters near the Montebello Islands, though not in the large concentrations seen in Exmouth Gulf or Shark Bay.

It draws in divers due to the fact that its closed status has left it a largely pristine ‘nuclear wilderness’ (despite the former bomb damage) with excellent corals, marine life and underwater visibility. The schools of pelagic fish are outstanding. The site often has excellent visibility, but can be affected by occasional outflows of dirty coastal water. The charter operators can usually pick the best times to visit. There are no visitor facilities on the islands, but fishing and diving charters from Dampier, Onslow, Karratha and Exmouth are becoming increasingly popular during the winter. Some of the best diving is found on the northern end of North West Island, where the reef drops into 30 m, covered with gorgonians and soft corals. Cruising the drop-off are schools of pelagic fish, huge Queensland gropers and reef sharks. A tidal range of 6 m is experienced in this area, and consequently strong currents.


Wreck of the “Trial”, Trial Rocks


This vessel was an English East India Company vessel that ran ashore here in 1622, and thus is Australia’s oldest known wrecksite. This protected wrecksite now consists of cannons, anchors and ballast stones in a very inaccessible spot except in very calm weather.