Ex­pe­ri­ence

In the teem­ing wa­ters off a re­mote Great Bar­rier Reef cay, Sarah Maguire (al­most) snags the Great Eight – and notches up a few seabirds, too.

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The Great Bar­rier Reef is­land you’ve never heard of

THE CALL goes out from cap­tain Phil Mitchell. “Manta ray! About 20 me­tres away, to the left of the boat, com­ing right to­wards us.”

A dozen snorkellers – hol­i­day-mak­ers hail­ing from four con­ti­nents – slide off the edge of the glass-bot­tom boat into the Coral Sea. Heads down, flip­pers flap­ping, the pur­suit be­gins. It might be Ro­mu­lus or Chaos or Mithras we’re swim­ming af­ter. A lot of the rays around here have names, part of a long-run­ning re­search project in the “home of the manta ray”, as Queens­land’s Lady El­liot Is­land is known.

Ex­cept that Lady El­liot Is­land (LEI) seems barely known at all. Hamil­ton, Hay­man and Heron might roll off the tongue as re­sort is­lands of the Great Bar­rier Reef but LEI is its own lit­tle blind spot among Aus­tralians – a fact that emerges time and again dur­ing my two-night stay here.

“Some­one in Her­vey Bay asked me where I worked,” says An­dreas Supper, man­ager of the Lady El­liot Is­land Eco Re­sort. “When I told him, he said he’d never heard of Lady El­liot Is­land – and he was born and bred in Her­vey Bay.”

To put that into per­spec­tive, Her­vey Bay is just 130 kilo­me­tres from the is­land. There’s a Lady El­liot check-in desk at Her­vey Bay Air­port, for good­ness sake, Her­vey Bay be­ing one of four de­par­ture points for the is­land (along with Bund­aberg, Bris­bane and the Gold Coast). It con­founds Supper, just as it does the Swedish tourist who trav­elled up and down the east coast be­fore ar­riv­ing on LEI and couldn’t find one Aus­tralian who’d heard of it. “And the snorkelling here is bet­ter than off Cairns,” he tells me.

It’s also con­found­ing be­cause LEI – a 42-hectare speck in the Coral Sea, 80 kilo­me­tres north-east of Bund­aberg, slashed by an airstrip and home to an un­pre­ten­tious 41-room re­sort – is an ex­tra­or­di­nary place, both for its nat­u­ral as­sets and hu­man sto­ries.

But word is get­ting out. David At­ten­bor­ough fea­tured Lady El­liot’s manta rays in his Great Bar­rier Reef doc­u­men­tary, spark­ing an avalanche of en­quiries from as­pir­ing vis­i­tors af­ter it screened in the United King­dom a year ago. Vis­i­tor num­bers had al­ready been on the rise and oc­cu­pancy rates, says Supper, are now close to 100 per cent most of the time, with 130 overnight vis­i­tors be­ing the ab­so­lute limit. And, as the south­ern­most cay of the reef, LEI lies in cooler wa­ters than those up north so the coral is so far un­af­fected by bleach­ing – a bit­ter­sweet sell­ing point.

Now that you’ve heard of LEI, you may want to visit, too. Here are some more things that will be use­ful to know.

So much to do (and a few things you can’t)

There are rules on Lady El­liot Is­land, most of them stem­ming from the en­vi­ron­men­tal val­ues in which the re­sort is steeped. Also, no-one wants guests to be lost at sea, car­ried off by a cur­rent while pre­oc­cu­pied with watch­ing the cast of Find­ing Nemo flit­ting around be­low them.

So, don’t snorkel with­out a buddy off the is­land’s west­ern side, where a pic­ture-book-pretty 144-year-old light­house is at one end of the snorkel trail and the spec­tac­u­lar rain­bow-hued Coral Gar­dens are at the other. Don’t walk across the airstrip when the red lights are flash­ing – you don’t want to get a hair­cut from a landing Twin Ot­ter. Don’t dis­turb the nest­ing birds or touch the sea crea­tures, nor stand on or kick the coral. Don’t put food on your plate that you’re not go­ing to eat. It’s taken a lot of ef­fort to trans­port that food to the is­land and then onto the thrice-daily buf­fet so please don’t waste it, Supper tells the lat­est light-plane-load of guests to ar­rive.

He’s not done yet; there are more in­struc­tions to de­liver in his good-hu­moured way. Don’t leave food unat­tended, be­cause the birds will be there in a flash – they might even snatch the next mouth­ful off your fork. And don’t leave your dishes be­hind on the ta­ble when you’ve fin­ished eat­ing; put them in this spot just out­side the kitchen – plates and cut­lery in these racks, glasses just over there.

It’s school camp (al­beit with a bar that serves al­co­hol from 10am and juicy, sticky pork belly for din­ner) meets eco re­sort (it’s 80 per cent so­lar­pow­ered) meets Hitch­cock­ian movie set. It’s late Oc­to­ber, you see, and seabird sea­son has be­gun.

Birds, birds ev­ery­where

The is­land is teem­ing with tens of thou­sands of dizzy­ingly in­dus­tri­ous seabirds whizzing around the place, building their nests. At the height of the breed­ing sea­son around Christ­mas, there can be half a mil­lion on the is­land; that’s when things re­ally start to get whiffy (and your chances of be­ing pooped on go through the roof). Right now, in the tree out­side my cabin, I count 23 black nod­dies nest­ing in its branches. A cou­ple of tufty-headed bri­dled terns hang around the front steps, seem­ingly all mud­dled up about where they want to build.

Under bushes fur­ther along the beach­front, some rare red-tailed trop­icbirds have al­ready hatched their chicks – adorable, fuzzy balls of white fluff. The mut­ton-birds are yet to ar­rive in force; their night-time “love song”, which can sound like a baby cry­ing, is the main rea­son the bed­side draw­ers in cab­ins con­tain earplugs.

But with the Great Bar­rier Reef’s un­der­wa­ter won­der­land at your flip­per­tips, and the be­guil­ing Fe­bru­ary-to-May spec­ta­cle of thou­sands of tur­tle hatch­lings scram­bling from their nests to the wa­ter each night­fall, birds are not the main game for most vis­i­tors to LEI. Die-hard twitch­ers are the ex­cep­tion and not the rule: “There are bird-lovers who don’t get in the wa­ter,” ex­plains Supper, a de­ci­sion that’s dif­fi­cult to fathom. “You see them walk­ing around in cam­ou­flage gear.”

Switch off, re­lax, go for a walk

Af­ter a morn­ing of snorkelling, the ab­sence of mo­bile phone cov­er­age means there’s no com­pul­sion to check emails. Rather, a cof­fee at the La­goon Bar over­look­ing the beach, sun shin­ing and warm breeze blow­ing, is an­other kind of bliss on LEI. At midday, two chatty cou­ples are drink­ing beers on the deck while, just be­yond, kids are building a coral-rub­ble ver­sion of a sand­cas­tle.

This is an all-ages, all-com­ers sort of place, draw­ing fam­i­lies, cou­ples and solo trav­ellers mostly from Aus­tralia, Europe and the United States. And the late-mid­dle-aged cou­ple from Cal­i­for­nia is just as likely to have div­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tion as the young Swiss trav­eller who’s on her third visit to Aus­tralia, hav­ing be­come be­sot­ted with it.

Af­ter a chicken teriyaki burger from the lunch menu, I retreat to my reef cabin for more down­time, pass­ing other guests in chill mode on ve­ran­dahs be­decked with flip­pers and wet­suits. Apart from a schmick bedroom set­ting, my cabin is a sim­ple sec­ond-hand af­fair, the ac­com­mo­da­tion build­ings hav­ing come by barge from the Queens­land min­ing town of Black­wa­ter in the mid-1980s.

Af­ter­noons on the is­land can be spent in the wa­ter or, if you pre­fer, on the var­i­ous walk­ing tours on of­fer – be they about the is­land’s his­tory, its reveg­e­ta­tion (it’s come a long way since be­ing stripped bare by 19th-cen­tury guano min­ers) or its om­nipresent birdlife.

As the sun be­gins its de­scent, guests head for the is­land’s west­ern side, where bar staff set up a drinks sta­tion for the sun­set show. The beer’s cold, the light’s golden and the sea is like blue silk as the hori­zon turns or­angey-pink. Could there be a more per­fect way to end a day? Just make sure you’re not sit­ting under a tree.

A tur­tle hatch­ling runs the gaunt­let to the wa­ter (above); the is­land is home to a large noddy rook­ery (be­low right)

Max re­lax: pull up a sun lounge on the beach out­side your cabin and soak up the Coral Sea views

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