BE­NEATH THE REEF

Break the sur­face to dis­cover the most mag­nif­i­cent ma­rine life of Lady Elliot Is­land

Sunday Herald Sun - Escape - - DESTINATION QUEENSLAND - KOREN HELBIG

In the vast Co­ral Sea off Queens­land’s coast­line lies an is­land so tiny it’s dis­sected en­tirely in two by a lit­tle airstrip that feels al­most too short for safe land­ing. “Wel­come to par­adise,” the cap­tain de­clares breezily as our 18-seater plane touches down bumpily, but dra­mafree, on lit­tle Lady Elliot Is­land.

He’s hardly over­stat­ing the mat­ter. Sit­u­ated at the south­ern­most end of Queens­land’s colossal Great Bar­rier Reef, north­east of Bund­aberg, 42ha Lady Elliot Is­land is en­cir­cled by some of the most mag­nif­i­cent un­der­wa­ter life on the planet.

Cooler wa­ter tem­per­a­tures and geo­graph­i­cal dis­tance from main­land nu­tri­ent run-off has helped pro­tect co­ral from large-scale bleach­ing – but, of course, you have to get un­der the sur­face to see it all.

Our party of first-time scuba divers spans the full gamut of pos­si­ble at­ti­tudes. Two are cau­tiously con­fi­dent, one may be sus­cep­ti­ble to sea­sick­ness and an­other, me, is notso-qui­etly ex­pe­ri­enc­ing heart pal­pi­ta­tions at the mere thought of breath­ing un­der­wa­ter.

Luck­ily Lady Elliot Is­land Eco Re­sort’s dive in­struc­tors have seen it all be­fore. “The num­ber one rule is: al­ways keep breath­ing. That’s the se­cret to en­joy­ing it,” sur­fie-chic Pe­dro re­minds us as we jump into the re­sort pool for prac­tice be­fore launch­ing our­selves into the sea.

De­spite all the re­as­sur­ances, I spend the en­tire 20 min­utes un­der­wa­ter cling­ing fee­bly to our in­struc­tor, while our sea­sick com­pan­ion even­tu­ally up­chucks into her ven­ti­la­tor. So it’s a tes­ta­ment to the as­ton­ish­ing beauty of the Reef that we emerge from that rel­a­tive dis­as­ter rav­ing about what lies be­neath: the gi­ant tur­tle glid­ing serenely by while an­other, hov­er­ing on the sea floor, seems happy to let us stroke its gi­ant shell; hyper-coloured fish dart­ing here and there above ro­bust sheets of healthy co­ral; and gi­ant clams that creak their shells closed as our shad­ows pass over.

It’s an un­der­wa­ter world that begs to be ex­plored again and again.

No sign, though, of the gi­ant manta rays for which Lady Elliot is famed, which is rea­son enough to jump back in the wa­ter just a few hours later – this time with snorkels.

That’s the perk of this eco re­sort. Scaredy-cats or those prone to chun­der­ing on boats can in­stead walk straight from their ac­com­mo­da­tion – comfy but no-frills don­gas brought over in the ’80s – onto the east­ern beach front and swim di­rectly onto the Reef. Even small chil­dren are at ease in the large blue lake that fills dur­ing high tide, al­low­ing re­sort vis­i­tors face-to-face in­ter­ac­tion with tur­tles and other ma­rine life.

There’s yet more great Reef to ogle over on Lady Elliot’s west side. We wade out from the his­toric light­house and, with a gen­tle cur­rent push­ing us north, snorkel calmly along the western reef while eas­ily tick­ing off much of the Reef ’s Great Eight list – the un­der­wa­ter an­swer to African sa­fari’s Big Five. We spot clown­fish, more gi­ant clams and tur­tles, quite pos­si­bly a potato cod and two black­tip reef sharks. We even hear whales call­ing in the dis­tance.

“The ma­rine life is com­pletely re­laxed with peo­ple, to­tally fear­less,” is­land care­taker and re­sort owner Peter Gash tells us later. Once a pro­fes­sional mo­tocross racer, now a pilot and owner of Seair Pa­cific char­ter planes, Gash has be­come Lady Elliot’s un­likely saviour.

Just a few decades ago the is­land re­sem­bled a waste­land. Guano min­ers who ar­rived in the 1860s spent a sin­gle decade strip­ping away thou­sands of years of ac­cu­mu­lated seabird crap, ex­port­ing it for use as a po­tent fer­tiliser and gun­pow­der in­gre­di­ent. Hav­ing scraped away al­most a me­tre of rich top­soil, ripped out all but eight trees and de­mol­ished an im­por­tant seabird nest­ing site, min­ers aban­doned the is­land.

For al­most a cen­tury, des­o­la­tion reigned. Then, in 1969, avi­a­tor Don Adams ar­rived. Af­ter con­vinc­ing the Commonwealth to is­sue a tourism li­cence, he set up the be­gin­nings of Lady Elliot Is­land Eco Re­sort and be­gan a mass reveg­e­ta­tion project.

Gash and his wife jumped on board about two decades ago, be­fore of­fi­cially tak­ing over in 2005. They’ve since poured $5 mil­lion into the place, much of it on en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly ini­tia­tives. So­lar pan­els have helped re­place diesel gen­er­a­tors, a hulk­ing $100,000 com­post­ing ma­chine deals with re­sort left­overs, and 4000 trees have been planted, many grown from cut­tings taken from the eight lonely piso­nia trees that sur­vived the is­land’s min­ing era.

Gash even helped push to have the is­land and sur­round­ing wa­ters de­clared a pro­tected “no-take” green zone. “We’re try­ing to en­cour­age na­ture, in a hurry,” he ex­plains.

The re­turn of the for­est has en­cour­aged seabirds to re­turn en masse, too, and earplugs are pro­vided be­side beds for good rea­son. As we chat on the beach with Gash, hun­dreds of white-capped nod­dies wheel and turn in the sky over­head.

“By mid sea­son, we’ll have sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand of these guys here,” Gash en­thuses. “We try hard to tell peo­ple this is a bird nest­ing area, it smells a bit and you get bird poop on you – and that’s lucky.”

That could be why Lady Elliot Is­land Eco Re­sort has mod­est ac­com­mo­da­tion rather than aim­ing for an elite, five-star crowd. Gash says they’ve stayed low-key by choice.

“I wasn’t born wealthy; I see my­self as an or­di­nary Aussie bloke. We try to keep this place af­ford­able for or­di­nary peo­ple be­cause if we don’t bring them in, we don’t in­spire the or­di­nary men and women who are go­ing to make a dif­fer­ence, make those changes to the planet in the fu­ture.”

He be­lieves the fight for the Reef ’s sur­vival will re­quire many so­lu­tions from peo­ple from all walks of life.

“Ev­ery lit­tle ac­tion each of us takes is help­ing to over­come an ac­tion by our grand­par­ents. We can do things here on Lady Elliot, use it as an ed­u­ca­tion re­source. It’s not about mak­ing a for­tune, it’s about mak­ing a dif­fer­ence.”

THE WRITER TRAV­ELLED AS A GUEST OF TOURISM AND EVENTS QUEENS­LAND

PIC­TURES: JEREMY SOMMERVILLE/LADY ELLIOT IS­LAND, TEQ, TOURISM AUS­TRALIA

Make new friends and learn at Lady Elliot, an is­land en­cir­cled by some of the most mag­nif­i­cent un­der­wa­ter life on the planet.

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