BENEATH THE REEF
Break the surface to discover the most magnificent marine life of Lady Elliot Island
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
Make new friends and learn at Lady Elliot, an island encircled by some of the most magnificent underwater life on the planet.