What a difference a ray makes
Queensland’s Lady Elliot Island is an ideal place to spot giant mantas
THE last thing most snorkellers want to see is a dark shape looming beneath them. Not me. After strapping on my mask, snorkel and fins, a creature shaped like a great alien spaceship is exactly what I’m hoping for at Lady Elliot Island on Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef.
This coral cay is one of the best places in Australia to see manta rays, which can grow to 7m and weigh two tonnes.
All you need to do is snorkel or dive right off the beach; there’s so much marine life close to shore that it’s like swimming in a giant aquarium.
During our five-day stay, which includes a talk by French photographer and marine biologist Fabrice Jaine, I become hooked on manta rays. Jaine works with Queensland University’s Project Manta, conducting the first census of the east coast colony of about 700 creatures.
‘‘It’s breathtaking,’’ he says. ‘‘They are really aware [of divers] and will come and interact, passing right on top of your head and sometimes even doing flips. It can be quite overwhelming if you are in the water with a big group, but they are harmless.’’
The manta rays have special courtship rituals and feeding habits and Jaine has taken some remarkable underwater pictures.
‘‘In early January, we had 41 manta rays show up. It was a big feeding train. They were swimming round in circles and just going crazy.’’
But winter is the best time for viewing, when up to 100 could appear in one feeding session. ‘‘You can be underwater with manta rays dancing all around you and [also] get humpback whales calling in the background. Their songs are beautiful and very peaceful.’’
While on the lookout for mantas, we have the reef adventure of our lives, snorkelling with turtles, seeing what appears to be the entire cast of Finding Nemo, viewing gardens of live coral, taking island tours and attending scientific talks in Lady Elliot’s Reef Education Centre.
My 10-year-old son, Jack, who’s still smiling after sitting up front with the pilot on our flight over, is even happier snorkelling and being aboard a glassbottomed boat. ‘ ‘ How good is this, Mum?’’
Lady Elliot is a marine wonderland where visibility usually is about 40m, so snorkelling here is like a dive experience, with the water warm and marine stingers rare. The tiny 40ha ecosanctuary hosts 21,000 overnight visitors a year (including 500 divers) and 5000 daytrippers, according to Lady Elliot resort manager Graham Wells.
‘‘We have guests who have been here seven, eight, nine or even more than 10 times,’’ he says.
I watch Project Manta, a documentary filmed partly on Lady Elliot and aired last year in Australia and the US. ‘‘Many guests have mentioned the doco,’’ Jaine says. ‘‘It has helped to raise awareness about the need to protect the creatures.’’ It contains phenomenal footage of mantas in the Maldives, which is the best place to see them. Perhaps that’s one for my bucket list. An international vote is scheduled to be taken next month to protect the rays from commercial fishing, so I sign a petition on Facebook. ‘‘Every time you put your head underwater, there’s always something new,’’ Jaine says. ‘‘I visited for four years to research my PhD and loved it so much I got a job here. You can’t get bored with this place.’’
Snorkellers enjoying Lady Elliot Island’s underwater world