What a dif­fer­ence a ray makes

Queens­land’s Lady El­liot Is­land is an ideal place to spot gi­ant man­tas

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Australia - SHEL­LEY DEMPSEY

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

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