My friend and I decided to use our precious annual leave on a trip to Lady Elliot Island, which is part of the Capricorn and Bunker group of islands in the southern Great Barrier Reef. The biggest appeal being that it is one of only a few islands on the Great Barrier Reef that is actually on a coral cay, meaning the reef is literally outside your front door!
One of the first things I noticed after stepping off the plane was the amazing colour. My eyes were not used to the vivid greens of the island vegetation, the blinding white coral sand, and the various turquoise and blue shades of the ocean. I took a huge book to read but barely glanced at it as it was so much more relaxing to just sit and soak in the location.
However being animal nerds, there was not too much quiet time as there was just so much to see. We woke at sunrise each morning, usually walking a lap of the island to watch the sea birds heading out to fish, and the peppered moray eels swimming freely in the reef lagoon – a rare sight!
We’d then have a delicious breakfast looking over the lagoon, and make the tough decision about what to do that day – scuba dive, snorkel, reef walk or go beach combing. A world away from the office!
As it was the season for the humpback whale migration, we had what I consider one of the most special experiences you can have underwater – hearing the song of the humpback whale. This haunting music accompanied us on all of our dives, the perfect soundtrack to the reef!
Snorkelling in the lagoon brought another surprise – green turtles that enjoyed having their shells scratched! I had never heard of this before, apparently the scratching keeps algae from growing on their shells but they acted just like dogs, wiggling around and nudging you to scratch their favourite spots!
This time it was like going for a gentle afternoon stroll – collect your walking stick, reef viewer, pop on your booties and off you go – meandering between the coral patches and wondering what you will see. It only takes a curious eye to discover the treasures that abound on the reef at low tide, on first appearances it can be quite brown and uninteresting, but there is so much to see.
Well, reef walking was relaxing to a point – as the optimum time to walk is at low tide, you often find snoozing green turtles tucked away in a coral nook somewhere. All well and good until one of these lovely creatures decides to take a breath right behind you and in your highly rational state all you can think is there is something BIG right next to me! Then once you have convinced yourself it couldn’t possibly be a great white shark in knee-deep tropical water, you turn around to see a turtle chuckling away to himself.
A couple of times we also managed to walk all the way out to the reef crest, where the edge of the coral lagoon meets the ocean. A surreal world where breaking waves hide a plunging coral-encrusted wall, and yet more turtles wait in shallow pools of water for the tide to rise.
Back on dry land and the island itself is a bird lover’s paradise – we arrived at the start of the breeding season and got to witness some of the trials and tribulations of a sea bird’s love life.
The prolific bird life turned us both into temporary twitchers and we ended up with an impressive list of 20 species, including a red-tailed tropic bird with a new chick – hmm did someone mention animal nerds?
Most visitors to Lady Elliot come to see the star attraction – manta rays. There is a resident population of about 40 individuals, and the waters around the island are an important research spot for the Project Manta team.
My friend and I somehow managed to miss seeing these beautiful creatures, apart from one feeding on the surface on our way back from a dive. We figured though that we are lucky to live close to North Stradbroke island where manta rays congregate every summer (which is soon!). And we did see something that made up for lack of mantas – a big bottlenose dolphin swam past us on a dive – a real WOW experience!
And an island getaway wouldn’t be complete without the obligatory cocktails, of which the Lady Elliot staff excelled. At the end of a tough day on a coral island, there is nothing more satisfying than sipping a delicious concoction while watching the sun dip below the horizon.