In the teeming waters off a remote Great Barrier Reef cay, Sarah Maguire (almost) snags the Great Eight – and notches up a few seabirds, too.
The call goes out from captain Phil Mitchell. “Manta ray! About 20 metres away, to the left of the boat, coming right towards us.”
A dozen snorkellers – holiday-makers hailing from four continents – slide off the edge of the glass-bottom boat into the Coral Sea. Heads down, flippers flapping, the pursuit begins. It might be Romulus or Chaos or Mithras we’re swimming after. A lot of the rays around here have names, part of a long-running research project in the “home of the manta ray”, as Queensland’s Lady Elliot Island is known.
Except that Lady Elliot Island (LEI) seems barely known at all. Hamilton, Hayman and Heron might roll off the tongue as resort islands of the Great Barrier Reef but LEI is its own little blind spot among Australians – a fact that emerges time and again during my two-night stay here.
“Someone in Hervey Bay asked me where I worked,” says Andreas Supper, manager of the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort. “When I told him, he said he’d never heard of Lady Elliot Island – and he was born and bred in Hervey Bay.”
To put that into perspective, Hervey Bay is just 130 kilometres from the island. There’s a Lady Elliot check-in desk at Hervey Bay Airport, for goodness sake, Hervey Bay being one of four departure points for the island (along with Bundaberg, Brisbane and the Gold Coast). It confounds Supper, just as it does the Swedish tourist who travelled up and down the east coast before arriving on LEI and couldn’t find one Australian who’d heard of it. “And the snorkelling here is better than off Cairns,” he tells me.
It’s also confounding because LEI – a 42-hectare speck in the Coral Sea, 80 kilometres north-east of Bundaberg, slashed by an airstrip and home to an unpretentious 41-room resort – is an extraordinary place, both for its natural assets and human stories.
But word is getting out. David Attenborough featured Lady Elliot’s manta rays in his Great Barrier Reef documentary, sparking an avalanche of enquiries from aspiring visitors after it screened in the United Kingdom a year ago. Visitor numbers had already been on the rise and occupancy rates, says Supper, are now close to 100 per cent most of the time, with 130 overnight visitors being the absolute limit. And, as the southernmost cay of the reef, LEI lies in cooler waters than those up north so the coral is so far unaffected by bleaching – a bittersweet selling point.
Now that you’ve heard of LEI, you may want to visit, too. Here are some more things that will be useful to know.
So much to do (and a few things you can’t)
There are rules on Lady Elliot Island, most of them stemming from the environmental values in which the resort is steeped. Also, no-one wants guests to be lost at sea, carried off by a current while preoccupied with watching the cast of Finding Nemo flitting around below them.
So, don’t snorkel without a buddy off the island’s western side, where a picture-book-pretty 144-year-old lighthouse is at one end of the snorkel trail and the spectacular rainbow-hued Coral Gardens are at the other. Don’t walk across the airstrip when the red lights are flashing – you don’t want to get a haircut from a landing Twin Otter. Don’t disturb the nesting birds or touch the sea creatures, nor stand on or kick the coral. Don’t put food on your plate that you’re not going to eat.
It’s taken a lot of effort to transport that food to the island and then onto the thrice-daily buffet so please don’t waste it, Supper tells the latest light-plane-load of guests to arrive.
He’s not done yet; there are more instructions to deliver in his good-humoured way. Don’t leave food unattended, because the birds will be there in a flash – they might even snatch the next mouthful off your fork. And don’t leave your dishes behind on the table when you’ve finished eating; put them in this spot just outside the kitchen – plates and cutlery in these racks, glasses just over there.
It’s school camp (albeit with a bar that serves alcohol from 10am and juicy, sticky pork belly for dinner) meets eco resort (it’s 80 per cent solar-powered) meets Hitchcockian movie set. It’s late October, you see, and seabird season has begun.
Birds, birds everywhere
The island is teeming with tens of thousands of dizzyingly industrious seabirds whizzing around the place, building their nests. At the height of the breeding season around Christmas, there can be half a million on the island; that’s when things really start to get whiffy (and your chances of being pooped on go through the roof). Right now, in the tree outside my cabin, I count 23 black noddies nesting in its branches. A couple of tufty-headed bridled terns hang around the front steps, seemingly all muddled up about where they want to build.
Under bushes further along the beachfront, some rare red-tailed tropicbirds have already hatched their chicks – adorable, fuzzy balls of white fluff. The mutton-birds are yet to arrive in force; their night-time “love song”, which can sound like a baby crying, is the main reason the bedside drawers in cabins contain earplugs.
But with the Great Barrier Reef’s underwater wonderland at your flippertips, and the beguiling February-to-May spectacle of thousands of turtle hatchlings scrambling from their nests to the water each nightfall, birds are not the main game for most visitors to LEI. Die-hard twitchers are the exception and not the rule: “There are bird-lovers who don’t get in the water,” explains Supper, a decision that’s difficult to fathom. “You see them walking around in camouflage gear.”
Breaking the surface
The snorkelling and scuba diving off the cay – made entirely of coral rubble (which hurts bare feet so reef shoes, $15 at Reception, will be your new best friend) – have a reputation among those in the know for being extra good. The water clarity is excellent because of the island’s position on the edge of the continental shelf and the variety of marine species is huge at about 1200.
If you’ve heard of Africa’s Big Five but never the reef’s Great Eight – all of which can be spotted off LEI – consider yourself informed. They are, in no particular order: whales, manta rays, clownfish, turtles, potato cod, giant clams, Maori wrasse and sharks. Tick, tick, tick! I am on the island less than 48 hours and see six of them (I think; I can’t be sure it was a Maori wrasse, although it was big enough to be a junior at least).
On the guided snorkel safari with marine scientist Kate Hickey as our guide, we spot four manta rays – huge kite-shaped creatures that glide by gracefully, their wing-like fins flapping as though in slow motion. There is much more besides: a stripey, spotty, technicolour abundance of angelfish, sergeants, triggerfish and damsels, as well as shimmering schools of barracuda and bigeye trevally (“They’re dolphin chocolate,” says Kate. “Dolphins love to eat them.”). Sea cucumbers are scattered around the sea floor, any movement barely perceptible; they have neither brain nor heart, acting as vacuum cleaners that pick up detritus off the seabed and recycle it like magic back into sand.
On a low-tide reef walk in the lagoon, which the resort fronts on the cay’s eastern side, we see baby giant clams and the spotted tail of an epaulette shark poking out from beneath some coral. Spindly reef sticks are compulsory to prevent any stumbles that might damage the coral as we pick our way around the reef, shin-deep in water.
At high tide, wetsuits and snorkels go on and then it’s back into the lagoon, where big green turtles are close enough to touch and a clownfish darts out from an anemone, not to say “G’day” but “Go away”. What I think is a Maori wrasse is motionless in the water, almost ghostlike in the distant semi-gloom. It’s big and a teensy bit scary and, at seven in the morning, I am all alone – the only human in the big blue drink.
Switch off, relax, go for a walk
After a morning of snorkelling, the absence of mobile phone coverage means there’s no compulsion to check emails. Rather, a coffee at the Lagoon Bar overlooking the beach, sun shining and warm breeze blowing, is another kind of bliss on LEI. At midday, two chatty couples are drinking beers on the deck while, just beyond, kids are building a coral-rubble version of a sandcastle.
This is an all-ages, all-comers sort of place, drawing families, couples and solo travellers mostly from Australia, Europe and the United States. And the late-middle-aged couple from California is just as likely to have diving certification as the young Swiss traveller who’s on her third visit to Australia, having become besotted with it.
After a chicken teriyaki burger from the lunch menu, I retreat to my reef cabin for more downtime, passing other guests in chill mode on verandahs bedecked with flippers and wetsuits. Apart from a schmick bedroom setting, my cabin is a simple second-hand affair, the accommodation buildings having come by barge from the Queensland mining town of Blackwater in the mid-1980s.
Afternoons on the island can be spent in the water or, if you prefer, on the various walking tours on offer – be they about the island’s history, its revegetation (it’s come a long way since being stripped bare by 19th-century guano miners) or its omnipresent birdlife.
As the sun begins its descent, guests head for the island’s western side, where bar staff set up a drinks station for the sunset show. The beer’s cold, the light’s golden and the sea is like blue silk as the horizon turns orangey-pink. Could there be a more perfect way to end a day? Just make sure you’re not sitting under a tree.