This coral cay at the tip of the Great Barrier Reef is a wildlife hotspot like nowhere else on earth.

If the Great Barrier Reef is the glittering crown that arches around Australia’s north-eastern coastline, then Lady Elliot Island, at its southern tip, is one of its brightest jewels. Just over 80 kilometres north-east of Bundaberg (the scenic flight takes about 30 minutes) and only 42 hectares in size, it’s a magnet for some of the most extraordinary marine life found in Australian waters.

From May to November, it sits in the path of migrating humpback whales. In the warmer months (November to March), green and loggerhead turtles lumber onto the island to lay their eggs, with thousands of hatchlings scurrying to the water at the end of the nesting season. “People go a bit turtle crazy out here,” says marine biologist and master reef guide Jacinta Shackleton, who has called the island home for three years.

Snorkelling off Lady Elliot Island

And then there are the magnificent manta rays; massive and gentle, they can be seen year-round in the marine national park that surrounds Lady Elliot. “We’re the home of the manta ray and account for about 70 per cent of the manta ray sightings on the east coast,” says Shackleton. “You can have incredible encounters with them here. If they’re feeding or courting, they’ll be on the water’s surface. They’ll be aware of you if you’re snorkelling but if you’re still, they’ll often come right up to you then veer off at the last minute.” Divers are encouraged to kneel on the sand as these enormous creatures – they can have a wingspan of up to seven metres – are cleaned by small fish while swimming around the coral bommies on the ocean floor.

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If you don’t want to snorkel, there are plenty of other ways to get close to the wildlife. A shallow lagoon on the east side of the island is the site for inexperienced swimmers and small children to interact with the reef. “That’s where juvenile turtles like to hang out,” says Shackleton. “And the unique thing about Lady Elliot is the turtles here are friendly. Some of them will even come up and check you out.”

Everything on the island is geared towards experiencing the natural world. The resort’s accommodation is simple and sits lightly on the land so as to have minimal impact on the delicate ecology. There are glamping tents, beachfront cabins and garden units, with a mix of private and shared amenities. Meals are served at the Beachfront Dining Room and there are daily educational talks, tours and activities centred on the island’s wildlife and history.

Lady Elliot may not be what you think of when you picture a tropical island getaway – massages and poolside cabanas aren’t on the schedule. But these things don’t stay with you like the unforgettable animal encounters you’re just about guaranteed to have here. “It’s a pretty magical place,” says Shackleton.

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