Turtles, whales and birds have long visited Heron Island, an eco paradise on the southern stretch of the Great Barrier Reef. But humans also migrate here to connect with nature – and themselves.
I’m having a low-level panic. Don’t get me wrong – as the four- passenger helicopter tilts towards the Tropic of Capricorn on this 30-minute hop from the Gladstone coast to Heron Island, I’m enthralled, my nose pressed against the window. Emerald islands ringed by blinding white sand and golden reef float like tiny Saturns in the infinity of the Coral Sea. The water comes in more tints of bright blue than anyone knows the names for. The pilot points out turtles so titanic they can easily be seen from up here. It’s all amazing but… my phone lost connection 10 minutes ago. And there’ll be no mobile reception at the island’s resort either (apparently they have contraptions called “payphones” available). I’m doing three days alone! I’ve forgotten to bring a book! I’m jumpy about being cast into a tropical paradise, I realise. I need this more than I knew.
Upon touchdown, I deep-breathe the island’s balmy vibe and walk the lay of the land. An almost perfectly oval 17 hectares, Heron sits in Capricornia Cays National Park, a mini Eden with an interior smothered by a forest of gnarled pisonia, dark-green native elm and sandpaper figs; its shores are covered in beach sunflower and fruit-bearing shrubs. The coral cay and reef ecosystem is so pristine Sir David Attenborough has been to the research station the University of Queensland set up here, filming his Great Barrier Reef BBC series in 2014. You can visit the research station but there’s a high-school camp on at the moment so I walk past.
I’m grinning about treading in the legend’s footsteps when splat! Squelch. A bird lands a poo on the insole of my flip-flop as I’m walking. This is neither excellent aim nor bad luck. Turtles and whales get the glory but some 200,000 birds, including black noddy terns and wedge- tailed shearwaters (not herons – whoever named the island mistook egrets for herons), also migrate to this twitcher’s heaven to breed from September to around May. When the cay poked out of the sea 6000 years ago, the birds’ droppings helped nourish it into an island and have held the joint together since.
After a crisp salad at the resort’s Shearwater Restaurant, where chefs pull fresh seafood, slow-braised meats and bistro classics into menus for all guest meals on the island, I meet a Reef Walk tour. The crystalline tide has peeled back to reveal channels between micro-atolls and as we hot-step around sea cucumbers with no brains that clean the sand, our naturalist guide, Sam, shows us other creatures that seem too fantastic to be real – electric-blue asexual sea stars, yellow worms shaped like Christmas trees. “The prize is the epaulette shark that can walk on land,” she smiles. Wait, what? A carpet shark up to a metre long with fins that have evolved into feet for stalking prey? I remain alarmed until we see one, a spotty, awkward thing that skedaddles before I get more than a glimpse. Then I’m so excited that my out-of-service phone itches like a phantom limb. Must post, my brain shrills. I really have to chill.
Jacinda at Aqua Soul Spa picks me for a tech-tweaked tourist straight away. “Are you after a calming, invigorating or relaxing treatment today?” she asks, ushering me into an essential-oil-scented suite for my Wellness Massage Deluxe. I reply, “Everything?” She nods serenely. “We get that a lot.”
I usually like a spa session to dissolve my consciousness until I drift away. But now, tuned into the sound of breeze blowing leaves outside my window, I feel utterly inside my body. Healing hands read my knots like braille, melting the shoulders that are usually hunched over my laptop. When it’s over I linger with lemongrass tea in the relaxation zone for longer than is seemly. I think Jacinda sees that a lot, too.
By now, sunset’s pinking the sky and there’s a live duo playing at Baillie’s Bar by the pool. Though it’s one of the very few places on the island with wi-fi and a pina colada is tempting, I’ve got a bottle of crisp white chilling in my room and a front-row seat for sunset.
Heron Island Resort has 112 rooms for about 350 guests, including doubles and five-person family rooms unobtrusively set into forest or the North Beach foreshore as well as a four-guest beach house. I’m in a king-bed Point Suite, a bright, private retreat opening west onto reef. Like all other rooms, there’s no TV. As I watch the ocean horizon being scorched by the sun, listening to the scatty jazz of the hundreds of birds arcing and dive-bombing each other above, I don’t miss distractions at all.
At breakfast I observe the humans who migrate to this wonderland. Small kids in neon bathers chatter about what they saw underwater on the semi-sub tour; teens play cards and actually make eye contact with their parents. There are babymooners and international couples toting scuba gear. At the breakfast bar I meet Ernest and Marta, fit retirees from Melbourne “spending the kids’ inheritance” on dreams. They’ve booked a fishing trip today and Ernest is banking on reeling in his own dinner. “The restaurant chefs prepare your catch!” he claps.
I’ve got a boat to catch, too. Stepping into open water to snorkel at Viv’s, a dive spot about 300m offshore, I’m so stunned I spit bubbles. The big blue is warm enough but its stillness belies the frenetic action underneath. Yellow trumpetfish, striped sergeant majors and blue-green pullers are darting through beams of sunshine while blacktip reef sharks cruise nonchalantly. As I float on the current behind my snorkelling guide, Andy, I see spiny forests of purple staghorn coral cascade suddenly into valleys of plate coral. When I duck-dive through a school of rushing unicorn fish to round a giant brain-shaped bombora, a turtle and I surprise one another. We swim upwards together and it breaks the surface within arm’s reach. The reef is so alive.
“The stretch of the Great Barrier Reef around Heron is in very healthy shape,” explains Andy. “Cooler water in this southern part means less coral bleaching and more marine life – it’s some of the best diving you could ever get.”
Back on land, I’m all about the baby turtles. It’s hatchling season and I’m staking out Shark Bay at sundown with naturalist guide Maddey. Two months ago, green turtles and a few loggerheads burrowed into the beach dunes to lay some 120 eggs each. “It’s the last mothering they’ll do,” says Maddey. “Now the hatchlings are on their own.” So we wait... “Be patient – I’ve had them crawl over me in dozens,” she says. Then, just as hope dwindles, hungry silver gulls sound the alarm: babies the size of my palm have busted free of their shells and are scrambling on little flippers for the sea.
Only about 70 per cent of green-turtle hatchlings reach the water then about 30 per cent make it past predators to the outer reef crest. I focus on one – go kiddo, go! The gulls miss it! It snags on a relative canyon of sand, landing on its back. No. Then it flips upright! Yes. “This is the only time in a turtle’s life they can right themselves,” Maddey says. “They’re resilient and the ‘power packs’ of yolk left on their undersides energise them until they get out to the current.” We’re whispering in the dark because sound and light can disorient the hatchlings, interfering with the magnet that imprints their location, guiding them back to this very spot as breeding adults decades later. As my little hero disappears over the lip of the tide, I feel misty. What magic to witness.
I’m on the beach a blink before the sun on a last-chance mission to snorkel the wreck of ex- gunboat HMCS Protector, about 200 metres off the harbourside of Heron. The need to see a ray trumps my nerves about dark water as I glide out with a few other early risers and, in minutes, first light illuminates stingrays buried in sand beneath me. A lemon shark cruises by. When an eagle ray with a baby in her slipstream bellyflops in front of me (it’s believed that’s how they shake off parasites), my morning is made.
Walking the long way around North Beach back toward breakfast, I pick spots to swim and laze in the hours before the ferry takes me back to Gladstone, the airport and reality. Almost dreading switching back on, I remember this was how it used to feel to holiday. Some things are better left #unshared.