There’s nothing fancy about Lady Elliot Island, until you discover the explosion of colour and excitement under the water’s surface, writes Alexandra Carlton.

We’re about 60 metres from shore when we see it: a solid, torpedo-shaped form with a rigid dorsal fin, gliding silently ahead as it surveys the coral landscape with unblinking eyes. My snorkelling companion and I are more or less the same height – 1.6 metres – and this creature is about the same length from snout to tail. I’ve often wondered what I’d do if I found myself face to face with a shark. Scream? Panic and splash frantically, almost certainly exciting its senses and causing it to devour me in its confusion? That moment of reckoning is here.

To my utter surprise, I laugh – a bubbly squeak of complete delight – and calmly swim over the top of it. Unperturbed, the animal, which I later discover is a grey reef shark, slips away into the darkness. It’s exhilarating to be sharing this remote patch of ocean with a creature so removed from my everyday existence that any fear vanishes.

This is what happens on Lady Elliot Island, a 45-hectare coral cay at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef: you’re gripped by a thirst to spend as much time as possible underwater. The surrounding Coral Sea is home to more than 1200 species of marine life, including humpback whales, manta rays, sharks, sea turtles and rainbows of tropical fish. There are swimming, snorkelling and diving options for every age, ranging from sites for advanced scuba divers to a shallow tidal lagoon where children can paddle or reef walk. With no internet access, it’s a place where families can switch off and focus on the pure joy of nature. The most common greeting between guests and staff is: “What did you see out there today?”

Lady Elliot Island

Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort is a 40-minute flight from Queensland’s Hervey Bay or 30 minutes from Bundaberg. Everything under and above the water is subject to the strictest conservation standards on this isolated isle that hosts a maximum of 150 overnight guests and 100 day visitors at any time.

You know they’re getting it right when conservationist Terri Irwin and her family choose to holiday here every year. “I started visiting Lady Elliot Island with [late husband] Steve 25 years ago,” says Terri. “This beautiful icon of the Great Barrier Reef is the most welcoming, spectacular, conservation-minded island.” Their 14-year-old son, Robert, adds, “It’s one of the last truly great ecosystems. The abundance of life is breathtaking.”

Not that the island’s magic is immediately obvious. When we first step onto the grassy airstrip after flying in from the mainland, we’re led into a low-key one-storey building that houses the communal dining hall and education centre. This, along with basic cabin and tent accommodation (some with shared bathrooms), a small swimming pool and a dive shop for renting gear or booking scuba diving lessons, is pretty much everything there is to see on land. There are no fancy games or attractions for kids but it’s the sort of place where older children can roam freely and do the things we pre-internet kids did: play hide-and-seek or build secret cubbyhouses (out of driftwood and shells). For the younger ones, during the school holidays there’s a supervised kids’ club where they can learn about the reef.

The native vegetation isn’t tropical so there are no bougainvilleas or fragrant frangipanis; instead, scrubby she-oaks line the crunchy, white coral shoreline. Tens of thousands of black noddies – noisy seabirds that nest on the island every year – circle overhead and squawk from the branches of octopus bushes and pandanus palms. The resort relies on desalinated seawater and its strict eco guidelines mean that no food can be grown onsite so it’s flown in daily from the mainland. There’s no wi-fi or mobile phone coverage (except in the departure lounge, for a cost) so families play board games or make sandcastles instead of uploading whatever’s in front of them straight to Instagram. And if you’re looking for Mai Tais and massages, go elsewhere.

But the magic’s there. You just have to be willing to get wet. After a safety lesson (to wit: don’t mess with venomous stonefish or cone shells and don’t cross the airstrip when the lights are flashing unless you want a plane to land on your head), I decide on a snorkelling trip and quickly wriggle into a wetsuit before boarding a glass-bottom boat with 12 others.

Lady Elliot Island

Heading out to the reef’s deeper waters, it’s pretty choppy but wind doesn’t matter much if you’re a fish. In fact, the underwater world is humming along nicely once we poke our heads in. A huge spotted eagle ray, maybe two metres across, flaps through the blue. Along with colourful, big-lipped wrasse, busy parrot fish chomp messily at lumps of coral with their beaky mouths.

A hawksbill turtle – the most endangered of the three sea turtle species seen regularly around the island – bobs along beside our group, eyeing us with the heavy-lidded expression of a bored teenager. He glides lazily to the surface for air and we all take a breath of admiration along with him.

Hawksbill Turtle

Deep-water snorkelling and scuba diving are magnificent ways to see the island’s wildlife, including the majestic manta rays that are its most famous attraction. And unlike many other Great Barrier Reef hotspots, you can roll out of bed and explore straight from the beach, no boat required.

Which is what I do the next morning at high tide, about 7am. I wander out of my tent into pretty miserable weather. The ocean looks forbidding but I’m too intrigued to worry. Fins on, I flap my way into the shallow water of the protected lagoon on the island’s southern side and, straightaway, I’ve plunged into a turtle party. Everyone’s here: hawksbills, loggerheads, green turtles; juveniles the size of small platters, older fellas up to a metre long. Because of the island’s Green Zone status, fishing, hunting and even taking shells from the reef is banned so the turtles (and other marine life) have little fear of humans. There are five in my line of vision, munching on algae, bobbing up for air and hanging out under rocks, all with that perpetually unruffled expression.

Manta Rays

It’s easy to feel unruffled here. Snorkel, eat, repeat. Maybe a nature DVD after dinner or an unhurried walking tour of the island. That’s about it. The other guests seem to have found the same pattern. Each evening, most of us wander to the western side of the island to watch the sun set over the horizon, drink in hand, which is about as “resorty” as it gets. “What did you see out there today?” we ask one another. Someone saw a manta ray, which is early for this time of the year. Someone else had a kleptomaniac octopus try to nick their GoPro. “I can’t wait to see a frigatebird,” a seven-year-old girl tells me, having spent a few hours that afternoon at the casual kids’ club. “Wow, that’s education in action,” says her mum, raising an eyebrow in amused disbelief. That’s the magic of Lady Elliot at work; learning about animals is pretty fun when they’re right there waiting to meet you.

Lady Elliot Island

I sneak in some quick snorkelling right up to the time my return flight is due to depart. Every time I think I’ll give it a miss, I start wondering what my turtle mates are up to. And, once I’m in, there’s always something exciting around the next coral bommie. Mottled sea snakes. Bulbous groupers. Cowrie shells you’d only find in chichi homewares stores – at least in my world.

“You’ve got Lady Elliot in your heart, I can see it,” grins the resort’s managing director, Peter Gash, when we meet on the mainland. Maybe the snorkelling-mask suction lines etched into my forehead are a giveaway. Maybe it’s because my hair is still wet from my last dive. Or maybe it’s just my dopey smile. “You’ll be back,” he says. And I will. The turtle parties won’t be nearly as much fun without me.  

Lady Elliot Island

Want to see turtles hatch, or swim with manta rays? Here’s when to go.

◖ November to February is the time to see female green and loggerhead turtles waddle out of the water at night to nest for two to eight hours on Lady Elliot Island’s beaches. “It’s just extraordinary to watch a 150-kilogram turtle trudge up the sand and go into a trance while she lays her eggs,” says the resort’s front office manager, Jodi Carlton. “We always have a few bleary-eyed guests wandering around the next day because they stayed up until 3am with one of the girls.”

◖ February to April is when turtle hatchlings emerge from the sandy nests and make the perilous journey to the sea in the dark.

◖ May to August is known as peak manta ray season. It’s when the huge, gentle marine creatures migrate north to feed around Lady Elliot Island. Harmless and majestic, they are considered the prize sighting by wildlife-watchers on the island.

◖ June to October is migration season for humpback whales. “You’ll be having lunch in the dining hall when, suddenly, you’ll see whales leaping out of the water, just past the edge of the lagoon,” says Carlton, pointing to a line of breakers about 800 metres offshore. “People start yelling and going crazy. It’s the best feeling in the world.”

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