Have you ever been on a holiday and felt relaxed as soon as you arrived? Upon arrival on the stunningly beautiful Lady Elliot Island by a 12 seater plane from Hervey Bay, any stress or worries I had just evaporated. What caused that to happen almost immediately? Was it walking along the coast of the coral island and marvelling at the beautiful pieces of now dead coral and shells, hearing the plethora of birds singing and watching them fly and wander happily around their island home or overhearing the excited discussions of other guests on the island? While the noticeable lack of mobile phone coverage certainly helped with the feeling of truly being away from it all, the relaxed atmosphere was as natural as the cool coastal breeze.
Nestled in the southern Great Barrier Reef, Lady Elliot Island is well known for the abundance of majestic manta rays in the surrounding water. So it is unsurprising that it is considered to have the best snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef. After collecting our wetsuits and snorkelling gear and completing our snorkelling lesson, we hit the water. GoPro in hand, we quickly discovered the magical little universe only a few inches below the surface in the lagoon. I had snorkelled before in some amazing places, but the scale and variety of the world in the lagoon was beyond anything I had experienced before. Hundreds of colourful, tropical fish darted around as a sea turtle swam nonchalantly past. And then another turtle. Then another one.
Looking down at the impressive clumps of coral about a metre from the shoreline I first spotted the shell, then a fin, of a huge turtle as it huddled between coral and the ocean floor. A blue-spotted fantail ray glided past as an extremely weird looking Day octopus moved distinctly around the coral. Hundreds of sea cucumbers littered the sand and aqua clams rapidly closed as I travelled over the top. Blue sea stars stood out from far away. What an immense privilege to witness this bustling, diverse, complicated and truly fascinating underwater society.
Just as the lagoon was like discovering another world, so was snorkelling in the deeper water in the Coral Gardens and Lighthouse snorkelling areas. Dropping away from the edge of the reef, we were met immediately with schools of colourful fish as they speedily swam past. Looking down past the reef into the deeper water, reef sharks patrolled the bottom. Schools of hundreds of tiny fish flittered straight past like I wasn’t even there. Turtles munched on growth on the coral. I could’ve spent hours exploring the fascinating life in the depths.
If you visit Lady Elliot Island, I highly recommend the snorkelling safari. The glass bottom boat took us out past the Lighthouse snorkelling area into the swell and deeper water. Less than a minute after jumping into the water, our snorkelling guide pointed out a turtle right behind me. As we snorkelled, rising and falling in the swell, I spotted several turtles bobbing around. During this expedition we saw a manta ray, even more beautiful and mesmerising in real life as it floated casually through the water. After the excitement of the manta ray, we headed back to the boat. Then a water spout shot out of the water nearby and our guide shouted “Whale!”. She was overcome with the excitement of spotting the first whale of the season while in the water. Keeping a safe distance, we all marvelled at the extraordinary sight. The fact that I snorkelled with a whale calf didn’t hit me until we were back on land. I was in the water with a whale calf!
Plenty of other activities are available on the island to keep guests busy when they take a break from snorkelling. We attended talks about marine life and various walks around the island, learning about the flora and operations of the island. The staff were friendly, fun and knowledgeable. The fish feeding every afternoon brought many Scissor-tailed sergeant and other varieties of fish to the surface.
On a night tour, we saw ghost crabs on the beach and a hermit crab under a cabin. We walked around the island picking up small pieces of plastic near the shore as we learned about the threat of plastics to the marine life.
Lighthouse drinks at sunset was particularly special. After watching the sun sink spectacularly into the horizon, in the final minutes of low light, a glimmer of black appeared as thousands upon thousands of Brown booby birds stream across the ocean and noisily descend on the trees on the island.
In the food hall, we saw the familiar faces of other guests as our stays overlapped. Another familiar sight in the food hall was the buff-banded rail bird. These impressive looking birds hang around and try to pinch food, like a chip right out of your fingers if you let your guard down for a minute! As we walked to the beach near the food hall one day, I looked behind to see a buff-banded rail racing down the path with a croissant in its mouth and another buff-banded rail running frantically behind it before they both disappeared under a shrub.
As we reluctantly left the island at the end of our stay, we spotted two whales off the coast of the island from the plane. It was a fitting end to an incredible holiday of new experiences.
When I read about, or people talked about, the vulnerable Great Barrier Reef, I always felt a combination of guilt at never visiting one of Australia’s most beautiful places and concern I might miss out on seeing it. After my experiences on this coral island paradise, the fact that it took me so long to visit the Great Barrier Reef seems even crazier.