Spared from the coral bleaching that has damaged northerly sections of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the waters around little Lady Elliot Island beckon as never before.
Forty minutes after taking off from Hervey Bay on the Queensland coast, our 14-seater Cessna Caravan begins its descent toward a pearly-white apostrophe that moments ago was barely visible amid the sparkling expanse of the Coral Sea. The plane veers sharply. I gulp as the grassy airstrip comes into view. It’s only 620 meters long, virtually the length of Lady Elliot Island itself. As we touch down, spending three tech-free days on a tiny coral cay at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef suddenly seems too long.
I’m traveling with Fiona, a high-maintenance girlfriend from London, who thankfully appears unfazed when a glance at our phones confirms there’s no service. Nor does she balk at our simple beach cabin at the island’s sole hotel, Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort. Soon enough we’ve kicked off our city heels and surrendered to our surrounds. By the end of the day, it already feels like our own island.
You don’t come to Lady Elliot for frills and fine dining: guests and staff share the same buffet-style dining room with cheeky buff-banded rails, flightless birds that have made the resort their own. (Mind you, hearty Greek salads and things like barramundi with mango dressing and blueberry clafoutis ensure that mealtimes are memorable.) You come for the astounding beauty and diversity of its underwater life—and all within minutes from your bed. A highly protected “green zone” within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the island attracts more than 1,200 subtropical, tropical, and temperate marine species. It also has more resident manta rays than anywhere else in the world—the Brisbane-based research program Project Manta has catalogued over 800 individuals in these waters. And then there’s the thriving population of green sea turtles that come to feed, mate, and lay eggs. During the February–April hatching season, visitors can watch thousands of baby turtles take their first unsteady steps as they race for the surf.
Maggie McNeil, the resort’s activities supervisor and a qualified marine biologist, explains that beginner snorkelers—that’s us—should start in the sheltered lagoon before attempting the snorkeling trail on the island’s western side. In true Aussie style, she also warns us what’s deadly. “To avoid getting stabbed by a stone fish, always wear covered footwear when walking in the shallows,” she says. “And stay away from any cone-shaped shells as they shoot out lethal poison. If it’s a cone, leave it alone.”
While we are here mainly for the manta rays, I’m also itching to train my binoculars on the island’s prolific birdlife—94 species in all. This includes the occasional red-tailed tropicbird. Like the albatross that can stay airborne all day, these slender white seabirds are so unwieldy on land they simply plummet to the ground and waddle to the nearest bush.
It turns out that Fiona and I are equally unwieldy in the water. We are the galumphing pair—I’m Laurel to her Hardy—who fall over in our flippers (note to self: next time walk backward into the water), flounder in the shallows, and, on our first afternoon, privately wonder how we can swim in a lagoon that barely reaches to our knees.
All is revealed at high tide when the mud flats magically disappear. Wearing spongy-soled shoes provided by the resort, a sturdy stick in hand, we set off on a guided reef walk. This involves wading through the shallows, careful to avoid stepping on the coral, and marveling at the extraordinary underwater garden coming to life around us. The next hour passes like a walking meditation. Three days without cell-phone service doesn’t seem so long after all.
There is something romantic in knowing that the island was once uninhabited. The first recorded landing on Lady Elliot was by the crew of HMS Fly, a British survey ship that anchored off the coast in 1843. The Fly’s naturalist noted, “The island was well stocked with birds, of which black noddies and shearwaters were the most abundant; the next in number being terns, gulls, white herons and egrets, oyster catchers and curlews.” All those birds meant a rich deposit of droppings, a fact not lost on the guano miners who showed up 20 years later and began stripping away the vegetation. Then came the decision by the Queensland government to introduce a herd of goats to the island. Meant as a food source for shipwrecked sailors, the animals also ensured that Lady Elliot would remain denuded until 1969, when a local businessman and conservationist leased the island and began a vigorous revegetation program to return it to its original state. By the 1980s, when the resort first opened, the native pandanus and casuarina trees had all grown back. The property’s current owners take their educational and environmental credentials just as seriously. All buildings are low-impact, seawater is recycled, and the resort operates almost entirely on solar power.
Given the latest reports about widespread coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, it’s heartening to see Lady Elliot’s reef thriving. Along the reef on the western side of the island are a series of coral outcrops known locally as bommies, which we explore on a glass-bottomed boat tour. Bommies also serve as cleaning stations for mantas, who rely on wrasse and butterfly fish to nibble away at the dead skin and parasites that have accumulated on their bodies and even inside their gills and mouths. Sure enough, it doesn’t take long for Maggie McNeil to spot a rippling black fin below us. “Snorkels on. Jump in,” she commands.
We stare through our masks at a school of yellow trumpet fish before locking our eyes on the manta, its triangular fins seven meters across. I watch mesmerized as it swoops and glides through the water, giving me a peep of its soft white underbelly. Surrounding it is a host of smaller fish, darting in and out to clean their giant visitor.
The next day we feel confident enough to do the more intensive snorkel “safari.” Thanks to a westerly wind, the water is choppy and the current is stiff, bringing shoals of fish closer to shore. “Bad for us but good for the sharks,” says our boat driver, Phil Mitchell, who has a mop of brown hair and an acerbic Aussie wit.
“Sharks?” says an English mother nervously, pulling her two boys close. “They’re vegetarian aren’t they?”
“Oh yes,” Mitchell responds drily. “They just take a leg.”
That doesn’t stop any of us from diving in. And over the next hour there is so much to look at, it’s hard to focus on anything. At least 10 huge mantas flap lazily by, followed shortly by a school of bigeye trevally and a large black kingfish. Cowtail and white-spotted eagle rays hover above the seabed. Later, at the wreck of the Severance, a sailing boat that struck the reef in 1999, we see eight black-tipped reef sharks circling for food. But it’s not until I spot the toothy mouth of a giant moray eel gaping at me that I retreat back to the boat.
By our last morning on the island, Fiona and I have both conquered our fear of the deep. Our mobile phones are flat and the rest of our lives seem a world away. We get into our damp wet suits for a final snorkel. There is still a swell and the wind is nippy. But after a couple of strokes we spy a green sea turtle right below us. We hover above, the current pulling us away, back to city life, and watch as the turtle gently pushes off the seafloor, flapping its fins and making a perfect farewell to Lady Elliot Island.
Though there is no boat access to Lady Elliot Island, the remote coral cay does have the Great Barrier Reef’s only airstrip, accessible by daily flights from Hervey Bay, Brisbane, and the Gold Coast, with return tickets from about US$225. Daytrips are possible, but it’s best to spend at least two days at Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort to appreciate the island’s vibrant marine life. Nightly rates start at US$130 per person, double, including breakfast, dinner, and a range of tours and activities.
This article originally appeared in the August/September print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Reef Respite”).