Tropical reef adventures on Lady Elliot Island

Our tropical reef adventures began over 30 years ago on a romantic holiday in Vanuatu. Here our combined love of underwater life began, rather daringly for me with my first scuba dive. Snorkelling on Lady Elliot Island was a more sedate but equally wonderful experience.

Lady Elliot Island is a coral cay shaped like a big fish, made from calcium carbonate secretions of corals, shells and algae, and sits off the Queensland Coast just north of Fraser Island. Along with guano or bird poo, it provides an environment for pisonia trees, native hibiscus and pandanus palms to grow and nesting sites for the white headed noddy and the red tailed tropical bird. The noddies crash into land around sunset and warble along all night – reason enough for the resort to provide each cabin with ear plugs. Red tailed tropic birds return once or twice a year to the exact spot to lay and hatch their eggs. The noddies have webbed feet so struggle to hold onto their rather precarious nests made of a few leaves and the ubiquitous bird poo.

We flew in from Hervey Bay on a 12 seater Cessna piloted by Nick and landed on the coral airstrip. We were greeted by Andreas the manager, who gave us a safety briefing about crossing the airstrip when planes were landing and were escorted to our garden unit – a row of 3 rooms joined by a common verandah. Already settled in was Roger, a German expatriate who runs a dive resort in a remote location in Bali. Roger had brought his 3 dive buddies via Bali and Cairns to experience the huge Manta Rays. An enthusiastic discussion ensued about diving, with me honing up my German language skills.

Soon we were kitted out with wetsuit, fins, mask and snorkel ready for our first swim in the tidal lagoon. Our first sighting of green turtles was a pair floating along in about 1 metre of water.

Breakfast and dinner are provided buffet style as part of the flight and accommodation package and the meals did not disappoint. Next morning we embarked on our snorkel-glass bottom boat adventure also included free. We could walk in from shore to the boat and soon were out over the inner reef on the protected western side of the island. Our guide Jess, pointed out turtles, eagle rays and parrot fish, however if we were to experience manta rays and sharks -reef ones- we would need to go at least 1km offshore on a snorkel safari. A whale and calf were sighted just outside the breakers.

That day we remained in the inner reef exploring with the northern current drifting us from the Lighthouse Buoy to Coral Gardens. Here were tiny Tang (Dory from Finding Nemo), clown, angel and parrot fish, more turtles and a school of squid. Our combined photography skills were improving and the loan of Miss Tech Savvy’s Go-Pro proved its worth, when we finally worked out how to operate it and download the photos!

Our walk back from the western side of the island took us by the lighthouse, operating since 1867 and the lighthouse keeper’s cottages. Nearby were two headstones surrounded by a white picket fence, the largest belonging to Susannah McKee, who died aged 59 years in 1907. It was only later, while browsing through a book on the island’s history at reception, that we discovered Susannah McKee was an Irishwoman, married to Thomas McKee one of the lighthouse keepers. Driven mad by loneliness, Susannah threw herself off the landing pier in 1907 and drowned. Not only that but her ghost haunts the second cottage – or at least did so until the installation of electricity in 1930’s. Sightings of a mature woman in Edwardian dress and strange happenings were reported by at least 2 young men!

Next day, we braved the snorkel safari. One must book the night before, so full of confidence after my afternoon snorkelling, I marched up to the young man, Chris, taking names to book. He looked me up and down, noting the colour of my hair no doubt and said: ‘Well it depends on the weather tomorrow-it can be quite rough, confirm at 8am at the dive shop!’ So we fronted at 8am. Chris showed us the information required to join the safari. Being able to swim in waves, being able to swim in currents, being able to pull yourself up onto the launch platform from the sea without assistance – among other things. Chris said: ‘Fortunately the conditions have reverted to calm this morning, so you should be right.’ Right! We jumped into the dive trailer and sped across the airstrip to the waiting dive boat and paddled out in our reef shoes clutching our snorkel, mask and fins. Jess was our guide again, her tips being as follows: ‘The current’s going north but we’re going south of the lighthouse buoy, where it goes south. If it gets too strong to swim against we’ll jump back into the boat and head north. I’ll point out things but you must keep up’. We were 1km offshore in 6-7 metres of water as we launched off the metal platforms into the Pacific Ocean. Jess took off pointing at a white tipped reef shark. The ocean floor looked a blur below, with a few dark shapes. Kicking madly, I endeavoured to keep the orange rashy shirt of Jess in sight. Avoiding the other 11 pairs of fins as we all tried to keep up was a challenge. After about 10 minutes of this, Jess decided the current was too strong, so we had to jump back up onto the metal platforms – difficult enough – before having to stand up with our fins still attached – more difficult. We did this twice before finally getting a drifting current which was travelling the right way.

Then our dreams came true – we had the magic of sighting not one but two manta rays, waving their huge wings deep below us. Jess pointed out eagle rays, cow tailed rays, bull rays, hawkesbill and green turtles and reef sharks. It was worth all the effort of getting in and out of the water!

We ended a wonderful day watching the sun setting over the east coast of the mainland. After thirty five years we could still enjoy the wonders of the deep and mix it with the young ones – a bit!

Our evening meal was spent with Roger and the dive buddies, Roger agreeing to be interviewed for Fred’s next radio program and we exchanged business cards. Perhaps a dive holiday in Bali is on the cards in the future!

Our final morning we greeted the sunrise and floated in the lagoon watching the turtles feed and the giant clams wave their tentacles. The west wind was up but we didn’t need to front Chris in the dive shop to be told it was too rough for seniors – fortunately!

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