Turtles and Manta Rays
4 Mar 2014
|Lady Elliott Island
Named after the ship of the first European to discover it, the Island lies some 85 km off the Queensland coast at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef (or GBR, as it is known locally).
After a 40 minute flight in a 12-seater single prop Cessna we arrived at the Island. The grass airstrip runs right across the Island and seemed only just long enough for us to land, but we did land safely and walked across the runway to the reception area. A refreshing welcome drink was provided while we were being briefed on the Island and it's facilities. It is a beautiful coral island or cay, apparently only takes 45 minutes to walk all the way round, and is home to thousands of birds. (In the mid 1800s guano was mined and a layer three feet thick was removed from right across the Island - some 20,000 tonnes). The birds are everywhere, all around the buildings of the resort and very, very noisy. (What is it about Australian birds? Why are they so noisy?)
I walked over to the dive shop to check in and book a dive. Apparently the waters are exceptionally clear and there is a good chance of seeing manta rays and turtles. Ruth went to unpack and get ready for snorkelling. We walked along to the beach to the Coral Garden area, kitted up, and made our way across the tide-exposed flats to deeper water. We saw a couple of turtles, a nurse shark and hundreds of reef fish of all different shapes, sizes and colours, including a large school of big-eyed trevallies. The coral wasn't as colourful as we had seen elsewhere, but there were several different types nonetheless. It was an hour well spent.
A leisurely walk back to our room to get ready for the managers welcome and introduction, canapés and dinner. A bit early for us really, but we wanted to hear the turtle presentation a little later. The presenter, Santi, was knowledgable and very involved in the turtle programme on the Island. Afterwards he took us along the beach to where a green turtle was digging her nest. We watched for quite a while, though it was very dark and difficult to see much, but the turtle gave up as there were too many tree roots, so we didn't get to witness the egg laying. Try again tomorrow, though we were warned it was now getting late in the egg laying season. We were shown the track up the beach made by the turtle and how to determine which species of turtle made the track.
Walked back along the beach and watched the stars; it was an amazing show, very bright and millions and millions of stars. Bed.
I was up early next morning to go for a dive, but it was overcast and grey! It was not supposed to be like this of our desert island getaway, however by the time we were ready to dive the sun had come up properly and the clouds had virtually disappeared. A beautiful day, just a bit windy. We dived part of what is called Second Reef, off the west coast, quite a broken reef with sandy channels between the 'bommies' (what the Aussies call the reef outcrops). Plenty of marine life, including sharks and turtles and an octopus, plus a multitude of smaller life. My buddy had only dived about ten times and had problems controlling her buoyancy and, what is worse she used her air up after half an hour and the dive was over.
Back to the island, meet Ruth to go snorkelling in the lagoon area. This is only accessible for snorkelling a couple of hours before and after high tide, as it dries out fully at low tide. So, pretty shallow water, which was lovely and warm. A fair number of fish, some bright blue sea stars, sea cucumbers and several turtles. It was great to swim alongside the turtles - they were Green Turtles and didn't seem put out by our proximity.
Ok, we had booked our complimentary glass-bottomed boat trip, so we wandered around to the dive shop to be checked in, piled onto a trailer to be taken to the boat. There is no dock so the boats have ramps up which we climbed to board, a bit tricky if the ocean had any great swell. They drove over the area where manta rays had been seen, but no luck today, so off to the snorkelling area. A long buoyed rope had been set up for use if the current was strong, which it was today. Nice reef, plenty of coral, lots of reef fish, but hard work finning against the current. We did see some large fish, Moon Wrasse, Humphead Maori Wrasse and several types of parrotfish including the Steephead Parrotfish. After an hour we were rescaled and returned to the island for lunch.
A quick lunch, so I could join the second dive of the day. This time I was paired with the divemaster, the Taiwanese girl with another dive leader. Our dive time this time was 59 minutes, much, much better! It must count a one of the best dives I had ever done, we saw five sharks, three species of turtle, large barracuda, tiny 'cleaner' shrimps, garden eels, plus many, many reef fish, all colours and sizes. It was amazing and great to be able to spend so much time underwater watching it all. We largely drifted with the current which took us almost a third of the way around the island. Great dive.
Met up with Ruth afterwards for some more snorkelling. This time we entered the water at the Coral Garden and worked our way around to the lighthouse, about a quarter of the way round the island, fighting the current in some parts, and struggling with very poor visibility at times. Nonetheless we had some good sightings - turtles, just one shark, several very large fish and the, by now, usual reef fish, including butterflyfish and angelfish and two large bat fish. Having swum so far we had to walk back along the beach to collect our things and then headed back for a good shower and dinner and as we were just about wiped out from the days activities, bed.
Early, yet again, the next morning courtesy of the screeching birds. They were white-capped noddies and they had made weird calls on and off all night, mewling like a baby or a cat, but in the morning they change their 'song' to a screech. We walked along the beach with the sun just above the horizon looking for turtles. A beautiful morning but no turtle sightings though we did see the tracks of a turtle going up the beach to nest.
After breakfast we wandered back along the beach watching the frigate birds soaring high overhead, watching for the chance of a meal. They will happily steal a smaller bird's catch if they can. We had a quick dip in the lagoon, today there were lots of small reef fish and......a couple of turtles browsing. Back to the room for forty winks then get ready for our snorkel safari.
Boarded the boat off the lighthouse and set off immediately as Manta had been seen nearby. Sure enough, a manta arrived, ex were taken up current of it and got in the water to drift down towards it. It loomed out of the plankton bloom, just below the surface of the water and glided majestically past us, absolutely breathtaking, a wonderful sight. We stayed in the water a bit longer as the boat driver had seen more, and the we did. These were a bit deeper, but still wonderful to see them swim effortlessly beneath us, gently banking as they went.
We re-boarded the boat and were taken to other locations on the reefs, several times to see reef fish and a solitary shark, looking very sleepy and sluggish. As the hour was almost up we re-boarded the boat for the last time and headed back to the drop-off point. But, on the way another manta was seen and we were allowed another swim to see it. It was huge and majestic and wonderful!
Back to the island for lunch. We just relaxed afterwards, the exertions of all the snorkelling having caught up with us. It was great just to enjoy the view, the birds and the glorious weather. We went for a walk around the island just before sunset, the tide was just turning and all the coral flats and the beaches were exposed. A lovely walk capped off by the sun setting. It was windy but somehow that didn't seem to matter because it was warm and there was no one in sight.
Our last morning on the island, we had to check out by 10am but we were determined to have one last snorkel. A quick breakfast, back to sort out our rooms and pack almost everything, then off to the lighthouse. The wind was a little kinder on this side of the island and the sea calmer so in we went. Poor visibility to,start with but we finned out a way and it cleared, plenty of reef fish to be seen and then an eagle ray glided along, turned to look closer at us then swam off. A nice sighting, it was probably 2 metres across and we could see the white spots on its back very distinctly.
Several large fish, a school of jacks and a couple of turtles later time was up and we headed back to say our goodbyes to the dive team who had been great; very friendly and helpful with both diving and snorkelling. We made it to the departure lounge twenty minutes late but no one was bothered and we took off ten minutes before schedule, so no real waiting around. We flew to Bundaberg first to drop one family. We could see the vast extent of the sugar cane fields around Bundaberg from the air. Then on to Hervey Bay where we collected the camper and set off, coincidentally, to Bundaberg. It took longer than the flight!