Lady Elliot Island

It was the year of Covid 19 and we had endured various stages of lockdown…in our house, in our suburb and eventually in our sunny state of Queensland. With an interest in eco-tourism and snorkelling, we had booked a three day stay on Lady Elliot Island in May of 2020 but that had to be postponed as the Island itself was still in lockdown. So we eventually packed the car in late October of 2020 and hit the road for Hervey Bay just north of the Sunshine Coast. We spent a pleasant afternoon and evening in this gateway to the famous Fraser  Island before catching our 30 minute flight out to lady Elliot Island (LEI to the locals).

LEI is not your average island so before arriving it’s good to get an understanding of the place being visited. Unlike the rest of the continent of Australia, the island is only 3000 years old having formed around 1500 BC as a ‘coral rubble spit’. It has survived as it has always been a predator-free home for seabirds and their excrement has blended with the sand and broken coral to form its foundation of ‘beachrock’. Today it is a coral cay surrounded by an extensive reef. It is the southernmost tip of the Great Barrier Reef and so its biodiversity is protected by Australian law. This makes for clear water, lots of species of birds and marine life and great snorkelling!

For such a small speck of land in the Pacific Ocean, Lady Elliot Island has not fared well from human intervention when it was discovered at the start of the 19th century. In 1805 a seafood entrepreneur decided he would make his fortune by harvesting the lagoon’s Beche de Mer (sea cucumbers), drying and then smoking them for shipping off to Asia. The venture didn’t last long as the sea cucumbers ran out. Today there are plenty of Beche de Mer to see by snorkellers roaming the lagoon and nobody today appears to want to pick them up, let alone dry, smoke and eat them for dinner.

More devastating for Lady Elliot Island was the guano mining for 10 years between 1863-73. This excrement entrepreneur removed the vegetation from the top of the island as well as 3 feet of guano and top soil. Thus it was a totally barren cay until the 1960s when lighthouse staff began the process of revegetating the Island.

Since the 1960s, subsequent managers of the resort on the Island have continued the work of restoring the vegetation to LEI. As a result, today the Island is a haven for over 50 species of tropical birds and it is estimated that over 100000 birds nest there over summer. One of the consequences for us of this continuing vegetation process is that as soon as we got off our arrival plane, we were stunned by the amount of birds that careered around the buildings of the resort. After finishing our arrival process, we headed towards our glamping tent and passed the tree in the image on the right. As can be seen, every possible branch or fork in the tree is home to the ugliest nests in the world that accommodate the White Capped Noddys awaiting the arrival of their first egg of the breeding season. Our route to our home for the next three days was down a path between cabins that was not so much a human walking track but a flight-path for speeding Noddys and Bridled Terns that shot through the air like missiles carrying bits of straw and other detritus for their nest mates; at times I was fearful that I would end up with a bird-beak speared into my forehead from a careless bird that failed to swerve early enough.

Of course one of the first things we needed to do after settling into our tent was get ourselves kitted out for snorkelling. As part of accommodation costs for the three days, snorkels, flippers and a wet suit were provided for our usage at the resort. We had decided that our first snorkelling expedition would be after lunch so we needed to check the board outside the dive shop to see when the lagoon was open. You need significant water around you when you are swimming over coral and so the tide has to be reasonably high. We were lucky the tide was up on our first afternoon so we were able to check out a fairly small section of a very large lagoon.

I had been snorkelling all my adult life but generally at headlands on the NSW Southern Coastline and in later years around the Gold Coast. This background of snorkelling hadn’t prepared me for the quality of what I saw on that first afternoon. As can be seen from the overhead shot of the lagoon below left, the lagoon is full of low growing coral with sandy alleyways between them where the Beche de Mer of all sizes celebrate their freedom from human predators by squirming slowly across the sand.  

There was plenty of fish of all sizes and colours to float above and we were very lucky to see our first turtle. We came across the turtle apparently searching amongst the coral for food (or enemies) as he was clearly trying to dislodge some sea grass from between the coral heads. We had seen a story on the TV news before we had left home that was all about the current turtle mating season. On this first snorkel, we didn’t see any breeding action but we were happy to chalk up our first turtle.

Tired from our day of travelling and snorkelling, it was time for a nap in our tent for the rest of the afternoon before we were due to ponder the sunset from the beach near the lighthouse. It was only after spending time in our tent that we realised that the birds were going to be our constant companions. Our tent was not far from the narrow beach in front of the lagoon and all trees on this strip of land were full of bird-nests. Every time I walked the short journey from the veranda to our outdoor seats overlooking the water, I was subjected to a torrent of abuse from my avian neighbours (eg. Note image on right) who took exception to my walking near their nests. I took to returning the abuse. Our hosts had left a packet of ear plugs beside our bed, presumably suspecting that the birds might keep us awake at night with their raucous late-night conversations.

For all their loud superior attitudes to passing humans, the Noddys’ personal habits left a lot to be desired; for example their nests! They are constructed on the fly by the bird couple from bits of straw,
sticks and whatever comes to beak. The mother bird’s part in the construction is to crap all over the bits and pieces brought back by the male to bind them together; her work is very haphazard so the branches and ground around the nest are all covered in inaccurate guano targeting. I was watching a particularly chirpy bird return to his mate back at the nest with a very small piece of straw in his beak and, roughly translated, this is the one-sided conversation I overheard…
I’ve been sitting on this nest of shit all day waiting for you to come home and this little piece of fluff is all you have to offer me! Talk about a ‘shit-house’!” I am not sure what the mate of the male Noddy in the image on the left said when he brought her home a hard stick of coral to add to her nest.
It’s hard to respect a bird who breaches the basic social law of the universe, ‘Don’t shit in your own nest’!

But it seems there are social classes amongst the Noddys. There are not enough desirable tree forks on the island so many couples have to accept less attractive places to nest, such as on the ground. The mother below right stands over her newly hatched egg in her ‘nest’ of bits of bark and coral stones on the ground. The bird on the left is clearly very proud of her apartment-style nest built on a piece of wood jutting out from one of the buildings.

Our late afternoons each day were spent having a drink on the beach in front of the island’s lighthouse. The first lighthouse was built in 1866 and was the first lighthouse in Australia to be built on an offshore Island on the Barrier reef. This was badly needed as the original name of the island was ‘Wreck’ Island! A cyclone destroyed the original lighthouse and the one still in place was built in 1873 and worked famously until 1995 when the expanding vegetation grew above it. A tower built beside it (see image on right) now holds the light to warn boats and planes of a coral cay ahead.

Most people coming from urban environments rarely get treated to great sunsets. Folk who live in the countryside get to enjoy the sunsets but they are always over land, often with mountains or other natural impediments in the way. The thing about the views from an off-shore Island looking west is that the sunsets are always over water with plenty of sky as the background. The only barriers to the view are the multitudes of returning sea-birds and the occasional clouds along the horizon that usually enhance the view.

If you are an early riser, the view from the east side of LEI is very different but just as gorgeous.

One of the extras the staff of the Resort provided was an early morning walk to check out the bird life of the island that luckily didn’t involve much emphasis on white-capped Noddys. One of the highlights of this walk was to be taken to a large Octopus Bush and shown the baby chick of a pair of Red-Tailed Tropic Birds. These beautiful sea-birds are native to the tropics of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. They produce one egg that is looked after by both male and female birds. The parents remain bonded over successive seasons and whilst there are not a lot of these birds that call LEI home, the numbers are increasing.

I had noticed a white Heron strolling the lagoon the previous day but our guide for our morning walk took us to another large Octopus Bush and pointed out a nest containing a grey Heron, clearly sitting on her clutch of eggs. I asked whether the white Heron from the day before was linked to this bird and was told they were a breeding pair; different colours in the same bird species is called dimorphism. These birds are called both the Pacific Reef Heron or the Eastern Reef Egret and are found throughout southern Asia and Oceania.

The major event of our morning was to take a tour in a glass bottom boat off the beach in front of the lighthouse. This trip gave us plenty of information about the ‘live’ coral around the island as well as providing us with an opportunity to do some snorkelling over much deeper water than we had encountered in the lagoon. On this trip we spotted a reef shark as well as four turtles going about their business around the reefs. The size of the actual fish and the schools of fish were much large than the ones we encountered in the lagoon the previous afternoon.

After lunch we decided to take it easy and go for another snorkel out into the lagoon before heading over to the lighthouse for a drink and a ponder of the beauty of the sunset over the water.

Although our bird neighbours kept up their chatter most of the night, we decided we didn’t need ear-plugs and a great sleep was had, presumably our previous day had exhausted us. Our Sunday was a big snorkelling day as this was the day we would snorkel along the western side of LEI, using the guide ropes that the resort had installed, attached to buoys that led swimmers along a journey above the reefs. These were great as they instilled confidence in less confident snorkelers as well as giving seasoned types a chance to hold on and relax. The poster below gives a pretty good idea of the process…all the snorkelers had to figure out was which way the current was running.

We had snorkelled a little along the reefs on this side of the island on the previous day but our relaxed slow progress enabled us to see and appreciate more on Sunday’s expedition. We weren’t collecting sightings but we did see our another Reef Shark and our first Manta Rays on this morning. We had stopped counting the number of large and small turtles we sighted. We saw so many more large fish today such as Groupers as well as the usual colourful fish that made these reefs their home (see below)

Speaking of Manta Rays, we of course didn’t see as many Manta Rays as the day the photograph on the right was taken by one of the staff of the resort. They are amazing creatures, almost birds of the sea, as they slowly cruise above the reef swallowing and filtering the zooplankton through their open mouths.

Perhaps our best encounter was on our last morning after an early snorkel. We walked around the end of the Island along the crushed coral beach and came upon a turtle in the shallows. The huge creature was sunning itself in a rock pool at the edge of the lagoon. It made our morning and convinced us that we had enjoyed three delightful days on Lady Elliot Island and made us determined to return in the future with our family.

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