There are plenty of reasons to visit Lady Elliot Island but the main one is to go diving or snorkeling on either side of the Island. For people new to the sport, the lagoon is a great place to start. It is a shallow reef zone and so snorkeling is only possible here for the two hours either side of high tide. It is also the dive that demands little preparation as the visitor simply has to kit up on their verandah with wet suit (optional), goggles, mask and flippers and it is then just a 20 metre walk to the edge of the lagoon from your accommodation’s verandah. The other reason to spend time in the lagoon is because its shallowness means there is plenty of sunlight entering the water so the fish and other sea creatures are very visible. If you have an under-water camera, this is where you can get great photos with all the colours of the sea life very evident. The problem with the snorkeling on the reef side, it that it is easy to see the beautiful coral formations and the hordes of larger fish but the depth of the water means that colours fade as the fish swim closer to the bottom.
One of the first small fish you will notice when snorkelling in the lagoon is the Farmer Damselfish above. It is called a ‘Farmer’ fish quite deliberately as it farms a ‘brown carpet algae’ on staghorn coral, driving away other fish or sea urchins. It also attempts to drive away humans if they get too inquisitive about their ‘farm’. The photo on the right above is an example of the Farmer Damselfish darting at me as the camera came too close to its coral area.
Fish of course aren’t the only creature that you will come across snorkelling in the lagoon. There are plenty of species of Beche de Mer (Sea Cucumbers) that prowl the sandy pathways between the coral. On the left is one of the more decorated species, the leopard Spotted Sea Cucumber. On the right a Farmer Damsel Fish is caught hovering over one of the black tubular species of sea cucumbers. The sea cucumbers were the reason behind the first visit of humanity to this island in 1805 where traders harvested these sea cucumbers to sell them as delicacies into Asian ports. It didn’t take long for the sea urchins to be cleared out and these traders moved on. The sea cucumbers have returned to this reef in plentiful numbers.
But it’s the colourful reef fish that attract most of the attention of snorkelers in the lagoon. The colourfully banded wrasse species above are very common but have to be stalked to get a decent picture. Perhaps the most exotic looking fish in the lagoon is the aptly named Picasso Triggerfish (below right) which eats apparently almost anything from small invertebrates and reef algae. They are very territorial and protect their estate, particularly during breeding season from intruders such as snorkelers.
One less common fish that the lagoon snorkeler will come across is the Brown Marbled Grouper, seen below left. It is active mainly in the darker hours. It is a carnivorous fish and is an ambush feeder on smaller fish and crustaceans. It can live for around 40 years but has been listed as a vulnerable species due to overfishing by the ‘live food fish trade’. The Strippy Snapper was also not a particularly common sight in the lagoon (right, below). It is a native species of the western Pacific and Indian oceans
One of the beautiful sights for snorkellers in the lagoon is the number of giant clams that find themselves a home amongst the coral. I was amazed at the colours and ‘decorations’ of the external ‘lips’ which close up if the snorkeller gets too close. It is a bivalve mollusc, a filter feeder taking in plankton. They have algae inside them in a symbiotic relationship with the clam; the algae produce waste products that also become a food source for the clam. Unfortunately, the giant clam is on the list of vulnerable species due to the Aquarium trade.
Another smaller attractive mollusc to be found slowly roaming the reef in the lagoon is the Cowrie (below left), a sea snail that eats by rasping its way along the coral eating the seaweed.
On most days of the week, a member of staff hosts at low tide, a walk in the lagoon showcasing many of the local sea-creatures that can be accessed in the shallow water. One of these creatures that we were shown on this walk was the New Caledonian Sea Star, an ‘echinoderm’ that consumes algae as well as sponges, snails and other small creatures on the reef.
Perhaps the highlight of any time spent in the lagoon is when the snorkeller comes across a turtle. Luckily for us, the turtles ignore the inquisitive humans that circle it as they go about their business searching for food along the reef. It feeds on bottom dwelling invertebrates as well as sponges, coral, sea urchins, sea cucumbers etc.
Perhaps one of the reasons the turtles are so interesting to humans is that they are ancient creatures dating from the time of the dinosaurs, over 100 million years ago. We encountered the Loggerhead turtle in the photos below swimming the lagoon in July 2022 but the really interesting time is between November to March when turtles come ashore to nest. Sea turtles of all kinds (there are six species seen in the waters around Lady Elliot Island) are considered endangered due to all the usual threats from human-related activities that produce plastic bags, entangled fishing equipment, passing boats and environmental disturbance to nesting sites along the Australian coastline. These issues are why places like LEI are so important for the work this Eco Resort does as part of the Great Barrier Reef National park.
A walk along the top of the beach fronting the lagoon shows the large disturbed areas under the Octopus Bushes. These are the holes where the turtles have come ashore to bury their eggs in previous seasons. It is from under these bushes that the hatchlings make their dangerous stagger down to the lagoon and escape out to sea. Current estimates suggest that only 1 in a thousand of hatchlings survive to maturity.
(The lady Eliot Island website provides access to free PDF information sheets on all sorts of island issues, particularly on turtles.)
Normally the bigger fish species are more at home on the Reef Side of Lady Elliot Island but sometimes they are stray into the lagoon. The Parrotfish (right below) belongs to a large family of species; 95 species can be found in the Indian and pacific ocean. They are called parrot fish because they have numerous teeth which they use to rasp algae off the surface of corals. Some parrot fish have the curious ability to surround themselves with a mucous cocoon at night that gives them some protection, if only an early warning of a predator about to strike.
The Blue Spine Unicorn Fish (above left) is another large fish that I spotted prowling the sandy alleyways of the lagoon. It is a near shore fish feeding on algae from the coral. It is apparently an abundant fish throughout the Pacific and is a common food source for people on the Pacific Islands
We were very excited on one of our days snorkeling in the lagoon when a group not far away called out to us with the cry of ‘OCTOPUS’! I had never encountered an octopus before but this one was Octopus Cyanea, an octopus that lives on the reef and usually its camouflage keeps it out of sight from inquisitive snorkelers. As part of its camouflage, it can change its skin colour to match the surface area it is moving over. When we spotted it, it was a deep maroon colour which is quite impressive for a creature that is sometimes called the Big Blue Octopus’. It dines on fish, crabs, shrimp, and molluscs.
It is often a surprise for snorkellers in the lagoon to encounter the Black Tipped Reef Shark. I have only seen the one below and it paid no attention to the snorkellers in its vicinity. It is abundant around the tropical reefs of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It feeds off small fishes, squid and crabs. It is probably lucky for us that it is difficult to approach. It is listed as vulnerable due to over fishing.
APPENDIX 1: HELP!
Can you identify this curious fish spotted amongst the coral in the lagoon?