A key part of any visitor’s time on Lady Elliot Island is the glass bottom boat tour that is part of everyone’s package when they come to the island. Everyone is encouraged to do it on their first full morning. The group don their wetsuits and are bused to the lighthouse side of the island and given a tour of the reef side. The hour-long boat trip includes a forty minute snorkel over the reef and if anyone had doubts about the trip to this island, their concerns immediately disappear when they discover the beauty of hovering over a coral reef where masses of fish are going about their daily business.
One of the big reasons for many snorkellers and divers coming to Lady Elliot Island is to see the Manta Rays. As the Resort’s fact sheet explains… “Lady Elliot Island (LEI) is a major hotspot for manta rays in eastern Australia and has recently been the focus of intensive scientific research aiming to uncover various aspects of their secret lives”. The Manta Rays can grow up to 7 metres wide (wing tip to wing tip) but are gentle giants that feed on microscopic plankton. They are harmless to humans and do not have a stinging barb. They also have the largest brain to body size of any fish. While Manta Rays can be found all year round here, the largest number of Manta Ray visitors occurs during the Winter months, May to August.
One of the curious behaviours of Manta Rays is their love for getting their skin cleaned. They will visit the Lighthouse Bommie (a submerged offshore reef…see map further on in this blog) and small fishes like Wrasses will gather and clean their skins of parasites and other pests. This is a symbiotic relationship and these small ‘cleaner fish’ will even go inside the manta Ray’s mouth and gills to clean out the parasites. The Mantas get a good clean and the cleaner Wrasses get a good feed. The Fish World knows that the lighthouse bommie is where all this cleaning action takes place so this small reef a little further offshore is where both snorkellers and divers go to watch the Mantas get pampered.
We visited Lady Elliot Island in June of 2021 with family and we did one of the Manta Ray expeditions to view the Rays from the glass bottom boat. The photos below are the results of this very successful tour.
One of the issues that must be checked out before snorkelling along the reef side of the island is to find out first the direction the current is travelling. It is an important step at the start of each day to check out the water conditions (high tide, currents) on the whiteboard at the dive shop. This will then determine whether you start your exploration of the reef from the airport runway end or the lighthouse end. To make snorkelling easier for all swimming levels of visitors, a very long rope has been connected to anchored buoys along the reef so swimmers who need a rest or folk who like more security than others can snorkel with one hand close to the ‘safety rope’. The map below shows some of the exploration paths on the reef side of the island.
There is so much to see snorkelling over the offshore reef at Lady Elliot. One of the problems with this abundance of amazing marine sights is the irresistible temptation for those carrying a waterproof camera to continuously take photos. It is probably preferrable just to relax and enjoy the journey rather then worry about recording it. The problem with the reef side of the island is that for much of the high-tide period, the water is quite deep around the coral reef so those beautiful fish you see at the bottom lose much of their colour (eg. Photo below left).
The deeper you go in the water, the spectrum of colours from the sunlight disappears. Red is the first colour filtered out and then yellows turn to grey and greens slowly turn brown. Blue is the colour that travels farthest. Scuba divers down at 300 metres need lights to find their way around. Based on the colour shown in the above images, a colour scientist might be able to guess how deep the fish are! The Lined Butterflyfish on the left is an easy fish to spot, not just because it is yellow but it also seems to swim higher up in the water from the top of the reef.
There are plenty of Turtles to see on the reef side of the Island. The turtle in the image below kindly swam well above the reef so we were able to see its swimming style in open water with only some loss of colour on its shell and body.
There are also reef sharks on this side of the island but they seem entirely uninterested in the rubber clad humanity swimming around in their world.
There were some gorgeous big fish swimming around this coral but with green and blue being the predominant colours it was hard to do justice to these characters.
The failure of my camera to capture the perfect shots of the reef fish was exacerbated one afternoon when we had finished our snorkel on the reef and we were relaxing on beach. We were joined by a group who had clearly come well prepared for taking great photos on the reef. Two of the four divers had sets of lights that were clearly powerful enough to capture fish colouring well below the surface. The other two had cameras the size and shape of garden buckets so they had arrived seriously prepared to ensure they captured the best images. They asked us if we had seen any Manta Rays while we over the reef. We explained that we had been out of luck but we had at least heard the whales that were singing further out from the reef. We ran into them at dinner time where they were in a highly excited mood and announced to us that they had seen and photographed plenty of Mantas and a whale had come in close to the reef and obliged by posing for photos. Nobody in our party was gracious enough to be pleased for them.
However our poor humour didn’t last long because we were able to get back in the water the next day and see sights like the above section of reef with yellow Angelfish scurrying about.