I have always dreamed of visiting the Great Barrier Reef and snorkeling there has been on my bucket list for a long, long time. Today, I can announce with giddiness: mission accomplished!
When I first booked my trip to Australia, I spent a fair bit of time researching exactly where to go to see the Reef. 1600 miles ain’t no small task. It seems the southern part of the reef, with its pristine condition and crystal clear waters, has garnered a reputation as the savvy traveler’s destination. It’s also less touristy, so I decided that was the ticket. I arrived in Hervey Bay Friday night, a convenient jump off from Fraser Island and a launching point for tours out to Lady Elliot Island, the southern-most coral cay in the Great Barrier Reef. The island covers 99 acres and lies roughly 50 miles northeast off the coast of Bundaberg. It’s home to an Eco Resort and also boasts Green Zone classification, the reef’s highest level. Simply put, no taking and no fishing.
I booked my day trip to Lady Elliot with a massive dose of courage, because unlike other reef destinations, you get to this island on a tiny charter airplane. And anyone who knows me KNOWS how I feel about flying. I arrived at the Hervey Bay airport at 7:40am this morning and saw a little Cessna single turboprop engine airplane sitting on the tarmac. Just when I think it can’t get any worse, they tell me and the other 4 passengers that we need to fly 15 minutes north to Bundaberg, where we will pick up two more passengers before heading out to Lady Elliot. That means 4 take-offs and landings in this thing. Funny how I can do math under duress.
I took a seat behind the pilot, thinking it might be my only chance of getting aid quickly in the event of near-death and before I know it, we’re airborne. Ok, that wasn’t so bad. The landing in Bundaberg gets my heart racing though. These things flex with every little air pocket. But other than that, the little plane flies pretty smoothly and I have to admit, I’m enjoying the ride.
30 minutes after leaving Bundaberg, I catch my first glimpse of Lady Elliot on the horizon. “Wow, that’s a tiny place to land” I think. The pilot circles the island for everyone to get a good look. The reef surrounding Lady Elliot is stunning and gives the island it’s very own halo.
Our pilot does a fabulous job of smoothly landing us on nothing more than a strip of grass and I can finally breath again! Once out of the plane I can’t believe the thousands of seabirds circling overhead. They’re everywhere! The staff at Lady Elliot quickly welcome us and tell us the island is home to over 100,000 birds during the summer nesting season. We’re given a brief tour of the resort and an itinerary of events. The tour is set up nicely and you can choose to participate in any number of pre-planned activities or take the day for yourself. On the itinerary: a glass bottomed boat tour, an island eco walk, a guided reef walk, and fish feeding. They also offer snorkeling lessons for anyone new to the activity.
Tidal conditions dictate the hours of the island lagoon area. It’ll be closed when we’re back from the boat tour, so I quickly grab snorkeling gear and head out for a 30-min dip before our tour. The water is chilly but once you’re in it’s refreshing and unbelievably crystal clear! I can’t believe how far you can see! The coral is impressive and teeming with schools of fish. After snorkeling for a bit, I head to the reception area to buy an underwater camera. They’re not cheap at $28, but how many times do you get to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef?
At 10:30 we board the glass bottomed boat for a tour on the north-side of the island. Within 5 minutes we see several large Green Turtles and Loggerhead Turtles. Our guide explains that the Great Barrier is the most important sea turtle habitat in the world. Every year from November to March, sea turtles return to the beaches of Lady Elliot to nest and lay eggs. From January to April the baby turtles hatch and march their way to the ocean.
Once anchored, we grab our snorkeling gear and hop into the water. Out here it’s much deeper and the coral is breathtaking. The current is stronger than any I’ve been in and sometimes I’m struggling just to make progress. We see several large turtles in addition to scores of fish. The normally docile Triggerfish aggressively defends eggs this time of year, and they are charging straight at those of us getting a bit too close to them.
As I’m swimming along the guide points out a carpet shark on the floor of the ocean. Australians call it a wobbegong, or wobbie, in typical Aussie abbreviation speak. It’s about 3 feet long with a beautiful mottled pattern that makes it difficult to see. After nearly 30 minutes in the water, the cold is catching up to me and I can’t stop shivering, but I can’t bring myself to cut my snorkeling time short. Just as we’re about to exit the water and re-board our boat, I see a white-tipped reef shark. I point and everyone claps and cheers. Yay, finally I got to see a shark! And thank goodness these are the harmless kind.
After a few minutes in the sun my shivering stops and I hit the lunch buffet. Nothing spectacular, but enough salad and stir fry choices to keep everyone happy. I sit on the back deck of the restaurant enjoying the fabulous view. I’m usually pretty dubious about resorts set in environmentally fragile areas, and I suppose you could argue this one is just as inappropriate. But it’s a very nicely done facility and they practice with the highest of standards. The accommodations are modest and range from safari-style tenting to small cabins. Most of the resort is solar-powered and the staff are very serious about enforcing the few rules they have: don’t litter, don’t leave food out for the birds, and don’t take anything off the island. It’s refreshing to visit a place where everyone is abiding. Despite the thousands of birds, not a single one begs for food. Everyone is respecting the environment here.
I finish lunch around 1pm and decide to skip the afternoon island tour and reef walk. Our flight departs the island at 3:45 and I want to maximize my time snorkeling. I take a small break to do my own private beach walk, using the information signs as my guide. Then I hit the water again and spend the rest of my time snorkeling in my own little version of the Discovery Channel.
Our flight home is loaded to the brim with a few other people who were heading back to the mainland after staying a few days on the island. Our flight is smooth and I’m happy to report that I was able to relax most of the way back to Hervey Bay. Thank you Lady Elliot tours and Seair Charter Flights for such an amazing Great Barrier Reef experience. If I could go back again today I most certainly would!
If you’re interested in booking either a day trip or multiple day package to Lady Elliot Island, check out their website. My day tour was $299 and worth every penny.