Sunshine Coast Birds

Birding and other wildlife experiences from the Sunshine Coast and elsewhere in Australia - and from overseas - with scribblings about travel, environmental issues, kayaking, hiking and camping.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Lady Elliot Island Article - Qantas Magazine

Green Turtle, Lady Elliot Island
Here is my travel feature published in the current edition of Qantas The Australian Way. For more images see this post and associated posts.

THE SUN SETS OVER the Great Barrier Reef as people gather on the beach fringing the large tidal lagoon on Lady Elliot Island. They are carefully scanning the small waves lapping the coral rubble along the shore. As darkness looms, they spot what they are looking for. A female green turtle emerges cautiously from the water, hauling her great bulk up the beach with flippers that appear inadequate for the task. The visitors watch silently as the turtle, as if on cue, comes to rest a few metres from them. She excavates a deep nesting hollow in the sand with her hind flippers. She has swum as far as 2500km to reach her nesting place, probably the same beach where she
hatched some 30 years earlier.

The turtle settles in to deposit 100 or so eggs in this incubation chamber. Under the supervision of trained staff, people approach closely, but quietly, to watch. Her labours over, she fills the hollow
with sand and returns to the sea. The turtle will repeat this process up to seven times during breeding season, then may not return to nest for another five to seven years. Interestingly, when her eggs hatch, the sex of the nestlings will depend on the temperature of the sand. The relatively cool sands of
Lady Elliot Island apparently favour the production of male offspring.

Manta Ray
The 42-hectare Lady Elliot Island lies at the southern tip of the world’s biggest structure composed of living organisms – the 2000-kilometre-long Great Barrier Reef. The cooler southern reef waters surrounding the coral cay, and its distance from the coast - Bundaberg is 80 kilometres to the west – ensure that Lady Elliot is not blighted by coral bleaching, crown-of-thorn starfish invasions, or pollution from mainland erosion and chemical run-off.

The island’s coral reefs and waters are among the most pristine in the world. Lady Elliot has the highest protection classification in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, so wildlife is not hunted or fished. The island has all the ingredients to justify its rapidly growing reputation as one of Australia’s premier ecotourism destinations.

The abundance of life on and around this tiny atoll makes a strong impression on visitors. Tens of thousands of seabirds nest here and they have been unmolested for so long that they are oblivious to human interlopers in their midst. In season, every tree in the grounds of the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort – the only accommodation on the island - is laden with the nests of smartly plumaged black noddies, a species of tern. As planes arrive with resort guests, dense clouds of brown noddies - which unlike their close relatives, nest on the ground - rise from the runway.

Garrulous bridled terns nest around the accommodation and along pathways although their nests are mere scrapes in the ground; guests learn quickly to watch where they walk. Sprightly buff-banded rails waste no time raiding unattended plates in the dining area. Stately frigatebirds soar in the skies above. Everywhere during the nesting season from October to March, seabirds are sitting protectively on eggs or busily feeding chicks at various stages of development with tiny fish and squid caught at sea.

The resort supplies earplugs to guests to help block out the eerie wailing at night of wedge-tailed shearwaters, or muttonbirds, which nest in burrows dug around their rooms. Asian workers mining guano on the island in the late-1800s believed they were hearing ghosts; the men were terrified and refused to leave their tents at night.

Leopard Shark
The destination is not everybody’s idea of bliss. One visitor described a visit to Lady Elliot Island in a review as a “holiday from hell” with “30 or more nests in every tree, birds in the bushes, under the stairs.... the stench caused by the birds was so bad it made your eyes water”. Overwhelmingly, however, visitors are enchanted by the antics and grace of the birds and their young. Complaints about the vaguely fishy odour that pervades the island as a result of the nesting are rare.

This is a destination where guests may sip a gin-and-tonic while enjoying the spectacle of a pair of rare and beautiful red-tailed tropicbirds feeding a boisterous chick from the veranda of their villa. Scuba divers and snorkelers are attracted to the crystal clear waters around the island with its wealth of colourful hard corals ranging from tree-like staghorns to slow-growing boulder and flat plate corals. Guests can stroll a few metres from their accommodation to snorkel in the shallow lagoon at high tide, or walk a few minutes to the other side of the island to deep water.

Black Noddy
 The reefs provide food and shelter to a bewildering myriad of marine life. The island is famed for its manta rays. Nothing quite prepares the snorkeler for the sight of this massive fish – one of the world’s biggest, measuring up to eight metres between wing tips – as it appears seemingly out of nowhere to glide gracefully through the water below them. The island is home to 40 manta rays
and many more visit its waters. Elegantly patterned leopard sharks patrol the seabed in search of prey. Gaudily decorated picasso triggerfish dart between coral outcrops as gawking
damselfish lurk beneath them. Beautifully coloured butterfly fish of various varieties strut their stuff. Immaculate scissor-tailed sergeants, small black-and-white fish, peer curiously into snorkel face masks.

Bridled Tern
The seabed is littered with marine animals including clams of many shapes and sizes, bright blue linkia starfish and the sea cucumbers, or bĂȘche-de-mer, which sustained a small fishing industry on the island early last century. Turtles and other marine life at most diving destinations around the world are shy and difficult to approach, but around Lady Elliot they are not afraid of people. Curious rays and turtles sometimes approach them; a snorkeler may need to hold their nerve in the imposing – albeit harmless - face of an inquisitive manta ray up close.

Humpback whales provide further appeal to the island as an ecotourism destination. Hervey Bay, a short distance south of Lady Elliot, is a major wintering ground for whales and they are frequent visitors to island waters from June to October, when they can be seen at close quarters from shore.

Lady Elliot Island was officially discovered in 1816 by Captain Thomas Stuart aboard his ship, Lady Elliot, which came to grief later on a reef of the same name in north Queensland. Lady Elliot Island itself was once known as Shipwreck Island. About 20 ships have floundered on its reefs; the rusting
engines of vessels a century old can be seen on reef flats at low tide.

Lady Elliot Island

A white-towered lighthouse built in 1873 to guide the ships of guano miners stands today as the island’s signature heritage feature. It was the first lighthouse in Australia with a timber frame and weather-proof cast iron external cladding. In just a few years, the guano miners destroyed the island’s vegetation - and with it the vast seabird colonies – with the removal of a metre of surface soil. Revegetation began with the building of the first tourist accommodation in 1969 and continues today.

The resort makes a concerted effort to reduce its environmental footprint. A hybrid power station using a bank of 128 panels has reduced carbon emissions from diesel generators by 70 per cent. Most waste is removed by boat; laundry is sent to the mainland to save water; no bottled water is sold; and the airstrip is irrigated by treated waste water.  The birds returned when their nesting places were restored. The breeding population of black noddies increased from a low of 35 pairs post-mining
to 70,000 pairs today. With growing numbers of visitors seeking out quality ecotourism destinations in Australia, that kind of avian wealth counts for something.

Snorkelling - Lady Elliot Island


The island has the advantage of easy accessibility to the Great Barrier Reef, with short daily flights from Brisbane (via Hervey Bay or Bundaberg) or the Gold Coast. The resort offers accommodation ranging from basic tented huts to comfortable suites costing from $165 to $339 per person per night including most meals and activities such as glass bottom boat tour, fish-feeding and
guided walks. More:

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