N I G E L M A R S H P H O T O G R A P H Y
U N D E R W A T E R I M A G E S A N D A R T I C L E S
TURTLES AND OTHER TREASURES OF HERON ISLAND
by Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose
Turtles are what first attracted people to Heron Island, and they still do today. In 1925 Mr L. Marsh (no relation thankfully) was the first attracted to the island by turtles, to start a turtle soup factory. Fortunately things didn’t go to plan and the factory soon went out of business. Today people come to Heron Island to encounter turtles in a more natural and harmonious way, by snorkelling and diving with these ancient reptiles. However, everyone soon discovers that turtles are just one of the many treasures of this marvellous dive destination.
Heron Island, a wonderful coral cay off Gladstone, was the location of one of the first dive resorts on the Great Barrier Reef, and even today it is one of only a handful of resorts where you are actually staying on the reef. The island is a great place to stay and dive, and you can literally walk out of your cabin door and seconds later be snorkelling on the spectacular reef flats around the island.
Snorkelling is very popular at Heron Island, one of the reasons that the island attracts family groups, with two of the best snorkelling spots being Shark Bay and Heron Harbour. At Shark Bay snorkelers will encounter stingrays, shovelnose rays, reef sharks and even lemon sharks, in only 2m of water on the high tide. While in Heron Harbour are schools of trevally, rabbitfish and sweetlips that gather under the boats and jetty in only 4m of water. But snorkelers will also see shovelnose rays, stingrays, reef sharks, gropers and eagle rays. Snorkelling is actually great anywhere around Heron Island, and at all sites you are bound to run into turtles.
Turtles are prolific at Heron Island as they nest on the island each summer. While hawksbill turtles and loggerhead turtles are occasionally encountered, the island really belongs to the green turtles. It is a wonderful experience to dive with these marine reptiles, but quite humbling to watch them nesting. The process takes hours, with the female dragging her heavy body up the beach, then digging a hole in the warm sand, before finally laying her clutch of eggs. And she will repeat this process several times each season. Even more entertaining is watching the hatchlings emerge from the sand, and scampering down to the water like tiny windup toys.
Of course the best way to observe turtles at Heron Island is diving, and with over twenty dive sites to explore there is something for everyone. The dive shop at Heron Island offer three dives daily, plus night dives on demand, and operate two dive boats that take both divers and snorkelers to sites around the island. Currents are common around the island, but used to do drift diving.
Heron Island’s most famous dive site is located just outside the harbour and is called Heron Bommie. This name is a bit misleading as there are actually six large bommies at this site in depths from 8m to 18m. These bommies attract marine life like a magnet, and are home to schools of sweetlips, hussars, fusiliers and batfish. Other common fish species include coral trout, coral cod, gropers, Maori wrasse, barramundi cod, emperors, angelfish and even pelagics like trevally and mackerel.
Turtles rest and get cleaned at these bommies, and while there are always two or three turtles to be seen, at times a dozen drop in. The turtles are so accustomed to divers that you can get very close for photos, and some are so relaxed that they go to sleep as you watch. Heron Bommie also attracts eagle rays, stingrays, tasselled wobbegongs, whitetip reef sharks and manta rays, which hover over the bommies to get cleaned.
There are also many smaller critters in the nook and crannies of the bommies, which are easily overlooked, but sharp eyed divers will see nudibranchs, flatworms, shrimps, crabs, pipefish and scorpionfish. During your stay you will want to dive Heron Bommie every day.
On the northern side of the Heron Island are a number of brilliant dive sites like Gorgonia Hole, Blue Pools and Hole in the Wall. But one of the best in this area is North Bommie. At this site divers can explore a sloping coral wall or a collection of small and large bommies. The largest bommie is riddled with ledges and caves that are usually overflowing with baitfish. At North Bommie divers will also see stingrays, pelagic fish, gropers, crayfish and of course turtles.
The southern side of Heron Island has another great collection of dive sites like the Coral Canyons and Harry’s Bommie, but the pretty Coral Gardens are always a delight. Similar to many sites around Heron Island, the Coral Gardens has either walls or bommies to explore in depth to 17m. The hard corals here are healthy and overflowing with small reef fish and invertebrate species. Pelagic fish cruise this site and divers will encounter mackerel, trevally, fusiliers, batfish and barracuda. Turtles love to rest on the coral in this area, but also look out for reef sharks, blue spotted stingrays and the odd passing manta ray.
Adjacent to Heron Island is another large reef system called Wistari Reef, which also has walls and bommies that are fabulous to explore. Turtles, stingrays, pelagic fish, nudibranchs and schools of sweetlips and hussars are just some of the marine life that can be seen at sites like Wistari 1 and 3 Rocks.
Diving at Heron Island is brilliant year round, with the visibility typically 15m to 30m. Turtles are seen in large numbers at any time of the year, but summer is always a special time to visit to watch them nesting, and sometimes mating. But if you do come over the summer months we would recommend ear plugs, as Heron Island is also a haven for nesting sea birds and one species, the mutton bird, can get very vocal at night (likened to hundreds of babies screaming!). Heron Island is a place of many treasures that all divers, and even non-divers, will love.
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