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
LADY ELLIOT ISLAND – A PLACE IN THE HEART
By Nigel Marsh
I am often asked by divers what is the best dive destination on the Great Barrier Reef. I always find this a difficult question, especially as I have dived most sections of ‘The Reef’ over the last thirty years and have written several guide books about it, so to single out just one spot on this huge complex of reefs is not an easy task. I generally ask what they want to see, how much time they have, if they want to be based on a liveaboard or resort, and then give them a dozen different world-class options. But some divers persist, wanting to know my personal favourite. It is then that I finally let the-cat-out-of-the-bag, revealing the location that holds a special place in my heart, a tiny coral quay at the very southern tip of this massive structure, an island called Lady Elliot.
Lady Elliot Island was the first place I dived on ‘The Reef’ (way back in 1984), and I instantly fell in love with the place - impressed by the wonderful dive sites and abundant marine life surrounding this 42 hectare island. At that time the resort was very basic; safari tent accommodation, a small share bathroom with no mirror and all the meals were enjoyed outdoors, under the trees, where you had to cover your food to avoid the numerous nesting sea birds depositing extra sauce on your meal! Even being hit by the tail end of a cyclone didn’t put a dampener on things, as I didn’t miss a single dive. I have since returned to Lady Elliot Island three times, while the resort is a little more upmarket these days, the diving hasn’t changed - it is still spectacular.
The main attraction at Lady Elliot is manta rays, with the reefs around the island hosting the biggest population of these majestic rays to be found in Australian waters. On each trip I have done to the island I have encountered manta rays, dozens of them. They can be seen anywhere around the island; feeding on the surface, hovering over bommies to get cleaned or just cruising about.
The best manta ray encounters occur on the numerous bommies that litter the western side of the island. These bommies rise from a sandy bottom and are giant coral heads that attract a wealth of marine life. Most have cleaning stations, operated by a tireless army of cleaner wrasse, that service visiting fish, sharks, moray eels, stingrays and manta rays. While the manta rays are getting cleaned divers can generally get quite close to photograph or just observe these graceful creatures. But even when the manta rays are not getting cleaned they often circle divers to check-you-out, to satisfy their natural curiosity.
Some of the best manta ray encounters at Lady Elliot occur between dives, if you have energy left to snorkel. On the surface you can watch the mantas feed, their cephalic fins spread wide to funnel plankton into their huge mouth. But I have also found that the rays are more playful on the surface and have played tag with a number of manta rays and even had them doing summersaults around me.
While manta rays are the main star, Lady Elliot Island has no shortage of other wonderful marine life. The island is surrounded by twenty odd dive sites, all with moorings to avoid anchors damaging the delicate corals found here. On the eastern side of island, which is more exposed to the weather, there are gutters, caves and walls to explore in depths from 10m to 26m. At sites like The Tubes, Hiro’s Cave and The Blowhole there are large caves to explore that are home to thick schools of glassfish and cardinalfish, plus stingrays, lionfish, tawny nurse sharks, gropers and tasselled wobbegong sharks. The coral growth on this side of the island is dominated by hard coral, but hanging off the walls are also photogenic gorgonians, black corals and soft corals. Turtles, manta rays, reef sharks, eagle rays, batfish and schools of barracuda, trevally, snapper, sweetlips and rainbow runners are also commonly found here.
The western side of the island is sheltered from most weather and has numerous dive sites. In the shallows are The Coral Gardens and Second Reef that are popular sites with snorkelers and less experienced divers. In depths to 15m are pretty hard coral gardens that are home to a wide range of reef fish, invertebrate species, turtles, pelagic fish and reef sharks.
The best spot to see sharks at Lady Elliot Island is a site called The Shark Pools. This site is quite shallow, only 2m to 8m deep, so is best done on snorkel, it is also usually surgy and murkier than other sites around the island. However, the gutters and caves here are where white-tip reef sharks and tawny nurse sharks rest. Other reef sharks also gather here at low tide waiting for the tide to turn, then they charge over the reef flats to feed on fish trapped by the low water. Just wide of The Shark Pools is a spot I call Shark Bait, where larger sharks patrol, including black-tip whalers, bull sharks and even the odd tiger shark.
The large lagoon on the eastern side of the island is another great place to snorkel (or reef walk at low tide). Snorkelling here at high tide I am always amazed by the marine life found in only 2m of water. Turtles, blue spotted lagoon rays, nudibranchs, moray eels and abundant reef fish are always found, but my favourite are the epaulette sharks. These metre long sharks generally rest deep in the coral during the day and emerge at night to feed, but you can usually find one or two out for a day time stroll, and stroll they do as they like to walk across the bottom on their fins.
The most popular dive sites at Lady Elliot Island are an endless string of bommies that rise from the sand off the western side of the island. These bommies are found in depths from 15m to 20m and have names like Anchor Bommie, Three Pyramids, Maori Wrasse Bommie and Lighthouse Bommies. These colourful coral bommies are home to turtles, stingrays, tasselled wobbegongs, batfish, moray eels, gropers, barramundi cod, Maori wrasse, coral trout, octopus, crayfish and many other species. As mentioned they are regularly visited by manta rays, but also expect to see white-tip reef sharks, grey reef sharks, eagle rays and even the odd bottlenose dolphin. With so many large animals, photographers will hardly get their wide angle lens off their camera while diving Lady Elliot, but if you do want to do some macro there is plenty of smaller critters to photograph, including nudibranchs, flatworms, shrimps, crabs and the odd exotic fish like leaf scorpionfish and stonefish.
The sand around and between the bommies is also well worth a look. This bright sand is home to garden eels, jawfish, shrimp gobies, mantis shrimps and larger creatures like leopard sharks, white-spotted shovelnose rays plus several species of stingray. For the photographer this sand is a bit of a nightmare, it is pure white and very bright, and when you add 30m average visibility you will find you over-expose many of your photographs in these brilliant blue waters.
This sandy plain is also home to one of the few intact shipwrecks on the Great Barrier Reef. The Severance was a 25m long yacht that sank in 1998 and is still basically intact with masts, rigging and part of the sails to be seen. Resting in 22m, the yacht is now covered with soft corals and sponges plus home to schools of sweetlips, stingrays, turtles, reef sharks and a group of resident cobia.
The dive shop on Lady Elliot Island offers two scheduled boat dives daily, and extra dives and night dives on demand. Two dives a day might not sound like much, but most dives are over an hour long and you will find yourself enjoying the snorkelling between dives as well. When not in the water there is plenty to do as Lady Elliot Island is a national park and home to hundreds of thousands of sea birds. Birds are everywhere, especially during the summer breeding season. They nest in the trees, on the ground and even in the pot plants around the resort! If you don’t like being close to birds, forget about coming to Lady Elliot as it feels like you are living in a scene from the Hitchcock movie ‘The Birds’. While they don’t attack you, expect to get poohed on at least once a day!
At night other creatures emerge, turtles nest on the island over summer and it is an incredible sight to see one of these ancient reptiles lay her eggs. Frogs, geckos and crabs also emerge after dark, but the most dreaded of the night creatures are the mutton birds. Also known as shearwaters, these birds nest underground and are silent during the day, but at night they squeak and squeal, which sounds like a baby being strangled! Fortunately these blood curdling screams only go on for a few months over summer, and ear plugs are supplied in each room. Winter time can be one of the best times to visit Lady Elliot Island, the water maybe cooler, but the birds are quiet and there are more manta rays to be seen, plus humpback whales are common around the island at this time of the year.
The eco resort on the Lady Elliot Island is very low key and only takes up a small portion of the island. The runway down the middle of the island takes up more space, but provides the only access to the island. Flights to Lady Elliot Island depart daily from either Bundaberg or Hervey Bay, and give spectacular views of the coastline and the island. But a word of warning, the weight restrictions on these flights is pretty server, only 10kg per person. On our last trip we left most of our dive gear at home and stripped back the camera gear to the basics, but were still 10kg over. We were quite prepared to pay excess baggage, but in the end all the gear was put on the plane without fuss and we weren’t charged any extra.
Also be warned that Lady Elliot Island is additive, I know I’m addicted to this island, what with the great combination of spectacular wildlife above and below the waterline it is all too easy to fall under the spell of this wonderful island, a place that is very special in my heart.
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