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LADY ELLIOT ISLAND - MUCH MORE THAN MANTAS

By Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose

 

Lady Elliot Island is famous for its manta rays, with the island renown as the best place in Australia to see these majestic creatures. However, this wonderful coral cay has much more than manta rays as we discovered on a recent visit.

 

I first visited Lady Elliot Island almost thirty years ago and have returned many times, but my last visit was twenty years ago. The island has some of the best dive sites found on the Great Barrier Reef, but after a twenty year absence I was interested to see what had changed and if the diving was as good as I remembered.

 

Located at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, off Bundaberg, Lady Elliot Island is only accessible by plane, from either Bundaberg or Hervey Bay. Arriving on the island, after a 35 minute flight from Hervey Bay, the first thing that I noticed that hadn’t changed was the smell – bird poo, as hundreds of thousands of seabirds nest on the island. There are literally birds everywhere; nesting in the trees, nesting on the ground, on the footpaths and even in the pot plants. You quickly get use to the smell and the birds, as they are all around you, even in the dining room! You also get use to being poohed on at least once a day, all part of the Lady Elliot experience.

 

Greeted by one of the staff Nick, we were guided around the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort. The resort is very low key, to minimise its impact on the fragile island environment, and I noticed a number of changes since my last visit, with more accommodation, offices and a small conference centre. The resort includes a range of cabins and safari style tent accommodation and is centred around a large lounge/dining/bar and education centre. The dive shop had also had an upgrade, and was our first stop after checking into our cabin.

 

The dive shop is managed by Kym Fiora, who has been on the island for over seven years, he is ably assisted by a number of other long term dive staff – Mark, Alesh, Chris and Ryan. The first time I dived the island it was all shore diving, which limited the dive sites you could reach, but now it is all boat diving with two dives scheduled daily, plus additional dives and night dives depending on demand. We signed up for the afternoon dive to Lighthouse Bommies.

 

This brilliant dive site has always been a favourite, a collection of small bommies in eight to 14m of water, and it was just as I remembered it. Cruising around the bommies we encountered coral trout, batfish, garden eels, turtles, sweetlips, snapper and groper. Sitting on the sand next to one bommie was a pretty leopard shark and nearby was a tasselled wobbegong. The corals all looked healthy – hard corals, soft corals, gorgonians and sponges, and there were plenty of invertebrate species, especially cleaner shrimps. This spot is usually the best place to see manta rays as they visit the bommies to get cleaned, but there were none today.

 

After thirty minutes of exploring the bommies we drifted with the current along Second Reef for the next thirty minutes to encounter even more fish. Barramundi cod, Maori wrasse, mackerel, lionfish, angelfish and schools of trevally, surgeonfish, sweetlips and snapper. We even saw a large grey reef shark that was patrolling the shallows.

 

Over the next four days we dived sites all around Lady Elliot Island and it was good to see that none of the dive sites had changed, they were all covered in wonderful corals and packed with marine life. On the exposed eastern side we explored the spectacular caves, ledges and walls at The Blowhole, The Tubes and Hiro’s Cave. These sites were all home to turtles, reef sharks, stingrays, batfish, mangrove jacks, sweetlips, snapper and a wide range of other reef fish and pelagic fish. Some of the best corals are found here, including wide gorgonians and colourful soft corals.

 

But the bommies on the sheltered western side of the island have always been my favourites and they didn’t disappoint. Maori Wrasse Bommie, Anchor Bommie, Three Pyramids, Lighthouse Bommies and the countless unnamed bommies in-between were still packed with marine life. In depths to 20m we saw moray eels, white tip reef sharks, black tip whalers, white spotted shovelnose rays, spotted eagle rays, gropers, turtles, stingrays, tawny nurse sharks, tasselled wobbegongs, leopard sharks, octopus, nudibranchs and schools of cardinalfish, batfish, trevally, barracuda, surgeonfish, snapper, sweetlips and many more.

 

The one thing we didn’t see while diving was a manta ray, which really surprised me. On all my previous trips I have seen around twenty mantas each time, but they managed to avoid us this time. It was all to do with our timing, early December and just after the annual coral spawning, the mantas were just too busy feeding on a feast of plankton. However, we did mantas daily on the surface feeding, and also joined a snorkel safari which saw us encounter four mantas feeding, but we couldn’t get close enough to get a photo.

 

While we were a little disappointed not to get any manta ray images, we couldn’t complain as there was a smorgasbord of other marine life to observe and photograph. It was also wonderful to revisit my favourite dive sites, but there was one new site we explored that was just brilliant, the Severance Wreck.

 

This yacht sank in 1998 in 22m of water and now teams with marine life. Cobia rest under the ships mast and schools of slate sweetlips hover under the stern. Also on and around the wreck we saw reef sharks, stingrays, gropers, turtles and a tasselled wobbegong resting in the cockpit. While you can’t penetrate the wreck, you can stick your head into hatches to see that most of the fittings are still in place. In the short time the ship has been on the bottom it has also become encrusted with lovely soft corals.

 

We had a wonderful time at Lady Elliot Island, enjoying 20 to 40m visibility and warm 26°C water. I don’t think I will wait twenty years for a return visit to this wonderful island.

 

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