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 – THE JEWEL OF THE REEF
By Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose
When I first visited Lady Elliot Island, almost thirty years ago, the resort was very basic – tent accommodation, one tiny bathroom with no mirror and meals were taken under the trees, where you had to cover your food to ensure the birds didn’t drop any extra sauce! Since then I have returned many times, while the resort is a lot more up market today there is one thing that hasn’t changed – the diving, it is still superb.
Lady Elliot Island is located at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, off the town of Bundaberg, and only has a small eco resort which limits the number of visitors to this fragile coral cay. The island is reached by plane from either Bundaberg or Hervey Bay, and that first view of the island is breathtaking. Surrounding the island are sapphire blue waters, fringing reefs and numerous coral bommies.
The island is only 42 hectares in size and cut down the middle by an airstrip. On the eastern side of the island is the resort, on the western side a historic lighthouse and all over the island are nesting sea birds, hundreds of thousands of them! Stepping off the plane the smell from all these birds is the first thing that hits you, but you quickly get use to it, as birds are around you at all times.
While the wildlife experiences are wonderful above the water line, the underwater attractions are even better, with Lady Elliot Island offering some of the best diving you will find on the Great Barrier Reef. The dive shop operates two scheduled boat dives daily, and more on demand, to sites all around the island.
The western side of the island is the most sheltered and has around ten moored dive sites to explore. Second Reef is a ridge of coral in depths from three to 12m which is home to a great variety of reef fish and pelagic visitors. This long ridge is covered in hard corals and cut by numerous ledges where moray eels, shrimps, octopus, squirrelfish and barramundi cod hide. Drifting along this ridge we encountered schools of trevally, surgeonfish and sweetlips, plus reef sharks, barracuda, mackerel and turtles. Both loggerhead and green turtles nest on the island over summer so are seen on every dive.
Another exciting dive on the western side of the island is called The Shark Pools. In depths from two to 8m are gutters and ledges to investigate that have poor coral coverage, but are a great place to see resting turtles, white-tip reef sharks and even huge tawny nurse sharks. The best time to dive, or snorkel, here is on the incoming tide, when reef sharks gather to dart across the reef to feed on fish trapped by the low tide.
The premier dive sites off the western side of Lady Elliot Island are the countless bommies that rise from the sand in depths from ten to 21m. Some of these have names – Anchor Bommie, Three Pyramids, Maori Wrasse Bommie and Lighthouse Bommies, but most are unnamed. Each of these bommies is covered in wonderful hard and soft corals and provides shelter to a range of marine life. Invertebrate species are plentiful, common are cleaner shrimps, nudibranchs, sea stars, octopus and featherstars. But it is the fish and larger residents that most divers are here to see.
Schools of cardinalfish and glassfish can fill the caves that riddle these bommies and feeding on them are coral trout, trevally and snappers. Hiding in these caves are also moray eels, gropers and well camouflaged tasselled wobbegongs. The sand around these bommies is a good place to find colonies of garden eels, stingrays, shovelnose rays, reef sharks, turtles and leopard sharks. But the star attraction at Lady Elliot Island are manta rays, with the island the best place in Australia to see these majestic creatures. Manta rays are found around the island year round, but the peak season is autumn and winter. They visit these bommies to get cleaned, but are also commonly seen swimming on the surface and feeding on plankton. Manta rays can be seen anywhere around the island, however Lighthouse Bommies is considered the best location to see them getting cleaned.
Another interesting dive off the western side of the island is the Severance, the wreck of a yacht that sank in 1998. This yacht is virtually intact, but now covered in soft corals and home to sweetlips, gropers, trevally, reef sharks, stingrays and a small school of cobia.
The southern, northern and western sides of the island are more exposed to the weather, so are not always dived, which is unfortunate as there are some great dive sites here. On our last visit we had northerly winds that allowed us to explore three dive sites off the eastern side of the island. Here are ledges, gutters, caves and walls, with the reef stepping down to 24m.
At The Tubes and Hiro’s Cave we drifted along a wall covered in gorgonians and soft corals that was undercut by large caves. In these caves we found schools of cardinalfish and also lionfish, squirrelfish, sweetlips, snapper, gropers and a large black blotched stingray.
The most spectacular site we dived here is called The Blowhole, which is an L-shaped swim thru from the wall to the top of the reef. We could have spent the entire dive exploring the recesses of this large cave, but allowed time to explore the wall as this is where the action happens with turtles, eagle rays, barracuda, batfish, mackerel, reef sharks and even the odd manta ray and silver tip whaler seen here.
With clear water, pretty corals and a great collection of marine life it is easy to see why we keep returning to Lady Elliot Island, the jewel of the Great Barrier Reef.
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