Manta Magic on Lady Elliot

Manta Magic on Lady Elliot

The Great Barrier Reef’s southernmost island offers some of the world’s best diving. Close to Wide Bay and its annual Humpback whale migration it’s in the middle of some seriously big marine action.

‘Scissor kick off the boat, grab the mooring line and swim towards the bottom. The mantas should be around the first bommie on the left.’ The instructions I’m given for diving in Lady Elliot Island’s waters are self-evident. I can see thirty metres down where the shape of a large ray is outlined against white sand. There’s no such thing as a bad dive here. Located 80 kilometres off shore from Bundaberg away from fresh water estuary and rainwater run-off and only five kilometres from Australia’s continental shelf, Lady Elliot’s waters are perennially clear and full of life. Large fish forage here as if on holiday, carefree and safe. As part of a designated Green Zone in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Lady Elliot is right in the middle of a no fishing area.

Marine life appears to understand its protected status here. ‘Let’s go turtle tickling,’ suggests Kym, the same dive master who tells me that the mantas hang above the bommies and that bad dive days don’t exist on Lady Elliot. ‘Keep your hands away from the turtle’s face, they bite, and approach it from behind so you can tickle its belly. They think we’re just big cleaning fish.’ When I’ve dived or snorkelled with turtles at other locations, they’re usually in a hurry to get away from the threat I pose. After all, humans have hunted sea turtles for millennia. But here, I’m no threat. Other divers have got up close and personal with these turtles before and apparently I’m just another convenient tickler ready to comply with massage duty.

I spot a few green turtles poised like underwater still life paintings hovering motionlessly above a coral outcrop. A few cleaner wrasse fish are working on them as if they’re sedans at a car wash. I swim to the back of a large female turtle and gently reach underneath her right rear flipper. It’s surprisingly soft to touch, almost like velvet. Her carapace is also smooth. I rub her back flippers and massage her shell a bit. I imagine she looks satisfied. Though turtles don’t smile I think I detect a heavy lidded look of pleasure in her eyes.

At the next bommie, a few manta rays float effortlessly while the tide changes. I stay at the bottom where the current is less forceful, looking up at the largest of the manta rays, easily four metres from wing tip to wing tip. While I’m struggling against the current, the mantas appear stationary, apart from a slight flexing of their massive wings. Two remoras are attached to the underside of one manta, its greyish white skin tone blending into sunlight piercing the water. The mantas are breathtakingly graceful and beautiful.

Anyone who dives the Great Barrier Reef will know that its bio-diversity is astounding in its complexity. Even professional ichthyologists are occasionally confused at the number of species to be observed on a single dive. For amateurs like me, it can be downright mind-boggling. Everywhere I look I see more species of fish, more rays, more sharks, coral and invertebrates than I’ve ever seen anywhere else during a single dive. What Lady Elliot Island offers to diving enthusiasts is unique among our unique underwater wonders. It’s a list I enjoy compiling. Kaleidoscopic colours? Tick. Plenitudes of fish? Tick. Rare resident manta rays? Tick. Turtles that like to be tickled? Tick. Humpback whales stopping in for a visit? Yes, tick that too.

The last fact really surprised me. Migrating whales normally avoid island lagoons for fear of stranding. On their way to the safe waters between Fraser Island and Hervey Bay, whales stop at Lady Elliot for a snoop. I hear whale song during my dives here, an extraordinarily loud musical sound that I find captivating. Two whales lingered outside the lagoon for a couple of day’s r & r while I was there. Lucky for them and fortunate for me as it’s a perfect place in which to spend peaceful days in thrall of nature. Lucky also were three visitors the day before I arrived at the height of this year’s whale watching season. Mother and two daughters were snorkelling in Lady Elliot’s sheltered leeward lagoon when out of nowhere, two humpback whales appeared and swam to within a few feet. The following day when I asked them to recount the tale, the looks of utter blissful joy were still planted firmly on their faces. I am so jealous I could spout saltwater.

Out of water and back on the coral cay that is Lady Elliot, I make a circumnavigation of the island. It takes me all of two hours and I admit to dawdling, whales were spy-hopping just offshore and I stop to watch them while the sun sets. Though much of the action is focused underwater, on land it’s also a bird lover’s paradise. I’m here during nesting time and an active spring season. Flocks numbering hundreds of white-capped and common noddy terns perch in casuarina and pisonia trees. Three beautiful red-tailed tropicbirds are nesting outside a bungalow near the beach. Sleek wedge-tailed shearwaters return en masse to their sandy burrows at dusk. Curious brown boobies land on the canvas roof of the boat while we make our way to a prime dive spot off the lighthouse. Pied and sooty oystercatchers work the beach like industrious traffic guards busily turning over coral pieces searching for tasty morsels. Eastern reef egrets, buff banded rails and Capricorn silver eyes patrol the grounds around the small resort area constantly looking for something appealing to eat. At night, the noddies keep up a fairly constant racket. Certain well-rested resort workers tell me that they don’t hear the noise anymore they’ve grown so used to it but I lay awake wondering when the last bird will finally call it a night and shut up.

In 1816 Lady Elliot Island was officially discovered by a ship passing on its way to Sydney, the Lady Elliot, named after the wife of Hugh Elliot, India’s Colonial Governor at the time. The same ship was wrecked on a reef off Cardwell in north Queensland on its return journey to Calcutta from Sydney; the reef there is also called Lady Elliot.

By 1863, after a survey of the island was conducted twenty years earlier, the Queensland government offered a contract to mine the island’s rich guano deposits. That marked the beginning of Lady Elliot’s decline into wasteland. By 1873 a lighthouse was built to guide miner’s ships to safe anchorage. The white towered lighthouse stands today and is the signature heritage feature of the island. In 1874, guano mining ceased as the island’s vegetation had been completely removed. 100 goats released on the island reduced the island’s surface to bleak bare ground. All the birds had left. The resort’s nature centre has a few interesting photographs on display for those interested to see how the landscape looked then, barren and stripped. After years of neglect, in 1966 a revegetation programme was initiated by the lighthouse keepers. The goats were shot and in 1969 a tourist recreation lease was granted. By 1985 the Lady Elliot Island Eco-resort was officially launched.

New resort proprietors have taken the enterprise to the leading edge in terms of self-sufficiency and environmental awareness. A spanking new solar power plant began operating two years ago and supplies the island with 70% of its energy requirements. Plans are afoot to turn the island’s energy needs to complete self-sufficiency within a few years. Along with the high-tech solar power plant and desalination plant which supplies all of the island’s water, the intention is to employ a mixed use wind generator and tidal power plant scheme to reach 100% carbon neutral energy creation. Such efforts should be applauded. Lady Elliot is small, 43 hectares in total, but it represents the larger future of authentic eco-tourism. And it’s a great place to mix in with a manta and tickle a turtle.

Naked Facts:

Getting there:

Daily Seair flights operate to and from Bundaberg (30 minutes), Hervey Bay (35 minutes), or the Gold Coast (2 hours), to Lady Elliot Island. All are scenic flights in single engine aircraft. 10 kilos weight restrictions apply. See for bookings.

See for all accommodation enquiries. Rates vary from $142 per person per night in an eco-cabin with shared facilities to $326 per person per night in a beachfront island bungalow with en suite facilities. Buffet breakfast and dinner is included as well as use of snorkelling equipment, one glass bottomed boat and/or guided snorkelling tour and guided island, low tide reef walk and bird watching (in season) tours.

Where we’ve been

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