Lady Elliot Island

By Neville Coleman

Lady Elliot Island

There is no question that at some times of the year the winds at Lady Elliot Island do more than just rustle a tune through the She oak needles. It’s the most southern island cay on the Great Barrier Reef, the winds and currents sweep in out of the Pacific Ocean and lay every conceivable experience on the ‘Lady’ – but it’s those winds and currents that make Lady Elliot Island exciting, adventurous, alive and poised for discovery. Even for those of us who have already savoured its existence the magnetism is no less. Within these waters lie the answers to thousands of unknown questions about thousands of little known animals, hundreds of new records, an entire exploration of new species and perhaps even a whole new order of sea creatures.

The Island

– Only a hop, step and jump from Brisbane the main departure points to Lady Elliot Island are Hervey Bay and Bundaberg two thriving cities with increasing services to the tourist industry catering for the southern Great Barrier Reef. There are also flights operating out of the Gold Coast and the Brisbane areas.

Born as a sand spit some 3000 years ago, Lady Elliot Island took around 1000 years to build itself into a mature coral cay similar to the others in the Capricorn/Bunker group. Vegetated by She oaks and Meshishmidias with a few Pandanus scattered here and there around the outskirts, and a central forest of Pisonia trees it had supported large bird colonies throughout its entire life. There was also a thriving turtle rookery.

Once a haven and sanctuary for so many, its very existence as such was almost its undoing. Guano, that rich, superphosphate fertiliser produced from millions of bird droppings for thousands of years was too much of a lure.

In the early years of its history, Queensland as a State, was only just developing and had (we’re told) to exploit every avenue to earn its way in the Commonwealth. So in 1863, a lease was granted to mine the guano and the company, its Chinese labourers and the goats to feed everybody were moved in, and every other life form was moved out. In the ensuing 20 years the guano miners swept the entire island free of topsoil leaving only the bare rubble bones of decaying limestone.

Hardly a tree or bush was left standing; it was a virtual desert and that’s the way it stayed until pioneer pilot and conservationist Don Evans took it upon himself to single-handedly rehabilitate the island. A gigantic task for one man to attempt, yet a task worthy of the greatest effort, and one which has become one of the best examples of the its kind in Australia. Over 5000 trees have been planted to date and each year the management of Lady Elliot Island Holidays add to those plantings. From its meagre beginnings, through thick and thin, wind and wave, by way of large capital investment and a lot of work, sweat, foresight and daring, Lady Elliot Island has been transformed.

The Southern Unknown

– Named for the ship Lady Elliot which was wrecked on the reef there in 1816, Lady Elliot Island has arisen from the skeletons of its past and emerged into a thriving, conservation-based educationally concerned National and Marine Park concepted eco-tourism resort.

It’s unique situation being at the most southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef has for reasons of the currents, established formations of reefs and their inhabitants unlike anything found anywhere else along the entire Great Barrier Reef. Just from the few hundred species I have managed to record it is already apparent that with a bit of serious investigation in the future there is every reason to believe that many really fantastic animals will be discovered.

Even though the magic location and scenery, birdwatching, fishing, reefwalking, beachcombing and coral viewing are excellent most visitors come for the snorkelling and scuba diving experience. Certainly, it’s the exploratory diving which has lured me to return on many occasions. With a host of different dive sites, new species records and new species to discover on every dive there is a wealth of interest for any underwater naturalist or photographer, be they snorkellers, divers or just beginners.

Shore Dives

Reef diving can be managed on most days, especially on the sheltered side of the island. This entails a walk down from the dive shop to the beach (10 minutes) and a walk or swim out to the reef edge (five to 15 minutes depending on location). Buddy diving is the rule, and safety stops mandatory on every dive.

Many divers trained to sport diving by boat have never walked three or 400 metres in a wetsuit so take care to have a break and make sure your breathing rate is steady and relaxed before you begin your dive. Boat dives depart daily weather permitting. All dives are escorted by Lady Elliott Island staff.


Tanks and weight belts are dropped off at shore locations by the dive truck and rubber tyre wooden trolleys are available to carry light gear to dive sites and/or boat trips.

Underwater Extravaganza

On any dive one tends to harbour a little anticipation and excitement at what might be experienced and discovered. The mantas were feeding in the current: giant, prehistoric devil rays, these harmless, gentle creatures were once regarded with fear and horror, harpooned and slaughtered just because they existed. I slipped over the side of the boat and swam towards them. You just don’t see mantas every day and I was making the most of my opportunity.

How easily they evaded my clumsy efforts to get closer. I watched enthralled as they swam backwards and forwards through the current line scooping up mouthfuls of small, planktonic molluscs called pteropods. Banking and diving, then climbing to the surface, their wing tips protruding skywards like the shark fins one sees in third-rate movies. (Many shark sightings made on the surface during calm weather can be attributed to the fins of manta rays). Too soon they left me behind and we continued on to the dive site at Shark Reef………….. to be continued next issue

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