By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose.
T urtles are what first attracted people to Heron Island in Australia, and they still do today. In 1925 Mr L. Marsh (no relation thankfully) was the first attracted to the island by turtles, to start a turtle soup factory. Fortunately things didn’t go to plan and the factory soon went out of business. Today people come to Heron Island to encounter turtles in a more harmonious way, by snorkelling and diving with these ancient reptiles. However, everyone soon discovers that turtles are just one of its many treasures.
Heron Island, a wonderful coral cay off Gladstone, Queensland, was the location of one of the first dive resorts on the Great Barrier Reef, and today it is one of few resorts where you actually stay on the reef. The island is a great place to stay and dive, and you can literally walk out of your cabin door and seconds later be snorkelling on the spectacular reef flats around the island.
Snorkelling is very popular here, one of the reasons that the island attracts family groups, with two of the best snorkelling spots being Shark Bay and Heron Harbour. At Shark Bay snorkellers will encounter stingrays, shovelnose rays, reef sharks and even lemon sharks, in only 2m of water on the high tide. In Heron Harbour are schools of trevally, rabbitfish and sweetlips that gather under the boats and jetty in only 4m of water, as well as rays and reef sharks. Snorkelling is great anywhere around the island, and at all sites you are bound to run into turtles.
Turtles are prolific at Heron Island as they nest on the island each summer. While hawksbill turtles and loggerhead turtles are occasionally encountered, the island really belongs to the green turtles. It is a wonderful experience to dive with these marine reptiles, and quite humbling to watch them nesting. The process takes hours, with the female dragging her heavy body up the beach, then digging a hole in the warm sand, before finally laying her clutch of eggs (repeating this several times each season). More entertaining is watching the hatchlings emerge from the sand, scampering down to the water like tiny windup toys.
Of course the best way to observe turtles at Heron Island is diving, with over twenty dive sites to explore. The dive shop offers three dives daily, plus night dives on demand, and operate two dive boats that take both divers and snorkellers to sites around the island. Currents are common around the island, used for drift diving.
The most famous dive site is located just outside the harbour and is called Heron Bommie. This name is a bit misleading as there are actually six large bommies at this site in depths from 8–18m. These bommies attract marine life like a magnet, and are home to schools of sweetlips, hussars, fusiliers and batfish. Other common fish species include coral trout, coral cod, gropers, Maori wrasse, barramundi cod, emperors, angelfish and even pelagics like trevally and mackerel.
Turtles rest and get cleaned at these bommies (as do rays, wobbegongs and sharks), and while there are always two or three turtles to be seen, at times a dozen drop in. The turtles are so accustomed to divers that you can get very close for photos, and some are so relaxed that they go to sleep as you watch. There are also many smaller critters in the nooks and crannies of the bommies: sharp-eyed divers will see nudibranchs, flatworms, shrimps, crabs, pipefish and scorpionfish.
On the northern side of the island, are a number of brilliant dive sites such as Gorgonia Hole, Blue Pools and Hole in the Wall. But one of the best in this area is North Bommie. At this site, divers can explore a sloping coral wall or a collection of small and large bommies. The largest bommie is riddled with ledges and caves that are usually overflowing with baitfish. Here divers will also see stingrays, pelagic fish, gropers, crayfish and, of course, turtles.
On the southern side of the island there are also great dive sites – Coral Canyons and Harry’s Bommie – but the pretty Coral Gardens are always a delight. The hard corals here are healthy and overflowing with small reef fish and invertebrate species. Pelagic fish cruise these sites and divers will encounter mackerel, trevally, fusiliers, batfish and barracuda. Turtles rest on the coral here, but keep an eye out for reef sharks, blue spotted stingrays and the odd manta ray.
Diving at Heron Island is brilliant year round, with the visibility typically 15–30m. Turtles are seen in large numbers year-round, but summer is always a special time to visit to watch them nesting, and sometimes mating. But if you do come over the summer months we would recommend ear plugs, as Heron Island is also a haven for nesting sea birds with the mutton bird getting very vocal at night – likened to hundreds of babies screaming! Heron Island is a place of many treasures that all divers, and even non-divers, will love.