A visit to Queensland, Australia without seeing the Great Barrier Reef would be like a morning without coffee, unthinkable!
So bright and early, and with “cuppa” Joe in hand (how’s that for mixing hemispheric slang?), we met a van to take us along with a few other lucky adventurers to the Gold Coast airport for a flight out to Lady Elliot Island. That door-to-door convenience is all part of the service that is included in a trip to the island.
As a protected part of The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, no one is allowed to visit except by booking through the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort.
Seair Pacific handles the flying duties for the trip, and the flight was a sightseeing adventure unto itself, with amazing vistas out our windows all the way. We flew past the incredible skyline of high-rises along Gold Coast,
past the Sun Coast where we had skydived a few days before,
then up the shoreline to Fraser Island and out across the Coral Sea.
When we approached the southern end of the world’s largest reef, Lady Elliot Island came into view.
The tiny cay is formed from the coral itself. The ocean currents have deposited enough broken up coral remnants on top of the reef to create a small landmass, so even though it is dry land it is actually a part of the reef.
As we descended, it became apparent just how small the landmass is, barely big enough to fit the landing strip.
It is not often that we have experienced air travel sans pavement, but the rustic grass runway is the only link to the mainland.
Primitive as it might have seemed, we hardly noticed in our excitement to be on The Great Barrier Reef, and it’s not like we had a choice of transportation options.
There are no ferries to the mainland since the reef around the island is too shallow and treacherous for anything but small boats.
David's swimmers courtesy of Billabong
One of those small boats would just so happen to be where we would begin our day of exploration.
After being issued our snorkeling gear, we made our way to the broken coral beach by the lighthouse, where we met a glass bottom boat that would take us to a prime spot for viewing the reef ecosystem.
Through the glass we had a shark encounter as we passed directly over a reef shark - the best kind of shark - the kind where he’s in the water and we’re not.
But sharks or no sharks we were going in, which was very brave of us considering the extreme lack of any danger to humans from reef sharks.
Obviously we could only see a tiny portion of the over one thousand miles included in the reef system, but the part we saw was phenomenal.
There were so many different varieties of coral, over four hundred are found in the reef, and they are much more colorful than we had ever seen in the Caribbean.
Because this southern tip of the reef is outside the tropics, the cooler water temperatures have kept the coral healthy.
Further north heat is causing serious bleaching to much of the reef and, along with pollution from shipping and agricultural runoff, is a great threat to this natural wonder.
The Great Barrier Reef is also a habitat for countless species of sea creatures.
On our first dive we saw many of the fifteen hundred different types of fish that live along the reef, and something completely new and unexpected, a vivid blue starfish known as Linckia laevigata.
Watch: Veronica makes a new sea turtle friend who shows her all the hotspots of his reef and introduces her to his friends (including "Nemo")!
We think the guy on the bottom right is the leader and he's up to no good
Veronica's swimsuit courtesy of 2Chillies
With the end of our first dive it was time for some sustenance to prepare for the afternoon.
Our lunch buffet was dominated by some of the thousands of birds that migrate to Lady Elliot Island every year.
Unbelievable numbers of black noddys filled the trees and were not shy about coming up to us for a closer look.
Preserving this nesting ground for the noddy, and dozens of other seabirds, is a big part of the mission of the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort.
They have strived to have as little impact as possible on the habitat, and have been instrumental in the revegetation of the island by reintroducing native plants brought in from nearby islands.
After chomping on shrimp, oops, I mean prawns, we were chomping at the bit to get back underwater.
This time we walked right off the beach in front restaurant into the lagoon.
The water around this part of the island is a favorite spot for some of the three types of sea turtles common to Lady Elliot, and it didn’t take long for us to find that to be true.
In the past the turtles would generally swim away once they noticed us, or if we got very close, but these guys not only didn’t flee, they seemed glad to hang around.
In fact, one of the resident marine experts told us that they like to have the algae scraped off of their shells and will allow humans to perform the honors.
Sure enough, if we approached very slowly, they were happy to have us give them a little back scratching.
As hard as it was to tear ourselves away from the turtles, there was one more section of the island that we wanted to explore, the Coral Gardens.
As we said, Lady Elliot is a tiny cay, so we easily walked about halfway around and waded back out into the sea.
The gardens definitely lived up to their name, we were immediately in awe at the vast array of diverse coral species.
Then we spotted something on the ocean floor. It was trying to hide in the sand, but we thought we saw one of the guys that give the island the nickname “Home of the Manta Ray.”
Moving in for a closer look it became clear that we had the wrong ray, this was a stingray. We hung around hoping to see him swim off, but we didn't want to instigate any ray reactions because we were fully convinced that we would come out on the wrong side of any close encounter.
With time growing short until our return flight departure, we reluctantly made our way back to terra firma one last time.
But before leaving this incredible place we wanted to check out the accommodations for the lucky visitors that get to spend more than a day.
Manager Andreas Supper agreed to show us around and share some of the green aspects of the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort.
First among these is the hybrid power station, which has cut fuel consumption by two-thirds by using solar panels. Plans are to add wind turbines, and to be fossil fuel-free in five years.
Water conservation and recycling programs are also in place, with waste water treated then used for irrigation, and recyclables flown back to the mainland.
The footprint is almost nonexistent, but by far the main attraction to the resort is the location. We could only imagine waking up and stepping outside in the morning.
Boy did we wish we had booked an overnight stay.