The starfish lying in the coarse white sand is as blue as I could ever imagine and it feels like smooth leather. I could have found it on the shelf in a home decorator shop but it’s just a few steps from the shoreline on the southernmost island of Australia’s World-Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef.
Just over an hour ago, I was fighting busy Brisbane city traffic, heading toward an airport in outer suburban Redcliffe. Now, I’m standing on the edge of a coral reef, ready to snorkel my way through the coral in a warm lagoon. By dusk, I’ll be back in the city again.
Seair Pacific’s coastline flight is an hour-long unexpected highlight as we pass over beaches where I’ve holidayed many times from Sunshine Beach to Fraser Island. Despite being so close to Brisbane, Lady Elliot Island is relatively undiscovered and less mainstream. There are no queues and no crowds. It’s more about nature, reconnecting with family and exploring than it is about getting dressed for dinner.
Though hardly marooned, stepping foot on Lady Elliott for Seair’s Great Barrier Reef Day Tour felt a bit Robinson Crusoe-ish to me. It’s a small, compact coral cay that’s packed with so much wildlife, wide coral beaches and natural beauty that I just might not want to leave. It’s hard to imagine the island was completely stripped of all vegetation during the guano mining in the 1860s.
The water is extraordinarily clear, even by Great Barrier Reef standards, and the secluded reefs are covered with a combination of large hard coral, colorful fish and big marine lifelike turtles and rays.
Although I dive off the glass-bottom boat into the deep blue, snorkeling on Lady Elliot’s reef is easy. In fact, you can walk in right off the coral sand beach. The island’s coral looks vibrant from the boat but nothing beats getting up close with it on the sea floor. Turtles swim past so close I feel I can almost touch them. Small fish dart past just out of my reach. I’m not trying to get too close to the little shark lurking on the sandy bottom though. After just a brief time in the water, I fully understand why French oceanographer and conservationist Jacques Cousteau called the Southern Great Barrier Reef one of the world’s premier dive destinations.
After a lunch buffet at the Lady Elliot Resort — the cold bowl of locally caught prawns are just begging to be combined with fresh white bread and a squeeze of lemon — I head back to the beach again to join a guided low-tide reef walking tour to learn about Black Sea Cucumbers, Feather Stars and the Blue Linckia Seastar that caught my attention earlier. I won’t see any of the Green and Loggerhead turtles on shore at this time of the year. They clamber up the beach around the resort to lay their eggs in deep pits from November to February. Baby turtles emerge to find their way to the sea from February to April.
You can fly to Lady Elliot from the Gold Coast and Brisbane (via Redcliffe) for the day and enjoy five hours on the island, a tour, glass-bottom boat excursion, reef walk, buffet lunch, fish feeding, the use of snorkel equipment, guest facilities and more. Find out details at ladyelliot.com.au or queensland.com/southerngreatbarrierreef.
Photos Courtesy of K Heaney and Tourism Queensland