Wednesday, January 18th. We departed Fraser Island on the same ferry that took us there two days before. On the mainland, we traveled by bus to the Hervey Bay airport and after waiting for a little bit and making use of the free wi-fi to catching up on social media and message folks at home, we boarded our 18-seat twin turbo prop passenger plane for the Lady Elliot Island eco-tourism resort. At the airport, we sadly parted ways with fellow student Sarah and Rafael our travel assistant from U. Sunshine Coast International Programs, but were happy to have the Sunshine Coast’s own Dr. Sheila Peake join us for our next adventure.
The plane had only a few spare seats after our group boarded, and was by far the smallest plane I have ever ridden on. All of us had to follow strict weight requirements with our luggage to ensure that the plane would be able to take off and land properly. We each packed a minimal backpack with swim gear and towels and loaded it into the nose of the aircraft. The community of Hervey Bay grew smaller and smaller as we headed northeast across the gorgeous waters of Platypus Bay. We flew over the top of Fraser Island and got to see the true entirety of the seventy-five-mile beach, the longest sand beach “highway” in the world. Seeing it from the air definitely was different from the vantage point of driving along it all day the day before. After two weeks f travel, I think everyone was getting a little worn down and after Sarah and Rafael leaving, we were becoming even wearier… And then we say the island.
Our first glimpse of Lady Elliot Island was unlike anything I had ever seen or experienced before. The vibrant blue waters against the nearly white sands of the naturally forming coral cay was breathtaking. We landed on the “airstrip” – an open patch of coral sands with a creeping grass sprawling across, holding the sand in place. We were scooted through the entry process fairly quickly, and before we knew it, we were in the pool practicing our snorkeling skills. For the duration of our time here, each of us got a pair of flippers, mask and snorkel for us to use at any point in the day we wanted to go snorkeling. All of us succeeded in staying afloat in the pool, so we walked to the western side of the island to go snorkeling on the reef surrounding the cay. We boarded a glass bottom boat named Elliot One. The tour guides drove the boat across the waters of the reef and we saw two manta rays and several green turtles both through the boat hull’s glass panels and on the water’s surface. Sea cucumbers dotted the shallow ocean bottom and dozens of species of fish swam in schools throughout the coral. We came to a stop at the beginning of a long rope of buoys. The weather was perfect for snorkeling, with very minimal winds and no waves. We assumed positions along the metal benches along the side of the boat, put on our flippers and masks, and slid into the ocean. We swam around through the salty water and immediately saw one of the larger green turtles up close and personal. She was beautiful! Tori, Tevyn, and Taylor saw an octopus that changed colors, which was pretty lucky. Giant clams in all sorts of colors stuck into the coral. The coral was beautiful even though their colors were mostly drab. The majority of the coral we saw are night feeders, so their true colors aren’t displayed until nighttime when the polyps emerge from their “shells”. Huge schools of all types of fish swam past us. Four more turtles were spotted during our adventure. There is so much life present in the southern most point of the Great Barrier Reef, too much to count or put a value on.
Afterward, we ate dinner, followed by a lesson from Sheila on the types of sea cucumbers surrounding the island. She took them out of the water properly so that we could see them up close and even touch them to see what they feel like. She continued educating us about the island and its ecosystem later that evening in the resort’s education center. She told us that one of the original uses of the island was by Chinese merchants who caught the sea cucumbers to smoke, dry, and ship them back home to serve as a delicacy. It is now illegal here, but some people still try to collect them to sell to the black market in China. Sheila also touched on many of the environmental issues they have along the Great Barrier Reef and also shared the process of the island’s origin. Originally, the island was just a few grains of sand that stuck up out of the water. Other grains would attach to the starting grains and continually build the size of the island. Sea birds started to fly to the small area and would leave behind some nutrient rich fertilizer to encourage plant growth. As plants grew, more humus was added to the sand and created an even more suitable growing medium. The island currently supports a diverse amount of vegetation. Another impact that man has had on this island besides the collection of sea cucumbers was the mining of guano. Many coral cays similar to this one have been mined at one point or another. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, three feet of almost pure guano was taken off the top of the island to use and sell for agricultural fertilizer back on the mainland. In the case of Lady Elliot Island, tourism has actually saved the area from destruction from continued mining.
In the evening, we all met up for a nighttime walk along the beach. Sheila showed us how to gain our night vision, how to spot turtle tracks, and all about the nesting process. Turtles nest from November to February, and hatchlings are due to start coming out soon. Our big group saw a lot of tracks from the previous night along with some crabs that were also waiting for the hatchlings to emerge. It started to get late so we sat and star gazed and went to bed while a group of three stayed on the beach to keep looking. They stayed out till midnight and suddenly they were surrounded by ten turtles coming onto shore to nest! Courtney and Sheila even got visited by a nesting turtle who decided to make her nest late at night near their bedroom window. We are hoping to go out later as a group tomorrow to see if we can all get to witness the turtles’ amazing journeys.
Lady Elliot is a gorgeous place and has been my overall favorite part of our venture through Queensland.