Thursday, January 19th. During our second day on Lady Elliot Island, we had the opportunity to enjoy several unique experiences. Our morning started early with a 5:00 am wake up to walk the lagoon reef at low tide, to learn about the treasures of marine life from Dr. Sheila Peake of the University of the Sunshine Coast. This early wake-up also allowed us to view one of the most sensational sunrises of the trip. (Maybe because we actually got up for this one!)
Sheila began with some basic marine animals such as sea cucumbers, star fish, and clams. She even caught a two-foot long Epaulette Shark with her hands. Just simply walking through the reef gave us an idea of how rare and exquisite this environment really is. (I should note that walking through the reef entails walking on the sand bottom that exists between the corals, not walking on coral itself.) My favorite marine animal was the clam because they camouflage well into their surroundings. In a sense they are hidden treasures, and most times I didn’t even realize there was one right in front of my eyes until it was inches away.
After a fun and educational morning, groups split off for an unforgettable day. Snorkeling was at the top of the list for nearly all of us. The Lighthouse and Coral Garden snorkel areas were choppy in the morning with waves crashing in along the west coast of the island. Eventually we were able to get out into water deep enough to snorkel without being scraped up by the reef. We saw some stunning marine animals, including a massive eel that was over five feet long and a reef shark. We ventured over into the lagoon on the east side of the island around 11:00 am to snorkel during high tide. This snorkeling is a bit different, since the water is much lower- only a few feet above the reefs- but the corals and animals were more vibrant with them being much closer to the surface and sunlight. We swam with a green turtle, and a few of us encountered another species of reef shark, which is generally non-threatening to humans in these shallow waters where it has readily available fish as food to snack on. Overall, a beautiful morning filled with sun and ocean.
After lunch and a power nap we decided to venture back to the coral gardens to give it another go with the high tide. Taylor and Zoe spotted an octopus and what appeared to be a sting ray!
Later that afternoon, we were guided on a behind-the-scenes tour by Kendall, the island’s maintenance engineer, who showed us how the island practices sustainability in its operations despite being isolated far off the mainland. Among other facilities, we toured the desalination plant, which uses reverse osmosis and UV technology to extract out the hydrogen and oxygen in order to use it as drinking, showering, and cleaning water. The resort takes in 75,000 liters of salt water per day from the ocean through a pump and is able to desalinate 1/3 of it for use. Given how far the island is from the mainland, it is pretty incredible how Kendall and his staff have implemented technology here to provide tourists an enjoyable experience.
In the evening several of us walked the west shoreline to view the sunset. The view was simple, yet beautiful–the waters were perfectly still with no one in the water. We walked down the beach a little way, accidentally stirring up some reef sharks who seemed to be hanging out in the shallow waters waiting for dinner. They went a little deeper in the water and we sat and watched as they circled for nearly 15 minutes. It was pretty incredible to see their fins just barely touching the surface of the water and their dark silhouettes continually moving. We walked down the beach and on the way encountered ghost crabs and hermit crabs, which were larger than anticipated and a bright red color. Even though we only spent one full day on the island, the variety and amount of flora and fauna we saw was absolutely incredible.
Our final destination on our evening walk was a turtle nest. When we arrived there were several people already on watch. One of the resort staff, Jessica, walked the beach earlier in the morning and saw a turtle hatchling free from the nest. Since it was still early in the day, if it left the nest then its chance of survival would be slim, so Jessica placed sand over the top of the turtle to keep it until night when it would likely venture from the nest to the waters.
We stood at the nest with a single headlamp illuminating it, waiting for any slight movement from the depressed sand. A micro movement revealed the nostrils of a turtle, but it would be two more hours before the head would come through the sand completely. Soon after the flippers broke free, and the turtle was on the move scooting its way down the beach. The staff used the headlamp to light a path in front of the turtle, both so the turtle would follow it to the water and for us to see the hatchling. (They told it was uncommon for them to intervene in this way, but given the group assembled, they wanted to minimize confusion for the hatchling and use the light to guide it to sea.) Viewers stood in two lines flanking the turtle in its stumble down to the water. I have only seen this in the media; to see it in person was breathtaking. We were told a statistic that only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings survive into adulthood, due to predation. Still I was in awe seeing a live turtle hatchling. A few hatchlings remained in the nest, but we were satisfied with seeing just one emerge, so we headed off to bed.
Day 19 in Australia proved to be one of the best. I can’t speak for others, but Lady Elliot Island was the pinnacle of the trip. Snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef, witnessing breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, and watching a turtle hatchling emerge from its nest are not ever day occurrences in Wyoming. Without any doubt, I can say I checked off more than one item from my bucket list today. Thanks for the unforgettable experiences Lady Elliot, I hope I see you again in the future.