Manta Magic at Lady Elliot
If you are looking for a getaway then nothing beats a relaxing island holiday, and for keen divers Lady Elliot Island is just the place. This tiny coral cay in southern Queensland is surrounded by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and is justifiably famous for its manta rays.
Lady Elliot Island is reached by a short flight on a light plane from Bundaberg or Hervey Bay on the Queensland coast. The scenery as you fly across to the island is truly spectacular, and really builds up anticipation for your arrival. On the eastern side of the island there is a small eco-friendly resort, which has a range of accommodation in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. We found the rooms to be basic, but clean and comfortable and they provided an ideal place to relax between diving, snorkelling, and taking part in island activities.
Unless you are into bird-watching, then the real thrills of the island are underwater. Lady Elliot is surrounded by a beautiful section of the largest reef system in the world, the Great Barrier Reef, and provides some outstanding diving and snorkelling opportunities. The island is well away from the coast, and the associated sediment from river outflows, and there is no run-off as the coral structure of the island soaks up any rainfall. Therefore the visibility around Lady Elliot is outstanding, varying between 20m and 30m during our stay.
On the western side of the island there is a fringing reef close to shore which rapidly drops away to depths of 15m-20m. This side of the island has a number of excellent dive sites and also outstanding snorkelling. The resort no longer runs shore dives here, except at night, to minimise damage to the reef. Instead all diving is done using small dive tenders that come in through the reef at one of two access points. Snorkellers are also encouraged to enter and exit the water at these points to ensure that accidental damage to the reef is kept to a minimum. The access points are In front of the lighthouse at the southern end of the island, and at the coral gardens at the northern end. The marine life that you encounter just snorkelling in these areas is excellent. We saw numerous turtles, black tip and white tip reef sharks, large Queensland grouper, eagle rays, and loads of tropical fish of all colours and sizes.
But it is as you descend into the beautiful turquoise water that a whole new world opens before you, and you have the opportunity to observe the island's main drawcards, manta rays. An estimated population of 40 of these gentle giants are resident in the waters around Lady Elliot, which means that Lady Elliot Island is one of the best places in the world to visit if you want the chance to swim with these awesome creatures. We were lucky enough to see several manta rays on a number of our dives. The encounters varied from fleeting glimpses in the distance, to 10 minutes of being circled by mantas who would swim to within touching distance before swooping away.
One dive at "Anchor Bommie" was particularly memorable with several manta rays taking turns to approach the bommie to be cleaned. The variety of fish that rushed forward to assist in the cleaning process was truly amazing, not only cleaner wrasse, but also banner fish, moon wrasses, and butterfly fish helped with the cleaning. On the top of the bommie a turtle rested and was occasional, cleaned by those fish not focused on the mantas. On the sand nearby a huge shovel nose ray rested with two accompanying remoras. After more than ten minutes of watching this spectacle, we switched our gaze to the other life in the area. We found beautiful soft corals on the coral outcrop, and intricate gorgonians with schools of glass fish under the overhangs.
We also encountered manta rays for extended periods on two dives at the "Lighthouse Bommies" dive site. This is the main manta cleaning station for the island, and manta rays can be observed just hanging above the larger bommie while fish dart out to pick at parasites and other sensitive spots. We were told by the dive guides to stay close to the bottom when a manta approaches, to avoid startling them. However we found the rays to be relatively oblivious to the presence of divers, and it was fun to see the rays wriggle as they swam through a diver's bubbles. The bubbles obviously tickled the rays, but did not seem to drive them away, and it was only if a diver swam straight towards them that the mantas tended to get spooked and swim off.
The manta rays were certainly the highlight for us and they exceeded all of my expectations for the trip. It was a thrill to dive repeatedly with these gentle giants and spend extended periods observing and photographing their behaviour. We were told that manta rays are usually encountered by divers when they visit the island, but that the number and duration of the manta encounters we had during our stay was unusual.
The staff at Lady Elliot are currently compiling a photographic database of the mantas that visit the island. Manta rays can be distinguished by the unique markings on their pale undersides. So if you get the chance to go to Lady Elliot, take your camera, take some fantastic photos of manta rays, and send these to the dive shop on the island to help them out with this worthwhile project.
Another dive that we enjoyed was the wreck of the 'Severence' a two masted sailing boat that sank off the island in 1998. The wreck was in remarkable condition with one of the masts still standing up from the hull with rigging intact, and the other mast lying on the sand nearby with remnants of the sails still clinging to it. Beneath the hull schools of large snapper and sweetlips hung in the shadows, and large batfish circled the intact mast. A large grouper swam off as we approached, and when we looked into the cabin it was full of glassfish and a shy pipefish was revealed to us by our eagle eyed dive guide. When we had enough of circling the wreck we set off across the sand and visited a number of coral bommies while the attentive dive tender followed the marker buoy raised by our guide. Between the coral outcrops was the place for watching turtles cruising past, and we also saw a leopard shark and some large cow-tailed rays resting on the sand.
While on Lady Elliot we took advantage of not just the diving, but also snorkelling tours, a history tour, and reef walking with the island's marine biologist. The shallow lagoon on the east side of the island, in front of the resort, provides interesting snorkelling at high tide, and lets non-snorkellers get up close and personal to the marine life at low tide.
Lady Elliot Island is also a major nesting site for seabirds with over 100,000 roosting on the island over the summer months. During winter the number of birds falls dramatically, and the main residents are Black Noddies which provided an awesome natural spectacle at dawn, when they take off en-mass to go out to sea fishing. We found that a wonderful way to spend an evening was to take a bottle of wine and a platter of food to the west side of the island and watch these birds return in great swooping flocks as the sun set over the ocean.
Lady Elliot Island is a great place for a getaway if you enjoy small eco-friendly resorts where the main focus is the natural surrounds and diving. Even if you are not a diver the island is a great place to get away to for a few days, with friendly staff, uncrowded white coral beaches, awesome snorkelling, and plenty of other regular tours and activities.