Diving heaven on Lady Elliot island…

Facts about the Great Barrier Reef:

It’s the largest World Heritage Area in the world at 348,000 kms2 in size. Over 99% of the World Heritage Area falls within the boundaries of it!
It’s the largest coral reef system in the world and stretches 2300kms along Queensland’s coast. It has an average depth of 35 metres.
It is home to around:
* 1500 types of fish
* 360 species of hard coral and one third of the world’s soft coral
* 8000 types of molluscs
* 500 species of algae
* 600 species of echinoderm (star fish, sea urchins)
* 17 types of sea snake
* 22 species of seabird
* 13,000 dugong (there are around 90,000 in Australia)
* 6 species of turtle (all threatened) and
* 30 species of whales and dolphins

Location: Bundaberg, Queensland

Weather: Very light wind, clear blue skies and sunshine. 30ºc

Once the departure lounge had cleared of the Friday night commuters there was just Bre, the Beyond TV crew and I waiting along with a familiar face – that of Gemma Pitcher from Nine MSN, a travel journalist who puts together all of their online stories, someone I had met a few months previous when the Getaway crew were filming back on Hamilton Island.

We were all heading out to Lady Elliot Island from Bundaberg airport onboard Seair’s Cessna Caravan currently waiting our arrival on the tarmac outside. As we climbed aboard the plush fluffy seat covers greeted us, the likes of which I hadn’t seen since my grandpa’s old Austin Allegro.

We took our places and as we taxied down the runway I watched intently as the ground got further away and the blue waters of the coastline got closer until we were over the ocean once more heading due east towards our destination.

Lady Elliot island is a stunning coral cay whose reputation precedes it; many of the people I have spoken to on this adventure have asked me “have you been to Lady Elliot yet” or “you have to go to Lady Elliot” – by all accounts it’s very highly rated on lots of different levels. The island hit the national press recently as it’s a bit of a shining light amongst all of the islands of the Great Barrier Reef when it comes to its environmental policies and power generation. A subject that is interesting me more and more.

The diving on this, the southern most of all the Great Barrier Reefs islands, is rumoured to be some of the best along the coastline and had a lot to deliver to uphold this reputation. With a couple of dives planned during our stay it’d be an opportunity to see why it’s been given this prestigious honour.

The flight took around forty minutes and as we circled the island the distinct grassy landing strip could easily be seen down the centre of the island, perfectly bisecting the green landscape that had formed here hundreds of years ago. The resort was barely visible from the air and once we’d landed and walked towards it, it was easy to understand why.

The buildings are all low-impact cabins that blend into the background due to their colour matching that of the sand and coral around them. All power is generated on the island and 70% comes from a bank of solar panels that charge a bank of batteries, the remaining requirements, usually during the night time, come from a hybrid diesel generator which has recently been installed. It’s a very modern unit which has reduced the island’s fuel consumption from 750 litres per day to around 120 litres reducing not only the level of carbon dioxide levels and fuel used but also the number of times in a year that the barge needs to visit the island to resupply the fuel tanks.

Everything here is angled towards creating a better environment that means less impact on the planet and therefore more chance of the Great Barrier Reef surviving in the long term. The island is a example of the rest of the islands up and down the reef on exactly how low impact things do need to be; including recycling all waste, collection of all rainwater, use of energy-efficient light bulbs and it’s generation of power. There are plans to install a worm-wheel wind turbine in the near future that would even eliminate all diesel power production. Imagine that…

Over the last five months I have embraced diving and been lucky enough to visit some of the best dive sites right up and down the GBR, this is the furthest south of all the islands and according to the ‘Lonely Planet’s Guide to Diving and Snorkelling on the GBR’ this is the Best Blow Hole dive on the reef…let’s just see what happens hey!

Kym and Clinton welcome us to the comforts of the dive shop and explain to us what we’re likely to expect over the next couple of days as we head under the water to experience an island’s reef which sits around 150kms from the mainland and right out in the open ocean – there’s even surf here which shows quite how exposed and wild it can be.

The launch site for the boats is on the western edge of the island, there’s a small natural channel through the reef but unlike other similar locations dynamite hasn’t been used to blast an access route – this continues the eco-theme! We’re off…finally heading out to our first dive site.

Within five minutes we’re there already, that’s the beauty of this island. All of the dive sites are within a short boat ride of the launch ramp. We tied up alongside the buoy, get our kit on and look down into the crystal clear ocean – this is going to be special, the visibility looks amazing, there are silhouettes of turtles and mantas everywhere.

Bre and I descend down into the warm waters of the open ocean, normally we’ve been protected by the Great Barrier Reef but here with our proximity to the continental shelf…anything could happen.

So where do I start with this summary of what I consider was one of the best set of dives I’ve had so far?! The first ten minutes produced a green turtle, then a manta ray cruised right by us, there were loads of damsel fish just hanging out over the coral…and oh the coral, this is probably the best spot on the entire reef where I’d seen dark colours as they should be, its very good to see that bleaching just hasn’t happened here at all.

We dived two sites during the afternoon of the first day and had appearances from everything we’d hoped to see underwater. The video clip I’ve managed to put together below should hopefully summarise our first two underwater adventures, it may be a little long but I think that’s its well worth sitting through:

After an exhausting afternoon feeling like the luckiest divers alive we make our way back to the lighthouse beach and the comfortable surroundings of the resort. The excellent accommodation we’re in fits perfectly in the resort, the rooms are nothing-extraordinary just comfortable and beautifully positioned right on the beach.

We’re in the middle of the most incredible bird-nesting site too – the Noddy terns and Crested terns who were obviously the original residents of the island really don’t even give a hoot that humans have decided to take over their residence. It’s hatching season on Elliot and everywhere little fluff balls are pottering about closely followed by their cautious mothers – if you get too close their cackles and cries warn you away from the nest…and it’s the loosest term actually calling it a nest. A light smattering of leaves dropped onto the bow of a tree is luxury, more likely the top of a rock or even the middle of the path seems a totally sufficient way of bringing up your young if you’re a bird around here.

Dinner is served just as the sun disappears behind the coral beach, it’s awesome walking along the waters edge watching the reef flats slowly drain their water with little things happening everywhere; crabs racing to hide, turtles making their way up the beach to lay their eggs, birds swooping low over the surface of the water – it’s a totally fantastic eco-system.

Sunrise breaks through the gap in the curtains and I’m up like a shot, there are two more dives this morning and I cannot wait. We head down to the restaurant and pack down the fuel for the day, a buffet breakfast that’s simple but effective. James, Jason and now Simon (the new producer for the Nat Geo series which is being filmed) are there waiting for us – seems they’re a little keen to get underwater again too.

Kym and Clinton ferry us out to the lighthouse landing beach and tell me exactly what I’ve been hoping to hear “Today we’re going to be diving at The Blow Hole”. It’s a dive site with a reputation for being excellent, a 12 metre diameter hole in the coral sea-floor which drops from 10 down to 25 metres and is an amazing location – should be pretty testing too as it’s rated as a pretty advanced dive.

Bre and I descend together and spot below us the entrance – WOW it’s awesome already with a huge black hole dropping away from us…we follow Kym in, our eyes focus and adjust to the bottom below and we descend the depths to the new ocean floor. Fish of all sizes appear and scatter, soft corals grow from the walls and we stop to see the famous Gnome-fish. Someone many years ago decided to leave a garden gnome here and over the years the marine life has taken it over – it’s tradition to kiss it, so we do.

As we exit the Blow Hole a huge Loggerhead Turtle swims directly towards me from a good distance away and almost knocks me out of the water, awesome footage though! In the distance another manta ray flies past checking us out to see what we’re up to – this place is unreal and make me realise why the Barrier Reef if called ‘Great’!

At the end of the second dive the outgoing tide is really starting to rip along and the last five minutes are a real struggle, my regulator is nearly ripped from my mouth as I hold tightly onto the mooring line at five metres down, I clamber aboard massively satisfied but with a serious overload of carbon dioxide to the brain – a headache that’s very worthwhile.
Lady Elliot has been a totally rewarding experience with diving and living conditions equal to those of the tropical north Queensland islands. It’s the furthest south and so much of the experience is unique – I love the eco-approach that’s being taken, I love the way the resort fits into the island, I love the diving, I love the helpfulness of the staff and I love the fact that I really didn’t want to get on that plane to leave. It speaks volumes about the place.
End of day location: Lady Elliot Island
Distance covered: 150kms by Seair over the ocean.