Hi, I’m Kara Murphy! I’m a Brisbane-based photojournalist and I recently took over @Queensland’s Instagram account to share some of the underwater wonders of Lady Elliott Island, a beautiful coral cay on the Southern Great Barrier Reef. This is what I found:
Welcome to Lady Elliot Island
To get to Lady Elliot Island we take a scenic flight from the Queensland coast (the Gold Coast, Redcliffe, Hervey Bay, or Bundaberg). Upon arrival we don a mask and snorkel and enter the water immediately!
Who out there loves turtles?
On the eastern side of the island, only a few steps from Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, is a lagoon – a great place to swim with turtles. It’s open for snorkelling approximately four hours per day, around the high tide. This is a green turtle, one of three marine turtle species that frequent the island. (The others are hawksbills and loggerheads.)
You’ll see plenty of other marine life in the lagoon: fish, coral, sea cucumbers, starfish, sea urchins, reef sharks, and possibly even a potato cod or an octopus like the one in this photo.
The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) lists green and loggerhead turtles as endangered and hawksbill turtles as critically endangered. You can help these gorgeous creatures in several ways, for example, picking up any trash you see in or alongside the ocean; not disturbing or interfering with nesting turtles, nests, or hatchlings; and reducing boat speed and looking out for turtles in feeding grounds.
Manta rays feed around Lady Elliot Island year-round but aggregate in larger numbers in winter. These mantas are swimming in the waters off the island’s western side, which offers a deeper-water snorkelling experience than the lagoon. The Lighthouse and Coral Gardens are the two entrances for snorkelling; most people enter at one and exit at the other. If you get an opportunity to photograph a manta’s underbelly while snorkelling or diving here, you can submit it to Project Manta, which studies eastern Australia’s manta rays; if your shots ID a new manta, you get to name it. Pretty cool!
A school of trevally swims off the western side of the island. Lady Elliot is situated within a protected ‘Green’ zone of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, so fishing and collecting aren’t allowed. You can, however, snorkel and dive as much as you want – and at any time of day on this side of the island, low and high tide!
Doing things a bit differently
A hawksbill turtle hangs out near the Coral Gardens. Hawksbill turtles have a beak-like mouth and a narrow head. And while green and loggerhead turtles nest on Lady Elliot, hawksbills don’t.
Life on the western side
This instavideo shows a school of trevally and a hawksbill turtle in action, plus some other mesmerising fish. As you can see, the visibility here is amazing, sometimes up to 40 metres, and water temperatures range from 18-28 degrees Centigrade. Dive sites are just a short boat ride from the beach, and in winter, if you’re really lucky, you might spot a humpback whale while you’re blowing bubbles. (Even if you don’t see them, there’s a good chance you’ll hear their whale song.)
The dive shop on the island runs dives in the early morning and afternoon and can set you up with hire gear; if you’re not a certified diver, you can enrol in one of their PADI certified courses, including a 4.5-hour Discover Scuba Diving course, which includes one dive. The shop also runs snorkel safaris on the western side – these trips are a great way to get on the edge of a manta feeding frenzy!
The next generation
Green and loggerhead turtles nest on Lady Elliot Island between November and March; 8-9 weeks after a turtle lays her eggs, hatchlings emerge and scamper down the beach towards the sea. Unfortunately, hatchlings sometimes become trapped in their nests, stuck under coral. If they can’t get out, they die. Thankfully, these Southern Great Barrier Reef turtles have their own personal turtle angel, Queensland Parks & Wildlife Service ranger John Meech. While most people aren’t allowed to interfere with turtle nests, John has a permit from the Australian government to work on and handle marine turtles. He visits the island twice per month during hatchling season, rescuing and releasing hatchlings that are trapped.
The Turtle Rescuer
Here is a longer video covering John’s amazing work.