Off the Queensland Coast, Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort is a little eco island that’s known for its turtle hatchery (Turtles! Carolyn’s favourite creature, remember!?), manta rays (another favourite!) and passing migrating whales (whoa!).
So being the year of Trans-Tasman-Twins-Turn-Thirty-Three, it was the perfect location to head for a week-long winter escape…
After dusting ourselves off from our AWESOME birthday drinks the day before^, we bundled our single, huge, suitcase into a cab and headed for the airport – note to ‘self, the airline doesn’t like it if you have one piece of luggage over 23kg – ready for our Virgin and then Lady Elliot Island plane trips.
We got off the plane at 1:40pm, and by 2:45pm were in the water (after a welcome drink – virgin – and island briefing video).
^Totally not dive-related, but if you’re in Sydney, get yourself down to
Black Penny on the corner of Crown and Cleveland – great atmosphere,
full bar and good cocktails, tasty food, and lovely bar staff who really
looked after us and our guests at our birthday do.
We came to Lady Elliot Island for three** specific creatures:
- Turtles – which nest on the island every year,
- Mantas – for which Lady Elliot is famous, and
- Humpback Whales – within whose migration path Lady Elliot lies
By the end of our first afternoon, we’d had a taste (not literally, of course) of all three.
** and a fourth, sharks – tiger sharks in particular – which were on Kristy’s wishlist.
For a first dive, it was ace – we managed to see 1 manta (boy, how naive were we to think that it was so lucky and amazing to see one – wait to the next day!), and could hear whales throughout the dive, sounding to tantalisingly close, but probably a few hundred metres away.
We also saw a variety of turtles – Loggerheads, massive turtles with necks like tree-trunks; Hawksbills; and smaller green turtles. All so cute. And reef sharks, a guitarfish (Google it – they look like a cross between a ray and a shark).
Our second day is a total contender for Dive Day of the Trip.
We started the day with a return visit to Lighthouse Bommie, where we were so lucky to come across a manta cleaning! We sat politely on the bottom and watched for almost 40 minutes. And, being the first dive with super-amazing underwater camera ability (our birthday present to ourselves) we have footage! The manta we dubbed ‘stumpy’ because she (apparently, it was a she and most probably pregnant, due to the recent marks on her fins, according to our manta-whisperer, Kym) was missing her tail. And while we were there, a couple more mantas also stopped by to say hello.
It was all so involving, that a poor loggerhead turtle who’d been sleeping behind the trainee dive master, Diana, had to muscle his way past her in order to go to the surface. I could almost hear him saying ‘scuse me, scuse me’
And before all that even happened, we came across a ‘nest’ of rays – a pile of whiptail rays and a marble ray lying on the sandy bottom. We couldn’t get too close before they scattered though.
For our second dive, we headed to the eastern side of the island: just us two, and Kym – private eastern tour!
The water was so clear, the current almost non-existent, so our trip along the wall was so so relaxing. Well, except for all the whalesong that was so frustrating as we couldn’t see any! (we learnt later that it’s likely that if they are close, you’d also hear heartbeats!).
About halfway through the dive we came across a green turtle that Kym was looking at attentively, and waving me over to take a photo. It wasn’t til I got really close that I could see why – the turtle had a tag on its front flipper. Amazingly, the photo came out well enough to read the number! Hopefully we’ll be able to find out where it came from (the Lady Elliot team were looking into it).
And finally, we returned to the western side for an afternoon dive, where the highlight for me was a tassled wobbegong (not so much for Kristy, as they’re common in Sydney). We also went on a bit of an excursion at the end, across heaps of sand, for ages, and weren’t sure why, but it turned out (when we were above water) that there is a shark pool at the southern end that one some days is teeming with sharks. Not so today. But ah well!
Days three and four
The weather wasn’t as good, but we still had some highlights:
- With our manta-whisperer, Kym, some really close interaction with Mantas – so so very close that if we launched ourselves at them, I reckon we’d have been able to touch them. A funny thing about this was, that there were just the three of us, having dispensed with the rest of our group who’d used up their air earlier (cue smug grins).
- A brilliant drift dive from Blowhole > Tubes > Hiro’s Cave, as the current was pretty swift, so it was like sitting on a train and watching the ocean stream by. And most amazingly, two manta’s were swimming /flying in the opposite direction from us, and we got it on film!
- A night dive, which, while not my favourite type of diving, is always a novelty. And apparently doesn’t happen that often, according to the few the staff who came along for the experience – the weather we’d had for our first 2-3 days was exceptionally good (we hadn’t realised we’d been so lucky!). And another thing I learnt: my torch sucks. Lucky Kristy has a floodlight for hers.
- Hectic morning dive day 3 – the water was so choppy that some divers bailed out on the diving (a family turned up all ready to go, but then opted out, which is good as they had a 10 year old girl, it would’ve been scary for her!), but under the water, perfectly lovely.
Day five – AKA, BIRTHDAY DAY!
Well, this was always going to be a fun day, but the Lady Elliot dive team made it exceptional! We were totally looked after all day – including the shop running 3 dives (rather than the standard 2). And birthday cake!!
The most amazing thing was saw on Birthday Dives was 7 spotted eagle rays. So beautiful with their spotted backs and long, elegant tails. We’d expected to see marble rays, cowtail rays, thorny back rays and manta rays, but the appearance of a unexpected cousin was delightful. Unfortunately couldn’t get any pictures, as eagle rays are some of the most skittish rays.
And speaking of unexpected, did we mention BIRTHDAY CAKE?? After dinner, the Lady Elliot team surprised us with a beautiful cake from their fantastic chef Shane. Thanks guys!
And speaking of surprise, the 3 guys who’d completed their open water courses of the previous couple of days got to do snorkel funnels. What. A. Treat.
Our final dive day.
But, mother nature had saved the best for last! We just did two morning dives, so that we could have a full 24-hour ‘dry day’ before flying out, but they each rocked it!
First up, we did another eastern side drift dive, which was less speedy than Day 2’s, but generally nice. Until 35 minutes in….
DONG DONG DONG
A HUMPBACK WHALE!!!
Sliding past in the blue was a humpback whale! 15m under water, 10-15m away, this gentle giant was just cruising past on his yearly migration. Who knows how fast our air went down there we were awestruck, whooping, dancing, and no doubt almost hyperventilating with excitement.
We’d (well, I’d) started to think we were overly optimistic with predicting that we’d see a whale on a dive, but our positive thoughts were rewarded.
No one managed to get a good shot though, we were all so overwhelmed by the sight that recording it with anything other than our eyes went out the window. Even the staff – it was cool to see that it was special to them too.
We finished the dive not long after that – and came up shrieking with joy.
And by the time we were getting ready to go in for our second dive, that whole island knew of our encounter: a family was coming in from snorkelling and said as they passed “Did you hear the divers this morning saw a whale?”…. “That was us! That was us!”, we replied.
Finally, for our final dive, our sea friends all came to say goodbye. We saw mantas – cleaning and cruising – marble, cowtail and thorny rays, turtles of both green and loggerhead species, and sharks. It was magic, especially for the Indonesian UNSW student who’d come to Lady Elliot for only two days’ diving, specifically to see manta rays, and hadn’t seen any mantas the previous day.
And then – when we surfaced we saw a whale waving his fin in the air like he was saying ‘see ya!’. And what do you know? After a while, that whale, and another, headed straight for us! While I was back in the boat already, KC saw them under the water pass right by our boat! And to top it all off, dolphins then appeared, trailing the whales.
It sounds unbelievable, but believe it, it was real.
All in all, we completed 16 dives over the course of a week, and could easily do it all over again immediately.
To see some of the amazing sights was saw under the water, check out our video and pictures.
The resort and staff
The resort is more accurately, and frequently by those who work there, described as a caravan or holiday park. The accommodation is pretty basic – we stayed in an ‘eco-tent’ that had two sets of bunks, electricity, and little else – but who needs fancy digs when nature awaits!
The dive staff were fantastic and knowledgeable about the ecosystem of the island – one look at the water and they could tell what way the current would be running, no mean feat on an island where the current can change without a hint of warning. In particular, Kym – scuba-royalty, eco-warrior, and island protector – showed us the secrets of the island. Knowing everything and everyone, he also has a story for every scuba situation you could imagine. And has an endless pool of jokes, mainly at another of the dive team, Ales’s, expense (who, to be fair, was an easy target)…
Being Eco- focused, their is a focus on education for visitors on the Island. We were lucky enough to hear a presentation on manta rays from Lady Elliot’s resident marine ecologist (who we may have dubbed ‘Dr Hottie’), which was so informative and involving. We heard it on our last night, but I really wish we’d heard it earlier!
> If you’d like to see more about research on manta’s and other large sea creatures, check out the Marine Megafauna Foundation.
Ps. The island is famous for another thing – birds. There are birds everywhere, s*&t everywhere, it’s noisy, and it stinks. But, a small concession.
The dive sites
While the official line is that there are around 14 dive sites, there are essentially two areas – East and West – and on any given dive you’re likely to cover most, if not all sites in the area. Which isn’t a bad thing – give me one awesome dive area over 5 average dive sites any day!
The western area – or ‘back side’ as we referred to it – is usually the more protected of the sides, and so, more frequently dived (according to Kym, the eastern side is only dived 20 – 25% of the time. It’s sandy bottomed, or staghorn coral-covered, with bommies scattered here and there. The bommies we very valuable to our manta-quest, as they served as focus points for manta cleaning stations.
The eastern side – ‘out the front’ – is a reef wall dive that extends from Blowhole to Tubes, and on to Hiro’s cave. Blowhole is like a pasta elbow – a vertical shaft from the top of the reef that curves to horizontal to let you out on the outside of the reef wall. It’s not an extreme, or difficult cave/swimthrough, but it was fun to ‘parachute’ down in to.
Lady Elliot has its own air fleet, which conveniently meets the commercial airlines out of Bundaberg, Hervey Bay, Gold Coast etc. And while that means you have to take two flights, it’s totally worth it, as the 16-seater single prop plane allows for a brilliant scenic flight on the way out. You get to see Lady Elliot appear as an oasis in the ocean.