Alex’s summation of our time in rainy Byron Bay pretty much hit the nail on the head. As feared, Australia had been a bit of a doldrum (a doldrums?), a dead spot between the alpine adventure of NZ’s South Island and the return to Asian city life that awaits us around the next corner. Spirits had grown dim as we departed Byron and headed north through the hinterlands of Queensland. We slept a quick night in the Glasshouse Mountains before racing to Hervey Bay for our flight to the edge of the Australian Continental Shelf.
Fifty miles off the mainland sits Lady Elliot Island, the southernmost extension of the Great Barrier Reef. The island’s human history is brief and largely uninteresting – even with about 120 guests spending the night, there is no doubt that most, if not all, of the action takes place among the reefs surrounding LEI.
There are, however, thousands of residents of the island that might disagree with that last point. The bird population there is a transient one, but its members are numerous and not shy. Like their nearly-extinguished cousins back in New Zealand, they aren’t remotely afraid of people, and together they produce a racket like a more frenzied and alarming version of the background noise of a World Cup soccer game. The white-capped noddy pictured above belongs to a particularly frisky species. During the day, the noddies camp out in trees and shrubs of the island, or loiter in the pathways, uninterested in whose path they might be blocking.
Every evening at sunset, they get even friendlier. Should you choose to walk from our tent to the bathroom after dark, you’d finally hear something over the collective squawk: the flapping of noddy wings as they performed low-altitude fly-bys past your ears. A bit unsettling, if you prefer to keep your distance from the birds. A more majestic species that we saw each day is the lesser frigatebird. These seabirds don’t know how to walk and they rarely swim. Instead, they spend their days gliding in formation over the island, occasionally swooping to the water’s surface for a bite. The only photo I got was this, where a lone frigatebird soars over the island’s grass and coral airstrip. Tough to make it out.
Back to the action under the sea. My brief career as a scuba diver has been largely an exercise in anxiety management as I fight the perfectly reasonable panic reflex that results from voluntary self-immersion. On our first dive at Lady Elliot, I followed the smooth and stoic Holly as she led the way down a mooring line into about 10 meters of water. I paused instinctively at the surface and was breathing like I had just run a dozen sprints, and wasn’t able to fully relax and slow my breathing for ten minutes or so. That’s a good way to use your air up real fast, have to be the first one sent up to the surface by the dive master, and generally feel like a rookie.
On the next dive, William and I went down with a more experienced group of adults, all of us certified to go deeper (increased depth means higher water pressure means I run out of air even faster and oh great all the adults are going to laugh and point fingers at me). Our dive master, Phil, took us off the reef a bit into a deeper area of sandy seafloor with the occasional “bommie,” or underwater outcropping of rock covered by coral. Under one bommie we saw an amazing sight: a fever of whiptail rays fluttering around a larger female bull ray which had wedged herself deep under an overhang. At the time, Phil speculated to himself that the whiptails were mistaking the female for one of their own, and fighting for her affection, but another theory soon won the day: the whiptails were agitated and trying to avoid a threat that they could detect nearby, and which Phil would capture a few seconds later on video (I hope this link works):
Harry the Hammerhead returned a few seconds after that disappearance and headed straight for Phil. William was immediately to Phil’s right and I was about 15 feet to his left. Phil was once again filming (I have seen that video and it’s much better than the above, c’mon Phil, share it!!) as the shark dodged to its right and headed my way. That was another of those moments wherein I questioned the wisdom of voluntary self-immersion. We got a nice close-up view of it’s teeth as it gave a kick and slid off into the distance. Needless to say, I ran low on air pretty quickly after that and William and I were safely on a boat about 15 minutes later.
The big shark, about 3 meters nose to tail, was one of many underwater megafauna we saw at LIE: turtles, rays, grouper, the maori wrasse, and color-shifting octopi became routine sights. I am still new to diving, but my sense is that LIE is special for its concentration of such big-ticket species. The island is also becoming increasingly noteworthy as one of the remaining healthy portions of the Great Barrier Reef. We didn’t hear much talk of this while on the island – there were books and displays to read, but the hosts and guides did not seem too interested in talking about the warming oceans, dying coral, and the myriad ripple effects. We saw patches of colorless coral here and there, but the locals seemed reluctant to accept that these were signs that the massive bleaching taking place to the north was headed toward Lady Elliot. Meanwhile, William overheard a lecture being given to a group of University of Georgia students in which the instructor felt it necessary to point out that climate change, human-powered or otherwise, is a matter of opinion. Ugh, says the guy burning far more than his share of jet and auto fuel wandering around the planet.
Happily, there was plenty of peace and distraction to be found during our time on the island. On our final full day, William, Holly, Coco and I put on snorkels and popped into the water for a semi-circumnavigation of the island’s west coast. It was Coco’s first time in the deeper section of the reef, and we drifted maybe a half-mile over turtles, countless fish of all colors and sizes, and a pair of wrestling (mating?) octopi. Three reef sharks passed beneath us, and Coco ate up every minute of our float. Alex, William and I did the same route in reverse early the next morning before our flight back to the humidity and rainy season on the mainland. We passed over three turtles munching on coral, and William and Alex moved along. As they did, one of the turtles turned and headed up to the surface, maybe ten meters above. As it headed straight for me, I could have pondered the irony of a turtle attack after our close encounter with a hammerhead a couple of days earlier. Instead, thanks to the lack of the anxiety-producing breathing apparatus on my back, I paused, let the turtle approach and pass quietly, and think how lucky we were to spend these days on the Barrier Reef. A few minutes later, our trip was crowned by a manta or devil or eagle ray overtaking first Alex, then me, then William at eye level. It passed us from behind and was gone in a few seconds, like a graceful Klingon starship on a smooth, silky underwater mission.
A couple of hours later, we were on our way back to Hervey Bay and the Australian mainland. We are barely covering one tiny corner of this country, and it seemed appropriate that the first song to come on the car radio was “In a Big Country.” It is a big one, indeed, and let’s hope that our time on this little island has gotten us out of the doldrums of our first few days in Oz. The forecast calls for six more days of rain, but we’ll be on our way to Bangkok in four. In the meantime, it’s onward to the surf of Noosa.
PS Apologies for the lack of underwater photos. We are Go Pro hacks and can’t figure out how to get our shots onto the computer, and they’re pretty shaky at best. There were many unbelievable moments and sights to be seen underwater at Lady Elliot, but almost of them will have to live in our brains. I hope that at least the link above for the facebook video works!