Saying “hi” to a turtle in the Great Barrier Reef

My eyes wander over the horizon. The ocean seems unending as it reaches as far as my eyes can see. Turquoise and dark blue colours in the water, clear blue skies above. It’s like looking at a modern art painting, titled something like blue meets blue. One thin line in the middle dividing the canvas – the horizon. I have the tendency to close my eyes to stay in the moment, and engrave that ultimate feeling of pure luck in my memory. So I close my eyes now, listen to the waves in the distance and the chattering sound of numerous birds while I feel the sun warm up my face. I open up my eyes again to see where the sound of the braking waves is coming from. The water of the lagoon in front of me is calm, only showing wrinkles when little fish jump out of the water. I extend my gaze to the end of the lagoon, where an invisible force draws a line and stops the wild ocean waters from entering the bowl surrounding this little piece of paradise, also known as Lady Elliot Island.

Lady Elliot Island is a nature conservation area, 85 km off Australia’s East Coast. Checking in for your flight to bird’s heaven will take place just 5 minutes before departure of your 20 minute flight from rum town Bundaberg. It feels surreal to walk up the landing lane with your small back pack and climb a five step stairs to enter the small propeller plane – with, also very surprisingly: strangely furnished chairs (white plush) – that will have you flying over the Great Barrier Reef. This transport feels more like a scenic flight, peering out of the window thinking to see some small boats while in fact you’re seeing huge breaking waves creating white foam formations in the dark ocean waters. Getting Lady Elliot Island into view feels like as if you’re in a BBC World documentary and all your missing is Sir David Attenborough’s commentary. A picture perfect rounded island surrounded by reef, huge manta rays swimming the waters (if you’re lucky and a good spotter you can already see them from the plane). Landing is an exciting experience on its own, as the landing lane is a mowed strip of grass in full length of the island that with the bumpy ride after hitting the ground provides you with kind of an explorer feel.

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That feeling doesn’t last long though, as the enthusiastic and friendly staff of the accommodation on the island greets you right after exiting the plane, explaining to you all the amazing activities the island has on offer. There are three snorkelling sights and the sign at the flipper and snorkel hire cabin tells you if it’s safe (for you and the fragile reef) to go in.

From the very first moment it’s clear that the island is a magical place. Immediately upon arrival I enter the waters of the lagoon. Since it’s so shallow, you’re only allowed to go in during a time slot of a couple of hours (high tide), so you have to take your chance when you get it. After only five minutes in the lagoon, I encounter a friendly looking loggerhead turtle. It seems to smile at me while it’s taking its time to chew on some sea grass. There’s no effort involved at closely studying his moves, he continues his meal while swimming closer to take a look at the curious figure in front of him that’s me. I have to move away to be sure I won’t touch him, although that realisation comes after a sensation of a few seconds of being in Nemo and able to talk to this friendly friend, grab one of his feet and swim along with him, hand in hand.

After this Pixar moment, moving away from the turtle has me worried about touching any of the reef surrounding me. The shallow lagoon is so shallow that even during high tide you have to be incredibly careful all the time not to touch any corals. I know it’s a conservation area and the number of visitors is limited, but I still feel like as if I’m doing something wrong – being so up close to all the gems of this under water paradise.

It truly feels like paradise, the water an agreeable temperature of 24 degrees, no current and a lagoon filled with brain, sponge and mushroom corals. Beautifully coloured clams shells and cobalt blue sea stars share the reef with thousands of cucumbers. Everywhere you look there’s a sea cucumber. Slimy but interesting creatures. During the afternoon reef walk yet another enthusiastic young woman explains us all about the sea cucumber as well as on sea urchins, clams, starfish and what have you.

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The snorkelling spots on the West side of the island are closed on the day we arrive due to the winds making it too dangerous to be swimming in the deep waters. That leaves us with time for a perfect afternoon stroll over the white sand beach with hard corals spread on the beach. More and more bleached coral covers the sand until we reach part of the beach where were just walking on shells and coral. This is unlike I’ve ever seen before and I divide my attention from putting my feet so that I will not slip from my flip-flop and scratch my skin on the shells to the amazing view on the horizon, the small crabs moving incredibly fast from one hiding spot to the other, and looking at the structures and colours of the corals I pick up from the beach. We take the path through the trees full with White Capped Noddy Tern birds making a noise I’ve never heard before. It’s as if they’re competing for the award of loudest or noisiest bird of the island.

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The path leads us to where the staff accommodation is based and we reach the beach on the sunset side of the island, where the low sun gives the light tower a golden glow and the friendly staff has some cold drinks stalled out on a table (the bar is on the other side of the island). With a glass of bubbles we sit down on the beach and watch the sun go down. What a perfect way to end the sunshine hours of a perfect day.

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An evening staring up at the countless stars is followed by an active morning snorkelling on the west side of the island. Both spots are open and we decide to go drifting from one spot to the other. The waters are deeper and colder on this side of the island, so this time we go in with wetsuits. The swim is challenging, especially since we find ourselves swimming against the current as it had already turned in the time it had taken us to check the direction of the current at the flipper and snorkelling cabin, drop our towels at the end point and walk back to the starting point to enter the water. The waters are less clear, but we push ourselves to continue hoping to encounter a reef sharks or manta ray. Half way we give up, and continue the drifting trail by foot on the beach. Arriving at our towels, a fellow tourist relaxedly laying in a sun lounger points to the water while looking through his binoculars and excitedly shouts to us ‘there are two manta rays over there!’ So off we went again but of course we couldn’t reach them, which at this point to be honest I didn’t really care about any more as I just wanted to get out of the cold water and take in some big breaths of air.

Exhausted, we climbed on the glass bottom boat for a more relaxed way of seeing the underwater world on this side of the island. Time to spot some manta rays. I see some people pointing to the water but do not immediately see what it is they’re so fascinated about. But then I see a small flapping movement: a huge black stain on the surface of the water is in fact a giant manta ray. An impressive sight with a span of 5 meters. The glass bottom of the boat lives up to its expectation when we see two flat giants swimming right underneath our boat. What a joy – this would do for me.

Since we woke up early to enjoy an amazingly red sunrise, we had some time left before our flight would take us back to the real world. Some time to sit back, relax, read a book and frequently look up to enjoy the stunning surroundings. I’m again enjoying my favourite view on the island. The blue canvas that no painter could ever recreate as perfect as I’m seeing it.

Although.. I’m convinced that the artist would leave out the greyish poo from the birds. Reading a book was not part of paradise’s plan for me today. I’m pooped on by one of the beautiful black and greyish birds. Perhaps he didn’t like me recording their singing competition yesterday while walking through the trees? Perhaps he wasn’t pleased about the fact I didn’t let them steal any of the delicious prawns I had for lunch? Splat! No time to think about why, as the second bird hits me. A direct hit, at the exact moment at which I lift up my leg to spray some more sun protector near my bikini. I close my eyes again, this time not to stay in the moment, but to block out the face of my partner who simply cannot stop laughing.

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Off to your own adventure!

You can book a stay at Lady Elliot Island but can also decide to go for a day trip. Either way, you’ll be enjoying a scenic flight on a propeller plane from either Bundaberg, Herbery Bay, Coolangatta or Radcliffe.
A day tour always includes a glass bottom boat and guided snorkel tour so you can take in the beauty the reef has on offer.
Personally, I would recommend you to stay at least one night as you really do not want to miss out on the most incredible sunset and sunrise you can possible image. If you’re a diver you definitely want to stay longer than just one day as this must be one of the best diving areas the Great Barrier Reef offers.
The eco resort at Lady Elliot Island is unpretentious and counts only 41 rooms. If you want to be sure of a dreamy getaway in island paradise I would advise you to book ahead. Check out their website for all information: http://ladyelliot.com.au

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