Easily one of the best places in Queensland to visit for incredible, up close underwater wildlife experiences is Lady Elliot Island. Not only is this a beautiful natural environment, but the opportunity to swim so close to turtles, manta rays and so many other marine life are just mind blowing.
Lets start with a bit of basic information. Lady Elliot Island is the southern most Coral Cay of the Great Barrier Reef. Don’t worry, if you’ve never heard of a “cay” I had to Google what it was when I first heard it too. It’s basically a small sand island on the surface of a coral reef. It’s north-east of Bundaberg off the Queensland Coast and north of Hervey Bay. You can only get there by small plane via Sea Air, it’s not accessible by boat, but the flight from the Gold Coast, Redcliffe, Bundaberg or Hervey Bay is short and very scenic.
The Island itself is split down the middle by a small grass airstrip where you land. From there, everything is short walking distance. There isn’t much on the island by way of man made structures, its all about nature. There are only 40 “rooms” so even when occupancy is at its maximum, you still feel like you’re on a deserted island. There’s one communal area with a bar, restaurant and dining facilities and an education center as well as a small rec room with table tennis, lounges and books for reading. As the island is based around underwater activities, there is a dive shop for all your snorkel and dive gear and believe it or not, there is also a small swimming pool on the island. Although I have never seen this used except for dive famils. Seriously, who would swim in a pool when the most incredible crystal clear water is at your feet!
Other than these few things, that’s pretty much it. The rest of the island is as nature created it, full of bird life, hermit crabs, turtles and the adorable hatchlings at certain times of year and the billions of underwater creatures.
Lots of people have seen my pictures from my trips to Lady Elliot and contacted me about visiting, which is so pleasing to hear, but let me be straight up honest with you, if you are looking for sipping champagne cocktails with 5 star dining and white sandy beaches, this is not the place for you – and to be fair, I’m usually all for the luxuries of holidays and definitely not one for ever “glamping” or slumming it, my idea of “basic” is 4 star, but this place is a definite exception.
Having said that, Lady Elliot doesn’t try to pretend to be a luxury getaway. It’s all about the eco, nature experience. The accommodation is certainly comfortable and there are plenty of options from “eco-tents” to cabins with en-suite bathrooms, but this pretty little “Lady” is not about the accommodation and truly, once you get your head under the water or on the beaches, you won’t be spending any time in your room other than to sleep. The food is buffet style in the only dining room on the island, but its actually really good with a lot of variety, particularly considering the logistics of getting food there with only a short grass runway for small aircraft to land and a barge that brings supplies once a month. I was pleasantly surprised at how good a job the kitchen team do, from breakfast right through until dinner. Let’s face it, Lady Elliot is tiny. You can walk a whole lap of the island at a stroll pace in well under an hour to give you an idea.
The owners, the Gash family, are amazing champions of protecting the reef and the wildlife and since they took over Lady Elliot Island, they have worked to maintain the integrity and make it affordable for people to visit as well as teaching everyone the conservation message. What they have achieved is nothing short of incredible and their many awards from tourism boards recognizing their tireless contribution to the sustainability of the Queensland tourism industry and the environment is testament to this dedication.
So enough of the tour guide, the one and only reason you go to Lady Elliot Island is for the underwater experience. You need to walk via the crushed coral beaches but love how there are reef shoes for you to use whilst on the island, so don’t worry about packing a pair. As soon as you hit the water, you just don’t want to leave. The first thing you notice is how clear it is. On one side of the island (where all the accommodation is) you’ll find the “lagoon” which even at high tide is pretty shallow. This means it’s ideal for young children and at low tide, you can walk right out to the break in knee deep water. This is where you find the majority of the turtles and so so many fish. I even saw a few small reef sharks and octopus. It’s a great place to experience the wildlife if you aren’t a particularly confident swimmer and also, as I mentioned previously, perfect for children. There are beach lounges on the beach to relax and kick back (if you have the time) and ideal for a lazy afternoon while children can play in the shallow waters of the lagoon right at your feet.
On the other side of the island is the Coral Gardens and Lighthouse snorkeling and diving areas. The water over there is a lot deeper and there are only two entry points through the coral so generally, you enter the water at one end and allow the current to take you to the other exit point. The dive shop has daily updates of conditions and tides so make sure you check these before you hit the water. Of course there is also the option of the snorkel boats that take you out and stay close by.
I can never decide which side of Lady Elliot is my favorite and just when I’m a hands down lagoon junkie, I take a swim in the Coral gardens with the schools of trevally or dolphins and I’m hooked again. Honestly, you can’t really go wrong anywhere underwater at Lady Elliot and everywhere is different so a week underwater just never seems enough.
I’m also a diving newbie. I got my open water dive license a few years back specifically for a trip I was planning to Lady Elliot and now I can’t get enough. I sometimes find when I’m snorkeling I just want to be sitting quietly on the bottom of the ocean floor and taking it all in, and secretly, my duck diving and holding breath skills are rubbish so diving just seems so much easier. There is a shipwreck to dive at Lady Elliot which you cant get to snorkeling, so if you do hold a dive license, make sure you have a go whilst visiting.
So, I hope I haven’t confused anyone too much, because first and foremost, Lady Elliot Island is one of my truly favorite places on this planet and I try to go there at least once a year to switch off from the outside world. There is very limited telephone and internet service (you can purchase it but I always choose not to), there is no television in your rooms and it’s a very basic “resort”. But being in the water so close to so many amazing creatures or even just sitting on the beach watching the sunset with the waves gently rolling in around you, is just so revitalizing. It brings the world back into perspective. We are all so busy all the time and the world is full of angry, messed up people but what really matters in the whole scheme of things? Certainly not all the “things” that we place so much importance on. It is the experiences in our lives that shape and define us. A week at Lady Elliot Island, away from the modern world luxuries, and I promise you will come home wishing you could live on a deserted island forever.