Lady Elliot Island

WITH wildlife habitats shrinking rapidly, we are hardly surprised when wild elephants raid villages for water or noisy red-wattled lapwings choose urban rooftops to raise their fledglings. But it takes some time to get used to the reality of an oceanic turtle getting up-close to us, wanting to be scratched on its carapace. The carapace is criss-crossed by nerve endings, and the turtle, later I learn, enjoys a bit of a back massage. But at this moment, I am spooked, and my first reaction is to get away from this insistent hawksbill quickly. I recall the British broadcaster naturalist David Attenborough saying turtles have powerful jaws that can snap your wrist if you get too close for comfort, and am taking no chances now. I flail my arms and flippers clumsily and try to put some distance between this feisty reptile and myself, but the playful creature is in no mood to avoid me; it swims alongside, seemingly companionably and gracefully.

Manta Ray
Manta Rays congregate near Lady Elliot Island

That is Lady Elliot Island for you, one of the few places on the planet where turtles share their turf with visitors, provided you flatter them a bit with your tactile attention. The island, no bigger than 100 acres (1 acre = 0.4 hectare) in size, is an elliptical coral cay, 80 kilometres off Bundaberg on the coast of Queensland (Australia), on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef. Located bang in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the island is somewhat difficult to access. But, for the determined, there are charter flights from Gold Coast, Hervey Bay or Bundaberg—a tiny Cessna where you occupy the co-pilot’s seat and the pilot himself fetches your luggage and loads it on the craft. No security checks, either. Throughout the 105-minute flight, you are dazzled by the array of cockpit lights that blink, flicker and occasionally screech, distracting your attention from the spectacular coastal scenery that unfolds just a few thousand feet below. A radiant horizon changes hues faster than models on a ramp while orca and humpback whales in the blue expanse below entertain you with their antics. They are on their annual migration to the colder waters of the south.

Lady Elliot Island is a microcosm of ecological diversity. Despite its tiny size, it hosts 1,200 species of marine life, which include manta rays, turtles, reef sharks, orca and humpback whales and almost the entire cast of creatures one saw in Finding Nemo. The gorgeous aquamarine lagoon that surrounds the island is home to the weird and the wonderful—thousands of clams, shell fish, slugs, corals, octopuses and other exotic creatures such as the epaulette shark. Unlike in Cairns, another coastal town further north, the waters surrounding this island are colder and hence do not shelter stingers—box jellyfish that can inflict the most painful stings. If one takes the trouble of travelling to these backwaters (literally) of the Pacific, the rewards are rich.

Lady Elliot Island, named after the wife of a former Governor General of India, has no native or permanent human inhabitants, unless you consider the staff of the eco-resort that caters exclusively to tourists. There are no permanent structures on the island, except a historic lighthouse first built in 1866 and rebuilt a couple of times over the years. The motivated and cheerful staff of the resort live from ship to mouth—supplies come from the mainland once a month—but you will have no inkling of that in the dining hall, where fresh fruits and salads are served in plenty. The island is electrified by solar panels with diesel generators backing up on cloudy days. Fresh water supply is scarce; seawater is desalinated to supply the resort. In fact, there are notices everywhere to remind you of that. The cabins are eco-friendly, and each faces the sea. As soon as you land, the resort employees tell you what colour flags to watch out for when the green turf doubles as landing strip for the occasional Cessna. The island has no airstrip, and the craft lands on the meadow.

What they do not tell you though is how noisy the island can be. While one can expect the constant roar of the ocean to provide an auditory backdrop to everything on an island as tiny as this one, it is the nesting birds that drown out the sound of the ocean. They are raucous, argumentative and jealously guard their turf and their hatchlings. Although the nesting season is supposed to be between September and March, my walk along the perimeter of the island brings me face to face with a whole host of nesting noddy birds and terns. I am told sandpipers, wedge-tailed shearwaters, noisy seagulls, brown boobies and frigates also set up their rookeries among the shrubs, rocks, scree and tree branches. Eighty species of birds are claimed to have been recorded and these include migratory as well as resident types.

In fact, Lady Elliot Island’s birds are a testament to what good conservation efforts can achieve. The island did not have any birds until 1970. Afforestation work undertaken by the Queensland government not only brought nesting sea- and shorebirds to the island in huge numbers but even turned it into a guano mine. Guano, as bird droppings are called, makes for excellent manure. It was transported from the island to the mainland for agricultural use until recently.

Seabirds derive their food directly from the ocean and have the ability to drink saltwater and excrete the excess salt out of their nasal slits. Most of them are web-footed. Their coat of feathers is warm and waterproof. Shorebirds like gulls forage for food near human habitations, having learnt to coexist with us. There are land birds like sparrows and crows as well on this island.

Like most coral cays, Lady Elliot Island, too, has a wide lagoon that houses a profusion of sea life, almost all of which you can come across if you wade through it at low tide. Of course, you can snorkel, swim or dive to view the deep-sea treasures that this part of the Great Barrier Reef serves up. Although the waters around the island are supposed to be exceptionally clear in May-June, my landing on the island coincides with the worst storm to hit the Queensland coast in a decade. I despair that my few days in the island will have to be spent indoors. But then the overcast skies cleared up soon, although the sun still played truant.

Reef walking

The sea, too, is murky, and I defer snorkelling and diving for later. But even in this weather, there is plenty to do. Reef walking is a particularly pleasurable journey of discovery when the tide goes out. So I set off along with a few others and a guide, an exceptionally knowledgeable young man with an abiding interest in marine life. In a steady drizzle, we walk in single file as our guide lifts up one creature after another to explain its attributes. The reef is strewn with giant clams of exquisite shapes and colours. We have to step gingerly so as to not hurt the sea cucumbers that are ubiquitous. Our guide lifts a sea slug, which squirts out copious quantities of purple ink (sea slugs and sea hares are known to do that when they are stressed). The ink gives them momentary cover allowing them to escape any predator. He prises an octopus out of its hiding to stretch out its tentacles for us to inspect. We are told to be careful not to disturb certain shellfish that can inflict the most painful pricks when provoked. The reef can be a dangerous place, too, for the uninitiated.

Magic of manta

But my main reason for coming to Lady Elliot Island is to view those gentle giants of the tropical seas—manta rays. There are several islands in the vicinity—Fraser Island, Heron Island and the evocatively named Lizard Island, among others. But manta rays seem to prefer the waters around Lady Elliot where plankton, their staple food, is abundant. Mantas are different from sting rays; they are much bigger, gentler and do not sport the lethal tail barb that killed Steve Irwin, the Australian wildlife enthusiast and iconic television show host. May-June is peak manta ray season, and the resort is full of visitors from all over the world, some laden with complex underwater photographic equipment, hoping to capture the magic of manta ray migration. Mercifully, unlike shark fins, manta fins are not yet on the diet of humans. But how long they will remain so, especially when our oceans have already been overfished, is anybody’s guess.

The drizzle continues the next day, but since I have limited time on the island, I decide to make the most of my stay. I join a group of divers to explore the ocean. We don our diving suits, hoist the heavy oxygen cylinders on our backs, wade through shingles in knee-deep surf, and get on to a boat that will take us to the open ocean for diving. We sight manta rays from time to time, usually in twos and threes. Our group of eight divers is dropped off in the middle of the ocean and the boat makes its way back to the shore. While others dive with a splash, I hang on to a rope fixed to a concrete anchor and gently ease myself down some 30 feet or so below the surface. Here there is no trace of rain or storm, but the water is still a bit murky. I kneel on the powdery white ocean floor and wait for manta rays to come my way. Several minutes elapse, and all I see are fish, some in shoals and others, loners, a few sea cucumbers and a whole host of corals. I am about to give up and ascend to the surface when a large creature blocks out light from the surface. I barely glimpse the tip of its pectoral fin. Manta rays can grow up to seven metres in width and can be massive, but they are gentle despite their size.

I am keen on photographing mantas under water, but for a rookie diver with a tiny portable camera, everything is an effort. I can hardly capture these giants in a single frame. All I get to photograph is a fleeing fin or a fleeting tail, never the entirety of this beautiful creature. It will take me several more dives and a more sophisticated camera to get some good shots. Meanwhile, my mask keeps slipping and filling up with water. I am ready to give up and ascend to the surface. As I paddle up to the surface, Craig Clarke, our diving instructor, tells me to hang on to a rope while he fetches the others who are still in the depths of the ocean. The rescue boat is nowhere in sight, and the sea is choppy. I hang on to the rope and sway with the waves, doubting my sanity in undertaking this enterprise in such weather. It may have taken Craig only a few minutes to fetch the boat and the other divers, but to me it seems an eternity. Finally, the boat is in sight and I heave myself up on board, shivering with cold.

Project manta

Project Manta is a multidisciplinary research programme based at the University of Queensland, Brisbane. It was founded in 2007 to investigate the population, biology and ecology of manta rays in eastern Australia. Photo identification is one of the key methods used in research as individual manta rays can be differentiated by their distinctive ventral markings, comparable to human fingerprints. Professional and recreational divers provide photographs and sighting information of manta rays along the entire east Australian coast. Involving the community in research has led to increased public awareness about manta rays and their marine environment.

Back in the resort, I view with envy the fantastic pictures of my experienced fellow divers. A Frenchman who had travelled all the way from his country consoled me saying this was probably his hundredth dive and he could capture manta rays for the first time only now.

In the evening, we set out in a glass-bottomed boat from which we have a wonderful view of the vibrant and expansive coral city below. We also come across several “bommies”, or isolated hard coral reefs.

Despite their rocky appearance, hard corals are also living organisms much like their soft counterparts. Each coral head is a compact colony of individual polyps, which are withdrawn during the day to escape predatory fish such as parrotfish, butterfly fish, sea slugs and angel fish, which feed on them. At dusk, polyps emerge and use their tentacles to catch microscopic organisms such as plankton. However, a major part of their energy is derived from photosynthetic unicellular algae that live within the coral’s tissue. Coral reefs, therefore, require a lot of sunlight and typically grow in clear, tropical to subtropical waters, typically at depths shallower than 60 metres.

The Great Barrier Reef is under constant threat from rising temperatures and acidity of the ocean, but that is not yet evident in this part of the reef. How long this situation will hold is anybody’s guess, especially if we continue to stress the environment as we do now with our energy-intensive lifestyles.

(published in Frontline dated October 14, 2016)