Lady Elliot Island: The Best Place to Explore the Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s seven natural wonders and one of Australia’s most popular tourist attractions. Stretching two thousand, three hundred kilometres along the coast of Queensland, it is the largest coral reef on earth.
The Great Barrier Reef is so large that it can be seen from outer space! It attracts over two million visitors each year, with most of them heading north to Cairns, the closest coastal city to the reef. But we recently discovered Lady Elliot Island, a little gem on the southernmost part of the Great Barrier Reef. Lady Elliot Island is a tiny island accessible only by plane, and it has easily the best snorkelling we’ve ever done on the Great Barrier Reef.
A brief history of the island
Lady Elliot Island rose above sea level around three thousand, five hundred years ago. It was initially a home for large flocks of seabirds. Over time those seabirds deposited piles of guano (bird droppings), making the island a hub for guano mining and eventually leaving it barren.
But Lady Elliot Island has come a long way since those barren years. After mining stopped a revegetation program was introduced in 1969, by an aviator named Don Adams. Since then, the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort (the only resort on the island), has continued the program. Today the island is thriving with a fantastic mix of vegetation with species such as casuarina, pandanus palm and octopus bush. The seabird population is also back to a high, with many species living on or visiting the island.
How to get to Lady Elliot Island?
The island is located at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, eighty kilometres north-east of Bundaberg. It’s only accessible by scenic flight transfers. Flights depart from four different locations in Southern Queensland; Bundaberg (30 mins), Hervey Bay (40 mins), Brisbane (80 mins) or the Gold Coast (100 mins).
Where to stay on Lady Elliot Island?
It’s super easy to choose your accommodation on the island because there is just one resort! The Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort is relaxed, unpretentious and offers all guests an eco-tourism experience. You can choose from the cheaper eco cabins (permanent tents with shared-facilities, perfect for solo travellers), one bedroom cabins (for couples) or two bedroom Island Suites (for families). There are even two brand new glamping tents with their own bathrooms!
Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort generates over 85% of its own power with a growing hybrid solar plant. There are currently 417 solar panels on the island. Their plan is to become 100% sustainable by 2020. They also desalinate seawater for drinking, maintain a wastewater treatment plant and recycle the majority of their rubbish.
Something that impressed us when visiting the island was how dedicated all of the staff were to the island’s environment and marine life. They were all happy and able to answer any questions about those topics. Plus they really tried to make sure your time on the island was memorable. It certainly was a memorable experience for us.
Buffet breakfast and dinner are included in your stay, as well as all snorkelling gear, reef walking shoes, and one glass bottom boat tour. If you are worried that the food might be average, well don’t be; it’s top notch!
Why is Lady Elliot Island so special?
It’s a coral cay
Lady Elliot Island is a coral cay, an island made of coral, built on the surface of the coral reef. That means that you can pretty much step right off the beach and be immersed in the splendour of the Great Barrier Reef. There’s no need to take an hour-long boat ride. It also means you can pretty much snorkel all day long if you want to. I have to admit to spending a lot of time in the water. If we’d stayed more than three days I might have turned into a fish!
However, because it’s a coral cay, do not expect to find fine, white sand on the beach. The beach consists of reef animal skeletons and other debris. This can be really hard on your feet so make sure you bring reef shoes with you or borrow a pair from the resort. Reef shoes are also important when getting into the water because there are stonefish and other poisonous nasties to be avoided.
The snorkelling is the best!
Lady Elliot is located within a highly protected ‘Green Zone’ and is one of the best snorkelling destinations on the Great Barrier Reef. It’s home to over 1200 species of marine life, so be prepared to be blown away as soon as you jump in the water.
The island has a large manta ray population and more turtles than we’ve seen anywhere else. That’s not all though; many reef sharks, eagle rays, stingrays, Maori wrasse and a huge array of colourful fish live in or visit the waters surrounding the island. Unlike other parts of the Great Barrier Reef, the coral is spectacular, unspoilt and very healthy.
The best thing about the island is that you don’t have to be a scuba diver to discover all of this impressive marine life. All you need to do is snorkel just off the beach.
There are three snorkelling trails on the island (easy, intermediate and advanced). Beginners and young children can enjoy the quieter lagoon on the east coast of the island (only accessible two hours before and after high tide). The intermediate and advanced trails are on the west side of the island and can be accessed all day long, weather permitting.
The Coral Gardens area on the west coast offers some of the healthiest and most colourful coral that we’ve seen anywhere. Be sure to snorkel around this area, it’s really nice to see such healthy coral.
The resort organises glass bottom boat tours and guided snorkel safaris out to deeper waters. Be sure to sign up for those as they are totally worth it.
Lady Elliot Island is remote and quiet. Because of its remoteness and because the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort is the only resort on the island, the island does not get overcrowded. This means that even when the resort is at full capacity, it will still feel like barely anyone is there.
The island has no mobile coverage, no television and only very basic satellite internet. It’s a great place to head to get away from it all and to enjoy a few days of digital detox!
It’s home to the Manta Ray
Lady Elliot Island has a population of over one thousand manta rays in its surrounding waters. Mantas can be spotted all year-round but the population is much larger between May and August. They are often seen at the Lighthouse Bommies snorkelling and diving site, which is also a fish cleaning station. Head there early in the morning for your best chance of spotting one.
It’s a turtle paradise
I love turtles. They’re by far my favourite marine animal and watching them gracefully swim through the water always blows my mind. After visiting Hawaii, I didn’t think that I would ever see as many friendly turtles in the same spot anywhere else. Well, I was wrong! On Lady Elliot Island, we saw so many turtles that I lost count within the first hour on the island! Three species of turtles live around the island, Green turtles, Loggerheads and the endangered Hawksbills. We were lucky to see all three. Most of the turtles on Lady Elliot Island were very curious. They came over to check us out and then swam right under us or alongside us. They were really friendly and it’s nice to see that they have been treated so well on the island that they are totally unfazed by humans.
Depending on when you visit the island you may witness turtle nesting (from November to March) and hatching season (from February to April). But if you don’t visit within those seasons don’t despair; you’ll find turtles in the water all year round. As I said, when we visited in June, it was turtle heaven!
You can see humpback whales
If you visit between May and November, you’ll be there for humpback whale season. During that time, humpback whales migrate from the cold waters of Antartica to the warmer waters up north where they give birth to their young.
The whales visit the waters surrounding Lady Elliot Island both on their way north and on their journey back down, accompanied by their calves. During whale season you will likely see them frolicking in the nearby waters, blowing and breaching in the distance.
If you are lucky, they may even swim past your boat! This happened to one of the snorkel safari boats during our stay on the island; sadly it wasn’t us! Make sure you listen closely when snorkelling as you may hear them singing through the water.
The water visibility is incredible
Lady Elliot Island is renowned for its high water visibility. While snorkelling you’ll be able to spot all sorts of marine life from up to thirty meters away. It’s like swimming in a giant aquarium!
The water clarity is perfect for underwater photography so be sure to bring your underwater camera or Go Pro. You’ll need it for all those turtle shots!
There are plenty of other activities to do
Even though you are likely going to be snorkelling or diving the majority of your time on the island, there are several other activities you can do. The resort organises free guided reef walks, fish feeding, presentations about the marine life, and various nighttime activities. There’s also a swimming pool, beach volleyball court and a playground for the young ones.
The resort has two walking trails, the Eco Walking Trail and the Discovery Walking trail. Both are very informative and are a great way to learn more about climate change, along with the island’s varied ecosystems and history.
I’d definitely recommend joining the guided reef walk. You will learn more about the reef eco-system and see colourful giant clams, and all sorts of sea cucumbers up close.
Mind the birds!
We visited outside of birds nesting season, so the bird life was less intense than when we were at Heron island two years back. But there were still plenty of birds on the island during our stay, in particular, the rather loud Black Noddy, and the Red Knots.
The birds on the island are quite cheeky! You need to be very careful to protect your food when you eat outside on the deck of the bistro. It’s not uncommon for the birds to steal your food if you take your eye off it for a second!
Bird nesting season is from September till April. It can get very noisy during that period but thankfully the resort provides free ear plugs for light sleepers!
You can watch the sunset on the beach
At the end of the day, the best thing to do on the island is to head down to the lighthouse for sunset drinks. One of the lovely staff members brings across some wine, beer and soft drinks that you can enjoy as you sit on the beach and watch the sunset. What a great way to finish an already perfect day!
What time of the year is best to visit Lady Elliot Island?
You can visit the island all year round and there will always be plenty of marine life for you to see. The water is warm enough, even in winter. I am a chicken and had no issues jumping in during our visit in June!
Here is a recap of what you might see during different months:
- Sea Bird Season: September to April
- Turtle nesting Season: November till February
- Turtle hatching season: February till April
- Peak manta season: May till August
- Humpback whale season: June till October
How long to stay on Lady Elliot?
Forever, if I could! We stayed three days on the island and although you can walk around the island in forty minutes, three days wasn’t enough for us. I could spend a lifetime exploring the reef.
We found it really hard to leave this magical place and we were already discussing a return trip before we even made it back to the mainland. It was truly amazing to be so close to the marine and bird life and it’s not an experience that we are likely to forget anytime soon.
So to answer that question, stay as long as you possibly can!