Famous for its resident manta rays and abundance of other sea life, Lady Elliot Island is a coral cay situated at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef. It’s about 80 kilometres northeast of Bundaberg and nestled in between Fraser Island and Lady Musgrave Island. It also makes for a truly amazing holiday.
If you are heading to this manta ray disco, here is all you need to know before jumping in the water to dance with these giant kites of the sea.
How To Get There
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The journey there is a scenic one. To reach this island gem, you will need to take a chartered Sea Air Pacific flight from a regional airport in Queensland, including the Gold Coast, Brisbane, Hervey Bay and Bundaberg.
Leaving Australia’s coastline, the small plane heads out across the open ocean. In the distance, a tiny speck on the horizon grows larger by the minute. The views from the window are incredible. With the island in full view, the rather small, grassed airstrip that runs the length of the island is clearly visible. The surrounding reef forms a mosaic of blues and greens. If you are lucky, you may even be able to spot your first manta ray from the air as you land.
Touching down on the grass runway is just the start of your environmentally positive stay. The remote location ad focus on sustainability means the number of people on the island is never more than 50 guests. This means overcrowding will never be an issue, in fact, you’ll often have a stretch of beach or a part of the reef to yourself. It also means there’ll be a minimal environmental impact.
What To Do
Lady Elliot Island is a sanctuary for over 1,200 species of marine life, known for its abundance of manta rays, turtles and other spectacular marine life living in the surrounding unspoilt coral reef. So you can bet your bottom dollar that a majority of your stay will be spent in the water. While you can spot manta rays at any time of year, May to July is best.
Scuba diving here is out of this world, with many dive sites scattered around the island delivering a superb experience. You don’t need to deep dive to be drawn into this watery wonderland though. The snorkelling is just as phenomenal and can be done straight off the beach in the protected reef lagoon. It’s here that turtles love to hang out, and you can be sure to spot a few.
While the manta rays are a big drawcard for guests, the island is a treasure trove of experiences. For those who prefer to stay on the surface, take one of the daily glass-bottom boat tours. With a master-reef guide to answer all your questions, you’ll come back knowing more about the reef than Finding Nemo ever taught you.
There is just as much going on out of the water too. Lady Elliot Island is also home to thousands of seabirds, making it an ideal location for birdwatchers. Keep your eyes out for Shearwaters, Noddy birds and the rare Red-tailed Tropicbird. If you are lucky enough to visit between November to March, you’ll also experience Green and Loggerhead Turtles nesting and hatching on the island.
If history is more your thing, you may be surprised to learn about the Lady Elliot Island Lightstation. While it sits as a grand backdrop for afternoon sundowner drinks on the western side of the island, there is more to it than meets the eye. Established in 1866, it forms an integral part of history in aiding navigation along the Queensland coast through the Great Barrier Reef. Stories of the old lighthouse keepers circulate on the island, and there is even a tale of a ghost that still graces the shores.
Take A Day Trip
Day trips to the island offer an excellent opportunity for people with limited time to explore the GBR. Daytrippers will get return scenic flights and an orientation tour on arrival.
Included in this jam-packed day is a glass bottom boat/ guided snorkelling tour, use of snorkel equipment, lunch available at the cafe and an afternoon of snorkelling, leisure or joining the experienced guides for a guided tour.
Departures for the day trips leave from Bundaberg, Hervey Bay/ Fraser Coast, Brisbane (Redcliffe) or the Gold Coast.
Stay A Little Longer
The coral cay island houses the leading eco-friendly accommodation, Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort. Not only does it have an Advanced Eco-Certification, but the ongoing dedication to maintaining their sustainability policy means you can have your wildlife encounters while protecting the environment.
The resort is also family-run and operated. Peter Gash, his family and several partners have held the lease from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to operate the resort since 2005.
Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort offers a range of comfortable accommodation options, from units and cabins to tents. They even recently added glamping tents. In keeping with the natural, eco-friendly practices, there are no telephones, television, radios or wi-fi available in the rooms, although there is limited wi-fi at the restaurant.
All accommodation options include full buffet dinner and breakfast, use of snorkel equipment and lessons if required, a glass-bottom boat or guided snorkel tour (one per person/stay), plus a range of other guided tours and activities.
Dine-In Or Takeaway
The Beachfront Café offers a selection of snacks and beverages, including salads, burgers, coffee, and alcoholic beverages. It is here that guests can dine for breakfast and dinner also. Meals come with a side of scenic views over the lagoon and, depending on the season, the added bonus of passing humpback whales playing just beyond the reef.
The Lagoon Bar overlooks the Great Barrier Reef and is the perfect place to wind down after a day’s adventure on the reef.
I opted for the takeaway lunch and enjoyed a beach picnic under the shade of a tree, with hermit crabs trying to crash the party. I washed my hamburger down with a Ray XPA beer. It was brewed by Bargara Brewing Company in partnership with Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, the beer was launched to raise awareness for manta rays. It seemed only fitting.
Taking a Sunset Platter of cheeses, biscuits, antipasto and a nice bottle of wine to the west side of the island is a pretty perfect way to enjoy the epic sunset beside the lighthouse, then continue dining under the stars.
What To Pack
Daytrippers just need a day bag – towel, light jacket (depending on weather), daytime essentials and swimmers. Anything else can be hired, like the snorkelling gear.
For those staying overnight or longer, there is a 15-kilo luggage limit per person. Due to the size of the plane, soft bags are preferred and must not exceed 70cm x 40cm x 30cm.
As an avid scuba diver, my packing may have been a little extreme. I opted to BYO dive gear (I like using my own snorkel, mask and fins) and camera equipment instead of more clothing — I found that I didn’t need all that resort wear anyway, as I lived in my swimmers and towel most of the day.
Two shirts, a pair of shorts, a pair of long pants and a jumper for the cooler nights was all I needed. The resort supplies eco-friendly toiletries, and I highly recommend getting yourself some reef-friendly sunscreen and zinc. After all, you want to protect what you came to enjoy.
I also packed a book as there are no TVs or wi-fi on the island, so you can forget the Netflix. I didn’t even get the chance to open my book though, as I was lights out the second my head hit the pillow at bedtime. Something about the fresh ocean air and the sound of gently lapping waves on the beach is like a lullaby sending you off to sleep.
Take A Virtual Dive
Can’t make it to the island? Don’t worry, you can still take a dive there — sort of. Google has given travellers goggles, as the street view goes offroad and underwater mapping parts of the Great Barrier Reef off the island.
Check out this World Heritage-listed marine park from your desk, thanks to a team of scientists who have created a specially designed underwater camera capable of capturing 360-degree images of the reef.
Get your Google goggles on, dive in and explore the reef off Lady Elliot Island here.
(Lead image: Provided by Tourism and Events Queensland / Sean Scott. All other images provided by the author)
Kate Webster is a world traveller, ocean lover and conservation warrior who is determined to make every moment count for not only herself but the world around her. This has inspired Kate to translate those moments and share them through her storytelling as a travel journalist.