OUR small glass bottom boat is bobbing up and down like a cork over the ocean swell when the skipper excitedly shouts “we’ve got one, there’s two now... wow! Just look at them go”.
Assorted wet-suit and life-jacket encased bodies jump up for a view, cameras are drenched, flippers and masks sent flying in the excitement of witnessing a gigantic splash, followed by a smaller one nearby.
A mere couple of lengths of the boat away a mighty humpback whale, up to 18 metres long, weighing from 30 to 40 tons and her calf rear up.
Then mother rolls in what’s known as a “breach”, an astonishingly elegant performance, showing a flash of tail before disappearing into the depths. Our engine is turned off and we drift a bit, rewarded a few minutes later by a second sighting.
Here in waters on the southern tip of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef thousands of humpback whales and their newborn begin one of the planet’s longest and most intriguing migrations.
Having given birth and eaten their fill in the tropical waters off Northern Queensland they are on the return leg of a 10,000 km annual round trip back to Antarctica.
Lady Elliot Island, a 3,500 year old coral cay, among the most pristine and untouched sections of the Great Barrier Reef, lies one and a half hours by light aircraft from Queensland’s Miami like Gold Coast, south of Brisbane. It is a world away from luxury high rise hotel complexes and glitzy shopping malls on the Gold Coast strip.
Famous for seasonal whale watching, Lady Elliot resembles a castaway paradise island from the air. Our Cessna circles, taking in the fabulous view before we land effortlessly in a grass clearing, one of the world’s shortest airstrips.
A bleached white coral shore bordering a crystal clear sea shaded from pale aquamarine to emerald gives way to lush tropical vegetation peppered with simple timber buildings on the island which can be walked coast to coast in an hour.
Our pilot Matt, who has taken us on a thrilling journey in the single engine plane soaring over the southern Queensland coast, reminds passengers to look out for the unrivalled population of Manta rays and turtles among the 1,500 species of marine life here.
We don flippers and snorkel masks, preparing to awkwardly hoist ourselves off the boat dive platform and plonk into the swell after the humpback whales vanish when guide Kim points to a big menacing looking triangular shadow just below the surface. “That will be a manta ray,” she explains, “harmless and shy, so nothing to worry about.”
We are to snorkel at one of the island’s many reef locations, chosen with tides and experience of snorkelers in mind. This one is called ‘Second Reef’ to the west of the island.
I am instantly transported inside a giant aquarium. There are 350 known species of hard corals on the fragile Great Barrier Reef which begins at Lady Elliot stretching over 2,000 kms north almost to the coast of New Guinea.
Dramatic formations of different corals abound from boulders, canyons, and immense tree like branches to towering peaks and squatting moonscapes. The millions of years old coral reef is like a bustling city that never sleeps — the buildings made of coral with countless inhabitants constantly coming and going.
Nothing prepares you for this underwater fantasy world, nor the cascading jewel box of marine creatures which inhabit it. I had expected to admire a few passive enlarged versions of tropical tank fish you might find in zoos or public buildings, not this teeming kaleidoscope of colour weaving in and out of the coral. Some species, like the scissortail sergeants, travel in disciplined schools; others are individualists, shy or curious. The brilliantly coloured emperor angelfish scouts alone. The beautiful parrot fish is a nasty bully.
Sinister residents like the Moray Eel thankfully stay close to the bottom.
A pair of giant thick lipped Groupers swim up, eyeballing me. There is no sign of another regular inhabitant, the reef shark, nor any identifiable shark species, though one of our snorkelers has seen a few and taken underwater photos. A few of us have heard a strange whistling noise interspersed with an echo-like boom which turns out to be humpback whales “talking and singing”, Kim, who has heard them also, confirms.
Two large green turtles, their shells and paddle-like flippers decorated with crazy paving patterns are the absolute highlight of my snorkel adventure, gently swimming and, delicately grazing off plants clinging to the reef only a few feet below.
Back on land again adults and excited children explore the shoreline and lukewarm paddling pools around the 0.4 km broad island, wearing reef shoes as protection from sharp coral shingle.
Over 30 varieties of birds live on the island which was created by bird droppings over thousands of years. The birds, who have no predators here, know the island belongs to them but they happily share their space with newer arrivals, explains Japanese born Yuji Sasaki one of Lady Elliot’s team of expert eco guides.
Meals on Elliot Island are substantial buffets of seafood and other dishes, included in your visit. Accommodation ranges from larger family bungalows to no frills cabins which blend into the natural terrain. Visitors (limited to 150 maximum at any one time) share our diving, snorkelling and dolphin spotting stories. We know we are privileged to be here. The island’s history and ecology is explained by Lady Elliot Resort staff who also organise night time reef exploration and snorkelling, walks to special turtle nesting spots and other activities.
Yuji, a lover of Irish coffee (and Ireland) urges me to step off the beach and try some ‘reef walking’ in the tidal lagoon. We wade knee deep with long walking sticks for balance as the guide points out many strange creatures, from sea cucumbers to the bizarre sea hare who fertilises and impregnates itself. At night the soft coral comes alive in a fascinating sci fi ‘live’ performance using their creepy tentacles to catch microscopic organisms, safe from their daytime predators.
Later we lounge on deck beds on the beach enjoying one of the most tranquil and chilled spots anywhere. An island bird, the White Capped Noddy perches inches away from my face, sharing the view of the shimmering sunlit lagoon and surge of foamy waves on the horizon.
Emirates, has daily flights from Ireland via Dubai to Brisbane, one of five cities in Australia directly linked with 50 other destinations in a global Emirates partnership with Qantas. See www.emirates.ie (01-7794777) or your travel agent. Return flights Dublin-Brisbane from €941 in economy and €3,548 in award winning Business class.
Getting to the Lady Elliot Eco resort and island: Daily flights from Brisbane, the Gold Coast and other points. Prices start at (Aus)$329 from Hervey Bay and Bundenberg, nearest departures from mainland to the island, including snorkelling, glass bottom boat tours, equipment, buffet lunch, fish feeding, reef walks and other activities. See www.ladyelliot.com.au for reef day tours, overnight and longer stays.
More information on the Great Barrier Reef see www.queensland.com
John Galligan Travel has launched a Saga River Cruise Sale with eight hand-picked departures on the Rhine, Moselle and Danube this summer. Prices start from €1,450 to include a flight allowance. There are no single supplement offers on two cruises. Details on 01-2076555 or www.jgt.ie
The Jameson Experience, Midleton, is expected to enjoy its busiest summer on record. The package costs €17 per adult, €16 per student and €35 for families (two plus three) and includes return transport from Cork City centre to Midleton, a fully guided tour of the production process and a signature whiskey drink for adults. Visit www.jamesonwhiskey.com/tours/
The world’s first CBeebies Land is open at Alton Towers Resort and Irish Ferries offers a three-night family stay in Tillington Hall Hotel for €489. The deal includes return car ferry crossing and one full day at Alton Towers, valid for travel up to June 29 on bookings made by June 24. Call 0818-300400 or visit www.irishferries.com/alton.
Gohop.ie offers custom-made fly drive holidays in America on top of other all-inclusive deals featuring well tried and tested destinations and accommodations. Amongst the favourites is an 11-night “Golden California” package priced from €1,160. Details on www.Gohop.ie.
Earagail Arts Festival runs in Letterkenny for two weeks from July 12 to 26. Now in its 26th year, the festival is a two week celebration of music, theatre, visual arts, film, literature, circus and carnival and is one of the flagship Donegal events along the Wild Atlantic Way. Details on www.eaf.ie