Time for some luxury on the Great Barrier Reef

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Oceania » Australia » Queensland » Gladstone
January 29th 2009
Published: January 29th 2009EDIT THIS ENTRY

Day 211: Monday 26th January - Australia Day spent watching turtles nesting on the beach

I kindly get a lift down to the marina in Gladstone where I’ve got an hour to kill before my boat transfer departs for Heron Island. I spend it getting breakfast - probably the most expensive beans on toast I’ve ever had at $8.50 (4 pounds)! The catamaran journey across to Heron Island is equally as expensive at $232 (110 pounds) for a return. Half way through and with choppy seas I’m feeling a little green so find it best to take a snooze before we arrive at Heron Island at 2pm local time (it being an hour ahead of Queensland).

Heron Island was found in 1843 and named after the abundant reef herons here. If it was to be discovered today either Turtle Island or Black Noddy Tern Island would be more appropriate. (the latter’s a bit of a mouthful though!) Every December and January, Heron Island’s beaches are home to over a hundred nesting Green and Leatherback turtles. The Black Noddy Tern’s are even more abundant. Up to 100,000 nest here during their breeding season which runs from September to March. As we walk from the catamaran the island is a cacophony of birds singing. I’m thinking with all these birds it’s not going to be long before I’m covered in bird crap and sure enough I don’t even have to wait an hour before I’m targeted! For me Heron Island is a splurge, a chance to get off the backpacker circuit which is the east coast of Australia and enjoy two days of extravagance. Heron Island is not only a top class resort but being a coral cay which forms part of the Great Barrier Reef I’ve chosen to come here to snorkel and dive on the reef.

Before exploring the reef, the island or its abundant wildlife it’s time for food. A buffet lunch is being served in the restaurant, the first of many sumptuous meals I enjoy on Heron Island. You simply do not give a backpacker the free run of a buffet, by the end of lunch (and every other buffet meal come to think of it) whoever was washing my dishes must have had chafed hands! It’s mid-afternoon before I finish gorging myself and by this time the last of the days snorkel and dives have gone out to the edge of the reef. I go along to the marine centre anyway to book on to a semi-submersible trip to the reef and on to a snorkel boat for tomorrow morning. I am disappointed to learn I can’t dive without an open-water certification. It will cost me $360 (£180) to put me through a discover scuba course and then have one dive. I’m not paying that and the guy admits that as I’m staying only two days I’d be pushed to fit the course in anyway. I’d still love to do a dive somewhere on the Great Barrier Reef but the guy in the marine centre reckons you need to have your PADI open-water certificate to do so in Australia. If that’s the case then it’s going to be something I’m going to miss out on as I’m not paying upwards of $400 to get certified.
With my trips out to the reef being tomorrow, I decide to explore the island. This doesn’t take more than an hour. The resort occupies a third of the island, the other two thirds being taken over by national park and a research station run by the University of Queensland. The island is beautiful, surrounded on all sides by the clear blue waters of the reef, a beach runs around its circumference save the harbour area and once you get out of the resort you’re in Pisonia forest. Later in the afternoon I attend a turtle watching hints session which covers the best times to view the turtles coming up the beach to lay their eggs, what is involved and how to behave around them. With it being nesting season I’ll be down the beach to watch this natural phenomenon later this evening. Before dinner I relax in the comfort of my own room, which to me after months of dorms is a luxury.

The buffets at Heron Island are good but the a la carte menu tonight is even better. I like my food and scallops in an Asian marinade for starter followed by pan fried rare kangaroo fillet for main and a white chocolate ramekin for dessert definitely qualifies dinner as one of the best meals on my travels to date.
Its Australia Day today, the country’s national holiday to commemorate the landing of Captain Arthur Phillip at Port Jackson in present-day Sydney in 1788 thereby claiming Australia for the British Empire. I would have expected the resort to by celebrating Australia’s 221st birthday but it’s quiet around the resort. I suppose when most of the guests are couples or families then that probably explains why there’s no party or bigger deal being made of it. Instead of going to the bar and having a beer for Australia Day I return to read in my room before the turtle watching.

At high tide at 9pm the female turtles start their journey up the beach to lay their eggs. It’s pitch black so it is hard to see the turtles, but I see 3 or 4 making such a journey. After an hour I settle and watch one turtle which has made it to the top of the beach and is now digging a hole in the sand to lay her eggs with her back flippers. The turtles must be a metre in length and they flick the sand back with some gusto albeit slowly. It must take her a good half hour to dig the hole before she starts laying her eggs. The female I’m watching is digging her nest on what looks to be the site of an existing nest as every now and again turtle eggs are flicked up behind her. Green turtles can lay up to 120 eggs at once and can repeat this several times in a season. However, only 1 in a 1000 eggs actually makes it to become an adult turtle. It’s amazing watching her lay her eggs which takes maybe another half hour before she starts covering the eggs with sand. At first she compacts sand down over the eggs before rotating around from her nesting position covering the eggs with more sand and digging out sand to form another hole, thus disguising the location of the nest. I had wanted to watch until she left the beach and returned to the water but when it gets to midnight and with no sign that she’s near completion of her disguised hole I call it a day in watching this natural wonder. Walking back to my room I can hear the sound of a baby crying. It’s a good job we’d been warned about this on arrival or I would have freaked out walking through the trees in the dark. It’s actually the call of the Wedgetailed Shearwater or the mutton bird which is also on Heron Island for its breeding season.

Day 212: Tuesday 27th January - Frustrated by rough seas and in the wrong time zone.

I’ve set my alarm for 8:15am to give me an hour to get ready and get breakfast ahead of my semi-submersible trip. It promises to be a great morning exploring the Great Barrier Reef with a snorkel to the edge of the reef later after the boat trip. The problem is I’ve set my alarm on Queensland time which is an hour behind Heron Island time, and by the time I’ve realised my error its 9:30am local time and despite running down to the jetty I’ve missed the boat by 5 minutes! An hour later my misfortune is doubled when with strong winds making the sea rough they cancel the snorkelling on the edge of the reef. I book on the next trip out at 3pm and re-schedule my semi-submersible for tomorrow morning. With my morning on the reef up in smoke I decide I fancy indulging myself with a massage in the spa on the resort next, only to find that they can’t fit me in either today or tomorrow at a convenient time for me. It’s not my day today I guess I’m just going to have to spend the morning chilling out by the pool - it’s not a bad alternative!
With the sea still being rough in the afternoon the snorkelling boat trip is cancelled. The forecast for tomorrow is for more of the same which will be really disappointing if I come all the way to Heron Island and can’t snorkel as well as dive out on the Great Barrier Reef. Fingers crossed that the forecast is wrong. I’ve got an hour before the reef walk starts which I’m interested in doing so I head to the beach and snorkel in the reef just off the beach for 40 minutes.

The reef walk ends up being the highlight of the day. On Heron Island it’s almost as if you can’t do one thing there’s always an equally pleasurable alternative. The guided walk adds a layer of information to the reef experience, and makes me realise how little I was taking in when I was snorkelling around earlier. Our guide shows us about 5 different types of Sea Cucumber, including one that ejects white sticky thread when disturbed, one that looks like a burnt sausage and one which has a fish that lives inside of it. As well as sea cucumbers we are shown a Sea Star, Spaghetti Worms, Clams and a Sea Snail which ejects a purple ink when disturbed making it less appealing to predators. Best of all is when the guide snatches an Epaulette Shark out of the water. They only reach 1m in length and are harmless. I spot a further two sharks when I walk out to the edge of the reef after the guided walk finishes.

The most interesting part of the guided walk is learning about coral. I have to admit to being a bit ignorant before today. Coral are colonies of small animals called coral polyps. The coral polyp is responsible for creating the world’s largest organism and most diverse ecosystem, The Great Barrier Reef. The reef stretches almost the length of Queensland, from Bundaberg in the South to the Torres Strait in the North, some 2300km. It is not a continuous barrier but a broken maze of coral reefs. It includes 2900 reefs, 300 coral cays (Heron Island being one) and 600 continental islands. Heron Island lies near the southern end of the reef in the Capricorn section of the reef, lying as it does on the Tropic of Capricorn. There are lots of different types of coral which make up the reef, the names relating to the shape of the skeletons. You have boulder coral, branching coral, brain coral, mushroom coral, maze coral and 400 more types. The coral’s skeletons are white, while the reef’s kaleidoscope colours come from living polyps. More specifically, the colour of coral is determined by an algae called zooxanthellae, that lives inside the polyp tissue. Today, the reef is under threat. In 1998, a sixth of the world’s coral died due to coral bleaching caused by rising sea temperatures attributed to global warming. Coral cannot sustain more than a few degrees of temperature increases in the water temperature and the increase in coral bleaching is a sure sign that climate change is beginning to have large consequences for natural ecosystems.

Day 213: Wednesday 28th January - It’s not my day again

I make sure I don’t make the same mistake again with the wrong time zone to ensure I have enough time for a big feed at breakfast (lunch isn’t included in my package) before going out on the reef in the semi-submersible at 9:30am. I needn’t have rushed, the trip is cancelled due to rough seas. I gain a shred of consolation when an American couple tell me the trip yesterday had to turn back after half an hour for the same reason. An hour later and all too predictably my snorkelling boat trip is cancelled due to rough seas also. I’m gutted the main reason for coming to Heron Island was to explore the Great Barrier Reef and apart from exploring off the beach I’ve missed out. I try to snorkel off the beach again but whether it’s due to the high tides, the rough seas or a combination, the water is too murky and you can barely see a few feet in front of you, so I abort after a few minutes. I try another part of the island and it’s exactly the same water conditions there. With no chance to explore the reef I opt instead to chill out reading a book by the pool until it’s time to leave at 2pm.

Heron Island has been a relaxing two days of luxury but for almost £400 for two days with bad weather getting in the way of my attempts to explore the reef I do feel somewhat disappointed as that was my primary reason for coming. Don’t get me wrong Heron Island is in a stunning setting, wildlife is all around and in watching the turtles laying eggs and learning about the reef I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to come here. I can’t fault either the resort staff, the food or the accommodation, all have been first class too. I guess with the weather you can never be sure and it just happens I’ve had some rotten luck. They even expect the seas to be calmer tomorrow, not much good that will do me. Good, very good, and if I’d got out to explore the reef it could have been a really special couple of days, one of the highlights of my time in Australia I’m sure, but it wasn’t to be. Hopefully I’ll get another chance to explore the Great Barrier Reef further up the coast of Queensland?

The worst part of Heron Island is the catamaran journey. With rough seas this is going to be even worse than coming here so I’m just going to try to sleep, listen to some tunes and hope I get through the next two hours. I make it without incident, the lady sitting near me isn’t so lucky! I get straight back into backpacker mode by declining a taxi to the bus stop and walk instead - its only 20 minutes and I’ve almost 3 hours to kill. Thankfully the bus is almost on time and its up into the tropics to Mackay, 6 hours away. I arrive after midnight knackered after gruelling catamaran and bus journeys. I miss the luxury of Heron Island already! On the journey up I also discover that there is no tour going to Eungella National Park tomorrow, my sole reason for coming to Mackay......great! Tomorrow’s always another day.

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