An aquatic haven

Green Lifestyle magazine

Within the Great Barrier Reef lies Heron Island, a sanctuary for the teeming wildlife of the surrounding waters.

Heron Island

The wreck of the HMCS Protector gunboat at Heron Island.

- Advertisement -

As we step aboard the rather flashy boat at Gladstone Marina bound for Heron Island, my hope-filled daughter asks, “Will we see Nemo, Daddy?” This requires a diplomatic response – don’t get her hopes up but don’t dash them either. For days I had been talking about some of the cool stuff we would almost certainly see on Heron Island – nesting turtles, a litany of bird species, non-bitey sharks, tropical fish, lots of corals – but an Amphiprion ocellaris? “I doubt it darlin’, but we’ll see,” is my non-committal reply.

Heron Island is 72 km off the central Queensland coast within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and, as a coral cay formed over millions of years, it is part of the reef itself. Just 800 m long and about 300 m wide, the road-free island is home to the reef’s first permanent research station, run by the University of Queensland (UQ), and a small all-inclusive resort.

On the two-hour ocean journey (ironically weaving past coal ships carrying the fuel that helps to drive climate change, which is in turn putting pressure on the reef) we skirt a handful of uninhabited sand-fringed coral cays before Heron pops into view. Acting as a breakwater and greeting all visitors since 1945 is the wreck of the 1884 steel gunboat the HMCS Protector, but it’s the metre-long white-tipped reef shark swimming oblivious below the wooden slats of the jetty that catches my eye. It’s this sort of casual, effortless and breathtaking encounter with marine life that typifies a visit to Heron Island.

Every day there’s a timetable of optional activities, many of which are free, including themed walks with nature guides to discover the island’s birds, flora and fauna and a stroll into the UQ research station (with a touch pool for the kids). The resort has a restaurant (all meals inclusive), large separate bar area with nightly entertainment, swimming pool, laundry, souvenir shop, meeting rooms and a luxury spa. The whole place has ‘Advanced’ accreditation from Ecotourism Australia.

Our two kids, aged eight and five, take part in the fully supervised education-focused Junior Rangers program where they find out about Heron’s environment above and below the water. After taking part twice a day for 90 minutes each time, they know more about the island than I do.

Our stay comes in the middle of the nesting season for Green and Loggerhead Turtles. The resort runs workshops to educate guests on how to observe the female turtles as they come in after dusk. No torches, no walking in their path, no sudden movements or loud voices. The island’s educational visitor’s centre shows old photos of visitors sitting on turtles’ backs. You can’t do that anymore either. During one after-dark walk (before the guided stargazing on the helipad) we watch a large Green Turtle shovel her way up the beach past the high-tide mark, dig her nesting chamber and drop more than 100 eggs into the wet sands, before slowly making her way back into the moonlit lagoon of the reef flat.

Impossible to miss on the island are the birds. There are a couple of hundred thousand, resident and visiting, filling the trees and providing a constant audio backing track. You won’t miss the Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and Buff Banded Rails. The deadly accurate Black Noddy Terns might not miss you either (it wipes off). You won’t see any Herons, although you will see Eastern Reef Egrets, which were once classified as Herons – hence the island’s name.

The resort’s marine centre runs scuba and snorkeling trips, learner classes and stay-dry reef cruises and carries a large stock of snorkeling gear. If you want to see corals and a stunning array of multi-coloured tropical fish all you need do is wade in a few metres, stand on the sandy bottom, shove on a snorkel and mask and stick your head in the water. The reef flat has a calming effect on the shallow water, meaning even first-time snorkellers can have an unforgettable experience.

We swim over and among harmless Shovelnose Rays, Epaulette Sharks and uncountable vivid tropical fish darting like underwater fireworks among the corals. On one guided walk in the shallows with a marine scientist, walkers are armed with sea scopes – long plastic tubes that have a window at the bottom for pushing below the surface of the water like an upside-down periscope.

“Dad, Dad – Nemo!” shout my son and daughter, in a call Pixar itself might have choreographed. And there it was – an orange- and black-striped anemonefish. “Told you we’d see one,” I said.

For more info; www.heronisland.com