WORDS CAROLYN BEASLEY
IN THE EARLY MORNING GREY...
I’m exploring on foot as bar-shouldered doves coo their greetings. Puffing at the top of Chinaman’s Ridge, I gaze down on the sleeping Lizard Island Resort. As dawn slides onto the ocean, I picture the Great Barrier Reef below, and colourful fish waking up.
Powdery white sand beaches of Lizard Island.
It’s the reef that draws people here, and stepping off the sand, straight into nature’s aquarium is an indescribable luxury.
Privileged access to the Great Barrier Reef.
It’s the reef that draws people here, and stepping off the sand, straight into nature’s aquarium is an indescribable luxury. Suddenly there’s a ripple down there, a sea turtle catching a breath.
It augurs well for my turtle tour today with tropical biologist, Matt Rutledge. Chugging to another beach by boat, we don snorkelling gear and slide into the warm waters. Matt explains that the turtles are here for the seagrass meadows, and encourages us not to disturb the fragile plants.
We first spot the large female green turtle gliding towards us, almost drifting right into us. From just a couple of metres away, I stare in wonder. For a moment she stares back and we lock eyes, sharing curiosity across species.
Unfazed, she continues munching, and as I stare, I can hear the sounds of her tearing seagrass. It’s an unforgettable experience, and one I’ll cherish.
Lizard Island snorkelling.
From the boat, Matt points out the Australian Museum’s Lizard Island Research Station which hosts international and Australian coral reef scientists.
The director of the station is Dr Anne Hoggett and she explains the island is a critical place for coral reef research.
Since 2014, Lizard Island has suffered through two cyclones and four coral bleaching events. Given the previous devastation, it’s incredible the reef here is looking so vibrant. Anne explains that the reef is still resilient and has bounced back more quickly than anyone would have dared to hope. But global warming means coral reefs worldwide are on a knife’s edge, and research has never been more critical.
A visit to the Australian Museum’s Lizard Island Research Station, a fascinating insight.
Lizard Island, The Pavilion.
Lizard Island, many shades of blue.
Resort guests are invited to learn here too, joining a guided tour of the station. Anne says education is vital. “It’s an important ecosystem facing a lot of threats,” she says. “We need to get the word out there.”
Science has benefitted from having a luxury resort next door, with some guests making donations through the Lizard Island Reef Research Foundation. “There’s a big cross-pollination between the resort and the station,” Anne says.
The research being conducted at Lizard Island can benefit all coral reefs, not least Ningaloo Reef, in Western Australia.
Unlike its bigger, more famous brother off the coast of Queensland, Ningaloo Reef is a fringing reef, and corals thrive right beside the mainland.
To immerse myself in reef-life, I’ve chosen to stay at the only accommodation within Cape Range National Park; the safari-style luxury camp of Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef.
Eager to explore the turquoise waters, I shuffle off the beach, bedecked in mask and fins. Instantly, I’m communing with the tropical fish and corals. A baby blacktip reef shark eyes me warily, but it’s sharks of a larger kind that make Ningaloo famous. Through Sal Salis, I’ve booked a boat tour with Live Ningaloo, hoping to swim with the biggest fish in the ocean, the harmless whale shark.
Where the outback meets the reef.
Sal Salis, Ningaloo Reef, where the reef is just metres from the shoreline.
Our ecologist guide is Shellie Kloppers, who explains the highest numbers of whale sharks are found here from April to July. Mystery surrounds their migration, and the company assists research, submitting photos of each shark encountered to an identification catalogue.
On Shellie’s signal, I drop into the ocean, heart thumping. The whale shark materialises, its massive, open mouth advancing, siphoning plankton as it swims. We fin along beside the behemoth, watching its muscular tail slowly swish.
As a bonus, our skipper spots a pair of manta rays, and they elegantly glide below us like giant, watery apparitions. Suddenly, I’m aware of a strange underwater noise, an eerie, mournful tone. Shellie pops her head up.
The whale shark materialises, its massive, open mouth advancing, siphoning plankton as it swims. We fin along beside the behemoth, watching its muscular tail slowly swish.
One of the great life-changing experiences, swimming with whale sharks.
“Can you hear the whales?” she says. “It’s the male humpbacks, singing to the females.” Back on the boat, Shellie drops a hydrophone over the side, and the whale’s song is amplified. It’s a goosebump moment, and a special window into nature’s realm.
Sal Salis operates guided tours too, and I join an ecologist-guided hike at Yardie Creek Gorge. I gasp as rare, black-footed rock wallabies scoot along cliff ledges. Ancient signs of life are here too, and I run my hands over fossilised brain corals, embedded in this prehistoric reef.
Finally, after a long-table dinner, I’m turning in for the night. I close the bug-proof mesh, leaving my canvas doors open. At dawn, I’ll see the ocean from my pillow, but until then, I’ll dream of reef immersion.
Humpback whale migration.
Resident black-footed rock-wallaby.
Guided gorge hikes.
Sal Salis sunrise.
Sal Salis Honeymoon Tent.
Kayaking and paddle boarding at Yardie Creek.
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