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Lady Elliot Island: Your ultimate guide to this marine wonderland

If you are heading to the manta ray disco on Lady Elliot Island, here is all you need to know before jumping in the water for a dance with these giant kites of the sea.

Lady Elliot Island is a coral cay situated at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef. It is approximately 80 kilometres northeast of Bundaberg and nestled in between Fraser Island and Lady Musgrave Island.

The journey there is a scenic one, and technically you can brag to your mates that you have travelled overseas (well over the ocean at least). 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 fringing reef forms a mosaic of blues and greens. If you are lucky, you may even be able to spot the famous manta rays from the air on your descent.

Touching down on the grass runway is just the start of your environmentally positive stay. The remote location is part of the attraction and means the limited access ensures minimal impact. The number of people on the island is never more than 50 guests, so overcrowding will never be an issue. It is often possible that you could have a stretch of beach or a part of the reef to yourself.

Such a small island but so much to do

Lady Elliot Island is a sanctuary for over 1,200 species of marine life, known for its abundance of manta rays, turtles, amazing array of spectacular marine life and the surrounding unspoilt coral reef. So you can bet your bottom dollar that a majority of your stay will be spent in the water.

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 is here that the turtles love to hang out, and you can be sure to spot a few with ease.

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 will come back knowing more about the reef than can be taught in Finding Nemo.

There is just as much going on above the ocean surface 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 will 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 the 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.

Go for the day

Day trips to Lady Elliot Island offer an excellent opportunity for people with limited time to explore Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Daytrippers will get return scenic flights to the Island and an orientation tour on arrival. Included in this jam-packed day is a glass bottom boat/guided snorkelling tour, snorkel equipment use (mask, snorkel & fins), full use of day guest facilities, lunch available at the cafe and an afternoon of snorkelling, leisure or joining the experienced guides for a guided activity/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 a leading eco-resort, Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort. Not only does it have an Advanced Eco-Certification, but the ongoing dedication to maintaining a sustainability policy within the resort to protect the environment ensures guests can continue to have life-changing encounters with nature.

The resort is a family run and operated eco-tourism business. Peter Gash, 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, with each unit, tent and cabin designed to minimise the impact on the Island. The resort recently added glamping tents, a very popular choice for ultimate eco-style camping, and new eco-cabins. In keeping with the natural, eco-friendly practices, there are no telephones, television, radios or wi-fi available in the rooms. Only limited wi-fi is available in the restaurant.

All accommodation options include full buffet dinner and breakfast, use of snorkel equipment (mask, snorkel & fins) & snorkel lesson if required, glass-bottom boat/guided snorkel tour (one per person/stay), range of guided tours and activities and the Environmental Management Charge.

Dine-in or take away

The Beachfront Café offers a selection of snacks and beverages, including salads, burgers, coffee, and alcoholic beverages. It is here that guests dine for breakfast and dinner also. Meals come with a side of scenic views over the lagoon and, depending on the season, an added extra 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 take away lunch and enjoyed a beach picnic sat under the shade of a tree, with hermit crabs trying to crash the party. I washed my hamburger down with a Ray XPA beer. Brewed by Bargara Brewing Company in partnership with Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, the beer was launched to raise awareness of the sea’s majestic kites. It seemed only fitting.

Why not dine under the stars? Take a Sunset Platter of cheeses, biscuits, antipasto and a nice bottle of wine to the west side of the island and enjoy an epic sunset beside the lighthouse.

What to pack

Daytrippers just need to pack a day bag – towel, light jacket (depending on weather), daytime essentials and swimmers of course. No need for anything else as you can hire snorkelling gear. For those staying overnight and longer, there is a 15kg 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 for the dive gear (I do like to use my own snorkel, mask and fins) and camera equipment over multiple clothes items. 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, for when bedtime rolled around, I was lights out before my head hardly hit the pillow. Something about the fresh ocean air and the sound of gentle lapping waves on the beach is like a lullaby sending you off to sleep.