With Blue Planet II proving another TV ratings winner, Sarah Marshall visits the world’s largest coral reef and Australia’s biggest tourist attraction.
There’s something universally irritating about noisy eaters, but below the surface of the ocean, dining etiquette doesn’t really apply. Munching merrily on brittle stumps of branch coral, a shoal of rainbow-hued parrot fish is causing quite a commotion.
A black-tip reef shark wriggles to the silent safety of a shadowy jetty, white-spotted eagle rays flap their wings to pick up speed and giant clams appear to purse their thick blue lips in a concertina of disgust.
It’s restaurant rush hour off the shores of Heron Island, a coral cay sprouting with dense pisonia forest and ringed by a brilliant white halo of sand, off the east coast of Australia at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. Teeming with wildlife and natural wonders, our oceans are a noisy place. And right now, they’re crying out for help, a reality we’re only just tuning into.
Marine conservation is a central theme of BBC One’s highly-anticipated Blue Planet II series, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, and the naturalist is urging us to protect an environment we know woefully little about.
Earlier this year, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was the subject of controversy when scientists warned that more than 90 per cent of the planet’s largest living organism might have been destroyed. Having narrowly escaped being listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in Danger, a recovery plan is now under way – both for the reef and its worldwide reputation.
Sir David has been to Heron Island several times and describes it as one of the most magical places on earth. Located 50 miles from Gladstone, Queensland, the island is reached by a two-and-a-half-hour boat journey or, a 20-minute seaplane ride, wading to shore in clear, warm water with luggage hoisted overhead.
An important nesting site for loggerhead and green turtles, the peaceful island has a grim past as a turtle and mutton bird canning factory. Over the course of two summers, 128,000 cans of turtle soup were produced, but an alarming drop in numbers meant the business was no longer economically worthwhile.
A resort opened in 1932, although any ecotourism was crude, and gasp-inducing photos from the 1950s show holidaymakers riding on the back of carapaces. Now the island, part of the Capricornia Cays National Park, is heavily protected. Of the 1,500 species of fish living on the Great Barrier Reef, 60 per cent can be found in the 21 dive sites at Heron island, says blond tousle-haired scuba and snorkel guide Rick.
Passing the wreck of HMAS Protector, we snorkel to Heron Bommie, a heaving tower of coral not far from the shore. Two blacktip sharks (Rick’s “pussy cats of the reef”) relentlessly chase a whitetip around spiral-ridged brain coral, while a green turtle makes himself a comfortable bed on cushioned plates, blinking only a disgruntled eye as we free dive to observe him.
Most corals on the Barrier Reef are hard, meaning the underwater scenery is a swirl of camouflage hues, rather than the bold neon brights associated with soft corals. Innovative projects in development at the centre include Professor Peter Harrison’s plan to funnel spawning to affected reefs, and Professor Bernard Degnan’s groundbreaking solution for controlling crown of thorns starfish (a potential threat to reefs) – by replicating a natural pheromone to lure them in.
“We have to redress all these negative messages,” stresses Lauren. “We can’t give up hope.”
A similar outlook is shared by Peter Gash, manager of the eco resort on Lady Elliot Island, at the southern tip of the reef.
Mined for guano in the 1860s, the wind-whipped coral cay was left barren and desolate. Many years later, it opened as a resort and when Peter visited in 1979, a love affair began. Since taking over the lease in 2005, Peter has installed solar panels, cut fuel burn by 90 per cent and replanted much of the original casuarina forest, bringing back a cacophony of screeching bridled terns and white-capped noddies.
Peter is a dynamo. On a guided tour of the resort’s back room operations, I’m lost in a muddle of mathematics as he details engineering innovations with vigour. Swept away by his energy and enthusiasm, it’s impossible not to smile.
And he’s obviously making a success; bookings for Lady Elliot need to be made at least six months in advance. Simple rooms curve around the fringes of the island, and drift snorkel sites have been clearly marked out. Like Heron, the underwater spectacles are outstanding, and all within easy reach.
The best time to explore is at dawn, Peter tells me, so I nervously agree to a 6.30am snorkel.
Leaving the shadow of the beaming lighthouse behind us, we dive into another reality and Peter guides me on an underwater safari of his favourite sites. Polyps finishing their night’s feed sway with the tide, sage loggerheads drift over ancient living columns and mantas glide elegantly with wind in their sails.
We’re the only two-legged land mammals out of their depth; down here it’s a real democracy. As much as the sights are enticing, so too are the sounds.
An undulating whine wends into my headspace and I realise I’m listening to humpback whale song. Even though a long distance away, their stirring voices are penetrating.
Yet, there’s nothing melancholic or mournful about their cry. Instead, it’s graceful and uplifting, striking a chord with hope.
Travelbag (0207 001 5252, travelbag.co.uk) offers a nine-day trip to the southern Great Barrier Reef, on a mixed board basis, for £2,999pp. Includes flights from London Heathrow. Based on a January 1, departure. Book by November 30.
For more information on the destination, visit australia.com and queensland.com