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March 2020

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Saving the lady of the reef

1 March 2020

Could a flight help protect one of the world’s greatest wonders?

In a previous life Lady Elliot Island served, rather unglamorously, as a gua-no mining site – a place where seabird and bat manure was harvested and used as fuel. As such, the island was all but denuded due to human interference. The trees, grasses and plants had all been uprooted. The soil was left devoid of nutrients. The birds, fish, manta rays, turtles and dolphins departed. The humans, for their part, decamped – abandoning the coral cay to its fate for close to a century.

On a visit last spring, a very different tableau emerged. Instead of devastation, there were impossibly turquoise waters, verdant indigenous vegetation, and blindingly white beaches composed entirely of crushed coral bleached in the sun. Around the island, there were hundreds of birds, including buff banded rails, boobies, and nesting black noddies. Where once it had been desolate, the cay is now a sanctuary to numerous species of birds.

In this age of flight shaming, it slightly smacks of contradiction to say that a flight and a visit to an island in Australia’s dying Great Barrier Reef can help save the coral reef. But a trip to Lady Elliot Island might do just that. Technically a coral cay situated at the southernmost tip of the reef, the Lilliputian island is a miracle of regeneration–swell as a model for how to do nature travel right.

A glass-bottomed boat tour provides glimpses of reef sharks, clown fish, and manta rays. “The reef is vibrant and healthy,” a guide replies when a tourist asks why the colours weren’t brighter. The hues may not have been Instagram-vivid, but according to the guide, the corals that surround Lady Elliot Island are predominately ‘hard’, and therefore not pigmented with fluorescent proteins. Still, it becomes abundantly clear that the reef is in fine health when snorkelling next to turtles, fluorescent moon wrasse, and exquisitely hued turquoise, indigo blue, and canary yellow Emperor angel fish.

It’s a marine Garden of Eden, but there is just one small drawback: as the most remote of all the Great Barrier Reef islands, the only way to access the cay is by air. Visitors fly in from Brisbane, Bundaberg, Hervey Bay, and the Gold Coast all within one hour flying time on 10 or 12-seater planes. The good news is that guests can help offset their carbon emissions by paying $AU2 per person to a major carbon offsetting company, ultimately helping contribute about $AU5,000 each month. The fee is voluntary, but the island’s eco resort matches guest donations.

The entirety of funds raised go directly to Greenfleet to plant trees (11,500 to date) at the Barolin Nature Reserve in Bundaberg, Queensland, which in turn, helps to protect the local sea turtle population. There is no getting around the need to fly, but Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort is a miracle of regeneration and an example to other tourist islands in the Great Barrier Reef in a plethora of ways.

One of these has been the massive revegetation project. As a result of the guano mining operations, Lady Elliot Island’s topsoil and vegetation had been ruined, leaving only bare rock. Today, thanks to the efforts of past and present custodians of the island, around two-thirds of its surface is blanketed in trees.

Jim Buck, a former engineer and now nursery and revegetation manager for the island, has been part of a team working on replanting native species such as pisonias, argusias, pandanas and casuarinas. “Moving into the future, we’ll see fewer exotics and more of the native vegetation that should be here,” he says.

In the lush pisonia forest, hundreds of noddy birds happily nest, unperturbed by the presence of humans in their personal space. “The way we set up the ecosystems here,” says Buck, “is that the different species we have actually build into providing a better environment for the birds. Where we’ve got things like crested turns, for example, we’re growing more grasses in those areas because they like open grassland.” In order to cut down on water for the younger plantings and the plants in the nursery, they use an automated drip irrigation system. As Buck says, this saves them a lot of money and “the plants grow much quicker, whilst also using far less water.”

Other eco initiatives on the island include the use of renewable energy, water conservation, fresh water production, waste management and initatives such as environmentally friendly jet-powered onboard motors on the glass-bottomed boats, to avoid propellers so deadly to marine life.

Commendably, Lady Elliot is almost 100 per cent sustainable and solar powered, with plans to be fully sustainable and solar powered by the end of 2020. At the moment, the resort boasts over 800 solar panels with a capacity to run for two weeks on solar energy in good weather conditions. This year they’ll be adding additional battery storage, allowing them to run the entire resort on solar power even during unfavourable conditions. “Our solar energy programme has directly taken action against climate change with more than 550 litres of diesel fuel saved each day, which equals 538 tonnes of carbon emissions saved per year,” says Amy Gash, daughter of and executive assistant to Peter Gash, the island’s current leaseholder and steward.

As an educational facility and model for smart eco travel, Lady Elliot gives guests the chance to feel useful while on holiday. Visitors can take part in citizen science projects, as well as learn about ecology, with the resort also hosting an on-site conservation and research station for experts.

One option is to assist with manta ray research and monitoring. The cay is a big draw for the so-called “devil rays” (which are, in fact, harmless) – especially in winter. All that’s needed is an underwater camera to take photos of their underbelly, which have unique markings.

Visitors to the resort can also snorkel, reef walk and scuba dive as part of the Reef Check programme, which monitors coral health: guests can take a REEFSearch underwater slate and record the type and size of marine life they see. Afterwards, survey findings and photos are uploaded into the REEFSearch Hub in the island’s Education Centre, which then forms part of the international Reef Check marine monitoring database.

For plant lovers, a ‘volunteer hub’ is underway so that volunteers will have a place to stay on the island when they come to help with revegetation. Across the programmes is a sense of cyclicality, of goodness begetting goodness.

As island custodian Peter Gash says, “the more we focus on Lady Elliot, the more she gives back.”

Words: Elizabeth Warkentin
Photos: Rowan Coe

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