30 September 2022

Diving with the turtles on Lady Elliot Island
Blazing a nature trail
Cuddling koalas and tracking turtles – for Lynsey de Paul it was a journey that fulfilled her dream of a lifetime.
See our offers to Australia
View our hotels in Australia
he twin-engine Cessna glided over the azure sea and turquoise lagoon encircling Lady Elliot Island, a tiny 100-acre coral cay and the southernmost island of the Great Barrier Reef, an hour’s flight from Brisbane. The Reef stretches 2,300km from here along Australia’s Queensland coast north to the Torres Strait. After landing on the 600-metre runway beside the sea I stepped from the plane to be greeted by incredible sights and sounds; white-capped, charcoal seabirds with delicate, black webbed feet and long, thin bills were everywhere, making a squawking cacophony. It was nesting season and 400,000 noddy terns had gathered.

With no indigenous predators, they were sitting on eggs in the middle of paths, under benches and perched in their hundreds in each tree, on their guano and twig nests. Lady Elliot Island is a self-sufficient eco-resort within the ‘green zone’ of the marine park. It generates electricity and hot water from solar panels, with drinking water from the desalination plant. The wildlife is prolific, from nesting seabirds and green and loggerhead turtles to majestic humpback whales and a host of other strange and wonderful creatures. I had come to Australia to experience its diverse and unique wildlife and was in for a treat.
Watching the turtles lay their eggs
Newly hatched turtles emerge
It took her an hour to choose where to dig her body-pit and egghole, far enough from the sea to be protected from high tides but near enough for the hatchlings to make their perilous escape. Once settled, she hurled swathes of sand backwards with her two massive front flippers until she could sink her body comfortably down and dig the egg-hole with her back flippers. A female lays up to 120 eggs at one sitting and can do so up to six times a season. In the process, she enters an altered state of consciousness and you can go up close to her.

I lay on my stomach inches behind her and watched as she dropped her round ping-pong ball sized eggs, one by one, into the hole. Her back flippers were like hands, with five bones in each and, as she filled in the egg-hole and patted a sand dune over it, she reminded me of a patient potter. More sand was hurled behind her to cover up the pit, which can take up to seven hours. Turtles mate between 30 and 50 years old and live up to 90 years. However, their survival is threatened, as only one in 1,000 hatchlings survives the many predators at sea. Adult turtles are endangered by swallowing floating plastic bags and debris, while in parts of Asia they still appear on the menu. The next day I fulfilled a childhood dream to scuba dive off the Great Barrier Reef – a living organism that grows very slowly.

To step on it and break off a few inches puts it back decades. I donned a wetsuit and 20kg of equipment – not easy for someone as light as I am. The water was warm and clear lit by finger-like rays of sunshine. All of a sudden, a school of 100 silver trevally fish, each a foot long, appeared and decided to take a closer look.
On the first evening, by the light of a pink moon, I watched a green turtle haul herself out of the sea and lumber up the sand, leaving what looked like tractor tyre marks behind. Her 85cm carapace weighs only 10 per cent of her cumbersome 150 kilos and she could have swum as far as 1,600 miles across the Pacific to lay her eggs on the tiny island where she had herself hatched.
"I had come to Australia to experience its diverse and unique wildlife and was in for a treat."
They swam around me in a shimmering carousel, inspecting me with big, deadpan eyes. I heard myself laughing underwater until I realised we were directly over a 6ft leopard shark and a cowtail ray, and a couple of large white-tip reef sharks were swimming around. Snorkelling and scuba-diving are thrilling, but it was a reminder that I was, potentially, lunch.

That night, a tiny face the size of my fingernail appeared through the sand of a turtle pit dug eight weeks before. Out popped a perfectly formed green turtle, five inches long. It amazingly orientated itself, scuttled down to the water’s edge and then shot out to sea on its epic journey. Good luck, little one, I thought.
"Queensland is an unforgettable reminder of why we should all be working to conserve the planet’s rich diversity."
The eco-resort of Lady Elliot Island
Take the opportunity to cuddle a koala
Snorkel in the clear waters of the Great Barrier Reef
Next day we visited the 72 hectare Australian zoo and wildlife hospital founded by Steve ‘Crocodile Hunter’ Irwin, who died in 2006 after being struck by a stingray barb. In the ‘Crocoseum’ there are regular shows for children (and the parrots, cormorants and flamingo-like jabirus that swoop in from every corner). The hospital, the dream of Irwin’s late mother, Lyn, has the latest equipment, is open 24 hours a day for the public and rescue teams to bring in injured and sick wildlife.

I cuddled up to a blind koala, now a permanent resident. I took a barge to Kingfisher Bay, on Fraser Island, a large sand island in the rainforest renowned for its birdlife. Walking past trapdoor and funnelweb spiders, I was thankful for new heavy trekking boots. Then it was on to Brisbane’s Lone Pine koala sanctuary, home to koalas, dozens of kangaroos, two large emus, eagles and owls – the latter of which flew and perched on my arm. For anyone who loves nature, Queensland is an extraordinary, unforgettable reminder of why we should all be working to conserve the planet’s rich diversity.

Original article published in Sep 2010. All info and prices correct at time of publication.
0330·100·2220i 0330 calls are included within inclusive minutes package on mobiles, otherwise standard rates apply. X 0330 calls are included within inclusive minutes package on mobiles, otherwise standard rates apply. X