Adrian Phillips sails off to Heron Island to meet loggerheads, sharks and windy sausages...
If Lieutenant Charles Bampfield Yule hadn’t been dead for 134 years, I’d suggest to him that Heron Island is an odd name for an island with no herons. ‘Egret Island’ would be acceptable: there are plenty of those hunch-shouldered specimens moping about the shoreline. ‘Noddy Island’ might seem better still, because in summer the pisonia trees heave with these grey-capped terns, the breeding pairs bowing to each other like obsequious chauffeurs. But when HMS Bramble nosed alongside the cay in 1843, the good lieutenant called it Heron Island. So that is where I was.
Today the 40-acre patch on its 11km coral shelf is one of the leading resorts in the southern Great Barrier Reef. Those hankering for high-end exclusivity transfer by boat to nearby Wilson Island, where a maximum of 12 guests recline in splendorous safari tents and eat candlelit suppers prepared by a chef called Emilio. Heron Island is hardly low-end – it has its own helipad and offers Kahuna massages by a Tongan with octopus arms, for goodness’ sake – but its spirit is more inclusive. This is a place for people who want to do stuff.
It was low tide and I decided to join a reef walk. Our guide, Jess, distributed perspex-bottomed viewing tubes and sturdy hiking sticks, and warned of an innocuous-looking nasty called the cone shell, which can shoot a poisonous harpoon a metre in length. We should walk where she walked and touch only what she touched. She had never been harpooned by a cone shell, which was fortunate because there isn’t an anti-venom. No, our sticks were not for bashing things in self-defence. Not even cone shells.
Jess picked a careful path, scanning the reef as she went. She stopped, stooped and pulled up a starfish. “This is not a starfish,” she informed us. Indeed, the sea star is not a fish at all, she said firmly, but an echinoderm. It eats by ejecting its stomach through its mouth and enveloping its meal, bypassing the need for such inconveniences as an oesophagus. She returned it gently to its spot and we had a gawp through our viewing tubes.
Next she handed round something that would have looked at home in a poop-a-scoop. The sea cucumber is another echinoderm, a filter feeder that sucks sandy water through one end and expels it from the other. It had the texture of rubber tubing, and rumbled fartily in my hand before emitting a spray that let me know head from tail. Sea cucumbers can reproduce asexually, dividing themselves in two, which seemed rather fortuitous given the likely obstacles to romance when you’re built like a windy sausage.
We spent a happy hour wading in Jess’s wake. We learned that echinoderms can regenerate body parts, and that forward-thinking gangs of harlequin shrimps will corner a sea star, pull off a leg to eat and then release the creature to re-grow the limb. It was a good example of sustainable echinoderming, I observed, but Jess pretended not to hear.
We saw a clam with jagged purple lips and an anemone patrolled by a tiny yellow fish that squared up to us in feisty defiance. “Be careful of that one – it’s guarding young and will happily nip your ankle.” I fought the urge to nudge it away with my stick. And then the light softened as afternoon became evening, and it was time to go hunting for hatchlings.
At 6.41pm the sun dropped like a plucked orange. On North Beach’s narrow lick of sand, nature was setting the scene for its nightly game of British Bulldog, when baby turtles emerge to make a skittering dash for the ocean.
The wind rose and the sea grew jagged. To our right were the tell-tale hollows of turtle nests wedged among clumps of bird’s beak grass. To our left were the villains of the piece, a cordon of silver gulls at the water’s edge watching for movement with blood-lusty eyes. We all waited.
Terns made clumsy battle against the breeze as they tried to reach their roosts. We continued to wait and the gulls preened and squabbled as their patience waned. Finally dusk turned to darkness and the assembled cast began a sulky dispersal. The turtles weren’t playing this evening. I rather sympathised with their decision; the odds seemed stacked against them.
Between November and March, green and loggerhead turtles pepper Heron Island with around 1,500 nests of 120 eggs; it’s a globally important site. But, over the years, the island has had a shifting attitude towards its shell-bound residents.
In the 1920s there was a turtle-soup factory here. When that was replaced by a resort in the 1930s, eager staff would flip turtles on their backs each night so that guests could ride them in races along the beach after breakfast. Albums were filled with shots of moustachioed men in long-johns perching on their turtles and gurning at the camera.
If anyone were tempted to take a spin on a turtle today, they’d quickly feel the boot of Tim Harvey. Tim is manager of the University of Queensland Research Station, a community of scientists holed up in the southern section of the island to study the effect of ocean acidification on crypto plankton. While Tim likes crypto plankton, he loves turtles. Or, as he puts it, “The thing that keeps me going here is the turtle thing”.
We met for lunch and I hadn’t finished my first garlic prawn before I knew Tim wasn’t your typical scientist. “Conservationists should learn from smokers,” he said as I raised my eyebrows and lowered my fork. “Smokers watch anti-smoking ads but they don’t change – they like that hit after a coffee. It’s no good just showing people wildlife on TV or shaking collection tins at them. They need emotional engagement – the smoker’s hit.”
Tim rejoices that there’s no bubble-wrapping of nature on Heron Island. He encourages guests to get close to turtles and offers viewing tips during ‘Tim Talks Turtles’ presentations. He’s seen people moved to tears as they watch mothers lay their eggs. “It shouldn’t be wildlife over there and us over here. Although I’m not gonna go stroking tigers, obviously...”
It was my final day, and there were two reasons for dragging myself to the jetty at 6.30am. First, I’d been told this was the best time and place to snorkel with stingrays. Second, there was no one to see me in my wetsuit, which made me look a little like an oversized sea cucumber.
Within minutes the rays were criss-crossing below me like gliding lily pads. I finned past fish the pattern of speckled hens and above Dead Man’s Fingers waving delicate coral fronds in the current. And then the less delicate shape of a shark hove into view and I decided to head for home; while reef sharks are harmless to humans, I wasn’t sure where they stood on oversized sea cucumbers.
But as the jetty loomed, the shark was forgotten. A turtle the size of a tractor wheel hung in the water. It was the most scrumptious, tactile-looking thing I’d ever seen, with polished black eyes and a creamy head blotched with copper. It flapped its flippers and I flapped mine and for a fleeting, flapping moment we were swimming the ocean together. It was my wildlife hit, smack between the eyes – and there wasn’t a cone shell in sight.
You can visit Heron all year, but turtle nesting and hatching takes place November-May. The island has 109 rooms; prices start from A$398pp for a two-night stay, including meals and some activities. Transport is from Gladstone (reached by plane from Brisbane), 72km south-west of the island on the Queensland coast. Two-hour boat transfers cost from A$99.50pp each way; half-hour helicopter transfers from A$370pp.www.heronisland.com
Wilson lies 15km from Heron and offers a more private ‘castaway’ experience, with just six timber-decked safari tents. A two-night stay costs from A$1,100pp (including meals, sunset drinks and boat transfer from Heron Island). The island is closed from 26 January to 28 February to ensure bird populations are not disturbed during nesting. www.wilsonisland.com
A cheaper option than Wilson, Lady Musgrave is set on a 3,000-acre section with a deep-water coral lagoon. It offers top-drawer snorkelling and is a turtle-nesting site. Access is from the Town of 1770, a two-hour drive south from Gladstone. Lady Musgrave Cruises operates daily transfers costing A$180 (adult)/ A$85 (child), including snorkelling, guided walk, buffet lunch and semi-submersible tour. You can camp, although there are no facilities; permits cost A$5.30pp and cruise tickets A$340 (adult)/A$150 (child). Alternatively, Beach Shacks 1770 offers bungalows for two to six people in 1770; prices from A$188. www.ladymusgraveisland.com
Transfers to Lady Musgrave can be cancelled due to the weather. If that’s the case, join the 1770 LARC! Tours for a six-hour trip around the coast in a pink amphibious vessel. The tour takes in the wildlife of the waterways and visits the renovated Bustard Head Lighthouse; it costs A$153 (adult)/A$93 (child), including morning tea and picnic lunch. For further information, see www.gladstoneregion.info