Lady Elliot Island: The ultimate way to experience the Great Barrier Reef

Swimming with a turtle at Lady ElliottIsland.
Countless green sea turtles roam around the island and have no problem with you swimming with them. Photo credit: Jeremy Somerville

Snorkelling in the ocean above a huge green sea turtle that's rummaging around corals of the Great Barrier Reef is the sort of experience you don't forget - and it was easily one of the best encounters with nature I've ever enjoyed. 

The majestic male turtle was around 1.5m long, but underwater he looked even larger. He appeared taller than me, and was very much larger than any other turtle I've seen. He was huge!

It felt like I was in a Jurassic Park scene as I swam above him, marvelling at how he moved about the corals, going about his business and not paying me any attention in return.

Of all the wonderful moments that made up my first trip to the Great Barrier Reef, that one remains the most vivid memory.

"Your mind was blown because you were actually swimming with a dinosaur," Peter Gash, the managing director and custodian of Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, told me afterwards.

"This is an amazing place - this is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. And that turtle that you swam with, they've been here for thousands or even millions of years. So yeah, you were genuinely swimming with a living dinosaur!"

Even though I've been fascinated by the Reef my whole life, I put off getting to it for more than 40 years, for the same reason I did with Milford Sound, I guess. It's silly, but when something is so close to home, we often put off going and experiencing it ourselves, despite many people travelling from the furthest corners of the world to bask in its glory.

The Great Barrier Reef is one of Planet Earth's most awe-inspiring natural wonders. It's hard to imagine a more visually incredible part of the ocean to explore after you've swum about in the coral teeming with bizarre, colourful fish.

Lady Elliot Island: The ultimate way to experience the Great Barrier Reef
Photo credit: Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort

The Lady Elliot Island Resort, an eco-friendly retreat on the southern end of the Reef, is an ideal way to experience it. It's easy to get to from New Zealand, incredibly gorgeous and well known for its intense commitment to the sustainability of its pristine natural environment.

In addition to the enormous sea turtles, people often interact with manta rays, whales, and even friendly sharks (more on that later) while snorkelling or diving around the island.

The unspoiled beauty of Lady Elliot Island is immediately impressive as soon as you lay your eyes on it, but the story of how it came to be the resort it is today is also highly compelling. It's also nice to know that by traveling there, you're actually helping support conservation efforts of such a special place.

How to get there

  • There are direct flights from Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington to the Gold Coast.
  • Once on the GC you want to stay somewhere near the airport, from which you'll fly to Lady Elliot Island early in the morning - so the closer the better. I stayed at the lovely and very new Kirra Point Holiday Apartments which are around five minutes' drive from the airport.
  • The Lady Elliot Island Resort itself organises your flights between the Gold Coast and the island. You organise them as part of booking your stay or day trip.
The ocean really is this clear, which is fantastic for snorkelling.
The ocean really is this clear, which is fantastic for snorkelling. Photo credit: Tourism and Events Queensland

Peter Gash has captained the resort's pioneering sustainability efforts. The island is entirely self-sufficient and off the grid, generating all its power with solar panels, creating all its fresh water on-site, and processing all its waste.

Those sustainability achievements were made possible thanks to Gash's deep personal connection with the island which were formed decades ago. He says even after doing it almost every day for 40 years, snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef never stops being incredibly special.

"In fact, in some ways, it gets better. There's just so much to see that your brain just can't cope with such a barrage of colour and life and movement," Gash told Newshub.

"I have seen a lot, but there are often things I see that I haven't seen before - they've been there, I just haven't seen them. So even after 40 years of snorkelling around this beautiful island, I continually see things I've not seen before and continue to experience things I've never experienced before. That's part of the joy of it; you just continually have these extraordinary moments."

Peter Gash, custodian of the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort.
Peter Gash, custodian of the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort. Photo credit: Newshub.

Gash is that sort of person who exudes an infectious, palpable passion. If you get over to Lady Elliot Island, try to catch up with him in person; how he talks in this article is how he talks in real life, but in person, you'll just get much more of his contagious energy.

He was born in a rural area of central Victoria he calls "beautiful country", but once he travelled out of it and discovered the ocean, he fell in love with it. When he experienced the Great Barrier Reef, he quickly decided to dedicate the rest of his life to it.

"It absolutely blew me away. I first snorkeled the Reef 42 or 43 years ago when there wasn't the awareness or knowledge of it that we have today and certainly no social media or internet. So coloured books were about as much as I'd seen of it, then to physically see it with my own two eyes - wow! My head was spinning and I knew I wanted to stay here," he said.

I can certainly relate to those sorts of feelings. On the day trip I took to Lady Elliot Island, seeing it from above as the small plane approached was brilliant in itself. Walking on the beach was the next 'wow' moment - especially when you start to see the turtles swimming close to shore.

The view as your flight comes in to land.
The view as your flight comes in to land. Photo credit: Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort

Heading out on the glass-bottomed boat is where things start to get spectacular. The visibility in the water is ridiculous; it's so clear you can see almost unbelievably well. The coral reef itself, of course, makes for fascinating sightseeing as a strange, beautiful, alien-looking world that made me extremely grateful for the awesome visibility.

Small patches of the coral were 'bleached', so it looked pale off-white rather than brightly coloured. That was confronting but not as catastrophic as one might assume and certainly not permanent.

"People get confused when they hear the term 'bleaching' because they think that it means the coral has died. It's actually an example of the coral being stressed," Jessica Blackmore, environmental manager at Lady Elliot Island, told Newshub.

"These mass bleaching events where large geographic areas are bleached at the same time have only been caused so far by heat stress. Around Lady Elliot, our normal summer ocean temperature should be about 27C, but this year we were experiencing temperatures of up to 29C. That is simply too hot for the coral, so gets stressed, it gets sick, and it appears that really pale colour."

There is a variety of accommodation options available at the resort.
There is a variety of accommodation options available at the resort. Photo credit: Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort

As alarming as coral bleaching is, it's definitely not a reason to steer clear of the Reef.

"The Reef is stressed [but] it is still there, it is still beautiful, people can still come and have those incredible encounters with turtles and all the colourful fish," said Blackmore.

"The thing about coral bleaching is it's so visual, it's so obvious. As much as it's not something we like to experience, it's a good talking point, it allows people to see the impacts of climate change happening before their very eyes and it's a really good way to show people that we do need unified global action.

"You might hear reports about 'the whole Reef is dead', but that's simply not true and if you come and experience it, you'll walk away feeling incredibly inspired to protect this very special place."

Many of us would be more alarmed to see a shark up close and personal while snorkelling than we would a discoloured bit of coral. It's a primal thing to fear sharks; they look objectively scary. And ever since Jaws came out, they've seemed exponentially scarier than they really are. But at Lady Elliot Island, they swim about uncaged tourists and cause no concern to the staff in charge of keeping customers protected.

They might look scary, but these sharks won't hurt you.
They might look scary, but these sharks won't hurt you. Photo credit: Getty Images

"We often swim with sharks and it's very, very safe here. When nature is in balance, we have no fear of nature," Gash said.

"There's plenty for sharks to eat here and the water is so clear - you can see them, they can see you, they don't need to come and touch you. It's an extraordinary experience swimming in harmony with them and all the other parts of nature here, you never get sick of it - I certainly don't."

He is much more scared of the damage humans can do to the Reef than he is of what sharks can do to humans. Seeing coral bleaching in-person hammers home the impact of climate change, but it's not the only way Gash has witnessed clearly the devastating impact of humans on the area.

"The first day I came here to Lady Elliot, diving around it the water was beautiful and full of life. But then we swam ashore, and the island was almost completely deserted and barren of life. It had been strip mined so brutally that there was only a few birds and a couple of trees left, but otherwise it was all harsh, hard coral," said Gash.

"The nearest neighbour is Lady Musgrave Island and that was this beautiful lush green forest full of birds and life with this really soft guano soil. My simple early 20s brain wondered, 'what happened to that other place?' That was the trigger of all of this."

Lady Elliot Island was extensively mined for guano in the mid- to late-1800s, which almost completely destroyed its natural ecosystem. It then stayed that way for nearly a century until the 1960s when Don Adams - a man Gash calls "an absolute legend" and "a real visionary" - began a revegetation program that slowly started its transformation from a desolate rock to the teeming paradise it is today.

These aerial photos show how effective the revegetation program has been.
These aerial photos show how effective the revegetation program has been. Photo credit: Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort

The Gash family became custodians of the island in 2005, a moment that felt like the fulfilment of destiny for Peter, who had known since his first snorkel around the island that he wanted to devote his life to enhancing its natural beauty.

"That first time here really started my wife Julie and I thinking," Gash said.

"After that it took us time to absorb and learn. We learned a lot about the ocean and about the Reef. We went to Heron Island, Green Island, and other parts of the Reef. Then as our life evolved, we could see that there was an opportunity for us to turn a beautiful place back to what it was while doing something we loved.

"I love the water, I love aeroplanes, I love taking guests out and giving them a great time - I could see how that could all stitch together. At the same time, I always had this drive to leave the place better than I found it. I've always wanted to make a difference, which I think all of us do - we all hope and dream to leave the planet better than we found it.

"I felt maybe Lady Elliot Island was how I can do it. Maybe I can fix that place, maybe I can also run a business at the same time - that's what started our journey to where we are today."

The resort is fully powered by solar panels.
The resort is fully powered by solar panels. Photo credit: Tourism and Events Queensland

Within five years of becoming the island's custodian, Gash had constructed a hybrid power station that was the first of its kind. He and his family have continually upgraded the solar panels, water desalination plants and other aspects of the island to set a high standard for eco-resorts.

If they wish, visitors can learn about these efforts while at the island, as well as about the Great Barrier Reef itself. You may just want to chill out and lay back gazing at one of the most gorgeous oceanscapes in the universe, but it is also satisfying to discover how the custodians are ensuring they leave the island in a better state than they found it - all while sharing it with tourists.

"New Zealand is a magnificent place. It was the first country I went to besides Australia and I've been back there many times since as I really love the beauty of it. But I can assure you Kiwis if you come to the beautiful place that is Lady Elliot Island, you will not regret it," said Gash.

"Yes, it will cost you a fair chunk of money, but it's an experience that's worth it. Everyone enjoys coming here, but it also teaches you so much. It educates you and gives you an experience you won't get anywhere else and you'll never forget. Life is all about these experiences - they can take a lot of things away from us, but no one can take our memories."

So, is Lady Elliot Island really the ultimate way to experience the Great Barrier Reef? I'll need to see more of it to definitively say, but it sure was the ultimate way to be introduced to it.

I dearly hope to return as soon as possible.

Newshub experienced Lady Elliot Island as a guest of Tourism and Events Queensland