Lady Elliot Island

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There’s no doubt Lady Elliot Island, at the southernmost end of the Great Barrier Reef, is turtle paradise. It’s such an amazing place to see turtles that wherever I go to peek under the water, I can’t help but compare that place to Lady Elliot Island.

Why? Lady Elliot consistently rewards visitors with amazing encounters with marine life: manta rays, yes, and especially sea turtles.

Actually, Lady Elliot is a coral cay on Queensland’s Southern Great Barrier Reef and only 120km from Hervey Bay, the whale watching capital of the world. 

10 Lady Elliot Island Turtle Encounters

By Kara Murphy

Here are 10 of my favourite Lady Elliot Island turtle moments.

1- Witnessing a park ranger rescue trapped turtle hatchlings

Lady Elliot Island
Lady Elliot Island ranger.

On Lady Elliot, green and loggerhead turtle hatchlings often become trapped in their nests, stuck under heavy coral.


If they can’t get out, they die.

Thankfully, Queensland Parks & Wildlife Service rangers visit the island during turtle hatching season (February-April) and rescue them.

I had the opportunity to accompany a ranger on one of his rescue missions.

When he removed a large piece of coral from this nest, over a dozen relieved hatchlings scrambled out.

2- Being touched by a turtle

Lady Elliot Island turtle selfie
Lady Elliot Island turtle selfie

I attempted this ‘turtle selfie’ after a dive instructor in Cairns suggested it and was quite shocked when I felt this turtle’s flipper on my shoulder.

I like to think this particular Lady Elliot turtle was enamoured with me and thought he’d found a potential future exit buddy but he was probably just interested in my dome port.

3- Making eye contact with a huge male loggerhead

Lady Elliot Island turtle swimming
Lady Elliot diving and snorkeling for turtles.

I tend to see lots of green and hawksbill turtles on Lady Elliot, but my loggerhead sightings are less frequent.

So I was excited to encounter this huge, maybe 1.3-metre-long male loggerhead in late October, during turtle mating season.

He swam slowly, eyeing me intently for several minutes before we parted ways.

4- Observing traffic patterns on a ‘turtle highway’

Two turtles on the Lady Elliot Island turtle highway
Two turtles on the Lady Elliot Island turtle highway

Really, all the waters surrounding Lady Elliot Island could be classed as turtle highway but this shot, taken on the western side of the island, best illustrates the concept.

Passing one another, the turtles exchanged nods and smiles and kept on swimming in opposite directions.

5- Watching a turtle snaffle a jellyfish

Lady Elliot Island turtle
You never get tired of seeing turtles around Lady Elliot.

Yum, yum – turtles love jellyfish.

I’d never seen a turtle enjoy one until this past November.

I’d been photographing a lovely jellyfish and the tiny fish it was harbouring when a green turtle appeared, probably fifty metres away.

The turtle seemed to sense that jelly’s presence immediately and swam straight towards it without hesitation.

Bye, bye, jellyfish.

You were clearly delicious.

6- Meeting a turtle with an odd attachment

Lady Elliot Island snorkeling
Lady Elliot Island snorkelling reveals lots of turtles.

I’ve seen plenty of sea cucumbers in my snorkelling days, but hitchhiking sea cucumbers?

Not until recently.

This turtle was probably resting on the lagoon floor when the sea cucumber crawled onto him.

Something about his expression suggests that he wasn’t particularly impressed with the situation.

7- Counting shells at a teenage turtle party

Lady Elliot Island turtle
A teenage turtle party at Lady Elliot is fun.

Although you can find turtles anywhere in the Lady Elliot Island lagoon, the outer part, just beyond the end of Channel One, is where the juveniles tend to congregate.

Swim out here, look around, and start counting: seeing five or six at once isn’t unusual.

8- Being approached by a turtle

swimming with turtles
Snorkeling with turtles is a fantastic experience on Lady Elliot Island.

Lady Elliot turtles tend to be quite friendly.

Looking up and noticing a turtle swimming straight towards you is one of the best feelings in the world.

9- Admiring from afar

Every turtle doesn’t swim towards you, though.

Just admiring them as they gracefully navigate the ocean, sailing down to feed or rest and ascending to gulp the salty air, is also a magnificent experience.

10- Witnessing someone else’s turtle moment

Eye to eye with a turtle at Lady Elliot Island.
Eye to eye with a turtle at Lady Elliot Island.

I wouldn’t trade my turtle encounters for anything but Lady Elliot has enough turtles for everyone, and watching someone else enjoying a moment is special as well.

Lady Elliot Island Tour

By Maria Visconti

Turtle soup! I love turtle soup! First time and I am a fan.

Conservationists relax, I am not eating turtle soup, I am swimming in it.

It could also be a bouillabaisse, as there are so many other fish about.

Green turtles, Hawksbill turtles and Loggerhead turtles swim around this coral cay and come to lay their eggs here between the months of November and March.

Lady Elliot Island Snorkeling

Lady Elliot Island snorkeling
On the boat getting ready for a Lady Elliot Island snorkeling experience

I have just snorkelled off the glass bottom boat that takes visitors around to see the marine life that lies beneath.

Rays glide past the glass producing cries of admiration from the onlookers onboard the vessel.

Many species of fish seem to look up at us and finally, somebody exclaims: ‘Turtle!’ and we all search for it till the spotter clarifies: ‘Turtles are popping up everywhere!’

So we all abandon the glass bottom and start scouring the water’ surface.

After a few minutes, one turtle pops its head and then another and another.

Time for a snorkel I decide.

Plunging in without a splash so as not to disturb the inhabitants below, I am greeted first by a few munching Parrotfish who look up from their feeding station and by a shoal of Scissortail Sergeants moving swiftly about.

No turtles at the time but I didn’t have long to wait.

Lady Elliot Island turtle encounter

All of a sudden a curious Greenback looks at me from a cautious distance.

I wave at her.

She has watery eyes and moves to get a better angle.

I feel I am part of Finding Nemo, my favourite movie.

Miss Turtle swims away but then another one comes and I almost scream into my mouthpiece as a shadow rises in front of me obscuring my vision.

A gliding manta ray is a sight to behold. Knowing that they are gentle giants, I relax and watch it pass.

Lady Elliot Island turtles

Lady Elliot Island is a hotspot for manta rays year around with their numbers increasing during the winter season (mid-May to mid-August) when it is not unusual to see them ‘frenzy-feeding’ on the water’s surface around the island in large numbers.

Lady Elliot Eco Resort

Lady Elliot Island Resort
Lady Elliot Island Resort will appeal to travellers who appreciate eco-friendly places.

Getting to the Lady Elliot Eco Resort is part of the fun.

A flight on a small plane is a true joy ride.

The pilot takes care to show you around the island from the air, circling it as you approach.

Once landed on the airstrip that bisects the island I noticed a sign warning pedestrians to look out for landing craft.

The accommodation is not luxury but perfectly adequate for spending a few days on the island.

Lady Elliot Island Resort Eco Initiatives

One interesting thing is that the resort does not offer fish or seafood on their menu reflecting their policy of marine conservation.

Other eco-initiatives in place are the solar panels that provide energy, the reverse osmosis desalination plants that produce drinking water for the island and the ban on bottled water. 

There’s a wastewater treatment plant that provides irrigation water and the use of chemical free, biodegradable cleaning products.

Lady Elliot Island Resort activities

Turtle paradise

The activities are varied and designed to keep every member of the family busy at all times.

There are the obvious snorkelling and diving outings but more unusual are the guided ‘reef walks’ conducted at low tide.

Visitors are lead through the sandy lanes that form between the coral banks at low tide and are provided with ‘sea scopes’ – a long tube with a magnifying lens at the end – that can be used to see the coral and its inhabitants at close range.

Participants are also provided with a walking pole to maintain balance while walking and with sturdy shoes to avoid cuts and grazes.

Bird life is abundant at Lady Elliot with 95 species of seabirds, shorebirds and land birds. Noddy terns are the most populous and so unafraid they hardly move from their nests as you approach.

Lady Elliot Island

The best place to watch the sunset is the western side of the island where the lighthouse built in the 1800s is.

Grab an ice bucket, a bottle of bubbles and head across the landing strip towards the west till you reach the shore.

Here I was treated by a fiery sunset and a full moon rising behind the lighthouse.

We toasted to the incredible inhabitants of Lady Elliot and vowed to return.

Lady Elliot Island
A Lady Elliot Island day trip is a relaxing way to experience the Great Barrier Reef


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Kara Murphy
I’m a travel photojournalist, based on Brisbane’s bayside in Queensland, Australia, and specialising in underwater and other outdoor adventures. Some of my favourite underwater experiences have happened close to home – on Moreton Bay and, a bit further north, on the southern Great Barrier Reef.You can find my work in publications such as ShowBoats International, Australian Geographic, Dockwalk, and Go Camping & 4WD Adventures, and I also create short videos for my YouTube channel. Awards 2014 winner Diver(s) category, Cairns Underwater Film Festival 2013 Australian Society of Travel Writers finalist for Best Australian Story Under 1000 Words