The Southern Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is a quiet corner of the reef that is every bit as wondrous as its more popular northern cousin.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was formed in 1975 and extends into the airspace above and into the earth beneath the seabed. It is 23,000km long and covers an area of 348,000 square kilometres.
It’s the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem, with 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusc. It’s a habitat of species such as the dugong (sea cow) and the large green turtle, which are threatened with extinction.
There are around 2,500 individual reefs and over 900 islands, ranging from small coral cays to continental islands. This otherworldly seascape has some of the most spectacular maritime scenery on the planet.
From the northern tip of Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef stretches all the way down to Bundaberg. It’s between 60km and 250km in width. The outer reefs and continental slopes plunge to depths of more than 2000m while the waters close to shore are around 35m deep.
Southern Great Barrier Reef
The Southern Great Barrier Reef stretches from Lady Elliot Island and the Bundaberg coast to Lady Musgrave Island and Seventeen Seventy and up to Heron Island, the Capricorn Coast and Great Keppel Island.
The southern section of the Great Barrier Reef is a quiet corner. But it’s every bit as special as the more popular tourist areas in the north.
In the south, there are no hordes of tourists or massive high-speed catamarans. In many places in the Southern Great Barrier Reef, you can snorkel from the beach and find yourself floating in an underwater paradise of coral just metres from shore.
There’s a variety of coral in different shapes, sizes and colours. Although they look like plants, they are actually colonies of very small animals called coral polyps, which are closely related to jellyfish.
Another reason to choose the Southern Great Barrer Reef is there are no marine stingers. That means you can swim year-round and come face to face with fish and turtles. An abundance of plankton supports marine life like turtles and manta rays.
In the south, there are three island resorts on the Great Barrier Reef: Great Keppel Island, Heron Island and Lady Elliot Island.
Lady Elliot Island
Lady Elliot Island, which is a pristine coral cay, is the easiest to reach. It’s a jewel of the Southern Great Barrier Reef.
We board a Cessna Caravan at Brisbane’s Redcliffe Airport and fly over the vast ocean. The sun’s rays dance through puffy clouds as we wing our way along the Queensland coastline and out over the vast expanse of ocean of the Southern Great Barrier Reef. From the sky,
Lady Elliot Island is an isolated coray cay that looks like an emerald in a gleaming aquamarine ocean. The aircraft lands on a grass runway and we’re welcomed by the cheerful faces of the staff of the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort.
There are no room keys and no mobile phone reception. We collect our masks and snorkels and head for the water.
As the island is surrounded by beautiful coral gardens, we step off the beach and find ourselves floating above the coral. The ocean of the Southern Great Barrier Reef is also famous for its resident population of manta rays.
After lunch, we pile into a glass-bottom boat and cruise over coral gardens. Minutes later, a green sea turtle is spotted next to the boat.
The underwater landscape of the Southern Great Barrier Reef is a wondrous world of coral, bommies and blowholes.
As soon as I put my face into the water, I spot all the usual suspects, including parrot fish, angel fish, giant groupers and huge wrasses.
Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort is the only hotel on the island. It’s an eco-lodge with Advanced Ecotourism Certification through Ecotourism Australia. The programme at Ecotourism Australia requires resorts to contribute to environmental conservation, assist local communities and use resources wisely.
Some of the initiatives at Lady Elliot Island include operating on solar power, using desalinized seawater and collecting rain for drinking water.
There are four different styles of accommodation: Eco Cabins are permanent safari-style tents with home comforts furnished with four bunk beds, polished timber floors and power. Guests have access to communal bathrooms.
Reef Rooms are designed for families, with a double bed and two bunk beds. They have tea and coffee making facilities, verandahs, fridges, ceiling fans and private bathrooms. The Island Suites are one- and two-bedroom air-conditioned beachfront units, with separate bedrooms and lounge areas. Staying here is an opportunity to get away and relax, with no televisions, radios or telephones.
Protecting the environment
Like most destinations with pristine environments, Lady Elliot Island faces the challenge of maintaining its environment while continuing to allow visitors from all over the world to experience its natural beauty and fragile ecosystem.
A high priority is to protect the birds and marine creatures that inhabit the island and its surrounding reef. The ocean is home to green and loggerhead turtles and red-tailed tropic birds, a species that spends most of its life at sea, come to the island to nest.
The island’s lush greenery was cut down during the 19th century by guano miners but reforestation took place in the 1960s and there are ongoing tree-planting initiatives in place to re-establish vegetation and the island’s bird habitat.
Another focus is the restoration of resort buildings and heritage-listed properties, such as the light keeper’s houses.
Recently, a trial plan was implemented to establish environmentally-friendly anchoring areas for trawl operators, where coral is unlikely to get damaged.
One of Lady Elliot Island’s biggest drawcards is its accessibility.
The island is a 45-minute flight from Brisbane and a 30-minute flight from Bundaberg. You can visit Lady Elliot Island as a day trip but it would be a pity not to stay longer. As the most accessible part of the Great Barrier Reef, I have no doubt the Southern Great Barrier Reef is set to shine.
Threats to the Great Barrier Reef
Research by the Australian Institute of Marine Science has found 50 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral cover has been lost in the past 27 years, due to storms, beaching and crown of thorn populations (an invasive starfish that preys on coral).
The Great Barrier Reef also faces future threats from planned port development and climate change.
Conservationists believe that plans to develop new gas and coal ports along the coastline will result in dredging, dumping of spoil and increased ship traffic that will threaten the coral.
Fight for the Reef (a partnership between WWF-Australia and the Australian Marine Conservation Society) is working to protect the Reef through raising awareness of the industrialisation occurring on the Great Barrier Reef’s coastline.
Lady Elliot Island is a 30-minute flight from Bundaberg and a jewel of the Southern Great Barrier Reef. There are also direct flights from Hervey Bay (Fraser Coast), Brisbane (Redcliffe) and Gold Coast (Coolangatta). Bundaberg is a four-hour drive or a 45-minute flight from Brisbane. See Seair Pacific. Virgin Australia flies from Sydney to Hervey Bay and Brisbane to Bundaberg; tel: 13 67 89. Qantas Link flies from Brisbane to Hervey Bay and Bundaberg. Virgin Australia has flights to Bundaberg via Brisbane.
Heron Island is a helicopter or boat transfer from Gladstone.
Great Keppel Island is a 30-minute boat transfer from Rosslyn Bay and a 30-minute charter flight from Rockhampton.
Lady Musgrave Island is a day cruise from Seventeen Seventy.
Christina Pfeiffer was a guest of Tourism and Events Queensland