Diving and fishing in Heron Island

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A tiny dot in the vast Coral Sea, what Heron Island lacks in size it makes up for in sheer natural beauty and an astounding abundance of life

Diving and fishing in Heron Island
<B>DESTINATION</B> - Heron Island

You know you’re headed somewhere pretty special when the welcoming committee consists of three humpback whales — mother and calf plus a third acrobatic ring-in. With our island destination on the horizon, they roll peacefully only metres from the boat, the ring-in dazzling the handful of spectators with its impressive aerial manoeuvres, rising vertically from the water like a great, aquatic bus before crashing back down, casting salt spray into the faces of the delighted audience aboard the Heron Islander.

And special really is the word for Heron Island. A World Heritage-listed site it stretches only 800m long and 300m wide and reaches no more than 3.6m tall at its highest point. Being a coral cay it began to form 6000 years ago from a build-up of broken-down coral from the surrounding Heron Reef, which dwarfs the island in size. Located 72km offshore from Gladstone in Queensland, Heron forms part of the Capricornia Cays in the Southern Great Barrier Reef.

Despite being but a tiny dot in the middle of the Coral Sea, there is no shortage of action on and around Heron Island — action of the fauna kind, that is. The water swarms with around 900 of the Great Barrier Reef’s 1500 tropical fish species, including manta rays and several varieties of reef shark. During the winter months, whales can be seen almost daily frolicking at the reef’s edge, while green and loggerhead sea turtles populate the water year-round, climbing ashore in vast numbers during summer to lay their eggs, or emerge as hatchlings.

Guests visiting during this time can bear witness to this precious sight, and in fact are required to take precautions — like turning off unnecessary lights — so as not to invite nesting mothers right into their rooms. It is not uncommon during the peak nesting season for hundreds of female turtles to climb onto the beach each night and lay their eggs in the same sand from which they once emerged as hatchlings.

And turtles aren’t the only ones partaking in the egg laying; the island is also a breeding site for tens of thousands of birds. Cheeky, ground-dwelling buff banded rails scurry among the island’s predominant pisonia and pandanus trees. Black noddy terns breed in great abundance here, while the lovably clumsy wedgetailed shearwater, or mutton bird, digs its nest in the sandy terrain during the summer months, punctuating the balmy tropical nights with its trademark deep, howling song. The island is also home to egrets, which were originally mistaken for herons by Francis Blackwood, who discovered the island aboard the HMS Fly in 1843 and named it accordingly.

Yes, Heron Island is quite literally teeming with life. Even while watching the sun sink into the ocean with a beer in my hand at the bar, I bore witness to a group of six or seven lemon sharks patrolling the shallows at the water’s edge. Happy Hour indeed.

Heron Island is home to the University of Queensland’s Heron Island Research Station (HIRS), and, of course, Heron Island Resort. The latter accommodates up to 200 guests and around 100 staff who live and work on the island, their sun-kissed faces and happy demeanours the best advertisement for taking time away from the rat race.

Those seeking such an escape will find solace at Heron, there is no doubt about that. There’s no mobile phone reception, no TVs in the rooms, no locks on the doors, no cars, no shops aside from the resort boutique and no internet unless you care to check your email over an espresso martini at the bar. One is well and truly marooned on this beautiful little island, and I can’t overstate how wonderful that is.

During my visit the resort was near capacity on account of the Heron Island Dive Festival, but despite that I had no trouble finding a vacant stretch of beach in which to laze in the perfect 26?C winter sun, where I could have remained all day undisturbed if there hadn’t been something else on my mind. Heron Island, you see, is a world-class dive destination, home to some of the best dive sites in the country, and some would argue the world. Defrosting my frozen Melbourne bones on the beach was certainly pleasant, but climbing into neoprene and plunging into an underwater paradise unlike any I’d seen before was more than I could resist.

If looking down at the action from the surface is more your thing, the resort marine centre runs snorkel boats twice a day, ferrying you the short 10-minute trip to a multitude of sites at the reef’s edge. The beauty of holidaying on a coral cay is that you needn’t travel far to reach dive and snorkel sites, as is the case on many popular islands farther north. In fact, you don’t have to board a boat at all; just grab the snorkel and fins, hit the beach at high tide and hey presto you’re swimming over the only living thing that can be seen from space.

At low tide, strap into a pair of old shoes and wander around the exposed reef on one of the resort’s guided reef walks. Snorkelling for the water-repellent, I call it. This is a great activity for youngsters, who also have the opportunity to partake in the island’s Junior Rangers kid’s club.

The resort runs a glass-bottom semi-submersible as well as sunset cruises and a fishing charterboat for those who’d like a chance at catching one of the many coral trout or red emperor that patrol these tropical waters. Heron Island is located in a Marine Park "green zone", meaning fishing is strictly a no-no, but a 10- to 15-minute boat ride delivers hopeful anglers to the nearby "yellow zone", where they can try their luck. Best of all, anything you can legally keep will be served up to you by chefs in the restaurant that night.

The reverence with which the island’s residents and guests hold the natural environment was not always apparent. In fact, Heron was first used as a turtle soup cannery in the 1920s, until turtle numbers dropped so drastically that it was no longer viable and closed down. In the 1930s it was leased by Captain Christian Poulsen, who saw its potential as a holiday spot and built a resort. In 1948 Poulsen mysteriously vanished in nearby waters, but he had achieved his goal of establishing Heron as a tourist destination. Postcards from the 1950s show guests swilling mai tais (presumably) and gleefully riding turtles, an activity that was prohibited in the ’60s, the same decade in which a harbour was carved through the reef to allow boat access to the island at all tide levels.

These days Heron Island Resort offers a happy marriage between environmentally sustainable tourism and luxury escapism. A precious lull in the rat race, it’s about as far from the "real world" as you can get before you reach the fabled edge of the earth, and it should be on the itinerary of anyone with the slightest notion of wild abandonment at sea.

Above: Heron Island rates among the world’s top dive spots; And a turtle (below)
nesting site.

Clown fish rarely swim far from their anemone homes.

Manta rays are frequent visitors to the island.

Heron Island Resort pool and beach.

Heron Island is dwarfed by the surrounding reef.

Nesting seabirds have helped establish a dense forest to thrive on Heron.

Turtle hatchlings emerge daily during summer.

Island paradise sundowners.

From Trade-a-Boat Issue 432, Oct-Nov 2012. Story by Emma Ryan. Photos by Emma Ryan; Tourism QLD.


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