Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981, is one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World for good reason. This vibrant marine wonderland stretches almost 1500 miles in length and hosts over 131,000 square miles of incredibly diverse coral ecosystems. But this means that wildlife adventurers with their sights set on spotting the Great Eight of clownfish, giant clams, manta ray, maori wrasse, potato cod, sharks, turtles and whales may likely be overwhelmed with possibilities when trying to trip plan. Lady Elliot Island is a not-to-be-missed coral cay lying within the reef’s most highly protected Green Zone, 50 miles northeast of Bundaberg and just to the north of Fraser Island.  For travelers serious about marine wildlife, this island should be at the heart of any Australia itinerary.

In 1816 Captain Thomas Stewart sighted and named the island while sailing the ‘Lady Elliot’ (named after the wife of Hugh Elliot, the colonial governor of India at the time). The island’s history since includes being mined for guano and hosting a herd of goats that was kept on the Island to ensure food for shipwrecked sailors. Lady Elliot Island is now the most remote but currently regularly accessed Great Barrier Reef island.  There are only approximately 30 people who presently live on the island and they are all workers supporting the tourism industry. There are no ferries – the only way to arrive at the island is by a small plane chartered from Seair Pacific. It’s a quick 25-minute flight from the Bundaberg Airport or approximately 40 minutes from Hervey Bay/Fraser Coast.  Lady Elliot Island is the only coral cay Island with an airstrip on the Great Barrier Reef, and the bird’s eye view offered from the plane can give visitors a memorable and distinct perspective on the reef. 

A turtle diving back to the reef in a shallow lagoon on Lady Elliot Island.

A sea turtle in a shallow lagoon on Lady Elliot Island.

The coral cay is a sanctuary for over 1,500 species of tropical fish, but is famous for being the home of the manta ray. Anywhere from 450-700 inquisitive rays congregate regularly, so even a quick snorkel is likely to include a sighting. Between November and February, green and loggerhead turtles return to the island to nest, and humpback whales migrate northward through the area from June to September.  Gentle reef sharks are also common offshore. The continental shelf is only six miles to the east, so the ecosystems here reap the benefits of the East Australian Current. The island’s reefs boast numerous coral trout which are recognized as a sign of a healthy reef.  Although it is a premier dive site, Lady Elliot Island is also home to the second-highest diversity of seabirds on the barrier reef, making wildlife sightings easy both underwater and on land.  There are buff banded rails, ruddy ternstones, silvereyes, frigate birds, boobies, mutton birds at night, and the Island is even home to several breeding pairs of red-tailed tropic birds.  In addition to birds, the island is also home to a healthy green frog population and several species of butterflies.

Australia's Great Barrier Reef with many kinds of fishes.

The island’s sole accommodation is an award-winning, family-run ecolodge focused on reef health and environmental sustainability. Lady Elliot Island is a private destination and permission to access the Island is only granted by the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort.  The resort has held the lease to operate from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority since 2005, and since, enormous strides have been made to introduce sustainable initiatives (such as transitioning to 100% renewable energy). They work hard to protect important breeding and nursery areas such as seagrass beds, mangrove communities, deepwater shoals and reefs. In late 2021, Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort won gold for ‘ecotourism’ at the annual Queensland Tourism Awards. The resort has also achieved Advanced Ecotourism Certification, Climate Action Leader Certification and Green Travel Leader status from Ecotourism Australia.

one female scuba diver viewing large orange-colored common gorgonian sea fan and variety of colorful coral of great barrier reef, Australia

The resort offers cozy eco cabins and glamping tents right on the water, so heading out for a snorkel can be as easy as walking out the door to the beach. And the snorkeling is so good, in fact, that Lonely Planet voted Lady Elliot Island #2 of the ‘7 best beaches for snorkeling around the world’ in 2020. Depending on level of experience, guests can choose from Beginner, Intermediate or Advanced snorkel trails.  Scuba divers can opt for deeper exploration at twenty dive sites dotted around the island (classes are also offered for those who want to learn and night dives are available). Guests can also learn how corals are being impacted by climate change on a glass-bottom boat tour with local naturalists. A marine biologist is on hand for lagoon tours inland. Other activities include discovery walks, a visit to the historic lighthouse, birdwatching and stargazing.

While places like Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort are thankfully doing their part to help protect Australia’s natural environment, iconic wildlife and the health of the corals of the Great Barrier Reef are still at risk. A trip to see Australia’s marine wildlife in all its glory may be a once in this lifetime experience.