Lady Elliot Island – a seabird paradise on the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef

Certainly one of our most beautiful terns, Black-naped Tern forage in the water surrounding Lady Elliot Island.

Through my work as a professional bird guide I’ve been lucky to have visited Lady Elliot Island on numerous occasions. Located on the southern Great Barrier Reef, it lies ~85 km north-east of Bundaberg in the Capricornia section of the Great Barrier Reef. I reckon it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world, and visiting the island has been a real privilege. Lady Elliot Island is one of the most significant seabird breeding sites in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, and it is the southern-most extent of many species’ breeding distribution. Large numbers of seabirds breed there, with as many as 100,000 birds nesting there during summer! It’s also hosts some of the most extraordinary marine life.
Given this I thought I’d write up a trip report/summary of what you might see on the island. This includes the birds, but I also thought I’d write about the flora and some of the other special wildlife you might see as you walk the island and snorkel the sea. Hope you enjoy! At the end you’ll find a quick summary of how to get to Lady Elliot Island. 

The original Pisonia Trees. 


The Flora of Lady Elliot Island
Before talking about the birds, here’s a bit of rundown of the islands history and its flora. Lady Elliot Island first appeared above sea level around 3,500 years ago as a coral spit. Over the next 3000 years the island developed into a mature coral cay with the help of guano, with bird droppings hardening with beach sediments turning into rock. As a result vegetation on the island was able to grow. Being a vegetated cay is actually uncommon, most are sand. 

A  Black Noddy on an Octopus Bush. Octopus Bush prefer littoral zones and comes with its own desalination plant!

Extensive guano mining occurred in the 1860’s and almost all the trees, guano and top soil where removed. Over the last 50 years a re-vegetation program has been underway to transform the former guano mining site back to the island’s previous natural state. Scrubs and seedlings of native plants found on similar islands nearby have been planted on the island. These efforts have rewarded. Plant numbers and have dramatically increased and the island’s vegetation is now dynamic, with around 150 plant species. 
Lady Elliot is an unusual island. A lot of the islands you see further north have almost no vegetation, while the islands in the southern Great Barrier Reef have trees and rich ecosystems. Octopus Bush (Argusia argentea) and Coast She-oak (Casuarina equisetifolia incana) are found around the edges of the island, while the unique Pisonia (Pisonia grandis) forests occur in the middle. You also see the odd Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera) and Pandanus Palm (Pandanus tectorius) across the island.

A Bridled Tern nesting between two chairs. It’s quite practical when you think about it.

To me Pisonia is a particularly interesting. Related to the Bougainvillea family, it occurs on many coral cays in the Pacific Ocean. With sticky barbed seeds, dispersal occurs when the seeds stick to the feathers of birds. The Pisonia forests are a vital breeding habitat for Black Noddy and Wedge-tailed Shearwater. After the island was mined in the 1860’s only eight Pisonia trees remained. Remarkably these trees are still alive today, and you can see them near the resort pool. Pisonia leaves are edible. On Heron Island (60 km to the north of Lady Elliot), Pisonia Pie is on the restaurants menu! Nice.  
Another tree I find intriguing is the Octopus Bush. They occurs in the littoral zones near the shoreline – it gets its name from its fruit which look like the tentacles of an octopus. It seeds need to be immersed in salt water before germination. It then floats about in the sea until it washes up on an island. An interesting thing about Octopus Bush is that it has its own desalination plant! Using salt water as its water supply, its needed to develop an adaption to remove excess salt. It does this by sending the salt to sacrificial leaves. When saturated with salt, these leaves turn yellow and drop to the ground. There’s usually one sacrificial leaf per branch, often an older leaf at the base of a branch. As a result Octopus Bush leave are not salty and, like Pisonia, can be eaten in salads or cooked as a vegetable.  

Several native species have self-colonised the island. These include Birds-beak Grass (Thuarea involute) and Goats Foot (Ipomoea pes-caprae) – the latter, with wonderful Hibiscus-like purple flowers, is also know as Beach Morning Glory. Both are good examples of oceanic dispersal. The seeds float, yet unaffected by salt water. Important plants, along with Octopus Bush, they  stabilize the sand, and are often the first plants to colonise dunes helping to bind the sand. Goats Foot is used by aboriginals as poultice for Sting Ray and Stone Fish stings. So, when you get stung, you know what to do!
There’s a few introduced plants on the island, with the most prevalent being Lantana (Lantana camara). In the Americas Lantana is one of the favoured foods of Hummingbirds however in Australia it’s a noxious weed. Other introduced plants include Mother of Millions (Bryophyllum delagoense), Pink Periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) and Umbrella Tree (Schefflera actinophylla). Fortunately there’s an active program to remove these species.

Red-tailed Tropicbird flying overhead. Such a spectacular bird!

The Birds of Lady Elliot Island

Lady Elliot Island has the highest biodiversity of seabirds on the Great Barrier Reef. So, how many bird species have been recorded on the island? Well, that varies depending on what you read. eBird lists 82 species from 202 checklists (March 2019), while a bird fact sheet published by the resort states that 95 species have been seen on the island, and the Department of Environment and Science (Qld) mentions 105 species. So what’s the right total? It’s probably closer to the latter figure, given the possibility of rarities and vagrants and the likelihood of more common species accidentally being blown offshore. As an indication of this when I recently visited the island our group added two new species its eBird list, Masked lapwing and Black-fronted Dotterel.

However, like Michaelmas Cay, a visit to Lady Elliot Island is not just about seeing a wide range of seabirds. It’s about seeing special seabirds, and in large numbers. The first time I visited I was blown away by just how many birds there were. As the plane was landing I noticed hundreds of birds swooping around the islands. Once on the tarmac I could hear gently screeching, a low hum of bird calls in the background. Walking around parts of the island can be a bit like stepping through a mine field, avoiding stepping on roosting birds under your feet. When you sit down, there’s a good chance there will be a Bridled Tern nesting under your chair! Unperturbed by your presence, it will sit, perhaps giving you a brief look. All indicative of the fact that there are no real predators for birds to fear on the island. Certainly a trip to Lady Elliot Island will contrast nicely with a trip Michaelmas Cay in north Queensland.
The islands special birds are its tropical seabirds such as the Red-tailed Tropicbird, Black-naped Tern, Roseate Tern and Black Noddy, migratory shorebirds such as Wandering Tattler, and it’s one of the best places to see ‘Capricorn Silvereye’, a subspecies of the whose distribution is limited to the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. 
What’s the best way to see the birds on Lady Elliot? Due to its size, you can actually walk around the entire island in an hour or so. If you do this several times you should see most of the birds. For seabirds generally I’ve found one of the best spot the beach between north end of the airstrip and East Point. The beach is idyllic but surprisingly seems to attracts few people. It’s the sort of place a birdwatcher could sit for hours enjoying its space and its birds. For shorebird the best spot is undoubtedly the rocky flats at East Point, particularly at low tide. 

A Bridled Tern hovering just above my head.

One of the most spectacular birds found on Lady Elliot Island is the Red-tailed Tropicbird. First recorded nesting there in 1983, there are now 23 known nest sites with up to 8 pairs nesting at one time. They nest virtually year-round in simple ‘scrapes’ – a small depression in the sand. This is virtually no nest at all, indicative of many seabirds.  One of the special features of the Red-tailed Tropicbird is its red-tail streamers. These gave the bird its alternative name Bos’nbird, an historical reference to the semblance of its tail feathers to a marlin spike. These streamers simply add to the sheer beauty of the bird, its large white body seeming to glow white against a backdrop of sunny blue skies. With long flowing wing beats it flies almost like a Nightjar, butterfly-like across the sky. Despite being a tropical pelagic species – often after a cyclone – they turn up in some funny places. In 1979 a bird turned up Tamworth in country NSW. Perhaps they like country music?  In terms of where you see them on the island, I’ve found the best place to be around the cabins in the south-east section near the Fish Pool. Like other birds on the island, they’re pretty much unperturbed by people – sometimes nesting directly beside a cabin’s balcony. Despite this, it’s really important to avoid any disturbance. Usually present on the island year-round, but can be scarce between March and May, you could, if you wished, sit on the balcony of a cabin, drinking a Tequila Sunrise (the islands special drink), and twitch a Red-tailed Tropicbird. But who would want to do that? 

Another feature of Lady Elliot Island is its wonderful terns. An impressive 14 species of tern have been recorded on the island. That’s basically the same number of species that have been seen in the state of Victoria, while Lady Elliot Island is only the size of half a dozen football fields. There are two Onychoprion species, the ‘brown-backed terns’,  seen on the island include Bridled Tern and Sooty Tern. Bridled Tern are everywhere, nesting in coral rubble, under any available shrub and, as said, under your chair. Its specific Latin name, anaethetus, means senseless or stupid. I’m not how appropriate that is, but when you see some of the places they nest you know how they got that name. They constantly make silly yapping noise, giving them another name, the ‘Dog Tern’.

Red-tailed Tropicbird nests next to the islands cabins. You can sit on your balcony drinking a Tequila Sunrise – the special drink on the island – and twitch this bird. 

Another name for the Sooty Tern is ‘Wideawake’, referring to their incessant chattering. Uncommon on the island, they can be confused with the similarly brown-backed Bridled Tern, so look carefully amongst the Bridled Tern to find them. To distinguish between the two note that Sooty Tern back and upper wings are darker than Bridled Tern. Sooty Tern also have a dark nape in adults, mostly black tail with a narrow white edges on the outer tail feathers. They also behave differently. For instance Bridled Tern have a habit of perching on flotsam and jetsam – where as Sooty Tern do not (possibly due to less water proofing in their plumage). Sooty Tern also have a stronger more direct flight pattern – a good way to tell them apart as they fly back to the island.  

Roseate Tern at East Point.

The two Sterna terns on Lady Elliot are Black-naped Tern and Roseate Tern. Collectively Sterna are known as the ‘large white terns’. Black-naped Tern is definitely one of our most attractive terns. They can usually be seen on the Leeward Beach located on the lighthouse side of the island, and on several occasions I’ve found birds roosting on the sandy beach located on the north-east section of the island. Roseate Tern is relatively common, tending to roost on the rocks on the eastern side of the island at low tide. They can also be found on  Leeward Beach. Like Black-naped Tern, they are very elegant tern. ‘Roseate’ refers to the pinkish breast while in breeding plumage. Although this is a good way to distinguish them, I’ve found the more distinctive feature is the long, slightly down-curved bill which, when breeding, is very red.
Two the world’s seven Thalasseus, the Crested Terns, are found on the island. Greater Crested Tern is a common, while Lesser Crested Tern is far less common, with usually only a few birds present on the island at any one time. To distinguish the two, Greater is much larger and has a yellow stouter-bill, while Lesser Crested have an orange bill.

Black Noddy nesting in a Coast Sheoak. 

Common Noddy, as the names suggests, very common on Lady Elliot. The name ‘Noddy’ derives from its characteristic nodding during their breeding displays. Common Noddy are the larger cousins of the Black Noddy, the latter also known as the ‘White-capped Noddy’. Aside from the white cap, there’s a very good way to tell the two apart. Common Noddy nest and roost on the ground or in small shrubs, while Black Noddy nests in trees. Simple! Black Noddy are the only marine tern to build large nests and one of only a few that nests in trees. (White Tern, by contrast, also nest in trees – however it lays a single egg on a bare tree branch). Like the Common Noddy, there are literally thousands of Black Noddy on Lady Elliot Island. This is mainly due to the presence of trees, particularly the Pisonia forests western part of the island. By contrast, if you go to somewhere like Michaelmas Cay (a sand cay with no trees) Black Noddy are rarely seen.
In terms of other terns, there’s occasional records of White Tern, Grey Ternlet, Little Tern, White-winged Black Tern, Caspian Tern, and a vagrant record of the endangered New Caledonian Fairy Tern. 

Common Noddy nesting on the rocky ground.

Both Great and Lesser Frigatebird occur on Lady Elliot Island. These pirates of the sky visit the Island but are not thought to breed. One of the best places to see them is in the skies over the north-east section of the island where I’ve seen a large congregation of around 30 birds. Great Frigatebird are more common than Lesser Frigatebird. 
Unusual for a seabird, Frigatebird don’t have waterproof feathers. If they did end up in they water, their feathers would become waterlogged and they would drown. Certainly, an unusual feature for a seabird! As a result, they can also spend long periods of time in the air – spending as much as an entire week in the air and even take a nap in the air. They often glide high in the sky, sometimes extremely high, with one bird recorded in thermals four kilometres above sea level. This is undoubtedly helped by their large wingspan. Great Frigatebird has a wingspan of around 7.5 feet, the largest wingspan of any bird when compared to its body size. 
Not having waterproof feathers leads to the hunting techniques of the Frigatebird. Get their name from their hunting technique, like a Frigate ship, they rely on speed and manoeuvrability. They have two basic hunting techniques. They are best known for harassing other seabird to disgorge their food, which they then snatch up for a snack. A process is known as kleptoparasitism, it’s a spectacular sight you might see from the beaches on Lady Elliot Island. This technique also gives them their alternative name, the ‘man-o’-war bird’. However kleptoparasitism is not as important to their diet as their other hunting technique. They also hunt flying fish and flying squid. They do this by looking for tuna and dolphins involved in feeding frenzy. They then dash down and catch any evading flying fish and squid. Not a bad way to eat! 
Brown Booby can usually been seen on any visit to Lady Elliot Island. It likes to roost on solid surfaces, rather than the water, so typically you’ll see them roosting on the mooring barrels and boats on the western side of the island. Their flight is distinct, often gliding lover over the sea with a very few flaps. Sexually diamorphic, you can tell male and female apart by the colour of their facial skin: male blue, female yellow. The Brown Booby is the most widespread and common booby, but there are occasional records of Masked Booby (last eBird record 2015) and Red-footed Booby (2008), so both are rare to the island. Perhaps surprisingly it seems that Australasian Gannet have not been recorded on Lady Elliot Island. 
While walking around the island, look for the burrows of Wedge-tailed Shearwater. One of the shearwaters referred to as a ‘Muttonbird’, during summer months they nest in burrows up to 2 metres in length. The birds call frequently, reinforcing pair bond, establishing territories and calling to their chicks. They have an interesting call which you may hear at night if you walk the island. It’s a long inhaling component ooo followed by an exhaling err, and has been described as a bit like a baby crying or a ghostly wail. Perhaps this is best summed up by their Hawaiian name ‘ua’u kani, meaning ‘moaning petrel’. 
Lady Elliot supports a breeding population of Silver Gull. Silver Gull are an example of how rubbish can impact marine animals. Visitors to an island like Lady Elliot have the potential to increase rubbish. This may lead to human induced elevation of species lie as the Silver Gull. They like food scrapes, for example. Being a scavenger, an elevation on their population may have a negative impact on other native species such as nesting seabirds and the  hatchlings of marine turtles. So, while Lady Elliot Island, definitely don’t feed the seagulls your leftover fish’n’chips. 

An Eastern Reef Egret hunting at East Point.

In terms of the shorebirds, these feed along the shoreline on Lady Elliot Island and, at low tide, the rocky reef at East Point. At high tide they can be seen roosting at various vantage point at East Point. 
There are basically two categories of shorebirds non Lady Elliot Island, resident and summer migrants – although a number of species may overwinter. 
The two main resident shorebirds are Australian Pied Oystercatcher and Sooty Oystercatcher and both like to forage for crabs, mussels and sea-urchins at the rocks at East Point. The Sooty Oystercatcher is endemic to Australia, with two subspecies – a northern Australian race ophthalmicus and the nominate southern race fuliginosus.  Lady Elliot Island is one of the places where both races can occur. To distinguish, the southern race is heavier and bigger than the northern birds. The southern race also has a red eye ring, while the northern race has a yellowish eye ring. As of result of these differences, there is some suggested that the two may be different species and warrants further taxonomic investigation – something worth thinking about when looking at Sooty Oystercatcher on the island. 
A number of migrant shorebirds visit the island. These are the birds that fly from places such as Siberia and Mongolia to Australia for our summer. If you consider they live to around 15 years old, some may have flown the equivalent distance to the moon, around 380,000 kilometres! These include Grey-tailed and Wandering Tattler, Grey and Pacific Golden Plover, Greater and Lesser Sand Plover, Great Knot, Red Knot (uncommon), Sharp-tailed and Common Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Whimbrel, Bar-tailed and Black-tailed (uncommon) Godwit, and Ruddy Turnstone. 
You will often see Grey Plover and Pacific Golden Plover feeding on the airstrip, avoiding planes when they land. Both plovers will often call when in flight. The Grey Plover makes a distinct plu-eh call, while the Pacific Golden Plover makes a tu-ee call. The airstrip is also your best chance of seeing summer rarities such as Little Curlew and Oriental Plover. Other shorebirds rare to the island are Sanderling, Ruff, Double-banded Plover, Beach Stone-curlew and Far Eastern Curlew.
Like the plovers, Far Eastern Curlew make a distinct mournful cuurleeww call when in flight, a call that rings beautifully as it flies over any coastal wetland. The worlds largest shorebird, it’s Australian conservation status is listed at Critically Endangered. This means that it is facing an extremely high risk of extinction in Australia. As most Far Eastern Curlew winter in Australia – something like 75 percent of the world’s population – it is vitally important that we take the lead on the conservation of this bird and the conservation its coastal wetland habitats. Look for Eastern Reef Egret at East Point. Known on some taxonomic lists as Pacific Reef Heron, they display an interesting non-sexual dimorphism, some birds are white morph, while others are charcoal grey morph. The larger portion of birds on Lady Elliot Island are grey. In their white morph they may be confused with the other white egret/herons. Amongst other things, a good diagnostic feature is is their short yellow legs. At East Point you should also see White-faced Heron. Previously uncommon, in the last few years may be one or two birds present. 
In recent times White-bellied Sea-eagle have been breeding on the island. They are the only resident raptor, although there have been records of Eastern Osprey, Brahminy Kite, Peregrine Falcon, Black-shouldered Kite, Grey and Brown Goshawk and Nankeen Kestrel. The most unusual raptor records was Spotted Harrier. Normally a bird that hunts over grasslands and farm paddocks, a single birds was present in July 2013. 
One of the most surprising birds on Lady Elliot is undoubtedly the Buff-banded Rail. It normally utilises wetland or moist habitats that have low, dense vegetation for cover, however on Lady Elliot Island the situation is different! Usually quite shy, on the island they have become tame and bold. For instance, if you want to see Buff-banded Rail have look under your chair while you’re having lunch in the canteen! Due to repeated dispersion of birds across the pacific (a bit like Silvereye discussed below), there are numerous subspecies of Buff-banded Rail. The subspecies present here is Gallirallus philippensis mellori

The normally shy Buff-banded Rail are tame on Lady Elliot Island. If you wish to see them, have a look under your chair in the canteen.

Land birds of the Great Barrier Reef are typically found on continental islands, such as Green Island near Cairns. However coral cays such as Lady Elliot Island has become home to a select few land species. 
The only bird endemic to the Great Barrier Reef is the Capricorn Silvereye (Zosterops lateralis chlorocephalus). It is subspecies of the Silvereye, and restricted to wooded coral cays of the Capricorn and Bunker islands at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. It is substantially larger than Z. l. cornwalli, the mainland Queensland subspecies It is suggested that it has been separated from for the mainland subspecies around four millennia (~500 generations). Given this size, and the time it has been isolated, suggests that it should be considered a separate species. Certainly research on the Capricorn Silvereye sees to support the hypothesis that island passerines evolve into a larger form over time. The edge of these Pisonia forests is a good place to find this very energetic bird – listen for the subdued chorus of the bird, a  sweet warbling songs. An alternative name for the Capricorn Silvereye is the Green-headed White-eye, which gives you an indication of what to look for.

East Point at low tide: a good spot for roosting shorebirds, hunting Eastern Reef Egret and terns.

The Tawny Grassbird is another surprising resident – a good place to look for them is the area of shrubs beside the north-east section of the airstrip, where it spends most of its time under cover, hopping and running while searching for insects. There are also occasional records of Golden-headed Cisticola and Brown Quail it this area of shrubs. Brown Quail may be resident, or at least a regular visitor, with as many as three birds recorded at one time. Willy Wagtail, Magpie Lark and Welcome Swallow are regular visitor to the island, while House Sparrow is also resident.
Briefly other birds recorded on the island, either as single records or in small numbers include Fairy Prion and Short-tailed Shearwater, Little Pied, Pied, Great and Little Black Cormorant, Australian Pelican, Sacred Kingfisher, Rock Dove, White-throated Needletail, Horsfield’s and Shining Bronze-Cuckoo, Fan-tailed and Channel-billed Cuckoo, White-breasted and White-browed Woodswallow, Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike, Varied Triller, Rufous Whistler, Olive-backed Oriole, Australian Figbird, Brown and Scarlet Honeyeater, Grey Fantail, Black-faced Monarch, Tree Martin, and Eastern Yellow Wagtail and Chestnut-breasted Mannikin. One of the more surprising records is a single Crimson Chat (Dec, 2015). Normally an inland species, its presence is a good indication that just about any bird can loose its way and end up in strange place. 

A Trip Underwater: Whales, Turtles, Rays and Fish and Other Creatures
Unlike many of the reefs further north, the corals at Lady Elliot seem relatively healthy, lacking the bleaching you get in parts of the northern Great Barrier Reef. The island lies within a classified Marine National Park Green Zone, the highest level of marine protection. As part of this, fishing is not allowed, and the waters are rich in sea-life. 
The waters around Lady Elliot Island are an import breeding area for Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), being relatively common in the winter and early spring (June to October). I’ve seen them several times on the flight over from Hervey Bay, so keep your eyes peeled. Almost daily during whale season their songs can be heard under the water while swimming, and are occasionally seen while snorkelling and diving.
The most common sea turtle you see at Lady Elliot is the Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas), less commonly Loggerhead Turtle (Caretta caretta), while the critically endangered Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) is rare. Without doubt, one of my most memorable wildlife experiences has been snorkelling alongside Green Sea Turtle on the reef. They effortlessly glided beside me, and occasional we would make eye contact.  When distinguishing Green Sea Turtle from other turtle species it worth noting that is not actually green, they’re brown – although sometimes described as olive-brown. The link to green is because they have greenish fat and muscles. Lady Elliot Island is an extremely important island for nesting sea turtle. Arriving on its beaches to lay their eggs from November to March, the hatch-lings leave their nests, heading to the ocean, between January to April. 
Lady Elliot Island and its Manta Ray featured in Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef series. More than 700 individual Manta Ray have been identified, with most using the island as a cleaning station – one reason the island has be referred to as the ‘Home of the Manta Ray’. Like the whales, it’s worth keeping an eye open for them out of the window the plane as you land, particularly in the waters on the island’s north side. Being so large, I’ve occasionally seen them gliding through the water form above.
In terms of sharks, I’ve seen several species at Lady Elliot. Black Tip Reef Shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus) are common in the shallow waters near the lighthouse.  They can be seen from the beach, with their exposed first dorsal fin easy to see on the surface. While snorkelling, I found them to be timid and skittish, moving quickly away whenever I swam nearby. Another shark I’ve seen at Lady Elliot is the Tanwy Nurse Shark (Nebrius ferrugineus). Enormous, it was around 3 metres. Resting on the sea floor under a coral overhang, upon seeing such as large shark my initial reaction was shock. Compared to other sharks, however, it is known for its placid disposition, and even allows divers to touch them while they rest.  I didn’t have the courage to do this! But it was great to see such a large shark close hand. Other shark I’ve seen at Lady Elliot Island include the Tasselled Wobbegong (Eucrossorhinus dasypogon), with amazing fringing tassels around its mouth ,and the Epaulette Shark (Hemiscyllium ocellatum), which has a distinct spot behind each pectoral fin, reminiscent of military epaulette (an ornamental shoulder piece signify rank). The Epaulette Shark is also sometimes known as the Walking Shark due to its ability to use its paired fins to ‘walk’ on exposed reef and land.

The shrubland beside the north-east section of the airstrip is a good spot for to see Tawny Grassbird.

Around 1,500 fish species occur on the Great Barrier Reef, and many of these occur around Lady Elliot Island. When snorkelling, it’s said to be possible to see as many as 200 different fish types in just one hectare of coral reef. Here’s a bit of a rundown of the fish and other creatures you might see in the waters. 
Steephead Parrotfish (Chlorurus microrhinos) are quite common; when they swim they flap their pectoral fins like an underwater bird. Characteristically they have a distinct beak-like mouth and have some of the strongest teeth in the animal kingdom. This allows them to eat coral. After digesting coral rock, it’s excreted as white sand. So, next time you’re sitting on a beautiful tropical sandy beach, think of the parrotfish. You’re sitting on their droppings.
One of the more social fish is the local clownfish species, Clarks Anemone (Amphiprion clarkii). You might notice that the group dominated by a large female. If she dies, she’s replaced by the second largest fish of the group. This is usually one of her male partners, who promptly changes sex – becoming female – promptly taking over the groups. The Banded Humbug (Dascyllus aruanus) and Scissortail Sergeant (Abudefduf sexfasciatus) are closely related the anemone. Wrasse species to look for include Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus), Moon Wrasse (Thalassoma lunare) and Humphead Wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus).

A school of young Blacktip Reef Shark.

The main surgeonfish at Lady Elliot is the Blue Tang (Paracanthurus hepatus) – also known as Palette Surgeonfish, if you you’ve seen the movie Finding Nemo, this is the fish known as Dory. Triggerfish are represented by the fantastically named Picasso Triggerfish (Rhinecanthus aculeatus), while the stunning Lined Butterflyfish (Chaetodon lineolatus) is one of the largest of its type. The Emperor Angelfish (Pomacanthus imperator) is another stunning fish, although my personal favourite is the Moorish Idol (Zanclus cornutus), the sole representative of the Zanclidae family. Again, if you’ve seen Finding Nemo, Gill is a Moorish Idol. I was intrigued to learn the origin of its unusual name. Apparently, it got its name from the Moors of Africa who supposedly believed the fish was a bringer of happiness. After seeing it, I can understand why. I was simply blown away by its sheer beauty! Chinese Trumpet Fish (Aulostomus chinensis) are another fantastic looking fish. Seeing them in the water is strange as its body is elongated and compressed laterally. 



Nautilus shell on the beach. 


Two impressive groupers occur at Lady Elliot Island, Giant Grouper (Epinephelus lanceolatus) and Humpback Grouper (Cromileptes altivelis), the latter known as the Barramundi Cod in Australia. The Giant Grouper is the largest bony fish found on the coral reefs, and the aquatic emblem of Queensland. BTW here’s a strange but true fact. The first fish to ever receive chemotherapy was Giant Grouper, a fish called Bubba in Chicago.
Surely one of the most interesting fish in the waters at Lady Elliot Island must surely be the Shrimp Goby (Ctenogobiops feroculus). This is the fish that has a symbiotic relationship with snapping shrimp, where the Goby stands guard while the shrimp digs out and cleans their shared burrow. Other fish you might see at Lady Elliot Island are Longfin Batfish (Platax teira), Common Lionfish (Pterois volitans), and the Dotted Sweetlips (Plectorhinchus picus), which is a type of snapper. The main trevally is the Big-eye Trevally (Caranx sexfasciatus) and, if you’re lucky, you might see Giant Moray Eel (Gymnothorax javanicus).

Green Sea Turtle


In terms of coral, there’s well over 350 known species on the Great Barrier Reef. Surprisingly I’ve found identifying the main coral types relatively straightforward; this is because they’re generally named after the way they look. For instance, hard coral at Lady Elliot Island include brain coral, plate coral, boulder coral, mushroom coral and branching (or stag horn) coral, while soft coral include organ pipe coral, pink soft coral and the Gorgonian sea fan. So, you get the idea – indeed you’re probably seeing these coral in your mind’s eye as you read this text. 

North Beach

Amongst the coral, look of the magnificent Giant Clams (Tridacna gigas), the largest living bivalve mollusc. Sometimes weighing in at more than 200 kg, they can live well over some 100 years. What I found particularly striking about them is the bright iridescent coloured circles on the clam’s flesh. Called iridophores, these are responsible for directing sunlight to its mantle.

Finally, at dusk, Strawberry Hermit Crab (Coenobita perlatus) comes out to play. You mostly see them when they return to the sea at night to refresh their water. They are a terrestrial hermit crabs that carry large shells. In Australia the distribution of the Strawberry Hermit Crab is limited to Christmas Island, Cocos Islands, Coral Sea Islands and Great Barrier Reef islands. Lady Elliot Island also has a healthy population of Green Tree Frog (Litoria caerulea) and look out the for two skink species, the Bar-sided Skink (Concinnia tenuis) and Elegant Snake-eyed Skink (Cryptoblepharus pulcher pulcher).
Snorkelling at Lady Elliot Island

Clearly, if you get a chance, you must go snorkelling at Lady Elliot Island! The lagoons and reefs are readily accessible, and all you need to do is walk into the warm watered sea and go for a swim! The water is exceptionally clear, with visibility around 20 m plus. The south-eastern side of the island is exposed to the prevailing winds, while the western and southern sections are protected. As a result, this is where I’ve done most of my snorkelling. This is the area adjacent to the Leeward Beach, just west of the lighthouse. Most of the fish and other species I’ve seen in the water have been here. If you’re interested, here’s a snorkelling tip for the island. From the beach near the lighthouse wear reef shoes and walk out the metal caged seat ~ 10 metres off-shore. Once there, take your shoes of and leave them at the seat. Put on your flippers at the seat and then swim out to the reef. Doing this makes the process of entering and leaving the water so much easier.  BTW if diving doesn’t interest you, or you can’t swim, you can walk around the shallow on the east side with a pair of reef shoes – which are available for free at the resort.

Flying into Lady Elliot Island is always a beautiful sight!


Finally, how to get to Lady Elliot Island

How do you actually get to Lady Elliot Island. It’s surprisingly easy. There are serviced daily by flights from Harvey Bay, Bundaberg, Brisbane and the Gold Coast. I’ve always flown out of Harvey Bay, with a return flight costing around ~$300 return. If you end up with 6 or more life ticks, that works out at $50 a bird. Not bad! Also, aside from your flight, you get access to the glass bottom boat, snorkelling equipment and tours, and an excellent buffet lunch that includes a welcoming Tequila Sunrise (non-alcoholic)!
So, in brief, Lady Elliot Island isn’t about gourmet food or luxurious accommodation like a lot of the Great Barrier Reef resorts (although the food and drink isn’t bad). It’s about your relationship with the islands environment, its birds, plants, and sea life. Perfect for the birdwatchers and anyone interested in natural history.

A curious juvenile Red-tailed Tropicbird resting on the beach.

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