Monthly Archives: August 2016

Lady Elliot Island Australia

Basking near Australia’s continental shelf, Marie Barbieri loses herself among marine creatures of all colours and contours on Lady Elliot Island.

I sharply inhale and halt dead still – or as still as one can hover atop a swaying reef. A majestic four-metre beauty arcs up and we clock eyes. It’s love at first snorkel with a manta ray.

He’s enjoying a body scrub, courtesy of a bluestreak cleaner wrasse that nibbles the attached parasites. This giant black and white kite tangos with the swell, its implausibly placed eyes holding the stare. We share a magical 10 minutes together, until he breaks off the affair.

Lady Elliot Island, located between Fraser Island and Lady Musgrave Island off the east coast of Australia, is the resident home of the Manta alfredi. Due to its isolation (80km/49 miles northeast of Bundaberg), it claims some of the most limpid waters of the Great Barrier Reef.

The glorious, paradisiacal island was actually built by poo (guano, to be precise), courtesy of excreting seabirds that fertilised and seeded the isolated cay.

In 1863, however, it was almost stripped of its vegetative richness. Around 30 Asian miners arrived to pillage Lady Elliot for her guano. Settlers deforested the island, sparing just eight pisonia trees. They dug the topsoil and sold 20,000 tonnes of guano as gunpowder and fertilizer to Sydney and London.

Roll on 1969, when visionary pilot Don Adams arrived, bringing with him native shrubs and seeds for re-vegetation. Planting sheoaks to naturally fertilise the depleted soil, he regenerated the topsoil and reintroduced pisonia trees.

They flourished into the feather-flapping forest here today, reunited with the eight, now 400-year-old, pisonia trees. Adams earned himself a conservation award for his work in 1994.

A glass bottom boat ride in Lady Elliot’s sheltered lagoon
Lady Elliot Island

Today, the Eco Resort upon the island looks to preserve the natural environment of the cay as well as the Great Barrier Reef.

Visibility in the water here reaches up to 30m (98ft), so it’s a pelagic banquet for the snorkeler. I spot the sexy sway of a blacktip reef shark as a green sea turtle periscopes for air before I almost brush scales with a school of big-eye trevally.

All is calm as ecotourism guide Ben shows us yellow trumpetfish needling past striking Picasso triggerfish, where blue-spotted rays, blue linckia sea-stars and giant sea cucumbers crazy-pave the sandy bed.

The larynxes of my group shriek when Ben points to a manta train whooshing by at breakneck speed. It’s a rarely seen courtship act, where males pursue the female, copying her moves while following her lead. She purposely derails the carriages, and the male that best keeps up, gets to mate with her. Our overexcited group, half strangled by camera straps, isn’t quick enough to snap the phenomenal sight.

The strikingly handsome Picasso triggerfish
Lady Elliot Island

Snorkelled and masked, we jump into the marine playground. I tally a count of eight juvenile sea turtles, vacuuming up drifting jellyfish (the non-stinging variety). Most sport long tails, which means they’re male.

Between November and March, endangered green and loggerhead turtles return to Lady Elliot to lay around 120 eggs per clutch. Around 8-9 weeks later, post-sunset, hatchlings surface from the coral shingle and begin their inaugural clamber down to the ocean.

Last year, the island experienced an epic turtle-nesting season. Sand temperatures determine turtles’ gender, and as Lady Elliot is the southernmost island in the Great Barrier Reef, conditions are a little cooler, so boys rule here.

Clad in reef shoes and armed with walking pole and SeaScope, Ben leads us on a Lagoon Reef Walk, where polyps contract as we pass micro-atoll corals. We carefully step around a smorgasbord of sea cucumbers that bas-relief the sand, while embedded clams and an anemone-draped clownfish remain more covert.

Siargao Island Philippines

download-22A little-known surf paradise in the Philippines is about to get a big wave of tourism. Emilee Tombs asks if Siargao can preserve the very thing that attracted people to it in the first place.

The journey to Siargao should have taken an hour, but we’d already been in the air that long when an enormous cloud tore across the sky and chased us twice around the island.

When we finally touched down I realised that the runway we’d been circumnavigating was little more than a finger swipe through custard, a patch of scrubland disappearing into the jungle around it.

After hauling my bag from the prop plane, baffled at the lack of security checks, I climbed into a waiting jeepney, the ubiquitous and colourfully adapted American army jeeps used as public transport in the Philippines.

Bouncing along the dirt track was like stepping back in time. The only life in the dense palm jungle was around basic stilt huts clinging to the road edge. Bamboo frames held up corrugated iron roofs which acted as petrol stations. One litre of gas in a Coca Cola bottle would set you back 20p. Carabao grazed lazily in lush rice paddies; the smell of slow-cooked Lechon pig hung in the hot air.

Siargao (pronounced Shar-gow) is one of over 7,000 islands that make up the Philippine archipelago. Perched 448km (278 miles) off the coast of cacophonic Cebu, the teardrop-shaped isle is relatively unknown, except to the surfing community, for whom it is a mecca.

Compared to neighbouring Boracay (an island with a 5-star Shangri-La resort, full moon parties and a busy airport), Siargao is a sleepy sibling. There are no direct international flights and volatile weather makes current airline timetables chaotic.

But all this will change from 2015 as more than £400,000 is set to be spent on improving and extending Siargao’s Sayak Airport over the next three years.

I was in Siargao to visit the legendary surf at Cloud 9, a break on the east coast made famous by the World Surf League in 2011. I also had a profound urge to set foot on one of the world’s last remaining undeveloped spots.

Whilst on the island I stayed at Buddha’s, a hippie collection of thatched bungalows and hammocks just metres from the beach. I’d rise each morning at 6am and make my way through palm fronds to the sand. I’d heave my board onto a waiting bangkang (a traditional wooden outrigger used to fish) that transported surfers beyond the reef.

By the time we’d reach the swell, the sun would be high and the heat intense. There were only ever a handful of other surfers to compete with, so I’d spend two blissful hours carving watery tracks before heading back for a breakfast of eggs, bacon and fresh calamansi juice. By 6pm I’d sit and watch another sunset, convinced I’d found a personal heaven, my own Cloud 9.

This feeling resonated with many of the expatriates I met on the island, including Gerry Degan, the owner of Sagana, a resort with direct access to the Cloud 9 surf spot.

Gerry and his Filipino wife moved here from Australia in 1995, when the tourism industry was non-existent. With the help of a local, Gerry bought a plot of land and opened the resort. The airport extension makes him anxious, but he’s pragmatic.

“It’s a catch-22,” he says. “We would all like to keep the charm of the undiscovered tropical paradise, but as word leaks out of course more people will come. As a business owner it makes things much easier, but as a surfer my concern is that the waves will become overcrowded and I came here to surf a quiet break.”