Sharks were far from my mind when I walked the mile around the island at sunset. Imagine my surprise, when I came upon a shallow area and saw shadows, yes, dozens of shadows, and realized they were huge, sting rays. As I walked into the surf to click a few photos they shimmered off into the depths. As the light was fading, my focus was on the magnificent rays and my excitement blinded me from seeing fins circling in closer and closer to me. Black tips, reef sharks. As I retreated to the shore, I said to myself, “Yes, yes, I traveled 8,000 miles to see this!” And that was just the beginning of my discoveries on Heron Island and in the reefs surrounding it. Without further ado, here is how to explore the Great Barrier Reef.
Where the Aussies Vacation
There are hundreds of picturesque tropical islands off the coasts of Australia, but I sought out Heron Island, a favorite for divers, snorkelers, birders and families. The warm waters are teaming with vividly colored fish, turtles, and a vast array of colorful hard and soft corals.
Travelers come from around the world to see turtles laying their eggs, the hatchlings marching from nest to sea, and to explore different dive sites. You don’t have to take expensive boat trips to explore the reef. It is right there, at your fingertips, right off the beach.
Where is Heron Island?
Two hours by ferry, or 30-minutes by float plane, the island is located 44 miles off the coast of Queensland at the edge of the Great Barrier Reef.
Heron Island is safely isolated from the many dangerous species that inhabit the Australian mainland including snakes, crocodiles and most spiders.
A third of the island is a resort, one-third is an international research station and the entire island is a protected National Park.
Lots to do. Or do nothing.
“Can’t check email, there’s no Wi-Fi. Can’t check texts, there’s no cell phone service. So we checked out! It took about two days to get on island pace and do the island shuffle. Watching the tide go in and out, we got used to doing nothing. We love it,” said Brittany and Henrik, a tan couple from San Diego visiting Heron Island for their first anniversary.
Every morning and afternoon I snorkeled. One morning I went on a dive trip. Interpretive guides lead free turtle, bird and research station walks.
Although there were 100 guests staying at the resort when I visited in May, it felt empty because the cottages are scattered through the trees and along the beach. Bird song alternated with a cacophony of bird calls and the sound of the surf on the beach lulled me to sleep for an afternoon nap and at night.
Turtle Nesting and Hatching
Unfortunately, visiting in May, I missed the turtle time. Although I walked the beaches and found many turtle nesting sites, the hatchlings had already taken to the sea. I can only imagine what the half mile-long island is like when the turtles wash ashore to nest and lay their eggs. This year the population of Green and Loggerhead sea turtles who nest along the beach reached a high of 1,200. You can wonder the beaches at night to view the turtles laying their eggs and later in the season to see the hatchlings dig out and scurry into the surf.
Bird Breeding Paradise
Birder’s flock to the National Park during breeding season, from September to March, when the Noddy Tern population fluctuates between 70,000 and 120,000 birds. Add to that 20-30,000 Wedgetailed Shearwaters, Egrets, Frigates, Kingfishers, Doves, Gulls plovers, Godwits, and Brown Boobies and the aviary population can swell to 200,000. Wear a big hat during breeding season because everyone on the island is initiated at least once with a bird poop on the head.
Family Friendly or Chill Out
A multi-generational family from Melbourne sat at the table next to me at dinner one night. All nine of them sang “Happy Birthday” to grandma, ending with “Hip, Hip Hoorays”. Heron Island offers an affordable, family friendly alternative to the five star, deluxe island resorts.
Believe me, the island is a five star eco -experience for snorkelers, divers and birders. Azure waters surround the National Park. No golf, no yacht clubs, jet skis or paragliding — just birds, turtles, tropical fish, rays, sharks, world-class snorkeling and sandy beaches.
I would happily have stayed another day or two on Heron Island, but I had tracks to make. I had promises so keep. And miles to go before I laid my head on my own pillow next to my life partner.
Next time, if there is one, I’ll visit during turtle season and, if perhaps, share the magic with my family.