Causeway Coast revels in Lonely Planet status

Heron Island resort, Australia.  PA Photo/Sarah Marshall.
Heron Island resort, Australia. PA Photo/Sarah Marshall.

There’s something universally irritating about noisy eaters, but below the surface of the ocean, dining etiquette doesn’t really apply. Munching merrily on brittle stumps of branch coral, a shoal of rainbow-hued parrot fish is causing quite a commotion.

A black-tip reef shark wriggles to the silent safety of a shadowy jetty, white-spotted eagle rays flap their wings to pick up speed and giant clams appear to purse their thick blue lips in a concertina of disgust.

The sound of silence

It’s restaurant rush hour off the shores of Heron Island, a coral cay sprouting with dense pisonia forest and ringed by a brilliant white halo of sand, off the east coast of Australia at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef.

Yet, lifting my head out of the water to gasp air, I’m met with silence and calm.

Teeming with wildlife and natural wonders, our oceans are a noisy place. And right now, they’re crying out for help, a reality we’re only just tuning into.

Marine conservation is a central theme of BBC One’s highly-anticipated Blue Planet II series, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, and the naturalist is urging us to protect an environment we know woefully little about.

Earlier this year, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was the subject of controversy when scientists warned that more than 90% of the planet’s largest living organism might have been destroyed. Having narrowly escaped being listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in Danger, a recovery plan is now under way - both for the reef and its worldwide reputation.

Sir David has been to Heron Island several times and describes it as one of the most magical places on earth. After his last visit, the 300-person resort was at full capacity. “We call that the Attenborough effect,” says general manager Sandy McFeeters.

Located 81km from Gladstone, Queensland, the island is reached by a two-and-a-half-hour boat journey or, as in my case, by a 20-minute seaplane ride, wading to shore in clear, warm water with luggage hoisted overhead.

Camouflage hues

There’s no phone coverage, no disturbance and no locking system on doors. At sunset, a burning ember fizzles below the horizon, singing the sky with charcoal streaks, and nightfall invites a starlit 40-minute circumnavigation.

An important nesting site for loggerhead and green turtles, the peaceful island has a grim past as a turtle and mutton bird canning factory. Over the course of two summers, 128,000 cans of turtle soup were produced, but an alarming drop in numbers meant the business was no longer economically worthwhile.

A resort opened in 1932, although any ecotourism was crude, and gasp-inducing photos from the 1950s show holidaymakers riding on the back of carapaces.

Now the island, part of the Capricornia Cays National Park, is heavily protected. Of the 1,500 species of fish living on the Great Barrier Reef, 60% can be found in the 21 dive sites at Heron island, says blond tousle-haired scuba and snorkel guide Rick.

Passing the wreck of HMAS Protector, one of Australia’s first naval vessels which will be declared a preservation site in 2018, we snorkel to Heron Bommie, a heaving tower of coral not far from the shore. (None of Heron’s sites are more than a ten-minute boat ride away.)

Most corals on the Barrier Reef are hard, meaning the underwater scenery is a swirl of camouflage hues, rather than the bold neon brights associated with soft corals. “Besides, below five metres, you lose any colour,” explains Rick.

Coral bleaching

Even during winter (August) when I visit, the water is a pleasant 21C and the visibility is excellent. Cooler temperatures partially explain why coral has survived much better here than in northern reaches of the reef. Anything above 30C causes the organisms to expel their zooxanthellae algae, leaving behind a frail white skeleton, a phenomenon known as coral bleaching.

Investigation into the effects of climate change is being carried out at the island’s Research Centre, built in 1951 and partly funded by the University of Queensland.

“The scientific community is divided,” explains Education Officer Lauren Bailey. “Some researchers say it’s too late and others are confident the reef will survive - it might just look a little different.”

Innovative projects in development at the centre include Professor Peter Harrison’s plan to funnel spawning to affected reefs, and Professor Bernard Degnan’s groundbreaking solution for controlling crown of thorns starfish (a potential threat to reefs) - by replicating a natural pheromone to lure them in.

Travelbag (travelbag.co.uk; 0207 001 5252) offers a 9-day trip to the southern Great Barrier Reef, split between Brisban, 
Heron Island and Lady Elliot Island on a mixed board basis, for £2,999pp. Includes flights from London Heathrow. Based on a January 1, 2018 departure. Book by November 30.