Australia: Lord's treasury of wildlife

By Stuart Parker

An aerial view of the beautiful Lord Howe Island. Photo / Tourism New South Wales
An aerial view of the beautiful Lord Howe Island. Photo / Tourism New South Wales

We passed each other like strangers on a city street, the shark heading back out to sea, me finning through a gap in the coral reef towards the beach.

It wasn't a big shark, but it wasn't exactly small either, I reflected, glancing back nervously.

Big enough to add a bit of an edge to snorkelling over the small but beautiful reef at Neds Beach on Lord Howe Island.

But not big enough to frighten me away altogether.

Sharks usually have food on their mind, and this specimen was no doubt drawn to the beach by the fish that gather in thigh-deep water each day to be hand-fed by visitors.

Some of these scavengers aren't so small either, and there are a few nervous moments as you wade into the ocean to scatter bread to the waiting shoals of fish.

Top of the pecking order clamouring for a feed are kingfish, up to 1m long. They glide around you, occasionally breaking the surface and opening their cavernous mouths to catch lumps of bread.

Smaller fish hang in the shallower water, or between your legs, shyly picking up the scraps.

Close encounters with wildlife are just one of the many charms of Lord Howe, a World Heritage-listed groups of islands in the Pacific, 700km north-east of Sydney.

Scenically spectacular, Lord Howe teems with important animal and plant species - many found nowhere else in the world.

The coral reefs, the world's most southerly, are an unexpected wonder, considering Lord Howe is part of New South Wales and is just two hours' flight from Sydney.

Lord Howe and its surrounding islands reputedly have some of the world's best scuba diving, but even first-time snorkellers can enjoy the stunning coral in its shallow lagoon.

Drop off the side of a glass-bottomed tour boat and you can glide over colourful coral that matches much of what's easily accessible on Queensland's Great Barrier Reef.

Bright yellow fish hang in curtains, daintily speckled moray eels poke pugnaciously out of coral caves and stingrays doze on the floor of the lagoon. Easy to spot is one fish that is unique to Lord Howe - the doubleheaded wrasse - so named because of the Elephant Man-like bump on its forehead.

Ashore, Lord Howe bristles with birdlife and you don't have to be a birdwatcher with binoculars around your neck to appreciate the wonder and drama of the summer breeding season.

Get up close to the wild birds of Lord Howe. Photo / Tourism New South Wales
Get up close to the wild birds of Lord Howe. Photo / Tourism New South Wales

Many migratory seabirds return each year to Lord Howe from Asia, or from the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean, to breed on the island's beaches, trees or mountain cliffs.

Fluffy baby white terns perch precariously on the bare branches of the Norfolk Island pines that line Lord Howe's lagoon, waiting patiently for their parents to bring home supplies of tiny fish.

Sometimes storms or strong winds blow the young terns to the ground below, where they may be abandoned and starve.

After one recent storm, the Wilson family from Lord Howe's bicycle hire shop rescued several baby terns, put them on a perch and played mother, feeding the helpless youngsters scraps of fish between renting out bikes.

Whether all the fluffy orphans would survive was doubtful, but at least one mother that had lost her chick was persuaded to take another lost baby under her wing.

Lord Howe's fledgling sooty terns have their feet more safely on the ground.

They sit among the sand dunes at North Bay, watching the skies for the return of their parents with fish, which is regurgitated and passed from beak to beak.

High on the 777m Mt Lidgbird, one of the two imposing volcanic peaks that dominate Lord Howe, baby red-tailed tropic birds sit safely in caves that dot its cliffs.

Beneath the peak, tropic bird adults ride the winds or swoop back and forth to the ocean far below, their long, streamer-like tails behind them. You don't have to scale a cliff to see the flesh-footed shearwater, more commonly known as the muttonbird. In fact, watching muttonbirds come home at the end of the day is one of Lord Howe's must-see evening attractions.

An odd mixture of grace and clumsiness, muttonbirds nest in burrows on the forest floors of Lord Howe.

During the day they swoop majestically over the ocean and dive as far as 70m deep in the ocean in search of squid and other marine life, recent research has revealed.

As darkness falls over Lord Howe, they return to land to feed their young.

But muttonbirds don't so much land, as crash to earth. All their aerial grace is lost as they thump into the ground and then trip and stumble into the forest to the same burrows they inhabit year after year. The birds freeze in the spotlight of tourists' torches.

It's a little comical, although the muttonbirds' awkwardness on the ground can be costly.

They are sometimes run over by cars on the roads of Lord Howe. Eight were killed after one recent evening function at Neds Beach, islanders were told in a notice that appealed for more care. Some islanders wondered out loud if all the bird deaths were accidental.

The coral reefs at Lord Howe are a haven for divers and snorkelters.
The coral reefs at Lord Howe are a haven for divers and snorkelters.

One Lord Howe resident nearly driven to extinction since a British ship discovered the island in 1788 is the woodhen, or Lord Howe Island rail.

Unique to Lord Howe, this unspectacular, flightless and curious little bird can be seen poking around in the undergrowth of the island's kentia palm forests, displaying little fear of humans.

They also have an unhealthy tendency to emerge from hiding to investigate unusual noises. Humans and the dogs, cats and pigs they brought to Lord Howe had a terrible impact on the little woodhen, one of the world's rarest birds.

Rampaging feral pigs drove the woodhen higher and higher on Lord Howe's twin peaks until finally in 1975 just 26 birds remained.

Their only refuge was on the cloud-shrouded upper slopes of Mt Gower, veteran island guide Jack Shick says during the nine-hour hike to the top of Lord Howe's highest peak.

The woodhen were safe there because the top of the 875m mountain was too steep for the wild pigs, Shick explains at a spot - nicknamed the "get-up place" - where walkers must pull themselves up by rope.

The island eventually got rid of the feral pigs and launched a captive breeding programme that has helped woodhen numbers rebound to around 220 today.

Woodhen now inhabit the lower forests on Lord Howe but those that remain on Mt Gower still emerge to greet climbers who scale the peak three or four times a week to enjoy the amazing views - clouds permitting.

Those clouds create a damp, mysterious, moss-covered forest atop Mt Gower that is also one of the world's last breeding strongholds for the endangered providence petrel.

Shick once guided TV naturalist Sir David Attenborough to the peak to film the rare seabird. For Attenborough and his film crew the arduous climb was worth it, because a wild petrel flopped down from the sky, sat on his hand and then crawled up his neck.

"It's a fully wild bird - we see it flying away into the distance. Why does it come so close? We have no idea," a stunned Attenborough told viewers of his TV series The Life of Birds.

Attenborough, who has seen many of the world's greatest natural wonders, once declared Lord Howe to be "so extraordinary it is almost unbelievable".

For Antipodeans, Lord Howe is so close and so accessible that to not go there, at least once in your life, would also be "almost unbelievable".

Diving hotspots

With warm, clear waters, teeming with marine life, spectacular shipwrecks and the world's largest coral reef, Queensland is a scuba divers' paradise. Some top diving spots on the Great Barrier Reef, from north to south:

1. Cod Hole, near Lizard Island

Haven for friendly potato cod weighing 6-150kg, hand-fed for the past 20 years. The site off Lizard Island is accessed via Cairns or Port Douglas.

2. Agincourt Reef

Agincourt Reef, off Port Douglas, is a series of many small reefs with at least 16 different dive sites.

Diving is a great way to see ocean wildlife.
Diving is a great way to see ocean wildlife.

3. Osprey Reef

One of the world's most spectacular dive sites, located in the Coral Sea off Cairns.

4. Wheeler Reef

Perfectly circular, this magnificent example of marine biodiversity off the coast of Townsville is one of the best night dives on the reef.

5. Yongala Wreck

One hundred years after sinking off Townsville, the SS Yongala is today one of the world's top wreck dives. Giant Queensland gropers hang beneath the stern.

6. Bait Reef, Whitsundays

One of the most pristine diving locations on the outer Great Barrier Reef. With a depth of 4-18m and visibility of 10-20m, the site is accessed from Airlie Beach (mainland) or Hamilton Island.

7. Hardy Reef, Whitsundays

See a large variety of soft and hard corals and many 'people friendly' fish. Reefworld is here, with guided diving, snorkelling and overnight stays.

8. Heron Island, Central Queensland

Accessed from Gladstone, Heron Island is a true coral bay where you can step off the island to fantastic coral gardens and pinnacles.

IF YOU GO

Fly there with: Air New Zealand.

Explore more at: myaustraliapassion.co.nz.

Further information: See wilsonisland.com and dive-queensland.com.au.

- AAP

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