Kate Webster discovers a magical world underneath the ocean at Queensland's Lady Elliot Island in the Great Barrier Reef
"Dive, dive, dive" were the last words I heard before launching off the boat, rocking wildly in the rolling swell. It was like I had just been counted into the dance, for in front of me glided a giant oceanic manta ray, ready to waltz.
The water visibility was incredible, allowing views to the ocean floor some six metres below. The swell seemed to push me closer to the ray with each pulsing wave and before I knew it, I was just metres away.
He was handsome. He didn't sport the usual white underbelly you would expect with this species of ray; instead, he was jet black all over. "Manta" means blanket or cloak in Spanish and he certainly looked like a swirling blanket in the waves. As I swam closer, I could see his figure more defined, with large triangular pectoral fins that spanned at least two metres wide. Soaring to the right in a smooth move, he revealed the two horn-shaped fins protruding from the front of his head.
Delighted with my dance partner, I revelled in this unique and intimate experience. It was like an underwater ballet - a mix of intentional moves drifting with the current as he flaunted his swagger. I soon discovered the show was not for me, but instead for the female manta swimming deeper towards the ocean floor.
As he dived to meet her, their dance became synchronised, sailing the ocean current in unison. A flirty flick of her fins and the female darted off into the blue depths with her handsome suitor in hot pursuit.
Coming up for air, I was still breathless from the show nature had just put on.
What can only be described as a manta ray disco, Lady Elliot Island is known for these giant kites of the sea. They are often seen feeding around the island throughout the year but aggregate in larger numbers during the winter.
Lady Elliot is a coral cay at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef. Approximately 80km northeast of Bundaberg and nestled in between Fraser Island and Lady Musgrave Island, to reach it you will need to take a chartered flight that lands directly on the island's airstrip. Sea Air Pacific transports guests from several regional airports in Queensland including the Gold Coast, Brisbane, Hervey Bay and Bundaberg.
The journey there is a scenic one, leaving the coastline of Australia and travelling across open ocean before the island appears in the distance. From the air, you can see the airstrip running right through the middle of the island with its surrounding fringing reef forming a mosaic of blues and greens. If you are lucky, you may even be able to spot the manta rays from the air on your descent.
Touching down on the grass runway is just the start of your environmentally positive stay. The remote location is part of the attraction; the limited access ensures minimal impact. The number of people on the island is never more than 50 guests, so overcrowding will not be an issue. It is often possible that you could have a stretch of beach or a part of the reef to yourself.
The coral cay island houses Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort. Not only does it have an advanced eco-certification, but the ongoing dedication to maintaining a sustainability policy within the resort to protect the environment ensures guests can continue to have life-changing encounters with nature.
While the mantas are a big drawcard, the island is a treasure trove of experiences. Its location within a highly protected zone of the Great Barrier Reef means the reef remains pristine and undisturbed with an abundance of coral and marine life. International dive regulator PADI has rated Lady Elliot the best place on Earth to dive with graceful tropical fish, coral and marine life such as green and loggerhead turtles and whales during their migration season.
For those who prefer to stay on the surface, snorkelling can be done straight off the beach in the protected reef lagoon or take one of the daily glass-bottom boat tours. If you venture out to the western side of the island where the reef is deeper, it is common to see mantas, reef sharks, dolphins, turtles and an array of tropical fish among the coral.
There is just as much going on above the ocean surface too. Lady Elliot is home to thousands of seabirds, making it an ideal location for birdwatchers. Keep your eyes out for shearwaters, noddies and the rare red-tailed tropicbird. If you are lucky enough to visit between November to March, you will also experience green and loggerhead turtles nesting and hatching on the island.
If history is more your thing, you may be surprised to learn about the Lady Elliot Island Lightstation. A grand backdrop for the afternoon sundowner drinks on the western side of the island, there is more to it than meets the eye. Established in 1866, it forms an integral part of history in aiding navigation along the Queensland coast through the Great Barrier Reef. Stories of the old lighthouse keepers circulate on the island, and there is even a tale of a ghost that still graces the shores.
After all these activities, it is nice to know you can fall into a comfortable bed and drift off to sleep listening to the sounds of the island. The resort has rooms varying from suites, units, cabins to glamping tents, all designed to have minimal impact on the environment. Adding to the island's remote charm, you will be forced to disconnect from technology as there are no televisions, radios or telephones and rooms are cooled by fans and sea breezes.
Who needs technology though when you can drift off to sleep listening to the lapping waves on the shore and dream of the dancing manta rays?
When transtasman travel resumes, you can reach Lady Elliot Island by flying direct to the Gold Coast or Brisbane, with connections available via Sea Air Pacific. seairpacific.com.au
As accommodation on the island is limited to 50 guests, book well in advance. Peak manta ray season is between May to June. ladyelliot.com.au
Check the latest border restrictions in each state and territory before travelling. For more information visit australia.com