Boarding the Heron Islander at 11am, we snagged some seats in front of the big windows at the picturesque front part of the boat and immediately noticed the large stack of barf bags on each table. We had been warned by friends to take Dramamine before the ride and were we glad we had! It was a bumpy start. After 20 minutes of bouncing along, they warned us that we hadn’t gotten to open water yet. Yikes! As everyone slowly started turning green, one by one, all six of us started to move to the lower back of the ship where it was supposedly the smoothest. Spared from the worse, we were still quite glad to reach terra firma. We’d made it.
Heron Island is an eco-resort in the middle of the ocean at the south end of the Great Barrier Reef. It is known as a snorkelers’ and divers’ paradise as the small island sits far off the mainland surrounded by the most amazing reef in the world. Just walk out your door, they say, and the undersea world waits. I have been looking forward to this leg of our trip for a long time. Unfortunately, our first snorkel right off the island was super disappointing. The visibility was low and there just weren’t many fish swimming that day in the area we chose. I felt defeated. We chose Heron Island for its convenient snorkeling and I’d expected it all to blow my socks off. It was our only stop along the Great Barrier Reef and I can’t help wondering if that was going to be it.
The island itself feels like a cruise in that it is all inclusive when it comes to lodging, food, and daily activities such as walks and talks. They work hard to keep it natural. Buildings are raised to encourage the nesting of migratory ground birds below and daily talks are given on how to best view and interact with the local turtles. It is well done with a lot of opportunity to learn about the local fauna and flora.
Heron Island is only half owned by the resort. The other half belongs to Heron Island Research Center which is run by the University of Queensland. One day, we took a tour of the center and had the opportunity to learn about some of the projects they are working on. The largest ongoing project they’ve been running for a while is a study of four simulated ocean reef environments one. One is the reef as it was 100 years ago, before industry started to take its toll. The second is the reef as it is today. The third is 150 years in the future if we continue to abuse the environment as we currently are. According to our guide, it is pretty grim. And, the fourth and final reef simulation is 50 years into the future if we all work to improve our habits.This one, she said, is much more hopeful. The coral has more color, the water is clearer, and some of the endangered species are at healthy numbers. It was good for all of us to be reminded of the effects of our actions.
December through March is turtle season. Up to eight thousands of nesting green turtle mamas return to Heron Island each year during nesting season to lay their eggs. Each clutch of eggs is between 100-150 eggs which means between January and April, Heron Island is full of turtle hatchlings. If you have ever seen a turtle hatchling, you know there are few things in this world cuter than watching the little guys. As they scurry with all their might down the beach, you can’t help but get emotionally attached; yet, Heron Island forbids anyone to disrupt the turtle’s natural process by helping the babies in any way. When the clutch hatches, they all erupt from the nest together, and an army of little hatchlings fight their way to the ocean. (Technically, we never helped a hatchling, but we might have … ahem.. happened to have spread out down the beach and waved our arms frantically to frighten off the incessantly hungry gulls.)
For the first day or two, we spent a lot of time simply enjoying the turtles. We went out late and night to watch the beach looking for laying mothers. Lying back in the sand looking up at the stars was fulfilling enough, but after a couple hours, we found one, watched her finish laying and then make her way back to the ocean. It was magical to think we were witnessing such a true natural experience – critically endangered turtle starting the next generation. So far, the reef might have been disappointing, but I was high on turtles at that point so I was good.
The day before we left Heron Island, the weather was clearing up and we made a point of snorkeling in a different spot at high tide. We were amazed by the difference in visibility and the numbers of fish. Within several minutes in the water, we saw a HUGE sting ray resting on the bottom in the sand. Probably two meters wide and three meters long, it hung out on the bottom as we swam over it and snapped photos of its slick aerodynamic body. Beautiful!
By far, for me, the highlight of that snorkel was seeing turtles. The first guy we saw was just hanging out on the bottom, resting on the bottom and, I swear, smiling for my photos. A few minutes later, we swam along behind another one as he gracefully swam through the water. I followed him for a few minutes, just floating in the current behind him as I watched the same animal which I’d watched stumble along on sand, moving elegantly moved through the water. Such an unforgettable moment! (I guess turtles do surf the East Australian Current as in Finding Nemo!)
Heron Island is also an oasis for nesting birds who come from all around to nest on the island. With no predators of any kind, Heron Island makes a good home for hundreds of thousands of beautiful (and somewhat loud) seabirds.
We did our final snorkel off the island the evening before we left Heron Island. After the daily freight and passenger boats are finished for the day, we were allowed to swim out into the channel entrance to the island. From the dock, we had seen big sharks and rays in these deeper waters. At the end of the channel, an old shipwreck is used by the island as a jetty so in addition to the deeper water of the channel, we could swim out to explore the wreck. Again, the water wasn’t very clear but we did see our first Blacktipped shark. I followed him for a few moments but when he turned to one side, I panicked and decided I’d let him go on his way alone.
Our final day, we took a boat trip out to the edge of the reef. THIS was the Great Barrier Reef as I’d dreamed about. The Heron Island snorkeling trip makes it easy as they plan the trip with the current so there is no work involved. We simply hopped in with our snorkels to marvel at the reef and floated along with the current. Crikey! The numbers of fish was fantastic! We swam through schools of clownfish, angel fish, groupers, triggerfish, parrotfish, and all sorts of other varieties I didn’t recognize. And, as if the millions of fish weren’t colorful enough, the varieties of coral were amazing – coral, fan coral, as well as urchins and sea cucumbers of all sizes.
We even saw more turtles swimming around. At one point, my father-in-law, off to the side on his own, came up to a couple turtles next to him. He was then joined by another, and another, and soon was off in his own turtle haven surrounded by six of these majestic and graceful animals. What a rush for him!
Overall, I really enjoyed Heron Island. The overcast skies over the island surrounded by murky waters, completely opened up once the clouds parted and the sun broke up. Even the birds chirped louder and became more active. As did the fish, the sharks, and the turtles. And as did we.