STORY BY Jane Holden
1770 AND AGNES WATER MARK THE START OF THE SOUTHERN PART OF THE GREAT BARRIER REEF. STRAIGHT OFFSHORE ARE THE LAST TWO SOUTHERN ISLANDS IN THE REEF SYSTEM, LADY ELLIOT ISLAND (THE LAST, OR FIRST ISLAND, IF YOU ARE TRAVELLING NORTH FROM BRISBANE) AND LADY MUSGRAVE ISLAND.
We took a stomach churning jet boat ride out for an hour and half from the 1770 Marina. 62km in, we arrived at the “young”, 6000 year old, Lady Musgrave Island.
It was a gorgeous clear day, and before anyone could say “thanks for the cuppa” Maggie had her wetsuit and snorkel on and was the first off the arse end of the boat, into the cool, clear 21 degree waters of the lagoon.
We circled the bommie right next to the boat and discovered two green turtles, one perched still on the large brown boulder coral, and another smaller one languidly circling about. We swam cautiously around them, but these resident turtles were the most nonchalant we had ever encountered, we were no more interesting than seaweed to them. Maggie decided to head for the coral wall, and Rose popped up to fix a mask, only to put a face back into the water and find she was being eyeballed by the smaller turtle (called Terrence by the boat crew) who had decided to do a close up drift by for a look.
The lagoon was gloriously abundant in sea life. Like watching the little mermaid stoned and sans singing crab.
The corals of the southern reef were overall more muted tones than some (possibly the more fragile, and softer corals) we had seen up north. But still diverse, beautiful and with touches of vivid colour, with the large boulbous and smooth boulder coral, great tree like branch corals, cabbage corals, finger corals with tiny iridescent polyps in their ends, and a variety in between.
A spikey sea urchin had half metre long spikes, a giant clam with iridescent purple insides, a spout as fat as an arm, and sea cucumbers of all shapes and sizes littered the lagoon floor.
There were the some of the largest (and laziest) parrotfish we had ever seen, angelfish the size of a dinnerplates, schools of small luminous blue fish, and big garfish cruising so fast and close to the surface, at the top of our snorkel vision, it seemed as if the light played tricks on our eyes. It was an incredible array of colourful fish, darting and lone or drifting in schools, which stood out against the corals and white back drop of the sandy lagoon bottom,
We were starting to realise the joy of our marine protected areas, where sea life are not threatened by the presence of humans, and can just go…very slowly… about their day.
Maggie’s initial disappointment that prawns weren’t served for lunch, soon gave way to relief, as the vibrancy and the movement across the sea floor grew our delight in sea creatures, great, small and slimy.
After lunch, and a quick strip for dry clothes (literally quick strip, the Australians seemed to queue for the single loo, the Europeans much more quickly disrobed in the small cabin), we took a glass bottomed over to the Island. Barry, the former commercial fisherman, now on several years sabbatical, and enjoying looking at the fish, expertly spun little boat donuts over bommies (large round mounds of corals) and spied several more turtles nestled amid finger corals, scratching their bellies and having their shells cleaned by waiting wrasse.
A wall of coral, which forms a lagoon 9km in circumference, surrounds the small island. The island was formed out of broken coral and bird poop. The “sandy beaches” are not sand at all (silica) but a pure beach of ground down bits of coral (cabonite?) and other sea detritus. The foliage includes one of the largest blocks of rare pisonious trees, curiously adaptable things that when fallen, turn branches into trunks, and excrete a sticky seed which catches on the wings of small birds, leaving them unable to fly, they slowly die on the island floor. It is a massive turtle nesting site, and in the summer hundreds of thousands of raucous migratory birds fill the island, crapping and breeding, and dying and transforming to feed and become part of the ecosystem. Some birds hatch and somehow, inexplicable learn to fly and navigate their way to Siberia, months after their parents have left.
It was a special place.
31/7/2018 Lady Musgrave Island
By Jane Holden
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