Visitors to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia have the opportunity to participate in the island’s saga of epic rebirth.
The word “Mantas!”
Reef Expert and Tour Guide I didn’t require any additional explanation from Kirsty Whitman. When I looked down through my snorkel mask in the direction that she was pointing, I saw a gigantic male manta ray following a female in perfect time. This was an attempt to impress a potential mate, just as Whitman had detailed during her animated presentation the night before. The experience was made even more amazing by the fact that I had some understanding of what was taking place in front of my eyes during our snorkeling safari. As I kicked against the current, I was able to observe this personal underwater ballet for a few more priceless seconds.
It’s a moment that might have happened to me pretty much anywhere on the Great Barrier Reef if I’d been lucky enough to be there at the right time. However, sightings of manta rays are extremely regular in the azure waters that surround Lady Elliot Island, which is located at the most southernmost point of the World Heritage-listed reef and is around 85 kilometers north-east of the city of Bundaberg on the mainland. Studies have shown that the island’s regeneration most certainly also plays a role in the phenomena; nonetheless, its proximity to the continental shelf is helpful in explaining the phenomenon.
Peter Gash, the managing director of Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, greeted me with a grin and twinkling eyes as he led me inside a building that resembled a big chicken coop. The building’s open-air design allowed the sea breeze to gently cool the 248 batteries that were housed inside. “I love being told that something can’t be done,” Gash said. This unassuming solar power station creates sufficient clean energy to power the entire resort by storing the energy that is collected by more than 906 solar panels throughout its surface area. This includes the specialized construction of desalination and wastewater treatment plants, as well as living accommodations for the workers.
Switching to solar power was a goal for the Gash family when they won the lease to the 45-hectare island in 2005. This was important not only for the sake of the environment, but also for financial reasons. According to Gash, “We had three generators that used anywhere from 550 to 600 liters of diesel per day, and they were so noisy.” “Even when I was in the middle of snorkeling, I could still hear them.”
Gash embarked on a journey around Australia to investigate solar power installations on his own because he could not find a how-to guide. “People said I was crazy to attempt something like this out here, but I knew we’d find a way,” he grinned. “People said I was mad to attempt something like this out here.”
In the year 2020, the father of two was finally able to accomplish his objective. However, the island’s march toward renewable energy is only one chapter of an incredible story of regenerative tourism that contains lessons for the entire globe.
By the middle of the 20th century, Lady Elliot had been reduced to little more than a field of compacted coral after being almost completely deforested by guano miners in the late 1800s. Additionally, the establishment of new growth was prevented on the island by goats that were placed there by the Queensland Government to ensure food for shipwrecked sailors. However, avid pilot Don Adams recognized an opportunity for commerce when he landed on the deteriorated Commonwealth island in 1969. He started a do-it-yourself revegetation campaign and opened a modest resort to capitalize on the situation.
A decade later, a young Peter Gash on a sailing trip with the lady who would later become his wife, Julie, and grew enamored with the island in the same way. More specifically, he fell in love with the possibilities that the island offered. After obtaining his pilot’s license, Gash started transporting passengers from Brisbane and the Gold Coast to Lady Elliot and Lady Musgrave, which are located forty kilometers to the west. This allowed tourists to have a taste of the Great Barrier Reef without having to travel all the way to Cairns, which is the primary tourist hub for the reef. The sharp difference between Lady Elliot and its heavily vegetated neighbor, which was an area that had less significant mining during the colonial era, served as the inspiration for the planting of a seed.
Gash estimates that more than 10,000 native seedlings have been planted over the island since Adams passed away, building on the legacy he left behind. In conjunction with efforts to eradicate invasive plant species, the island of Lady Elliot has been completely remade. A wall of neon-green octopus bushes now shields guest cabins from the north-easterly winds, and a forest of pisonia trees rising up from the western side of the island now serves as a breeding ground for seabirds. Pandanus trees are used as anchors on dunes that are frequented by nesting loggerhead and green turtles, and the team led by Gash is also investigating ways to replace the island’s airfield with native grasses.
The reforestation of the island, which is now home to the second-highest diversity of bird species on the Great Barrier Reef, is also having a ripple effect on the reefs that surround it. It was discovered not too long ago that seabird nutrients that are naturally filtered by the shingle coral cay had an impact similar to that of a fertilizer on coral.
“The phosphate and nitrogen in bird poop could kill the reef in high concentrations, but it’s similar to chocolate in that if you have a little bit, it’s fine,” Gash noted. “It’s like having a little bit of chocolate.”
After entering the water for a scuba dive, I was mesmerized by the vivacity of the fringing reef that surrounds Lady Elliot. I was making my way around the base of a coral reef outcrop when I came upon a large green turtle about the size of a dining room table snoozing behind an overhang. Every anemone appeared to be teeming with a strong family of clownfish, and there was a flash of color as a pair of parrotfish, a critical indicator of a healthy reef, rushed through.
However, as I had seen before, these brilliant blue waters, which are protected as a “green (no-take) zone” by a marine national park, are most well-known for the spectacular manta rays that live there. A semi-resident manta population on the island swells to over 700 individuals during the winter months, making it one of the best spots in the world to swim with these kites of the sea. This phenomenon was highlighted in David Attenborough’s documentary on the Great Barrier Reef, which was broadcast in three parts.
Not only may visitors here enjoy mantas, but they can also contribute to the conservation of these creatures by taking part in Project Manta. The project, which is being run in conjunction with the University of Queensland, gives visitors the opportunity to take pictures of any manta rays they come across and submit them to a central database. The information gathered through this endeavor will directly contribute to scientific research on the reef.
During their stay on the laid-back island, visitors are encouraged to join the staff in making a pledge to protect the ecosystem. These actions include reducing the amount of electricity and water that is used, not disturbing the birds and marine life, and even eating less at the dining room buffet in order to reduce the amount of food that is wasted. This project is one of a handful of citizen science projects that guests can get involved with during their stay. Even while several of the other resorts on the Great Barrier Reef Islands have increased their efforts to be more environmentally responsible in recent years, there is still nowhere else on the Great Barrier Reef that is quite like this family-friendly bastion.
Because there are no telephones, televisions, or wireless internet connections in the basic but pleasant guest rooms (which will be renovated between 2021 and 2023), guests are encouraged to interact with the island, which features a packed daily program of included presentations and experiences that can be mixed and matched. I was intrigued by the Climate Change Trail, and the irony was not lost on me when I realized that the self-guided walk had been almost fully devoured by regenerated flora. The path had been erected years before the climate problem became a worldwide flashpoint. I found this to be quite ironic. One still-accessible signboard highlighting the impacts of rising global temperatures on the sex of sea turtle hatchlings stands as a testament to the global importance of the dedication that Gash and his team have shown toward minimizing the island’s carbon footprint. In addition, the island was the first on the Great Barrier Reef to ban single-use plastic bottles in 2012.
“The more we give back to the island, the more it gives back to us,” adds Gash. “The island is a revolving door.” “It teaches a story of hope, showing people that if we can fix this little place, we can fix our big place, too,” the author of the book said.
Gash will get an Order of Australia Medal in the year 2020 in recognition of his contributions to the fields of ecotourism and aviation. His efforts have not gone unnoticed. Over the years, Lady Elliot has attracted some of the most well-known conservationists in the world, including King (then-Prince) Charles, who paid a visit in 2018 as part of a roundtable conversation with business leaders about the role that corporate leaders should play in conserving the reef. The Great Barrier Marine Park’s Reef Islands Initiative is a ten-year project that aims to construct a network of climate change refuges to safeguard important habitats on major reef islands. In the same year, Lady Elliot was chosen to be the first “climate change ark” to be established through this initiative.
Nothing is ever thrown out on Lady Elliot since a barge only visits the island three times a year to replenish supplies and take the island’s meager 15 trash cans to the mainland. The garbage is meticulously divided, a machine affectionately known as Oscar is used to turn food scraps into compost, and treated wastewater is used for irrigation. However, guests will not go without, as sundowners will be served on Lighthouse Beach each evening at sunset from the back of an electric buggy, bringing a touch of luxury to the experience.
In light of the fact that the majority of the resort’s emissions are caused by the fleet of small, fuel-efficient planes that are used to transport guests to the island (guests have the option of pledging $2 to support the resort’s carbon-offsetting program, which is run in partnership with Greenfleet), Gash now has his sights set on making the transition to electric aviation.
“I had hoped to be flying an electric aircraft to Lady Elliot by the time I turned 65, but with only a year to go now, it might have to be by the time I turned 70,” he chuckled, showing off that twinkle in his eyes once more. “It’s a shame, because I really wanted to do it by the time I turned 65.”