Two giant manta rays led the way to Heron Island. Like undulating black magic carpets, they cruised through the shallow turquoise waters of Wistari Reef, toward the distant coral cay. Flying north-east in a helicopter, low across the 72km-stretch of water which separates the island from Gladstone, in southern Queensland, was an experience in itself. It’s the best way to take in the majestic expanse of dappled blue/green coral masses which form Australia’s southern Great Barrier Reef. The manta rays were something else. Seen from 450m up, they looked like nonchalant stingrays, but a closer look and some mental calculation placed them in perspective.
Straddling the Tropic of Capricorn, Heron Island, covering 18ha, is part of the Capricornia Cays National Park and visitors there are very much a guest of nature. Heron is a coral cay, an island of sand and crushed coral held together by immigrant plant life, which began forming around 6,500 years ago following a drop in sea levels. It is the site of a University of Queensland Research Station, which attracts marine scientists from around the world, eager to study this relatively new microcosm highlighting the tenacity and diversity of nature.
That evening, sitting on the front porch a few metres from the beach, the tropical night was alive with birds. Caws, tweets and screeches came from the thousands of black noddy terns nesting in the pandanus and pisonia trees and the countless chicks in the mutton bird (wedge tailed shearwater) burrows that dot the island. Adult shearwaters return to the island in the evenings, blundering around like drunken sailors on unsteady legs not used to walking on land. Resort staff are constantly covering their burrows with clearly marked wooden lids to ensure tourists don’t step in the nests. During the breeding season, from October to March, from 70,000 to 120,000 terns nest on the island. From October to February, there are between 20,000 and 30,000 mutton birds who make this tropical dot of coral and sand their home.
Then there are the lengthy visits of migratory waders like the lesser golden plover, the ruddy turnstone and the bar-tailed godwit, who come to raise families on holiday from the northern hemisphere to escape their winter. Let’s not forget locals like the eastern reef egret, the buff banded land rail, silver eye and silver gull.
As darkness fell, there was rustling amongst some dried pandanus leaves scattered on the sand; then, with the mechanical action of a small, rubbery, clockwork toy, a green turtle hatchling flippered across the sand in the dappled moonlight. It was quickly skewered on the beak of a watchful bird. In the midst of absorbing the depth of this tropical tragedy, another turtle hatchling… then another, and another, and another, and another… burst from the sand to make a frantic dash for the safety of the sea. Sixteen baby turtles made it to the surf in this little vignette of survival. Today’s turtles probably still have better odds of survival than their ancestors did in the 1920s, when a turtle soup factory operated for a time on the island on the site of the present resort offices.
By the 1930s, turtles were scarce and the canning factory was closed. In 1932 Danish sea Captain Christian Poulson paid 230 pounds for the lease, initially using it as a commercial fishing base, then turning it into a resort. Captain Poulson mysteriously disappeared (a turtle’s revenge?) from his dinghy in 1947 but the Poulson family maintained involvement in the resort up until 1977.
In 1979 the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was declared, including Heron and adjacent Wilson Island, 11km to the north, in the Capricornia Bunker group. Heron Island and its surrounding reefs have long been a world-renowned marine reserve and dive spot. Each year, 1500 to 1800 humpback whales cruise along the reef, migrating from their feeding grounds in Antarctica to the warmer waters north of the Great Barrier Reef, where they give birth and mate. Pods of migrating whales pass close to Heron Island in June/July and mothers and calves can be seen returning south from August to October.
All photos by Tourism and Events Queensland – All Rights Reserved