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Heron Island, Australia - Story and photos by Charlotte van Weeghel.
Heron Island is the perfect base for exploring the crystal clear waters of the Australian Great Barrier Reef. Close encounters with exiting marine life are a sure thing during a stay on this little cay that nudges the southern edges of the Reef. Just 800 meters long and 300 meters wide, the island is densely vegetated and has a small resort nestled on one side.
The cay has been a National Park since the '50s and offers an amazing underwater world; nudibranchs, manta rays, turtles, strawberry husars, elusive urchins, lemon sharks, many-spotted sweetlip and coral trout to name just a few. Bottlenose dolphins roam the waters as well as large pelagic fish and schools of hardy head.
A turtle cannery early last century, the island is now a sanctuary to the loggerhead and green turtles who come ashore at night to lay their eggs. During the season there are so many turtles that a marine research station has been established so scientist can study and monitor their movements. Resident turtles live and feed on the surrounding reefs all year round and regularly share the waters with divers. A breeding population migrates to Heron Island to mate and nest during October to March. They breed at intervals of 4 to 6 years, sometimes longer. Some of these turtles are pretty amazing, they travel over 3.000 kilometers all the way from Indonesia or New Caledonia. They may swim up to 50 - 70 km per day, using strong currents like the "Eastern Australian Current" (we've all seen Nemo haven't we?) to help them complete their journey.
If you visit from January to April, you can share the magic of hatchlings scampering across the beach to the sea. To find a turtle, you just walk around Heron Island 1 to 2 hours after the evening high tide and look for tracks in the sand.
Heron Island has a pretty interesting, if not infamous history. Back in 1923, the Australian Turtle Soup Company was established on the island. Fortunately for the turtles, it was not a success and despite a 10 year lease the factory closed down in 1927. After a few decades more of relative mismanagement, the island was declared a National Park in 1943 and is currently managed by Voyages. The company follows a program of careful management of the resort and its surroundings, working with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and National Parks to ensure its unique flora and fauna is preserved.
In June you can enjoy the northern migration of the Humpback whales and they are often seen passing through waters around the island in the Capricorn and Bunker region.
The dive shop on the island is part of the resort facilities and located in the marine center. It is run by a friendly and efficient bunch that offer courses on all levels and high quality snorkel and dive gear for rent.
You can sign up to dive in the am and/or pm and do a total of 4 dives a day on both Heron and Wistari Reefs. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday you have the opportunity to watch the reef come to life after dark during beautiful night dives.
We can't say enough about the excellent staff, boats and gear of this dive operation and enjoyed our dives immensely. The coral was dissapointingly dull but the water super clear and the array of turtles and multi-colored fish, including manta rays, reef sharks, eels was stunning. A great place to practise underwater photography or film.
In typical Australian fashion, the going is easy mate because you are already there! It takes only 15 minutes to get to any of the dive sites on Heron and there are about 30 to choose from, each with their own special highlight such as gullies, grottos and bommies. The short traveling time means you can dive twice in the morning, return to the restaurant for a delicious buffet lunch, laze on the beach or by the pool before heading out again mid-afternoon.
Click here for a detailed description of the dive sites.
After you've explored the nearby reefs, don't miss out on a special day of "adventure diving" where you can enjoy the pristine and unspoiled dive sites further away from Heron Island, including North and Wilson or Fitzroy and Lamont Reefs. Talk your fellow divers into a trip like that asap as there is a minimum group requirement for this trip.
If you feel like snorkeling, go to the mouth of the island's harbour where a large wreck; the "Protector", lies. One of Australia's first war ships, this was originally a steam driven gunboat and has an incredible history of piloting submarines and capturing an enemy vessel. Today she makes a great snorkeling spot.
Gus, the resident giant grouper hangs out here quite often if he is not hiding under one of the dive boats and you might encounter a manta ray as well.
Other good snorkeling spots are to be found around the Gantry & Shark Bay. Remember that the best time to go snorkeling is 3 hours before or after high tide.
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