Heron Island Resort
11.27.2007 - 12.01.2007 81 °F
No visit to Australia would be complete without visiting the most well-known geologic feature of this continent. In virtually every documentary you’ve seen on global warming or climate change, the Great Barrier Reef is mentioned as one of the most fragile ecosystems on earth. You’ve probably heard that just a few degrees of ocean temperature change will kill the reef, and further that there is evidence that it’s happening now. We did see evidence of coral bleaching, but the reef is still teaming with life and is absolutely stunning. No matter how big a cynic you are about climate change, this is the place that will convince you that we must change our behavior.
Location, Location, Location
The Barrier Reef runs along the north east coast of Australia. We are visiting in Australia’s summer months which are notorious for increasing numbers of Jellyfish as you travel up the coast. Tiny little “Stingers” are the most common and if you are visiting the northern parts of the reef, you are required to wear “stinger suits” when you enter the water, to avoid an “all over stinging”. Worse than this, there is the Box Jellyfish whose sting is lethal within minutes of the sting. Northern lifeguards place vinegar bottles on the beaches and post CPR instructions in case of a box sting, in the hopes of keeping the victim alive long enough to receive anti -venom. Hmmmm… I think we’ll stay in the south! So we started looking in the southern reaches of the reef to see what was available. Through a few internet searches we found a place called “Heron Island”. It is a 32 acre island surrounded by a HUGE reef. Heron is part of the Great Barrier Reef system, but stands alone and you can take a boat all the way around the reef. The island houses a very pleasant little resort with one hundred or so rooms and is also the home a University of Queensland Marine Research facility. The island at one time was home to a Turtle goods (e.g. Turtle Soup) manufacturer and was purchased by someone that decided to turn it into a tourist location that has gotten more politically correct over time – hopefully solving years of way-bad turtle karma.
We were inspired to take our trip around the world by some friends who were planning their trip around the world with their kids. As we planned our trip, we checked with them to see where we might overlap. Hal and Maria Sweasey are Carol’s and my good friends from San Luis Obispo, while their two kids, Kyle and Nate, are Griffin and Parker’s buddies. We knew we would hook up in Noosa for a long bit of surfing in December, but didn’t realize we would overlap on the reef. It turned out that we overlapped for almost the entire 5 day visit on Heron Island, giving the boys a much needed break from each other in the role of “sole playmate” and in a sense, doing the same for Carol and I
At 50km from the mainland, you can either take a ferry to Heron Island or you can take a helicopter service. We wanted to see the reef from the air at least once, so we opted to take the helicopter to the reef and take the ferry back. On the way out of the little port town of Gladstone, that proudly claims home to the 2nd largest aluminum production plant in the world, you couldn’t help notice the mess that man has created here. There was a huge coal factory to produce electricity, a giant electricity station, the massive aluminum plant, and many little factories supporting these behemoths. As we flew over Gladstone into the Coral Sea, we were struck by the contrast. 20 large tankers waited off shore to take aluminum around the world, and just five minutes past them, there sat the most beautiful reef system in the world. It just seemed wrong. As we approached the islands, the pilot trimmed our elevation and swept the ocean from a couple hundred feet. We saw beautiful turquoise water, coral atolls, sea turtles, and the most stunning view - a family of 6 Manta Rays whose “wing” span was easily 10-15 feet across. We could see our little island in the distance, and as we approached you couldn’t help think that it looked just a bit like Gilligan’s Island.
The “resort” portion of the Island wasn’t really anything to scream about if you think about your typical Island resort. There were no giant pools, no swim up bars, and no incredible restaurant. There was one restaurant which usually had a buffet going on, and selection was pretty minimal. The rooms were modest and clean, plenty large but had no phones nor locks on the doors. The overall facility was sort of “best western meets community center,” complete with pool tables requiring change to operate, and 70’s furniture in the lounge. There was no internet, no cell service and only three pay phones. But you know what? Who cares. The staff was awesome, and this place is so beautiful, we could care less. We were surrounded by perhaps the most stunning snorkeling and diving in the world and views that you’d expect on a postcard. We were also surrounded by 10s of thousands of birds.
Heron Island would be nothing but sand, if it wasn’t for the bird guano that has made it possible for plants to germinate, and boy have they germinated. There is a pretty good size forest on the island now that would make Gilligan and the Skipper proud. Huge trees, vines, grasses and shrubs cover the island providing a terrific home to well over 20,000 birds. The birds and their nests are so thick on the Island, that you have to duck down the pathways as you head to your room, so you don’t get hit as they fly by. Every one of us at one point or another got dumped on by a bird. Since this is an eco-resort, birds seem to know that no harm will come to them regardless of their behavior, so they don’t try to avoid us humans. Watch your bag of chips carefully or it will fly away. Watch over your head or you will leave with a eco-reminder of Heron Island on your shoulder. We all did. Another amazing thing about these birds is the incredible freaking sounds they make. They sound like people. I swear to god this is true. Close your eyes and imagine the sound of someone writhing in pain, lying in the curb, after being struck by a car as they crossed the street – it’s sort of a low moan in surprised kind of way… Woooooooaaaaa… and then imagine that same person finishing his moaning with a question about who hit ‘em? Whooo? That’s what it sounds like: Wooooaaaaawhoooo?!! Wooooaaaaawhoooo?!! Wooooaaaaawhoooo?!! And guess what? They don’t start making the sounds until the sun goes down and then they do it until the sun comes up!! Isn’t that great! Man, I love wildlife! Only better than this is the sound the baby birds make in their nests at night which is a bit louder and sounds like a new born baby that has just sucked boiling breast milk through their bottle…. Waaaaaaahaaaaaa!!! Waaaaaaahaaaaa!!!! No surprise that the hotel furnished 6 pairs of earplugs in our room. First thing I’m going to do when I get home is join the Audubon society! God I just love birds!
Snorkeling within the reef:
We snorkeled every day, multiple times a day. The difference between low tide and high tide was quite a few feet, so the beset snorkel sports changed hourly. We would snorkel by an old ship wreck, which was incredibly eerie, then up to sharks bay, and we even took a boat out to snorkel the outer reef surrounding the island. Sharks bay was a very shallow area that teamed with Rays and a variety of Sharks. The Sharks were up to 6 feet in length, but we were told that they really don’t harm snorkelers, so we shouldn’t be afraid of them. OK! How about a family snorkel with the sharks? We did this and it was a blast. We swam with Black Tip and White Tip reef sharks, guitar fish (a bizarre shark-ray thing), thresher sharks, sting rays and manta rays. We lazily followed sharks around close enough to touch them, while the rays would steer clear of us. Only on a couple of occasions did I think “Holy crap, that’s a big shark!”, and one of these occasions came when a shark ripped a jerky trail in between parker and I because we had startled it. Man, those things are wicked fast. There was on old ship wreck in the harbor entrance that we snorkeled to a number of times and it was as beautiful as it was creepy. We saw fish of every size and color and the reef colors were beautiful. This was contrast by the rusted and rotting hull and deck of an old ship that ran aground on the reef years and years ago. Fish love to hang out there in the skeleton of the ship as do the sharks. We would swim out to the ship, hang out for a few minutes, get a bit freaked out, and then swim safely away to shallower, far “happier” water. Carol and I went out one morning to the shipwreck and saw a pretty good size Octopus that was hanging out on the reef. I was able to snap a picture of this Octopus. It’s camouflage is so good, you can barely see it.
Snorkeling the outer reef
At low tide, you can’t snorkel near the island because the water is only knee deep, but you can use this opportunity to take a boat to the outer reef. At low tide, all the fish that were swimming near the island move to the outer reef that surrounds it. The outer reef rises up from the ocean bottom forming walls, hills and jagged cliffs of Coral that form the atoll surrounding Heron. The fish that were in the inner reef now team in the cracks and crevices of the outer reef. A boat took our families, some scuba divers and a few snorkelers to a spot on the outer reef, and then drifted with us for an hour (or about a mile). We lazily floated face down rolling in the swells, diving occasionally to get a closer look at brilliant colors, be it coral or fish. We were also treated with a sea turtle, two dolphins, and a shark or two. We also saw scuba divers forty feet below us looking much more closely at their surroundings than we were. Hmmmm… we gotta try this…..
The Scuba Lesson
We adults had watched longingly at the scuba divers on the outer reef as their bubbles rose to meet us. We sure wished we could do that. Be careful how you wish. It turns out that Heron has a program where you can get trained in the morning and take a real dive in the afternoon. Hal, Maria, Carol and I thought we’d try it out. After filling out wavers that would relinquish the resort of any liability for what we were about to do, we met our 19 year old instructor. He began our instruction with a video that explains the risks of Scuba and what you should and shouldn’t do. It was a damn long list of do’s and don’ts and all of us walked away with one important lesson: Don’t stop breathing. Even if you are scared shitless, have thrown up in your mouthpiece, filled your mask with stingers, or have soiled yourself, don’t stop breathing. And don’t stop breathing as you are rising to the surface or your lungs will explode. Man, this is relaxing isn’t it!
We were fitted with our scuba gear and headed for the resort pool where we did our first “dive”. We tried out our mouthpieces, hung around under water and learned to breath. We all had to clear our masks before we were allowed to dive in the open ocean, which consisted of filling our masks full of water, flipping over on your back, and then blowing air into them through your nose until there is no water left. This actually works – in a pool. The ugly side affect being that anything that was in your nose before your blow is now in your mask. We were now ready for the open ocean? Oh, that’s supposed to be a sentence, not a question. We were now ready for the open ocean.
At noon we took a boat with experienced scuba divers and snorkelers and we headed for the outer reef. All the other folks were in the water and now it was time for us to marshal down the anchor into the water. I gotta tell you that it’s different than snorkeling in the pool and we all had panic attacks at one point or another. Maria went first, then me, then Carol, then Hal. As we descended down the anchor line to 30 feet, we let the air out of our floatation vests, and we sunk, at least we were supposed to sink. After about two minutes from being on the ground floor, I took the express elevator to the surface – without trying – I just rose up. I looked at my instructor shrugging my shoulders and he indicated with his fingers that I have to kick downward like I was swimming to the bottom of a pool… Duh! I looked down, and started kicking and was soon down at 30 feet again. We stayed down for about 40 minutes and it was soooo cool. We were all concentrating on the task at hand so hard that I think we missed much of the views we enjoyed as snorkelers, but it was super cool nonetheless. I took pictures galore with my underwater camera and traded the camera with Hal at one point. You did want to stay away from everyone else, as you were certain that if someone touched you, you would forget to breath, shoot up to the surface and see your chest expand and explode red-pink as you looked on in horror . None of us wanted that. Seriously – it was really fun and we hope to do it again someday.
The Last Day
The last day on the island started with a nice but overcast morning. At about 6:30 am I ran into Maria an Hal who were running around the island and had just spotted a green turtle that looked to be either laying or coloring her eggs. I ran to get my camera and took off for the site on the east part of the island. We sat and watched for an hour or so as this beautiful and huge turtle covered her eggs to protect them from the birds and then lumbered back to ocean before the tide went out. This was a real treat and Carol watched every last movement having encountered a turtle in Sydney who she thinks was somehow related to her. We all think it was somehow.
As we walked back to the resort area, it started to rain and the wind began to pick up, soon blowing at about 20 knots and driving heavy downpours completely sideways. We were about to get on a ferry and cross the 50 km of ocean in this storm. Oh goody! We and about 50 other guests had checked out of our rooms already and we were now ready to catch the ferry. We hung out in the lounge for a bit, and then moved to the dock when we were told the Ferry was almost here. While huddled under a roof on the dock as we were lashed with wind that turned umbrellas inside out, and pushed the rain sideways under the roof. After waiting 20 minutes or so on the dock for the Ferry to poke its bow through the grey, and then waiting for passengers to exit the boat, we all climbed on board. All of us were soaked and a bit apprehensive about getting onto a boat in this weather. We felt a bit like evacuees leaving an island in a hurricane. Man, I’d hate to experience that. As it turned out the Ferry was new, smooth, fast, and felt very safe even with an occasional lurch, and it had us to the mainland in less than two hours. We passed the time by playing cards and goofing off, trying to do all we could to keep our minds off of the nasty swells outside. We made it into Gladstone Harbor without any scary moments or sea sickness, and the passengers let out a collective sigh of relief when we tied up the boat. After 6 days on Heron Island we were all ready to head to Noosa for some quality surf and sun.