The Great Barrier Reef: 'An Island of fins and feathers'

Twenty-five years after visiting the Great Barrier Reef the birds still rule the roost onland , while underwater is as captivating as ever

I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was a mistake to be heading back; returningreturn to somewhere I’d fallen in love with 25 years ago. The last time I caught the ferry to Heron Island in Queensland, Australia – watching the coral cay shimmer above the horizon like a mirage flirting with the Coral Sea – I was a zoology graduate fresh out of university.

Based at the Heron Island Research Station, I spent five weeks studying birds and marine life; – five weeks roaming an island you could circumnavigate in 20 minutes, my life synching to the ebb and flow of tides, the passage of migrating humpback whales and the annual arrival of nesting seabirds and turtles. 

This fragment of the Great Barrier Reef was also recently revisited by David Attenborough. The naturalist returned to the reef after almost 60 years to film the BBC’s new landmark series, currently on BBC One 1.

This time I would be spending five days at the island’s resort. I’d long dreamed of sharing this far-flung speck of sand, 89km from the Queensland coast, but it still felt surreal to have my wife and 15-year-old twins standing alongside with me at the rail of the Heron Islander as the catamaran sidled towards the jetty.

The sudden transition from deep-water blue to coral-lagoon turquoise was startlingly familiar. The wreck of HMS Protector was still there – scuttled on the edge of the harbour channel in 1945. One or two reef egrets crouched on the rusted hull, their plumage glaring white against the green backdrop of Heron Island’s dense pisonia forest. “It hasn’t changed a bit,” I told myself as I followed my family along the jetty towards the resort staff waiting with glasses of chilled fruit juice.

I think the birds must have missed me. No sooner had we sat down in the shade of the poolside bar than a buff-banded rail landed in my lap, intent on sharing lunch. I distinctly remembered them wandering, unannounced, into my modest student hut at the research station, squabbling over looted bread all those years ago. Wedge-tailed shearwaters used to nest under the floor, their crooning duets wafting from their burrows late into the night. They weren’t due to return to the island for a few weeks, but I noticed that countless black noddies – which Attenborough encounters here in the new series – were already fussing over their scrappy nests in the pisonia trees. 

One of the few resort islands where you can experience the Great Barrier Reef right off the beach, Heron Island is a magnet to discerning divers – but it’s often birds that make the first impression. Up to 100,000 breed on the coral cay; paradise pervaded by their courtship clamour. I was relieved to see that, despite the resort’s valiant attempts at style and sophistication, birds still ruled the roost.

Relationships with nature on Heron Island haven’t always been so sympathetic. In the early 1930s, when the island’s turtle cannery was converted into a resort, tourist brochures touted turtle-riding as a major attraction. Staff would wait at night during egg-laying season (November to March) for turtles to haul themselves ashore before flipping them onto their backs, effectively marooning them. The following morning, the stoic creatures would be turned back over so resort guests could ride them down the beach back into the sea.

Today, nearly two-thirds of the island is part of a national park, and a daily programme of environmentally- friendly activities has long replaced turtle-riding. Our first afternoon coincided with low tide. The reef flat around Heron Ithe island had emptied to leave warm, knee-deep water over a mosaic of coral outcrops and sandy paths. Joining a guided reef walk, we were about to learn that rockpooling in Cornwall would never be quite the same again. 

Within minutes of wading in, we were staring through gin-clear water at a pair of epaulette sharks draped like spotted sashes over the coral sand. Damselfish flickered like sparks through antlered growths of acropora, while circular microatolls of porites coral were studded with cowries, cone shells and sky-blue linckia starfish.

We were instantly hooked. Reef walking at Heron Island is like peering through a window on the Great Barrier Reef. All you want to do next is fling it open for a better view. 

Over the next few days we paddled transparent kayaks across the lagoon, gazing down at stingrays half-buried in the sand. We sat in the shallows, wriggling our bare toes at juvenile black-tip reef sharks, and staked out the harbour watching the grown-ups prowl between the wooden stilts of the jetty. And, of course, we snorkelled, a lot.

A couple of hours before high tide, we would grab our masks, snorkels and fins and simply walk straight from our room, ducking under the whispering branches of breeze-combed casuarina trees to emerge on the beach. The moment we put our goggled faces underwater, I would start hearing “snorkel talk” – muffled exclamations reverberating through the sea as my children spotted something new. Curious turtles swam right up to us, sunlight rippling across their glossy, parquet shells. We saw clownfish squirming in their host anemones and, on one occasion, five spotted eagle rays pulsing by on undulating fins.

The climax to our snorkelling exploits at Heron Island came when we joined a dive boat bound for deeper water. Slipping into the blue of Wistari Channel, we gazed down on the vast ramparts of the reef, smothered in great swathsswathes of branching coral. Shoals of surgeonfish flowed like blue ink through the staghorn forest, the sea filled with the ratchet clicks of their feeding.

Back on land, one of the naturalist guides from the resort showed us around the research station. She told us it had been largely rebuilt following a devastating fire in 2007. I didn’t recognise any of it. It seemed more hi-tech, more serious. Long-term experiments were underwayunder way to study ocean acidification and the impact of microbeads (, used in facial wash), on the reef’s food chain. It was clear that, for all its beauty and exuberance, numerous threats stalked the Great Barrier Reef, from climate change to pollution.

As we listened to an explanation of how the humble sea hare (– a mollusc we’d seen on our reef walks) – might hold clues for treating dementia, a group of students walked noisily past. I wondered what they might find if they returned to Heron Island in 25 years’ time. A – thriving coral reef, hopefully. A and a paradise for birds, one would hope.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Discover the World (01737 214 291; discover-the-world.co.uk) offers an 11-night Southern Reef Explorer holiday from £2,585pp, including return flights, from London Heathrow to Brisbane with Singapore Airlines. This includes 11 nights’ accommodation with breakfast and some dinners (two nights at Hervey Bay, four nights at Lady Elliot Island Resort and four nights at Heron Island Resort), domestic flights and boat transfers, three days’ car rental and a half-day whale-watching trip. 

More information

queensland.com

australia.com

William Gray’s e-book, Coral Reefs & Islands: the Natural History of a Threatened Paradise, is available at the author’s website, william-gray.co.uk

‘Great Barrier Reef with David Attenborough’ continues on Wednesday on BBC One at 9pm

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