• Gina Lusardi

Exploring the Great Barrier Reef - Part 1

Heron Island, The Reef at your Doorstep

Eastern reef egrets (both morphs) from Heron Island
Eastern reef egrets (both morphs)

Stretching along Australia’s Queensland coast for over 1400 miles (2300 km), the Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef ecosystem in the world. For perspective, that is roughly the same distance as Vancouver, Canada to Tijuana, Mexico. With over 3000 coral reefs and 600 continental islands to choose from, there are endless places to explore.


At the southern extent of the reef, sitting amongst a cluster of islands referred to as the Capricorn-Bunker Group, lies the world-famous Heron Island. While the island itself is home to many natural treasures, the surrounding reef is renowned as a world class diving location. As a small coral cay, the island is surrounded by extensive reef flats that are exposed to air at low tide. Beyond the reef flat, coral walls and giant coral outcroppings extend down to the gently sloping sandy bottom.

Eastern reef egrets (both morphs) from Heron Island
Eastern reef egrets (both morphs)

Stepping foot on Heron Island, it wasn’t hard to guess where it gets its name from. The cacophony of birds was quite apparent from anywhere on the island. Don’t leave top-side lenses at home! For anyone wishing take part in bird photography, Heron Island is the place. Numerous species are year-round residents including eastern reef egrets, buff-banded rails, sacred kingfishers, black-faced cuckoo shrikes, and Capricorn silvereyes. Notable seasonal visitors include black noddy terns and wedge-tailed shearwaters. In the summer months, Heron Island is home to over 200,000 nesting seabirds; but that is not all.


From November to March, nesting Green and Loggerhead turtles can be seen coming up the beaches at night during high tide. Turtle hatchlings start emerging in January and continue until May. As winter approaches Humpback whales migrating through the region to their breeding grounds and can be seen from shore and heard underwater during dives.


Getting There

Green sea turtle hatchling
Green sea turtle hatchling

International flights arriving into Brisbane or Sydney with connections to Gladstone via Qantas or Virgin Australia are readily available. The airport was small and easy to navigate. The city of Gladstone is an industrial port city 340 miles (550 km) north of Brisbane and serves as the getaway to Heron Island. From Gladstone the island can be reached by both boat and seaplane. For anyone prone to seasickness, it is highly recommended to opt for the seaplane as the 2-hour ferry ride can get a bit rough if the swell is up. The ferry terminal is conveniently located at Gladstone Marina. A free airport shuttle is available. Otherwise, short taxi rides provide easy access to the marina from anywhere in Gladstone.


Heron Island Resort

Sunset from Heron Island
Sunset from Heron Island

Heron Island Resort offers a range of accommodation options from simple rooms amongst the Pisonia forest to secluded ocean view suites. The Shearwater restaurant provides convenient island dining. While a complimentary breakfast is available at the restaurant, buffet and a la carte options were available for lunch and dinner. There was even a limited menu available at Bailey’s bar for those who wish to dine there instead of the restaurant. The Heron Island shop also had some snacks for purchase along with basic toiletries and keepsakes to take home.

Green sea turtle roaming the reef flat at low tide
Green sea turtle roaming the reef flat at low tide

The Marine Centre, located near the Turtle rooms, offers a full set of rental equipment. There were designated areas for each diver to hang up their gear to dry located around the back of the shop near the rinse tanks. There were two rinse tanks, one for regulators and masks and another for everything else. For anyone with a camera rig, I recommend using the regulator tank as that one stays a lot cleaner throughout the day. The tanks were emptied every day, but by the end of the day there can be a lot of sand at the bottom of the “everything else” tank. There are also showers across from the tanks to rinse after a day of diving.


The Reef at Your Doorstep

Close up of a Flabellina nudibranch
Close up of a Flabellina nudibranch

The great thing about being on such a small island, is that you are either already on the beach or can be within 3 minutes. In the morning before diving or just around sunset, snorkelling from the beach served as another great chance for photo opportunities. Surrounding the island, the shallow reef flats were a great place to practice split-shots. Stingrays, shovelnose rays, spotted eagle rays, black-tip reef sharks, lemon sharks and turtles can frequently be seen from shore. Many times, it’s wasn’t a matter of finding a subject, but rather which one to photograph first.


Diving Heron and Wistari Reef

Goby resting on a giant clam
Goby resting on a giant clam

All diving takes place within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, a world her