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To the Great Barrier Reef and back. In a day.

Snorkelling with turtles.
Snorkelling with turtles.

By KATE HUNTER

We’re Queenslanders who had never been to the Great Barrier Reef.

Shameful, huh?

Over the years, Jim and I have dived and snorkelled the waters of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and we’ve been as a family to Fiji and Vanuatu, but our own wonder of the world was something we took for granted. One day, we’d get around to seeing it.

Weirdly, it seemed easier to go overseas. The sheer size of the Great Barrier Reef made visiting it an overwhelming prospect. Cairns is a long way from Brisbane – and Cairns is the hop-off point for the reef, right? Wrong.

The Great Barrier Reef is the size of Italy and it stretches almost the entire length of the Queensland coast, so its southern end is day-trippable from Brisbane or the Gold Coast.

Who knew?

Now, our little tribe does. We took a day trip to Lady Elliot Island. About and hour and twenty minutes in a 12 seater plane from Redcliffe, on Brisbane’s northern outskirts. We took off at 8.30am and two hours later we were swimming with clownfish. Snorkelling kit, reef shoes and wetsuits (for the wimpy – the water was warm) were supplied.

The Great Barrier Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef.
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Lady Elliot Island is about 110km off the Queensland coast – the nearest major town is Bundaberg (you can fly from there too). The accommodation on the island ranges from simple eco cabins with shared facilities to two bedroom family suites. There’s a dive shop, restaurant and swimming pool.

The island is a true coral cay, clinging to the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef, in the Marine Park ‘Green Zone’ so the wildlife is amazing. Minutes from the shore, we saw manta-rays, a moray eel and pretty much the entire cast of Finding Nemo. But it was the turtles that had us spellbound.

We’ve seen turtles in the wild before, but they’re usually shy, swimming silently into the blue the second they’re spotted. At Lady Elliot, for some unknown reason, they’re friendly. It’s a marine reserve, so the turtles aren’t fed or handled, but they seem to like sharing the water with people and our kids were able to get closer than they could have imagined.

It took some effort to persuade the kids out of the water and onto the glass bottomed boat, but it was worth it, because that’s where we saw the manta-ray. If you believe in God, you’ll imagine he was in a very happy mood when he designed that animal – so beautiful, like a black and white underwater ghost.

Kate's son decked out in snorkelling gear.
Kate’s son decked out in snorkelling gear.
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Then there was lunch – steaks, prawns, salmon, pasta and dessert and the day was slipping by. The tide had fallen so we slipped on reef shoes (Crocs are perfect – there’s a phrase I never imagined writing). Maggie, one of the island’s resident Marine scientists took as for a walk on the reef. The same one we’d swum over that morning.  We found octopus gardens (look for discarded chunks of dead coral), different kinds of starfish, and Annabel (10) spotted a variety of nudibranch (shell-less marine snail) even Maggie hadn’t seen at Lady Elliot before. Of our three kids, Annabel is the one most drawn to nature. If it grows, crawls, hops, trots or swims, she can’t get close enough. The reef walk was heaven for Annabel – and for her dad and me, to see her so happy.

Exploring Queensland.
Exploring Queensland.

About half past three, the time I’d normally be navigating the school run, it was time to walk across the grassy airstrip and board the plane for the flight home. Sun, taken with saltwater is the best sedative ever. We dozed all the way back to Brisbane and were home in time for dinner.

Day trips to Lady Elliot Island are available from the Gold Coast and Brisbane (Redcliffe Airport). The deal includes flights, lunch. snorkelling gear, reef walk, glass bottomed boat tour and more. For more information on day trips and holidays on Lady Elliot Island, click here . To find out more about visiting the Southern Great Barrier Reef and surrounding regions, click here

Kate and her family travelled as guests of Tourism Queensland and Lady Elliot Island.

Is there somewhere close to home you keep meaning to visit, but haven’t?

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