The Great Barrier Reef ’s southernmost outpost, Lady Elliot Island, is a 2km-square patch of casuarina and pandanus trees stabilizing a bed of coral rubble, sand and – in common with all the southern cays – plenty of overpoweringly pungent guano, courtesy of the generations of birds to have roosted here. The elegant lighthouse on Lady Elliot’s west side was built in 1866 after an extraordinary number of wrecks on the reef; on average, one vessel a year still manages to come to grief here. Wailing shearwaters and the occasional suicide of lighthouse staff didn’t endear Lady Elliot to early visitors, but a low-key resort and excellent reef have now turned the island into a popular escape. Shearwaters aside, there’s a good deal of birdlife on the island; residents include thousands of black noddies and bridled terns, along with much larger frigate birds and a few rare red-tailed tropicbirds – a white, gull-like bird with a red beak and wire-like tail – which nest under bushes on the foreshore. Both loggerhead and green turtles nest on the beaches too, and in a good summer there are scores laying their eggs here each night. The main reason to come to Lady Elliot, however, is to go snorkelling or scuba diving: the best spots for diving are out from the lighthouse, but check on daily currents with the dive staff at the resort. You’ve a good chance of encountering harmless leopard sharks, sea snakes, barracuda, turtles and manta rays wherever you go. Shore dives cost $35 per person, while boat dives are $50 ($70 for night dives), plus gear rental. The Blowhole is a very popular dive site, with a descent into a cavern. Expect to see lion fish, manta shrimp and the unique “gnomefish”. The 1998 wreck of the twin-masted yacht Severence is just a few minutes offshore; it’s famous for large schools of pellagics.
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