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. The Blowhole is a favourite site, with a descent into a cavern (keep an eye out for the “gnomefish” here), and there’s also the 1999 wreck of the yacht Severence to explore. You’ve a good chance of encountering harmless leopard sharks, sea snakes, barracuda, turtles and gigantic manta rays wherever you go.
The main downside is that the only way to get to the cay is to fly – the Lady Elliot Island Resort’s own airline has daily departures from Bundaberg, Hervey Bay and the Gold Coast – but the flight is a treat, with great views en route.