I once asked legendary Australian marine biologist and underwater photographer Val Taylor what she liked about Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef.
Her response was quick and emphatic: the variety and colours of the tropical fish are among Australia's best.
We were swimming together – actually she was scuba diving and I was snorkelling – in the fabulous coral reefs which run right up to this tiny island at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest and most diverse coral reef system.
She's right, of course: the waters around Heron Island are home to up to 1000 species of colourful tropical fish – more than at any other part of the 2300kms of reef from Cape York to Bundaberg.
If you imagine the Great Barrier Reef to be a string of islands in the shape of an exclamation mark, then Heron is the tiny dot at the bottom.
Surrounded by translucent, pale blue water and fringed by snow-white sand it's one of the first coral cays going north in the chain.
It's been a resort island for more than 70 years and a World Heritage Site since 1981. Each year around 30,000 visitors enjoy the island for recreation, education or research. (So special is the island, in fact, that it keeps its own time – one hour ahead of the mainland.)
The 17-hectare island is home to a University of Queensland marine research station, a Queensland Parks & Wildlife station as well as a 200-guest resort operated by Voyages Hotel & Resorts.
The eco-resort works closely with both.
It's a great place for families. You can just set-and-forget the kids: they'll be taken care of in the Junior Ranger programme which helps youngsters get to know, and appreciate, the marine and land environment.
They'll also be taken on a tour of the research station where they get to handle, in safety, some marine animals. The abundant marine life and its reef location make Heron a great place for snorkelling and scuba diving. Great for beginners to learn in a safe and calm environment.
You can hire all the equipment you need. (Snorkelling lessons are free.) And most important, Heron is not NEAR the reef, but ON it. That means you can roll out of bed, don snorkel and flippers and be among the coral and the fish in no time. When the tide is out you can also actually walk on the reef. (But wear stout shoes.)
Wherever you go you'll see Nemo and his colourful companions, as well as turtles, rays and a reef shark or two.
For those who don't want to get wet, the resort has a semi-submersible boat with tours guided by knowledgeable rangers. Or you can go it alone in a glass-bottomed kayak.
Green and Loggerhead turtles migrate to the island from as far away as 3,000kms to mate and nest there between October and March. They crawl up the beach to lay eggs and, later, hatchlings will march down the beach at sunset to find their future homes in the sea.
Like triathletes they burst out of their sandy incubator as if on a starter's signal and, arms and legs flailing, they flop down to the sea. Above, seagulls circle hoping to find an easy meal.
Birds are a feature of the island. There's a faint acid smell of bird droppings. Not unpleasant. Up to 40 species have been identified. They live happily alongside human visitors.
Most prolific are the noddy terns which nest in their thousands in the pisonia trees like Christmas decorations. Apart from the terns, which breed in large numbers during the summer, the wedge-tailed shearwaters, or mutton birds, also nest during the summer months.
Mutton birds spend most of their time at sea and leave their babies, big bundles of fat and fur, behind on the island to live alone and off their fat until they are ready to fly out to sea.
At night they fly in from the sea to find their burrows. They fill the air with mournful cries, particularly in the early hours of the morning. Sailors used to hear the mutton bird cry at night but when they came ashore in daytime to inspect found nothing. As a result they believed the islands to be haunted.
But be warned: in the breeding season, the din can be fearful and noisiest between September and April.
The resort, thoughtfully, supplies ear plugs to help us sleep. Rat-like Buff-banded Rails scurry around your feet and seagulls hang around for a feed.
Take a guided tour and you'll likely see other bird species, including the Eastern Reef Egret, or Reef Heron, which gave the island its name.
Between June and September migrating Humpback whales are spotted off the island.
Breakfast is included with the tariff but you can also get a meal package for lunch and dinner – the most economical way to dine.
Saturday night is a grand seafood buffet and Tuesdays are barbecues. Get a picnic from the dining room and head out along the beach.
Accommodation comes in several grades, from basic rooms to the plush, beachside suites.
You get to Heron in one of two ways: either by fast catamaran in two hours from Gladstone. (But the trip can be rough.) Or by helicopter in 30 minutes.
Oh, and it is business as usual after the cyclone season. The island suffered little or no damage from Cyclone Hamish.
IF YOU GO:
Qantas flies into Gladstone from major Australian centres. Transfer from Gladstone to Heron Island is a two-hour launch trip from Gladstone marina departing at 11am daily or a half-hour helicopter flight.
Secure parking is available at Gladstone marina.
Launch transfer from Gladstone is (NZ$153) an adult, each way. Helicopter transfer is (NZ$325.50) an adult, each way.
Heron Island has a six-night package for the price of four starting at (NZ$1726) per room, based on two people sharing. The package includes full buffet breakfast and many island activities. Children 12 years and under stay and eat free (conditions apply). You can upgrade to include all meals for only (NZ$88) pp per night extra.
Visit: www.heronisland.com/special/ and www.gladstoneregion.info.
* The writer was a guest of Voyages Heron Island Resort.
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