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Heron Island: A loud, messy, nature haven

CAROLINE BERDON
Last updated 07:00 06/06/2014
Heron Island
Tourism QLD

NATURE HAVEN: As the seaplane descends towards Heron Island's white sands and turquoise-smothered reef, my first thought is that it looks like a tropical heaven.

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As the seaplane descends towards Heron Island's white sands and turquoise-smothered reef, my first thought is that it looks like a tropical heaven.

Once landed, I realise the place is covered in - and stinks of - bird poo.

After a welcome cocktail, I take a walk around the island, a natural coral cay that sits slap-bang on the Great Barrier Reef, and ponder its appeal.

If you like your holiday destinations to have tropical landscaped gardens and varied shopping and dining options, you'll find none of them on Heron.

But if you love being immersed in nature in all its loudness and messiness, the idea of watching turtles nesting and hatching, living among manic bird life, and snorkelling and diving on some of the most vibrant parts of the reef, you've found your island paradise.

On Heron, tourists must understand the wildlife comes first.

As I walk along the island's paths, I must step over jagged wooden boards that protect the nests of baby shearwaters. I'm kept awake at night by the haunting cries of birds bonding after a day's fishing. I can't swim off the beach for the sharp and shallow reef, and I can't loll on the sand dunes in case I crush a turtle nest.

There is no zoo or wildlife park here to entertain the kids. Heron Island is how nature intended it to be. No more, no less.

So much so that if a noddy tern bird, who sticks her nest together with her own excrement, falls out of the tree and gets stuck in her own sticky poo, you must not try to rescue her.

She will die, her body fertilising the pisonia tree that will house her descendents.

If you see a seagull swoop down on a newly hatched turtle, you must not try to save it. Fending for itself is how the hatchling will learn to survive.

Life on Heron moves at a slow pace. There is no TV, radio or mobile-phone reception here. The sole attractions are the beach, the reef and the wildlife.

And by stopping and watching nature at work, you can witness some extraordinary habits.

I learn, for example, how lazy male terns are.

As the female birds busy themselves with nesting, choosing moist pisonia leaves to stick together, the males "help" by secretly dunking leaves in the resort pool. Minimum effort for maximum impact. The females are typically unimpressed, tossing the chlorinated leaves out of the tree.

One morning I rise with the sun and take a walking lap of the island along its rugged beaches. I see 14 sets of turtle tracks, which suggests 14 adult mothers have come up the beach during the night to lay their eggs in the dunes.

That evening on the beach at sunset, a nest hatches and 20 to 30 tiny turtles scurry to the water. About half never experience the ocean's depths, being plucked by hungry seagulls or snapped up by reef sharks looming close to shore.

It's a sad spectacle that makes young children on the beach cry. I learn that only one in a thousand green turtles (the most common turtle on Heron) will reach sexual maturity of about 30 years.

A morbid statistic, but as Heron Island naturalist Sarah Keltie points out, turtles wouldn't lay so many eggs - up to 800 in a season, in about five separate batches - if nature intended them all to survive.

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Majestic egrets stalk the island, too: these are the "herons" that gave the island its name. Only later was it discovered that, being only one colour, they were in fact egrets.

While I'm on Heron, it's too choppy to go out on a snorkel tour, so I head out from the beach.

I see bright white fish with pink eyes, yellow spots and turquoise tails, and small black-and-white stripy fish hovering around blue-dipped coral. There are bizarre sea cucumbers and a galaxy of sea stars.

Heron Island's dive manager, Sam Wright, tells me that in the deeper water, about 20 minutes' boat ride from the island, the reef is even better - with the corals, health of the marine life and visibility among the best in Queensland.

"The diving here is fantastic," he says. "A lot of the guests that come here - about three-quarters - say it's the best diving they've ever done."

The highlights are the turtles, rays, reef sharks (harmless), weird-looking sea slugs, sea stars, mini seahorses and a huge variety of fish - including clown fish, angel fish and unicorn fish, which have spines coming out of their heads.

After an intimate moment with a dark grey reef shark that leaves me breathless for a second, I hang up my snorkel and flippers and retire to my beach suite for an aperitif.

The view from my terrace would be a picture-perfect sparkling turquoise ocean - if it weren't for the sharp-edged pisonia tree, the squawking shearwaters and the spray of bird poo.

There's no way staff here would remove this tree for guests' aesthetic. But as I sit back among it all, I realise that's Heron Island's appeal. 

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Heron Island lies 72 kilometres off the Queensland coast, northeast of Gladstone, which is serviced by air from Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney by Qantas Link. From Gladstone, you can reach Heron by ferry, seaplane or helicopter.

STAYING THERE: The Heron Island resort has a range of accommodation, costing from A$318 (NZ$344) to A$758 (NZ$819) a room per night.

PLAYING THERE: Turtles nest on Heron Island from November until March, and hatchlings are seen from January through to May.

Peak breeding season for birds on Heron is from September to April. During this time, between 20,000 and 30,000 wedge-tailed shearwaters and between 70,000 and 120,000 noddy terns inhabit the island - along with many northern hemisphere migratory waders from places such as Siberia and Alaska. 

The writer travelled as a guest of Heron Island Resort and Qantas.

- AAP

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