Of tern poop, tickling turtles and reef-villain — starfish on Australia’s Lady Elliot Island

The white-capped noddy tern, a seabird, was doing what his ancestors did. Pooped on the island to turn it into a guano (bird poop) mining site. So precious was guano as manure and ingredient for gunpowder that poop-diggers stripped the island bare for the expensive bird droppings.

Written by Preeti Verma Lal | New Delhi | Updated: May 21, 2018 3:59:40 pm
australia, lady elliot island, australia tourism, australia tourism places, australia tourism spots, australia places to visit, Indian express, Indian express news Lady Elliot Island is located at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef. Photos: Preeti Verma Lal

Not always does stalking an old prince gets so poopy. It happened to me. On a faraway tiny island with a pretty name, Lady Elliot Island. Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, the antique heir-apparent to the British throne, had buckled on a Seair Pacific aircraft and flown into the island that lies at the southern tip of Australia’s the Great Barrier Reef. The Prince came in a beige suit, dotted tie, his pocket square neat and his oxfords laced (Who wears a suit to a sizzling island? Who?) Wait! I was not stalking the Prince. My flight was scheduled after the Prince’s. But I was a tad late. The Prince had scooted, but Noddy was waiting for me. Eagerly, I presume. The moment I stepped on the only airstrip on the Great Barrier Reef, Noddy dropped gunk on my shoulder. A big blob of poop. “The bird pooped on you. It is your lucky day. Go buy a lottery ticket.” The crowd around me whooped. I was being hailed fortunate to be Noddy’s lav.

Do not blame, Noddy. The white-capped noddy tern, a seabird, was doing what his ancestors did. Pooped on the island to turn it into a guano (bird poop) mining site. So precious was guano as manure and ingredient for gunpowder that poop-diggers stripped the island bare for the expensive bird droppings. Many decades later, the island was revegetated; its glory brought back by reef warrior Peter Gash, who now co-owns the island.

History hung heavy in Lady Elliot’s salty breezes; the raucous noddy, wedge-tailed shearwaters, gulls and brown boobies rend the air with their heavy-metal chirps. I walked past solar panels and glamp tents, casuarina and pisonia trees of the Lady Elliot Eco Resort, the first Australian island to completely ban plastic bottles and go solar-powered.

Noddy gunk was drying quickly on my shoulder. I could dive into the turquoise water for a quick wash. Instead, I picked up a pair of pink flippers and jumped into the glass-bottom boat. Pied and sooty oystercatchers were working the beach, blue starfish clung to the rock and Capricorn silver eyes were patrolling the ground. “Keep an eye out for the whales; migrating whales stop here for a snoop. And if you find a turtle, tickle it.” The boatman was throwing bait. Whales? I looked at the boatman with a question writ large on my forehead. “Do not fear. They do not eat humans. And yes, the turtles love being tickled. As part of a designated green zone in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the island is in the middle of a no-fishing area. So, put on your flippers. And jump.”

Jump I did, into the deep waters. In pink swimfins and a snorkel with pink strap. On the seabed were staghorns, the stony, branching corals with cylindrical long branches. A veritable forest of stag horns through a school of blue and yellow fish gambolled. Amidst a flatbed of corals slept a gigantic turtle. I swam around looking for resident manta rays. There were none. April is not the season for manta sightings. No mantas. No whales. The boatman had talked of turtles that like to be tickled, but six feet under water, I was looking for a villain. The evil many-armed crown-of- thorns starfish (COTS) that preys on coral polyps and is so destructive that scientists estimate that it is single-handedly responsible for almost 40 per cent of the coral reef’s loss. I abhor violence, but that day, deep in the waters, I wish I had brought along COTSbot, a recently-developed submersible robot that can efficiently deliver a potent poison and kill the reef-villain.

The island is home to several marine species like the green sea turtle. Photos: Preeti Verma Lal

With gunk washed off my shoulder, I returned to the Eco Resort for a lesson in conservation at the island’s reef conservation centre, where, from the ceiling, hung the skeleton of a mammoth whale. Lady Elliot is pretty but what really makes it interesting is the fact that it is 80 per cent solar-powered (it hopes to go 100 per cent solar by 2020), it desalinates seawater for drinking purposes, maintains a wastewater-treatment plant; recycles its rubbish and has the unique distinction of producing its own soil through food waste.

As the harsh afternoon sun turned gentle, I walked to the red-and-white lighthouse, built in 1866 for the poop-diggers. Not too far, countless brown noddy terns were huddled on an octopus tree having a mid-autumn chatter. On the island that first appeared above sea level as a coral rubble sea spit 3,500 years ago, no one gathers guano. No one kills the fish. No burden on the fragile reef.

Isle hopping

Lady Elliot Island is the only coral cay island on the Great Barrier Reef with an airstrip. Fly from Bundaberg (30 minutes), Hervey Bay (40 minutes), Brisbane (1 hour, 20 minutes) or the Gold Coast (1 hour, 40 minutes). With no boat access, do a day-trip to the island, stay at the Eco Resort or in luxury tents.

Preeti Verma Lal is a Goa-based freelance writer/photographer.

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