Home AustraliaTravel A hub for marine life and sustainable tourism – Southern Great Barrier Reef

A hub for marine life and sustainable tourism – Southern Great Barrier Reef


You might want to stay in the water for another minute,” our captain shouted from a nearby boat as a small group of us surfaced after a dive from the magnificent outer reef of Lady Musgrave Island. “There’s a school of whales heading straight for you,” he grinned, quickly steering the boat out of the path of the approaching cetaceans.

Looking down through my snorkel goggles, the turquoise water was so clear I could make out the spell ray cleaning station about 20 meters below us, where we observed one of the majestic sea kites dancing its huge white belly in the current as the minnows nibbled. Then it all went black and five barnacle-laden humpback whales swam just below us, these gentle giants gliding just a few meters from the tip of our fins.

In this extraordinary corner of Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef, it’s hard to believe that this World Heritage Site came close to being placed on the UNESCO “endangered” list earlier this year. Although few travelers have heard of my heavy bomb diving background.

Lady Musgrave Island is part of the Capricorn and Bunker groups, a group of reefs and cays on the southern edge of the Great Barrier Reef, and is one of the best kept secrets of the Great Barrier Reef. Tourists have been visiting the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef since the 1890s, but intrepid travelers did not begin arriving in the south until the 1930s, when the turtle cannery on Heron Island was converted into a resort. Yet the southern Great Barrier Reef (which stretches some 300 kilometers from the Capricorn Coast to the Bundaberg region) still receives far fewer visitors than places like Cairns and the Whitsunday Islands, accounting for less than 9 percent of the Great Barrier Reef’s 2.4 million annual visitors. 2019 Coronavirus disease.

It’s a shame, because from my own experience snorkeling and diving along the Great Barrier Reef since I first visited the Whitsunday Islands in the 1980s when I was six years old, I’ve found its southern edge to be just as spectacular than the rest of it. Less prone to extreme weather events such as hurricanes and prolonged heat waves, it’s fair to say that this corner of the reef is also in better shape. Through its commitment to sustainability, its major tour operators want to keep it that way.

Now, with predictions that climate stress will force the Great Barrier Reef’s marine life and seabirds to migrate south to escape a global warming too fast for them to adapt, will tourists follow suit? As Australia gets closer to reopening to the world, this corner of the reef has arguably never been more ready to roll out the welcome mat.

Lady Musgrave HQ, a state-of-the-art pontoon with an underwater observation deck that transforms into a 20-bed dormitory at night, is the latest attraction on the Southern Great Barrier Reef. The three-deck pontoon, which opened in September 2021, also features luxury campsites on the upper deck, providing access to pristine dive sites beyond those previously available to day-trippers (although, as I experienced recently, the latter is still impressive). Permanently moored in the lagoon around Lady Musgrave Island, where the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) manages a campground, Lady Musgrave HQ is now one of the least impactful tourist experiences on the Great Barrier Reef.

“The pontoon is essentially zero footprint,” says owner and operator Brett Leckie, who has achieved carbon neutrality with his reef cruise business Lady Musgrave Experience in Bundaberg. Built with the most environmentally friendly materials, Lady Musgrave’s headquarters runs entirely on solar and wind power, has its own desalinator and all waste generated is shipped back to the mainland by the day via the 35-meter catamaran Reef Empress, which is docked at the headquarters. “She’s also rated to withstand a Category 3 hurricane, which hopefully is more than we’ve encountered here,” he added.

Visitors also have the opportunity to give back to the reef through coral farming and citizen science programs, and learn about reef conservation from the Gidarjil Bundaberg Sea Rangers, part of the Queensland Aboriginal Land and Sea Rangers program, who regularly participate in Lady Musgrave Experience tours.

Dive sites that Lady Musgrave HQ guests can now visit include the colorful coral gardens on the edge of Lady Elliot Island, the southernmost reef on the Great Barrier Reef, which is home to hundreds of manta rays. Stripped bare by guano miners in the late 1800s and then left to goats, Lady Elliot Island has been carefully restored over the past 50 years, most notably by the Gash family, who have run the Lady Elliot Island Eco-Resort since 2005.

The family-friendly resort is widely regarded as the benchmark for sustainable island tourism in Australia by achieving its 100% renewable energy goal by 2020 – no small achievement for a 150-bed hotel located in the middle of the ocean, some 80 kilometers from the Bundaberg mainland.

In 2018, Lady Elliot Island was selected as the first ‘Climate Change Ark’ as part of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation’s Coral Reef Islands initiative, which aims to protect critical habitats from the effects of climate change. Building on the Gash family’s own tree planting program, the extensive vegetation restoration project initiated as part of the program has paid off more than expected.

“We initially started planting trees because it felt like the right thing to do, but now we’re seeing changes to the reef,” said Peter Gash, the resort’s general manager, who was awarded the Order of Australia for his contribution in 2020. Ecotourism and aviation. “Scientists have found that bird droppings also act as fertilizer for the corals, so the bird life attracted by the trees helps the reef to flourish.”

Project leader Dr Kathy Townsend, a marine biologist and senior lecturer at the University of the Sunshine Coast, said the key to preparing the island as an “ark” was to learn more about it.

“We’re currently creating a baseline species list so we know what’s living here now,” she said. “This will help us monitor the ‘thermal refugees’ (marine life and birds fleeing warmer temperatures) that come in over time.”

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