By Bob Halstead
From 5th until 11th of September this year, 2011, lucky divers will be 72 km northeast of Gladstone on the Great Barrier Reef attending the Heron Island Dive Festival, and I will be one of them.
We will kick off with a Gala BBQ and drinks at the Heron Island Resort, where I will meet up with my fellow speakers at the festival including award – winning nature and wildlife photographer Gary Bell; renowned marine scientist and underwater photographer Dave Harasti and DAN Asia-Pacific hero John Lippmann.
We will be diving every day, and some nights, and presenting lectures and workshops to the guests. The workshops will include basic and advanced photography skills with Gary Bell, plus a videographer’s workshop. Lectures will take place in the Wistari Room and in the classrooms, and touch tank at the adjacent University of Queensland’s Heron Island Research Station.
Scanning other topics I see “Coral Varieties” with Chris Doropoulos; “Secrets of the Seahorse” by Dave Harrasti; “Learning to See” by Me; “Coral Spawning” with Justin Marshall; and “Turtles of Heron Island” with Collette Bagnato, and more.
For diving novices, Discover Scuba dive classes will take place every morning at the Heron Island swimming pool and in the harbour, perfect for non-diving spouses or progeny, who would like to try.
Also advertised are a series of afternoons spent wine tasting (I’ll be there!), cooking master classes plus a sample of hedonistic indulgences available at Heron Island’s Aqua Soul Spa from manager Jo Enslow. Oh, and did I mention the diving?
Heron Island is a small coral cay on the outer Great Barrier Reef surrounded by coral reef. In 1843 HMS Fly anchored off the island and the ship’s naturalist, Joseph Bette Jukes, named it after the herons that are part of the rich bird life on the island. The island is also home to flocks of Mutton birds and terns. I’ll tell you about the b!!#@&** Mutton birds later.
A turtle soup cannery failed in the 1920’s so until 1932 it remained virtually untouched. In that year Captain Christian Poulson was granted a lease over the island. From 1932 to 1977 the Poulson family ran a (low key) resort on the cay.
The island was declared a National Park in 1943. In1950 a marine research station was established on the island. When diving became popular in the 1960’s, Kathy and Tony Tubbenhauer were the first resident dive guides, followed by Walt and Jean Deas.
The island is officially part of the Great Barrier Reef National Park and also the location of the University of Queensland Heron Island Research Station, see http://www.cms.uq.edu.au/HIRS
The resort is now owned and run by Delaware North who are renowned for their resorts in the “World’s Special Places”. There is a range of sophisticated accommodation and all the amenities one would expect of a world-class resort. The cay is now high key.
When I visited the Resort in the 1990s, also for a diving festival, the resort was owned by P&O and splendid it was – though not entirely diver friendly. I remember having to lug my heavy camera rig from my beach bungalow to the dive boat and by the time I got there my arms were dragging along the sand. Someone thought a new species of turtle had laid eggs! Now the resort will organise carriage for you. Hooray!
The only tanks offered were “65’s” – not much bigger than the pony bottle I habitually use, but now “80s” are available for those, like me, that need them. Your gear can be washed and stored at the marine centre not far from the beach where a charging station is a useful addition.
Heron Island has some great diving – and snorkeling. They have over 20 “official” dive sites, and even more when the winds are still and the seas glassy smooth. I had a great time snorkeling round the island and I do not mean just off the beach, I mean right around. It takes an hour or so but is well worth it. I encountered turtles (unfortunately with research tags on them) and black-tipped sharks; saw plenty of good coral and met stingrays and shovel-nosed sharks. All this was in just a couple of metres of water.
The Cayman Islands boast of their “Best 12 ft. Dive in the World”. And it is great – they feed stingrays over a plain sandy bottom and visiting divers and snorkellers are surrounded by the friendly creatures, making for a magic experience. I think Heron Island could have the “Best 2m dive in the World” if only they could feed the rays and shovel-nosed sharks. There are lots of them there – it would be marvelous. They are usually a bit shy and it took my all my skill to approach closely.
Now I know that there will be an outcry along the lines of “this is a wilderness, everything should be left exactly as it is”. Well, excuse me, but as soon as you build a resort and research station on an island, no matter how ecologically sensitive you are, it ceases to be a wilderness. Even Queensland Health and Safety have declared it a “Workplace”. So instead of being precious, let’s acknowledge that fact and rather than trying to preserve a compromised wilderness, we can legitimately enhance the environment and make it fantastically wonderful so everyone will want to go there – leaving nearby “wild” reefs in their untouched state.
In fact the big attraction for divers going to Heron Island in the early days was the “Heron Island Bommie” where the multitude of fish – and a giant moray eel – were regularly fed. I was very disappointed when I got to dive it as feeding had long been stopped, the moray had gone, and the fish life rather ordinary. Now, I understand, responsible fish feeding programs are being promoted again.
Let’s get something straight; I love wandering in an old growth forest and seeing nature in the raw. But I am also thrilled at strolling through “man-made” botanical, and classical, gardens and parks. At the moment we do not have the equivalent underwater although I know (since I have done it myself) it is entirely possible to enhance nature with the addition of a clam or two and “replanted corals” – particularly damaged sea fans that I have discovered re-grow just fine. A judicially sunk wreck, and a bit of fish feeding can do miracles. I’ll bet a few dive operators know what I’m talking about too.
Heron Island is a terrific gateway to the wild GBR, but it has, by its very nature, changed from a wilderness. I’m going to encourage the resort owners to do whatever they can to make the coral gardens surrounding the resort as spectacular as possible. And to stop the officious government eco-nonsense that decrees that doomed birds that have picked up fluff balls, or turtles that have fallen on their backs, cannot be rescued.
But I do admit to reservations about mutton-birds. Before going to Heron the first time I was appalled at the story of a group of school children that camped on another GBR island and killed some. After staying on Heron I was still appalled – but understood their motivation! Mutton birds make the most dreadful racket at night, something that might be compared to a team of football players in a hotel room with their groupies after a winning match. I’m taking earplugs.
I am also thinking of an approach to Queensland Tourism to promote Mutton-bird stew, served perhaps with crispy-fried baby turtles and Giant clam steaks. The foreign tourists will love it!
OK, just joking, but turtle steaks are a not-so-tasty, in my opinion, offering to tourists on Grand Cayman Island, where there is a turtle farm, and Giant clam chowder is delicious. (Giant clams can also be farmed.)
Heron Island is not a resort from which you visit the GBR – it is right on the GBR, and a part of it. It is a turtle nesting ground and, protected from fishing, a place where you can expect to see a multitude of marine creatures, and do memorable diving from a resort dedicated to the finer things in life.
I am really looking forward to my return to Heron Island. I am also looking forward to taking some photographs – all but one roll of photos I took last time were lost. For the only time in my life the little yellow mailers with my Kodachrome film, sent for processing after I returned to Cairns, just disappeared in the post. There is something to be said for digital. If anyone out there has my photos – including my only shot of legendary dive boat Sea Hunt operator, Ron Isbell – I’d like them back!
Book for anytime, but for a very special week join us at the Heron Island Dive Festival. It is going to be exciting, educational and a lot of fun. For details see http://www.heronisland.com/