Thanks to Anne
Birds, birds, and more birds
Two long-haul flights, two short-haul flights, and one beautiful ferry ride finally got us to Heron Island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The first thing I noticed was the unmistakeable smell of birds—thousands and thousands of them—within seconds my ears caught up to my nose and I was hit by the din of what I later learned was a staggering 70,000 birds! Heron Island is a sanctuary for the Black Noddy (not the Heron as you might think).
By the time we were taken to the restaurant for lunch I was in despair. How had I got it so wrong? I thought this was a 5-star luxury resort, not a national park. A bird sanctuary is one thing, but to have birds on every branch of every tree, standing all along the paths, and flying so close to our bodies—this was another thing all together. And, to make matters worse I had just been informed that this island had no cell phone service—there was no way to text my 100 closest friends to complain.
By the time we were on the beach, I immediately forgave the birds because the sand and the water and the sky were absolutely spectacular. My children—all four of them—were in heaven. Of course they were delighted by the birds from the first moment they saw them.
Within seconds we were in the warm, aqua-marine sea. Harmless black-tipped reefsharks came to play, and my two eldest (Lizzy age 11 and Joseph age 8) swam right along side sharks and rays every day we were there. Lizzy got close enough to a baby squid that it squirted her with its ink. She was delighted. The water is shallow and relatively waveless, which was ideal for the younger two (Stephen age 5 and Katherine age 4) as they could just paddle about safely in the water for hours. All the kids got snorkel gear, and, after a quick lesson in the pool with one of the diving instructors, spent the next five days looking at ocean life.
On our first full day we went out on the reef in a semi-submersible boat. The most surprising thing about the coral is that the water filters out the colour, so with the exception of some blue tones, it looks grey. Only sophisticated photographic equipment was able to capture its rainbow beauty. Nevertheless, it is still impressive, especially when you see the schools of fish dashing about and turtles napping around the coral. My husband has a diving certificate and was able to dive five times on the reef during our stay and thought it was spectacular. This particular area was one of Jacques Cousteau’s favourite.
Heron Island Resort
My children loved the buffet where they could eat only what they liked. Although the rooms are simple, they are right on the beach and angled in a way that provides surprising privacy from one bed to the next. There is a giant chess set outside the bar and Monopoly.
And so, our days glided by with time broken only for meals and games of giant chess and Monopoly. Once we settled into our routine, we had a lovely family time alone without any outside world distractions and appreciated the lack of phone reception.
Stargazing is amazing here as Heron Island is a nature reserve with no artificial lights save those in the resort buildings. The sky is simply a blanket of starlight. We think we saw several famous constellations, but far more exciting was the bright and clear Jupiter. Even the younger children were in awe of seeing the planet so clearly.
Christmas on the Great Barrier Reef
On Christmas Day we woke up at 5 am and crept out of our rooms and onto the beach in search of loggerhead and green turtles laying eggs. After only a few minutes we found a mother digging away in the sand, making her egg chamber, and we watched her silently until the sun rose about 90 minutes later. It was such a unusual experience even the younger ones didn’t get restless. When the turtle had finished she didn’t immediately return to the sea, but paraded around for a bit, almost as though she were posing for us.
Other people have Christmas angels, but we felt very lucky in our Christmas turtle!
Later that morning we were told to gather down on the dock for another special surprise. My 4-year-old had been telling us for days that Santa no longer used a sleigh but came by jet boat. And she was right! As we stood in the warm sunshine swapping stories of our turtle sightings with the other guests there in the distance came a power boat and Santa was standing in the front holding a huge sack of presents! I thought our youngest kids would explode with excitement as he made he way onto the beach, greeted everyone in his jolly Santa manner and led the way to the pool where he handed out gifts to all the children.
Mine couldn’t believe their luck. Santa had not only found them—something their mean mother said might not happen—yet he came by boat with toys. I think next year’s Christmas card picture has already been taken; how can I do better than 4 tanned kids in t-shirts with a sunglassed Santa?
The day after Christmas was our last and we rather extravagantly chose to leave the island by helicopter. As we were preparing to go, Joseph announced his intention of returning to Heron Island to do his gap year and I found myself saying that I thought it was a fantastic idea. As the helicopter flew over the island and the reef and I could see how beautiful it all was, I knew that this vacation had been a great success for everyone. I still may not be the greatest bird fan, but the wildlife experiences we had will be remembered forever. Besides, in the end the birds only pooped on Daddy.
Heron Island can only be reached by ferry or helicopter. The departure point for both is the airport in Gladstone. Reservations can be made online at HeronIsland.com. Meals are not included and several meal plans are available. Children of any age may snorkel but the minimum age to dive is 14. Laundry facilities are available.