Lady Elliot Island was mined for guano from 1863-1873, with vegetation on the island stripped totally bare aside from a few Pisonio trees. Over the past 50 years, a remarkable transformation has occurred due to the conservation and revegetation efforts introduced by Don Adams and continued by the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort Team.
The Island’s vegetation is now very diverse, with some 150-plant species in total, including Octopus Bushes, She Oaks, Pandanus Palms, Pisonia; and various herbs and shrubs. A Pisonia forest in the south-west part of the island is a key habitat for a large Black Noddy rookery, and the island boasts a pair of Red-tailed Tropic Birds that also resides in this part of the Island. Elsewhere, the herblands and shrublands are home to numerous birds, such as Buff Banded Rails, Ruddy Turnstones and Silvereyes.
In addition to birds, the region also has a healthy green frog population and several species of butterfly, but few flies. The Eco Resort is currently working with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to steer the ongoing vegetation recovery towards a healthy mix of native species.
There are more than 350 known species of hard corals on the Great Barrier Reef with Boulder, Plate, Brain and Mushroom corals some of the most commonly seen varieties in Lady Elliot Island’s waters. Reef building for hard corals occurs when each polyp (tiny, soft-bodied organisms related to sea anemones and jellyfish) secretes a cup-like limestone skeleton known as a ‘corallite’. As the skeleton grows, the colony develops. Each colony typically comprises of thousands of interconnected individual polyps. Boulder Corals are very slow growing with colonies that are hundreds of years old whilst Branching or Staghorn Corals are the fastest growing in tree like shapes at 10-15 cm per year.
Unlike the solid limestone skeleton that hard corals have, soft corals have tiny calcium ‘spicules’ in their tissues, with polyps having eight, feathery tentacles connected by fleshy tissue. Soft corals are mostly found in the deeper waters around Lady Elliot Island. Most coral polyps have clear bodies and white or pale skeletons and it is the algae (zooxanthallae) living within their tissues that actually determine a coral’s colour. Most reef building corals get their golden-brown colour from these symbionts, while soft corals are typically more colourful.
The underwater typography around Lady Elliot is quite varied with the southern and south-western sides known for its series of large coral platforms containing some large examples of Table and Staghorn Corals. The eastern and southern sides are exposed to prevailing winds forming a distinct reef crest with good coral cover. The north-western side of the island is the most sheltered and shallowest, renowned for its scattered bommies and larger coral platforms in the shallows, interspersed with sand patches. This makes it one of the world’s great snorkelling and shallow dive sites.