Fraser Coast Blog

Swimming with Turtles on Lady Elliot Island

Small Planes! Definitely not everyone’s favourite thing. But a necessary experience if you want to access some of the more remote and beautiful locations we have on our doorstep. Coming in to land on Lady Elliot Island is an unforgettable experience. The runway takes up the whole length of the island and is a kind-of-flat surface of coral with a covering of grass. The skilled pilot seems to be dodging and weaving to avoid the hundreds of seabirds right before touchdown and as we come to a bouncing stop, all of the passengers seem to breathe a quiet sigh of relief. But what a flight! The view of this little coral cay from the air is extraordinary with its generous lagoon area almost glowing in colour and igniting a sense of excitement for what we might discover once in the water. 

Less than an hour later, with masks, snorkels and fins in hand we make our way down to the water’s edge where I do my final checks of the camera and housing to ensure everything is sealed and ready to go. On this occasion, I am using a Canon 5d Mark iii in an Ikelite housing with no need for strobes due to the shallow, crystal clear water we will be in. I have opted for a wide angle lens in anticipation of some close encounters with the various creatures who call the lagoon home and I hope to even produce some split images - half under, half above the waterline. 

As soon as we look below the surface, we are greeted with a colour overload - many species of fish are drifting around in the warm shallow water and the healthy corals create the perfect backdrop. 

 We make our way out further and the water clarity seems to just go on forever. We soon spot our first Green Sea Turtle perhaps 30 meters away and slowly make our way over. As we get closer, she notices us and rather than quickly turning and swimming away, she meets our gaze, turns and swims straight at us. I flick the live view button on the housing to double check my settings. 1/250th to minimise movement blur, f11 for a good depth of field and ISO 200. I had previously taken some test images and fine tuned the settings in Manual Mode to avoid any variation in exposure.

I also have the camera set on AI Servo (focus tracking) with 5 focus points in the middle of the frame and high speed burst shooting enabled. A quick check of the numbers and the live histogram, and I’m confident the images will be sharp, clean and perfectly exposed. 

It’s always best minimise the amount of water between you and your subject and this turtle made sure of that for me by swimming to within 1m of my camera! After a few “safe” shots I started to try and hit the best moments in the turtles swim stroke - fins straight up, or evenly out to the sides, with a good head angle and engagement from her eyes. So many options with this entertaining character. I soon started to notice that right before she went up to breathe, she would cruise along about half a meter below the surface and have a bit of a look around.

This gave me just enough time to anticipate exactly where she would be when taking that breath and get ready to try some split images. This is one of my favourite ways to photograph turtles, telling a dual story of their world below the surface and above. I pre focus and lift the camera partly out of the water.

At this point, the housing’s buoyancy turns to weight and I am gently pushed down. I take 4 or 5 frames as the turtle takes a breath and then looks straight into the lens on her descent. I return to the surface to clear my snorkel, feeling super grateful for being able to capture some great images of this incredible creature.  


Lady Elliot Island is the southernmost coral cay in the Great Barrier Reef located off the coast of Bundaberg, Queensland.  The Eco Resort is superbly managed by dedicated, friendly staff and the whole experience is possibly one of the best holidays we have every had.