The Big 7: Spot them at Lady Elliot Island

The Big 7: Spot them at Lady Elliot Island 1

1. Reef Manta Ray
There may be plenty of fish in the sea, but not many are as large or as smart as the manta ray. Cousin to the giant manta ray, reef mantas are mostly located near… you guessed it! Coral and rocky reefs. They are renowned as having the largest brain of any fish, and can reach wingspans of up to 5.5 meters and weigh up to 1.4 tonnes!

Like fellow gentle giants the whale shark and humpback whale, manta rays are filter feeders, meaning they only have eyes for plankton. Divers often consider an encounter with a manta ray as the pinnacle of diving expeditions, as these curious creatures will often somersault and interact with you underwater. You can fly alongside the kites of the sea year-round at Lady Elliot Island, with peak season considered during the cooler months when the animals aggregate in large numbers.

The Big 7: Spot them at Lady Elliot Island 2
Image: A reef manta ray glides by a diver at Lady Elliot Island

2. Loggerhead Turtle
The loggerhead turtle, as the name implies, has large log-shaped necks that help facilitate their powerful jaw muscles to crush their crustacean dinners. One of the largest marine turtles in the world, the loggerhead turtle is a large soft-shelled marine turtle, reaching an average carapace (or shell) of 3-feet long and weighing well over 100 kilograms!

Once hatched, loggerhead turtles will travel as far as South Africa, returning to their birthplace once matured to mate and lay their clutches of eggs (over 20 years later!). You can view this natural phenomenon on a guided walk each November to January at Lady Elliot Island, then 8 weeks later, watch as the hatchlings return back to the sea where the cycle starts all over again.

The Big 7: Spot them at Lady Elliot Island 3
Image: A loggerhead turtle and snorkeller at Lady Elliot Island

3. Green Turtle
Besides the leatherback, green sea turtles are the world’s largest marine turtle, growing up to 1-1.2 meters in length and weighing up to a whopping 130 kilograms! These endangered reptiles are, as Crush would say, totally sweet! and one of the fan favourites for scuba divers and Finding Nemo watchers alike. Their shell (or carapace) can be found in a variety of colours, ranging from dark browns, blacks, yellows and olives. So why are they called the green turtle?

Well, Bruce would be pleased to know that these guys are one of the only #fisharefriendsnotfood turtles, consuming an almost all-vegetarian diet. Some favourite delicacies being seaweed and seagrass. And you know what they say… you are what you eat! Their strict #vegan diet leaves scientists to believe they develop a layer of green-coloured fat under their carapace.

These guys can hold their breath for up to 5 hours, but don’t worry! Lady Elliot Island hosts the coolest turtle shell-ebrations at the Lagoon, a popular cleaning station where your hardest decision will be which way to point your camera. You can spot these guys year-round in and out of the water, with guided walks during laying season (November to January) and glass-bottom boat tours operating daily.

The Big 7: Spot them at Lady Elliot Island 4
Image: The stunning carapace of a green sea turtle at Lady Elliot Island

4. Eagle Ray
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, its an eagle ray! You may even be mistaken into thinking you have just run into a manta ray when you spot one of these guys gliding gracefully past. The dazzling colouration of the white-spotted eagle ray is truly beautiful for those lucky snorkellers and divers who get to see it. With wingspans measuring up to at least 3.5 meters wide and a whopping 8 meters in length due largely to their long tails, these guys truly are the wind beneath our wings too.

There are a few stark differences of the eagle ray compared to their larger cousin, the manta ray. One major difference being their diet. Eagle rays will feed on molluscs and crustaceans with their flattened teeth, whereas manta ray are filter feeders that prefer the taste of plankton. Whilst they seem to be less interested in humans than manta ray, they sure know how to put on a show, often seen breaching completely out of the water.

5. Blacktip Reef Shark
Duna, duna, duna, duna! Blacktip reef sharks are one of smaller species of sharks and easily to distinguish with their… you guessed it! Blacktips. These sharks have striking black tips on both their caudal and ventral fins. Reaching a maximum length of only ~1.8 meters, these Juniors Jaws are virtually harmless to human beings.

You can spot these guys year-round at Lady Elliot Island, no Shark Week necessary, so remember to keep your eyes peeled whilst diving or snorkelling. You will find these guys frequenting the coral reefs in search of small fish, hiding or even resting on the sandy floor below.

The Big 7: Spot them at Lady Elliot Island 5
Image: A blacktip reef shark cruises the coral gardens at Lady Elliot Island

6. Bottlenose Dolphin
The Australian bottlenose dolphin is found right around the coast of Oz and if they are not catching waves with surfers, they are lapping up the island lifestyle here at Lady Elliot Island. Commonly seen in groups called pods, with 2 to 3 members – even up to a thousand! Keeping their options open, Australian bottlenose dolphins occupy a larger range of habitats than any other marine mammal. They utilise an advanced communication system called echolocation, which sounds like clicks where you hear it underwater.

The Australian bottlenose dolphin would have to be a family favourite, because who can resist that smile?! Cheeky and inquisitive, the bottlenose dolphin knows how to get the party started. Follow their antics (if you can keep up) as they feed, rest and play around the coral cay. You may even run into resident bottlenoses, Bubbles, Squiggles and Sammy!

7. Humpback Whale
If we’re going to have a list of the Big 7, it would be a crime against the seven seas to forget about the humpback whale. One of the most common cetaceans to migrate the east coast of Australia each year, the humpback whale is a regular passer-by at Lady Elliot Island each year between July-November. They whaley are a delight to spot above or below the surface, regularly seen from the scenic flight to and from the coral-cay and from the shore. If you are lucky enough to spot these guys underwater, it truly is an experience that few divers forget.

And if you aren’t able to spot them, you will more than likely be able to hear them. The whale song of the humpbacks travels for kilometres underwater, understood to be a communication tool used by males. Scientists believe that males from each group sing the same song (move over Backstreet Boys, there is a new boyband in town) and each year they will return with a new hit single, building or modifying their song from the year before.

The Big 7: Spot them at Lady Elliot Island 6
Image: Aerial shot of Lady Elliot Island