Since Jennifer and I were in Brisbane for linux.conf.au 2011, I figured it would be a good idea to go to Heron Island on our way back and do some diving there.
To get to Heron Island, you fly to Gladstone, and either pay a lot for helicopter ride which isn't very useful for saving time since it can only carry 15kg of luggage, which is useless for a diver (the rest goes by boat, so you have to wait for it either way). The cat does go at 30kts, so it flies. It's however very pricey ($240 return per person) and the ride is difficult when the sea is rough (we had stuff flying off tables and people throwing up left and right).
Gladstone has a single runway for the daily quantas turboprops
Qantas Bombardier Dash 8
The high speed cat takes people back and forth to Heron Island
Those who can't deal with the sea, can get a shorter scenic flight
In a nutshell, Heron Island is a small island (2.3km around, I jogged it in 13mn in the sand), it is is situated 2H by fast boat from Gladstone, south of Cairns and north of Brisbane. It is a bit expensive to say the least, the basic rooms with food for two go for $400 a night, and go up from there. Diving is extra at first $65/dive down to $45 a dive after a few dives (gear costs extra). That said, if you add it all up, prices are comparable to being on a liveaboard for a week, except that you get 3 dives per day instead of 5 dives per day. On the flipside, you get to stay on land, although if you factor in the mosquitoes, lack of AC in hot damp weather, and stupid very loud mating birds that made a lot of noise all night every night, it may or may not be a win :)
However, I felt that seeing nesting turtles come at night, and baby turtles hatch at night and go to the sea, would be cool (it was). While I don't overly mind being on a boat for a week, it's also nice to be on non moving land and still go diving easily every day :).
My quick review of Heron Island is that the staff was fantastic, the island was fun to walk around, and accomodations were not bad, but it was hot and humid at night without AC and having windows opened meant more noise from the birds :-/ (while basic accomodations are already expensive to start with, there are even more expensive ones with windows and AC). Since we had the more basic accomodations (reef room), I was woken up every night by stupid birds with loud mating calls all night (this was because it was mating season). The upside is that it was also trail of turtle nesting season and the start of baby turtle hatching season.
A few pictures from Heron Island:
an old boat that got beached on the reef
our first reef room wasn't bad, just a bit far from the dive shop, so we moved to a closer one.
we had many good meals :)
The information center was quite good
going out of turtles at sunset, got us a few sunsets :)
Heron Island Birds
those sea birds evolved to trees and make crappy nests out of dry leaves and poo, their efforts were cute :)
Egrets (another name for Herons), which Heron Island comes from
The shearwaters which only come at night, sleep on the ground, and keep everyone awake with loud mating calls
The seagulls were very defensive of their eggs (and see the newboarn baby)
Each night, big green turtles came out of the sea to crawl up the beach to a spot they chose to dig a nest for their eggs. The entire process can take around 5 hours, and one has to be careful at not shining light at turtles when they come up, or they dig as it will spook them out and they'll go back to sea without laying their eggs, which is bad.
We saw a video of the whole process at the nature centre, and that waa very informative on what to do and not to do, but it's also a lot easier to see highlights of the entire process already filmed, than to spend literally all night to watch it yourself (turtles aren't known for being fast :) ).
turtle watching: you're doing it wrong
tracks from the nesting turtles
they come after sunset close to high tide
and spend hours to make big holes
Lost Nesting Turtles
Unfortunately, from time to time the village we were in tended to confuse the turtles as they were trying to get back to the ocean. One got stuck in the garden behind our condo, and one got stuck in the smiming pool, which is easier to get in than to get out for a turtle.
trying to get back to the ocean (we helped it)
this one was more stuck
took a few people to get it out :)
and back to the beach
Baby Turtle Hatchling
Of course, the best part was the hatchlings. You had to be by the beach by sunset and be lucky: typically if you were at the right place at the right time, you may be lucky and see them come down the beach to the ocean but you had to be fast since it typically only took 2mn or so (it's easy to miss). In our case, we improved the odds a little bit by looking for holes that they were likely to come out of. Twice, we found an early hatchling that made it out outside but that looked stunned or not quite awake yet. From there, we were able to wait and see hatchlings come out of that hole.
Normally, they make their way to sea without help, but we helped them by protecting them from seagulls, and used our own lights to steer them to the ocean
this is what the eggs look like
aren't those things cute? :)
to the ocean
you can use a flashlight to help the hatchlings to the sea
another nest I found
once the top ones got out, it was a swarm
watch the video to see how fast they go
by then, we found some lost turtles that were lured by the jetty light, we had to hand carry about 30 of them back to the beach where they could go to the water on their own. They weren't big, but they were squirly, it was hard to carry just 3 or 4 at a time since they tried to get out of your hands to fall back on the sand and run in the wrong direction :)
watch the one on the left that flips over itself :) (light is in front of them so that they go for it)
hand rescuing turtles from the jetty lights
Jennifer even managed to rescue one of them from an evil seagull, although we did see 3 more seagulls with hatchlings in their beak that we were not able to save :( (the sad truth is that their survival rate is actually one to one thousand from egg to not having been eaten by fish or sharks in the sea).
yes, it's tempting to take them home :)
As much fun the Island was, we were of course there for diving.
The diving, well, was ok but not great. We did get to see critters that we haven't seen elsewhere (including my 14 days diving the great barrier reef higher north), but there were a few issues:
3 dives instead of 5 per day is probably not a huge deal to most, but still to note for the hard core divers who do 5 dives a day on liveaboards
they offered night dives every other day, but they were priced at $90 per dive, or double a regular dive, even when the night dive ended up being from the jetty because we couldn't use the boat the one night they did have a night dive with enough signups. Honestly, I think it's unreasonable and likely a reason why they didn't get many night divers the week we were there.
The diving visibility was poor more than 50% of the time, due to runoff from the island. It's apparently not always as bad for that season (which isn't the best one for vis), but for our week it was not great, and I heard the previous weeks were not much better. Some dive sites like Pam's point were quite good though, when you could actually see something.
The dive staff was a bit 'tense'. It's probably because they have to enforce what likely are the strictess diving rules in the world (courtesy of the state of Queensland which has become a bit of a nany state unfortunately). You're supposed to be back on the boat with 50 bars, and I've been sent back up with as many as 80 bars left :-/ (not that it takes 20 or even 30 bars to get back to the surface from 18 meters in good sea conditions). I'll put aside how they were so worried that I wouldn't be able to get to the 10 to 18 meter bottom without holding a line down in light current and even insisted once that I really had to take the rope down (it was totally unnecessary). If you add the fact that you had to follow the divemaster everywhere under water, it was a bit annoying compared to a liveaboard where you're trusted dive on your own with a buddy, and somehow find your way back up to the surface and the boat, even in current (!).
So, diving was a bit annoying at times with the extra rules and restrictions, and the vis being ok or good less than half the time, wasn't ideal. Yet, we still saw some nice critters as I said above, so it wasn't all for naught, pictures below should show that. Diving came up to about $1000 per person for 16 dives, and BCD/reg rental (on top of the $340/day to stay at Heron Island on a 'special' they were running).
They had several weird sharks and rays we hadn't seen before, like the Wobbegong Shark, or the Shovelnose Ray, not counting some pretty huge (man size) cownose and cowtail rays.
plenty of green turtles
very nice big rays
they were not scared
this one was 'not quite right' :)
lunch was right there :)
not too sure what those were
We also did some diving by the Jetty and found a few rays and sharks that like to hang out there: