Monthly Archives: December 2016

Lady Elliot Island is the perfect island for you

Basking near Australia’s continental shelf, Marie Barbieri loses herself among marine creatures of all colours and contours on Lady Elliot Island.

I sharply inhale and halt dead still – or as still as one can hover atop a swaying reef. A majestic four-metre beauty arcs up and we clock eyes. It’s love at first snorkel with a manta ray.

He’s enjoying a body scrub, courtesy of a bluestreak cleaner wrasse that nibbles the attached parasites. This giant black and white kite tangos with the swell, its implausibly placed eyes holding the stare. We share a magical 10 minutes together, until he breaks off the affair.

Lady Elliot Island, located between Fraser Island and Lady Musgrave Island off the east coast of Australia, is the resident home of the Manta alfredi. Due to its isolation (80km/49 miles northeast of Bundaberg), it claims some of the most limpid waters of the Great Barrier Reef.

The glorious, paradisiacal island was actually built by poo (guano, to be precise), courtesy of excreting seabirds that fertilised and seeded the isolated cay.

In 1863, however, it was almost stripped of its vegetative richness. Around 30 Asian miners arrived to pillage Lady Elliot for her guano. Settlers deforested the island, sparing just eight pisonia trees. They dug the topsoil and sold 20,000 tonnes of guano as gunpowder and fertilizer to Sydney and London.

Roll on 1969, when visionary pilot Don Adams arrived, bringing with him native shrubs and seeds for re-vegetation. Planting sheoaks to naturally fertilise the depleted soil, he regenerated the topsoil and reintroduced pisonia trees.

They flourished into the feather-flapping forest here today, reunited with the eight, now 400-year-old, pisonia trees. Adams earned himself a conservation award for his work in 1994.

Best place for surf

We sent Daniel Fahey to the very cusp of the known world to catch some Chinese monsters. Here’s how he got on.

So this is it: the long-thought Gate of Hell; once the very edge of the known world, now the threshold to a very new one. As a turnstile to an eternal inferno, it’s not what I had envisioned.

Sure, the heat blisters. The sun, as a pre-curser to the Gate opening, is doing its blazing best as a warm up act. Yawning from a night shift, my watch is stretching its hands out at 0915, and already I’m in shorts.

Perhaps I expected something more apocalyptic than a rum-dark South China Sea; maybe someone more prophetic than the ocean goddess, Mazu, who busily kneads six foot waves into the soft, butter-blonde sands of Riyue Bay.

Whatever I’d conceived, it didn’t include a beret-bearing, oak-skinned Californian surfer called Brendan and an all but abandoned paradisiacal beach. Yet at Hainan Island, the most southerly point of China, that’s exactly what I’ve found.

Brendan has been shacked up here for around seven years. His Riyue Bay Surf Club on the southeast of the island has all the indicia of a self-shaped surf spot: the hand painted driftwood signs (“No Sharks”, “No Limitations”); an acoustic guitar; a bar made from a surfboard, serving imported beer; year-round waves.

It’s the kind of sacred setting you yearn to find as you roll along in a rust-dusted campervan, board roped on top. A few intrepid surfers from Australia and the US have tempered these uncharted swells, now it’s the first generation of Chinese boarders who are starting to find their feet.

For centuries, Hainan was the end of China’s civilised world. The island was a real-life Diyu (Chinese purgatory), where banished Dynasty dissents were left abandoned between the fruits of the Forbidden City and an imminently impending afterlife.

In the 800s, Tang Dynasty prime minister and aspirant poet, Li Deyu, coloured Hainan as the “Gate of Hell”, but as a consequence of China’s ever-quickening evolution, it’s an island still finding its identity. It swirls together the synchronised chaos of classic China (neon lights, noisy bikes and exotic street food) whilst alluding towards a future of homogeneous modernity (deluxe hotel chains, beach weddings and Western menus). Its lost coves, rainforest-rimmed mountains and deserted volcanic villages await rediscovery.

As my surf lesson with Brendan progresses from practising in the sand to lolloping upon grumbling tides, a school of local children ride waves further up the coast. They’re in the water wearing wetsuits and wilting straw hats. Face-kinis are also a regular sight on the beach.

“The locals don’t like to tan,” Brendan explains. “If they’re tanned, it means they work outside and people will think they’re poor. That’s why beaches are often empty in the day and get busier around five.”

Amazing sharks in Utila

Samantha Wilson heads to Útila in Honduras in search of Old Tom, the legendary barnacle-encrusted whale shark who has plied the waters for decades.

“Put your faces in the water, sharks don’t fly!”

Bobbing among the dark, slapping waves off of the Honduran coast I hear the shout of our captain over the gentle hum of the dive boat engine. My heavy, nervous breaths through my snorkel make it harder still.

I heed his holler, though, and dip beneath the glistening surface. Finally I get a glimpse of what I have been searching for: a whale shark, the biggest fish in the ocean.

At 9m (30 ft) long, it glides effortlessly beneath my fins, sashaying gracefully with every swish of its enormous, pointed tail. I swim breathlessly alongside, keeping up with it for several minutes until it dives and its blue and white spotted body disappears into the depths of the Caribbean Sea.

You’d think that finding the largest fish on the planet wouldn’t be too difficult, but this is my forth venture to Utila’s north side after three failed attempts. Although they can grow to 14m (45ft) in length, whale sharks can also be extremely elusive.

They tend to frequent warm, tropical seas and Utila’s plankton-rich waters are a major stopping point on their great migrations along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.

Tilting their powerful bodies vertically, they open their wide mouths to gorge, creating a feeding frenzy which encourages small tuna to join in the feast. Known as boils, the tuna writhe in the water, their splashes alerting trained eyes to the presence of a whale shark just below the surface.

Local fishermen call them Old Tom after a legendary, barnacle-encrusted whale shark that plied Utila’s waters for decades. Back on the shore, in doorways of the stilted, pastel-coloured houses that make up the Honduras’ Bay Islands, they still tell rum-heartened tales about the great beast, which they say reached 18m (60ft) in length.

Whale sharks skim the north shore here throughout the year, but the best sightings are in March and April at the height of their little-understood migrations. Scientists have long been left baffled by their 5,000 mile-long (8,045 km) trips, and individual sharks have been tracked as far as the mid-Atlantic en route to South Africa after leaving the Belizean Reef. The mystery of where they give birth remains unanswered too, but that just adds to their magnetism.

Ulita was the island where unruly English pirates used to come in search of Spain’s golden treasures but now it lures in wannabe scuba divers with promises of PADI courses, a paradisiacal coastline and rustic eateries. The biggest prize on offer though, is a chance to see Old Tom saunter past.

British seaside towns

The Great British beach holiday is back in vogue. Ruth-Ellen Davis rounds up the best coastal resorts for a summer staycation.

1) Margate, Kent

Eating fish ‘n’ chips on the promenade. Licking ice-lollies on the beach. Paddling in the surf with your trousers rolled up. Think of the quintessential British beach holiday and Margate might well come to mind.

One of the original Victorian seaside towns, like so many others it was abandoned by holidaymakers in the 1990s when low-cost airlines promised better things abroad. But today this down-at-heel resort is enjoying a renaissance thanks to an influx of artists, high-speed rail links with London and the reopening of Dreamland, the UK’s oldest pleasure park.

2) Brighton, Sussex

A lack of sand hasn’t stopped Brighton from establishing itself as the UK’s coolest beach town. With its anything-goes attitude, hip inhabitants (Nick Cave lives here) and pier filled with classic attractions, this kitsch seaside resort is a whole lot of fun.

Its winding Lanes are an Aladdin’s cave of retro trinkets, and there’s a good nod to the city’s green credentials – pick up everything from biodynamic wine to vegetarian shoes. This August marks the 25th anniversary of Brighton’s annual Pride parade: as the UK’s self-proclaimed gay capital, it’s sure to be one heck of a party.