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Heron calls, and Lady Elliot beckons

Special to The Times

I raced a turtle, and it won. Of course, it was 25 feet underwater, and I had on a scuba tank and weight belt.

The 4-foot-long green turtle seemed to toy with me, staying just ahead of the camera frame as I struggled to swim alongside and have my fellow diver get the shot. The turtle indulged us briefly before gliding over creamy-white staghorn coral and heading toward sunny shallower waters.

Being a turtle here is easier these days than it was in the 1920s, when the island was the site of a turtle soup factory. Fortunately for the turtles, the soup company was short lived, and the old canning factory was replaced by the nature-sensitive Heron Island Resort.

Heron Island, 45 miles off the mainland, is an appealing alternative to the crowded dive sites and jammed boats that ply the waters off Cairns and Port Douglas to the north. Instead of being ferried out to a distant reef with hundreds of other tourists, my girlfriend, Virginia, and I chose to stay four days and nights at this newly refurbished vacation spot that's just 42 acres and barely a mile around.

P&O Australian Resorts, the owner/operator, spent about $3 million in 2001 to spruce up the facilities, including replacing cottages that dated to the 1930s, when Heron Island catered to commercial fishermen.

Today this idyllic cay on the Great Barrier Reef is also a national park and part of a marine sanctuary where turtles and other creatures are protected. The island, nearly bisected by the Tropic of Capricorn, is surrounded by a huge turquoise lagoon, perfect for exploring at low tide. On the edge of the outer reef, colorful sea creatures and coral abound.

The term "Great Barrier Reef" is a bit misleading. It is not a solid wall, as its name suggests, but a system of various reefs -- fringe reefs that grow along the mainland and around islands, ribbon reefs and platform reefs that emerge from the continental shelf.

The reef system is a boon for divers, but it wasn't for early seamen. English navigator Matthew Flinders, who in 1803 became the first known explorer to circumnavigate Australia, compared getting through the reef to threading a needle. Long before he became a captain, Lt. James Cook nearly sank the Endeavour after striking the reef.

The first recorded visit to Heron Island was in 1843 during a survey of the reef system to mark safe passage. A geologist on board mistook the large number of egrets for reef herons and named the place Heron Island.

Heron reopens for business

For the second time in as many years, Virginia and I journeyed to this island group at the southern end of the 1,200-mile-long reef system for scuba diving and relaxation. Both of us have logged scores of dives at various spots in the Caribbean and Pacific, but my first time underwater with a scuba tank was at the Great Barrier Reef years before. It opened up a magical world.

An expatriate American friend living in Queensland had recommended the southern Great Barrier Reef a couple of years ago as an affordable, low-key getaway. Heron Island, our first choice, was closed because of the remodeling, so we went elsewhere.

But the wait for Heron was worth it.

The evening of our arrival, we were treated to a stunning sunset as the sky turned shades of chalky purple, mauve and pink, while the moon rose on the opposite side. We took a leisurely walk around tiny Heron and got acquainted with the soft sand beaches.

Regardless of how you arrive at Heron -- we drove from Brisbane in a rental car and took a catamaran, while others helicopter in -- you must be careful where you tread. Along some paths, mutton birds live in burrows in the sand, but wooden boards with warning signs are placed over nests to keep them safe.

The 30,000 people who visit Heron Island annually seem to coexist peacefully with the wildlife and birds -- black noddies, brown boobies and frigate birds that migrate from as far as Siberia and western Alaska. Half the island is covered by a dense forest of Pisonia trees, which grow up to 60 feet and are laden with ramshackle nests. There are a couple of walking trails through the forest, but it was eerily quiet when we were there, many of the birds having departed after their noisy nesting season.

The resort's 109 rooms and suites are clustered on the other side of the island in fourplex buildings linked by a network of sandy paths. None of the structures is more than two stories high.

We booked a one-room reef suite for $110 per person per day, including food, but were inexplicably upgraded to a two-room ocean-facing suite. (I did not mention I was a journalist.) It was spacious and furnished with new wicker chairs and tables, colorful bedspreads and curtains. We had a sitting room, small refrigerator, ceiling fan, private balcony and plenty of soft, plush towels.

The guest rooms have no television or telephones, although there are public phones and an Internet kiosk near the reception area. There are also daily cartoon screenings and movies for kids in a central hall, as well as movies for grown-ups and news broadcasts.

The prices include meals, picnic hampers and activities such as tennis and guided stargazing. Massages, wine-and-cheese sunset cruises, scenic helicopter flights and a nature-based "junior ranger" program for children are available at extra cost.

Each morning we could choose from a hearty Aussie breakfast consisting of cereals, fruits, cheese, eggs, bacon, sausage, stewed tomatoes and baked beans. Lunch is an extensive smorgasbord, and dinner consists of a theme buffet or menu that features such entrees as fillet, mahi-mahi, baked breast of chicken or pasta. On Saturdays there is an extensive seafood buffet.

A pleasant lounge and bar overlook the lagoon. At night we sat on the terrace drinking in the moonlight off the water and watching the tiki torches flicker in the balmy breeze.

But marine life is really the star attraction. Even those who don't want to take the plunge into the warm tropical water or take advantage of scuba and snorkel lessons need not be deprived; they can view underwater sights from a semi-submersible boat.

We had come for the underwater spectacle. Our dive boat departed a couple of hundred yards from our suite for two nearby dives in the morning, arriving back in time for lunch. Our only diving complaint was that the visibility, at times, was less than optimum, perhaps as a result of a recent squall or harbor dredging on the island.

On our first dive, we saw brain coral, feather starfish, delicate fan coral and giant clams with vibrant purple lips. We saw fish that looked as though they had been painted by a psychedelic artist run amok. The big spotted triggerfish is straight out of a cartoon, with its orange clown lips, coal black body, puffs of white on its underbelly, yellow stripes and dorsal leopard spots.

The reef surrounding Heron Island is home to about 900 of the 1,500 species of fish and more than 70% of the coral species found on the Great Barrier Reef. The abundance of specimens attracts scientists from the University of Queensland, which has operated a research station here for 50 years.

There are sharks, but divers become accustomed to swimming near them. In three days of diving we got within 10 to 15 feet of sharks but were more fascinated than frightened. The menacing species, such as tiger sharks, are rarely seen in these waters; great whites usually stay in colder waters.

The creatures we saw on nearly every dive were white-tipped reef sharks. Although they can grow up to 5 feet or so, most are smaller, tend to shy away when approached and dart off when a diver makes sudden movements.

There are manta rays with wingspans of 12 feet and more that frequent the waters around here too, particularly near Lady Elliot Island, 80 miles away, slightly larger than Heron and fringed by a picturesque lagoon and reef.

A simpler sister island

We spent three days on Lady Elliot the year before, when Heron was closed. The 40 units were more spartan; we stayed in an older but comfortable two-bedroom that overlooked the lagoon.

Including round-trip air fare from the mainland and two meals a day (less fancy than Heron Island), our tab was about $400 each for a three-night stay.

Some notable shipwrecks are associated with this island. On one of our dives, we checked out the wreck of a 70-foot sailboat that lay on its side about 70 feet below the surface, its sails flapping helplessly in the currents. We hovered over the deck, along with a huge grouper, and peered into the interior for any trace of the moray eel we were told had taken up residence in the galley.

Lady Elliot and Heron are prime locations to watch close up the nesting and hatching of loggerhead and green turtles. From December to February, the terrapins haul up on the beach, dig nests and lay eggs. From mid-January to late April, the hatchlings emerge and scurry to the sea, usually at night in groups of 100 or more.

Humpback whale pods pass between June and October. They migrate from their feeding grounds in the Antarctic to an area north of the Barrier Reef where they give birth and mate before making the return trip.

We saw no whales, but we were perfectly content to sit on our porch between dives. We were mere specks on a beach built by the limestone secretions of millions of coral polyps and the bones of a few unfortunate mariners.

Clark Mason is a writer living in Santa Rosa, Calif.

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