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Coral Island Castaway: Great Barrier Reef

William Gray’s time on Heron Island nurtured a fledgling dream to become a photographer and writer.

First published in The Best Moment of Your Life, Lonely Planet

Reef Egret, Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef © William Gray
Reef Egret, Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef

Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Sitting under the whispering casuarina trees in the dunes above Shark Bay, I lingered after dusk. The noddies were there, as always, flying in close pairs as they skipped across the reef flat. Then other birds appeared amongst them, soaring and pirouetting through the smouldering embers of sunset. I felt my pulse quicken as first a dozen, then a hundred, then thousands of them gathered in the skies above Heron Island. The wedge-tailed shearwaters had returned! After months of ocean wandering, they had converged en-mass to breed on this 29-hectare speck of land. As darkness fell, I began to hear them crashing through the pisonia trees, landing with a thud on the forest floor. That’s when the magic began: the nocturnal song of the shearwater – a crooning, wailing chorus – ebbing and flowing across the island. I walked slowly into the forest and crouched a few feet from a pair already consumed by courtship. They sat facing each other, preening, rattling bills and uttering that haunting song. Nearby, another pair were busy excavating their burrow. The birds seemed oblivious to me. I spent the entire night watching them until, a couple of hours before dawn, they began to make their way towards the dunes. The whoops and yelps of their chorus reached a crescendo, and then I heard the sound of rapidly slapping webbed feet on well-worn sand as shearwaters launched themselves off the dune crests. By sunrise, most had vanished.

Take Away

On the night the shearwaters arrived, I had been living on Heron for over a month – a voluntary castaway, studying the island’s wildlife. In today’s world, bombarded by social media and 24hr news, it evokes a time when my clock reset to simple cues like day, night, tide and the seasonal rhythms of wildlife. It taught me to slow down, pause and look a little while longer.

The Build Up

Although scientists at Heron Island Research Station ( occasionally need volunteers, a less academic route to the coral cay is to base yourself at Heron Island Resort ( Accommodation (from A$330 per room per night, including breakfast) ranges from double rooms to luxurious suites. Located 89km off the Queensland coast, the island can be reached from Gladstone by boat (A$128 return) or seaplane (A$698 return). Around 35,000 wedge-tailed shearwaters arrive in early October, joining resident black noddies, reef egrets, buff-banded rails, Capricorn silvereyes and silver gulls. By December, around 100,000 birds are nesting on the island. Shearwater chicks hatch in February; the adults start leaving the island in April, followed by their young in May. The resort offers ranger-led birdwatching tours, or you can explore on your own, taking care to keep to paths and avoid trampling shearwater burrows. You can view nesting turtles from November to March (the hatchlings emerge from January to early June). Heron Island’s spectacular coral reef can be explored year-round (diving, snorkelling, guided reef walks, sea kayaking and semi-submarine tours are all available). Humpback whales are often sighted during July and August.

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