Lady Elliot Island

Lady Elliot sustainable tourism island

Is it alright to take a plane to a faraway location in order to protect nature?

Earlier I wrote already how the unique Galapagos Islands would be destroyed if tourists would stop flying to these islands. The Lady Elliot
Sustainable Island Eco Resort is a small scale example where the benefits of tourism outweigh the contamination from flying.

Lady Ellios Island with goatsThe history of Lady Elliot Island

In 1863 arrived the first guano (bird poop used for fertilization) miners on Lady Elliot Island. They stayed for only a decade, during which time roughly 3 feet of surface soil was removed. Their destructive practice of extracting the guano from the soil resulted in the removal of all the vegetation present except for the eight Pisonia trees which still remain today surrounding the bistro of the Lady Elliot Resort. To make things worse; in an attempt to help stranded sailors, the Queensland Government placed goats on each of the islands on the Great Barrier Reef. Unfortunately, this prevented any new growth to properly establish resulting in a barren island until the late 1960’s.

Barren Lady Elliot IslandIn 1968 the skilled aviator, Mr Don Adams spotted Lady Elliot from the air. Intrigued with the place he decided to organize a team and navigate on a barge to the island to build an airstrip. It took them only one day and the air strip is still in use today. It is the only strip constructed on a coral cay in Queensland. Originally the only infrastructure on the island was a lighthouse, which was built in 1872. After the airstrip, Mr Adams built a cabin for the many tourists he dreamt would eventually visit the island. Hard work was put in, with his wife Moya by his side, as they also began to rebuild the island’s vegetation. Their re-vegetation program using shrubs and seedlings of native plants from the nearby Great Barrier Reef Islands and from the mainland. Sometimes Mr Adams would even load his plane up with 18-litre drums of fresh water and fly it to the island to water the trees he planted. Don’s conservation efforts have made Lady Elliot the beautiful wildlife sanctuary it is today and provided the nesting areas for the second highest diversity of seabirds on the Great Barrier Reef.

Manta Ray around Lady Elliot IslandThe challanges for Peter and Julie

Peter Gash, who first visited the island in 1980 as a 21-year-old motorbike racer, was struck by the impact of mining on the island compared to the nearby, un-mined, Lady Musgrave. Peter continued to visit the island and often talked to the then lease-holder Don Adams. Peter started flying seaplanes of tourists to and from Lady Musgrave and eventually nabbed an opportunity to buy the air service. When the opportunity arose to bid for the lease on Lady Elliot Island from the Commonwealth Government, he was ready. He had to go into serious debt, while hoping it would pay off in the long run. From the start, Peter and his wife Julie continued Don Adams re-vegetation plan, planting more and more trees, breaking off the limbs and sticking them straight into the coral ground. “I had no money so we were up against the wall and it wasn’t very successful because we were just putting it into hard coral”, says Peter.

Sustainable tree plantingHow tree planting helped the coral reef

The pair sought advice from a National Parks agronomist on using introduced species to bring back nutrients, before transitioning to purely indigenous species. With the help of friends, who dedicated hours of volunteer labor, their hard work started to pay off. Now, thousands of trees have been planted and thousands more are being grown in the island nursery. “For me personally, it’s just a great feeling that things are getting better. But it also means that more guests are coming out and they spend money and we can then put that money back into the island,” says Peter. While he always believed the revegetation would be good for the island and the many birds that come to roost and nest, he has since discovered it’s also good for the coral. “Birds come back to the trees, their poo falls to the ground, mixes with the vegetation and soaks down into the sub-strata which is quite a porous,” he said. “We have now started to learn that the sea water comes in and meets the freshwater which is rich in nutrients — nitrogen and phosphorous — and this is then taken out in very fine concentrations. Scientists have always thought nutrients are bad for coral, but we’re finding that in these very fine concentrations, it is very good for corals. The island now has even better coral than anyone could have imagined”.

Turtle and coral around Lady ElliotThe sustainable island

Peter and Julie also sought to ensure energy use on the island to be fully sustainable. They imported many solar panels, made the desalination plant more efficient, and even installed an expensive compost machine to replace the inefficient (and smelly) system of burying the food waste in a pit.

For Peter and Julie, Lady Elliot has never been about making a profit, but about living a sustainable life on the island. The couple draws a wage from their aviation business; with everything they make extra re-injected back into the island, either into tourist infrastructure, such as boats and accommodation, or into the revegetation program. “It’s giving back to us. My business is booming because people want to come to one of the best places on the reef. I gave to the island and it’s giving back to me,” Peter said. “I just care for the future of the planet, not just for humans but for all the species. We humans are amazing creatures but we make mistakes. In the end we can all make a difference and the planet is saveable. We’re all in this together. We’re all one family.”

Lady Elliot Sustainable Island ResortHow flying can be sustainable

Widely credited for setting the benchmark for sustainable island tourism in Australia, the family-friendly resort reached its 100% renewable goal in 2020. No small feat for a 150-bed hotel in the middle of the ocean, some 80km from mainland Bundaberg, especially since this large distance comes with its own challenges. All tourists arrive at the Lady Elliot Island Resort by plane. But it are not only local operators who believe that tourism nonetheless plays an important role in helping to safeguard this natural wonder. “The economic force of tourism helped to push the creation of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park over the line in the first place,” says Dr. Kathy Townsend, a marine biologist and senior lecturer at the University of the Sunshine Coast.And now, in the face of climate change, tourism provides a strong economic incentive to keep the reef alive.”

With the widely use of electric planes becoming more realistic, I personally believe that tourists should continue to visit Lady Elliot Island where their money is being invested in sustainable tourism and a sustainable planet for everyone.

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