A stay at Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef combines discovery with relaxation, writes Debbie Neilson-Hunter.
The adult female green turtle lies still as a rock, her greyish green, weathered body slumped - exhausted - in the hot coral sands. As we creep closer, one eye opens, stopping us in our tracks. Totally unfazed by our presence, she soon nods back off.
We stare in awe for several minutes, quietly elated with our first close encounter with one of the Great Barrier Reef's most endangered locals. In the space of 24 hours we've seen a school of reef sharks and rays, a humpback whale and now a turtle - and we haven't even got wet yet.
It happens that our visit to Australia's greatest natural wonder has coincided with the height of the breeding season (October) for green and loggerhead turtles. It's not uncommon for the females to beach themselves to rest.
In the months that follow they'll return to the beaches to lay their eggs deep in the sand. By January thousands of turtle hatchlings will scramble to the surface and race - en masse - to the safety of the opalescent Coral Sea.
Our A-reserve seat for this natural spectacle is Heron Island - a small, mollusc-shaped coral cay within the Capricorn Cays National Park just off the Queensland coast on the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef.
We join the 30,000 visitors a year who come to marvel at the reef's colourful inhabitants. Finding Nemo is our purpose but we're soon goggle-eyed by more than a cute clownfish.
Small enough to walk around in 20 minutes, the island itself is a natural bird sanctuary. Shaded by pandanus, casuarina and pisonia forests, thousands of mutton birds and black noddy terns come here to roost. At low tide the surrounding reefs provide a seafood smorgasbord for wading birds like egrets (originally thought to be herons - hence the island's name). Their presence is felt all over the island, in their noisy chattering in the trees, the constant flapping and the smell of droppings. Hats are essential attire, even on cloudy days.
Offering 109 rooms and suites all with balconies and terraces (and a private beach house), a saltwater pool, dive centre, bar, lounge and restaurant serving a mix of
buffet and a la carte meals thrice daily, the island's four-star resort is managed (and recently upgraded) by Delaware North Parks & Resorts. It's part of a collection of five premium Australian properties which includes Heron's closest neighbour Wilson Island.
The first tourists appeared as far back as the 1950s. Old photos in the resort's information centre reveal these early visitors showed little concern for the welfare of the surrounding reef or its inhabitants then - riding on the turtles' backs and souveniring shells. Incredibly, Heron was also the site of a turtle cannery from 1925-28.
Fortunately, great steps have been taken since to preserve the delicate nature of the corals and marine life. Parts of the cannery's gantry is all that's left. Today, it marks a popular snorkelling spot.
So while Heron is a great destination to chill out (with no mobile phone coverage to distract you) or try snorkelling or diving for the first time, education is another key element of any family holiday here. In fact, it became the highlight of our stay for my two water babies.
Heron Island's Junior Rangers school holiday program combines activities like beach combing and tree planting with beach games and traditional schoolroom lessons to entertain and educate visitors aged seven to 12 about their World Heritage-listed surroundings.
Touching a squishy sea cucumber and studying sea stars (starfish) to see which species can flip off their back onto their tummies the fastest at the island's Queensland University research station only inspired my youngsters' quest for knowledge .
"And did you know they eat through their bottoms?" Miss Seven queried me on her return.
"School is never this much fun," they constantly quip over three days as they learn about various Marine Meanies that harpoon, sting, stab or bite; pull weeds out of native garden beds as concerned Coral Cay Carers; and discover how by water, wings and wind, Heron was transformed into a thriving island outpost. Their efforts earn them three highly sought after cloth badges.
As well as being provided a junior ranger souvenir cap and workbook on registration, there are 10 of these rewards to collect to earn the ultimate prize - the Junior Ranger badge - which can be achieved in under a week in class as well as participating in the island's wide list of visitor activities - which includes forest and reef walks, fishing and snorkelling trips and even stargazing.
The program runs for 90 minutes in the morning and afternoon as long as there are three willing participants. Judging by the enthusiastic turnout on our trip, rarely will the kids miss out. While they're kept busy, parents can enjoy some rare free time.
This was my chance to hit the island's Aqua Soul Spa for a long-awaited massage. Before panoramic windows that provide views of the island's densely vegetated interior, Kaye, from Burleigh on the Gold Coast, lets me choose from the spa's range of Li'Tya essential massage oils. I go with the re-harmonising blend for its refreshing mandarin scent.
Li'Tya, an Aboriginal word meaning "of the earth", is based on indigenous Australian plant knowledge and healing principles. My treatment also begins with a traditional smoking ritual, designed, I'm told, "to bring you into the moment and prepare you to receive your treatment - while balancing the energy in the room".
The curling plume - perfumed with native gum, lemon myrtle and melaleuca - has the desired effect.
As I drift off Kaye works her magic, kneading and smoothing out more knots than an ancient paperbark. While it was over all too soon, I couldn't be disappointed as I'd promised the kids an afternoon's underwater adventure we'd never forget. Truer words were never spoken.
The writer was a guest of Heron Island.
Heron island is 72km north-east of Gladstone. Qantas and Virgin Australia fly regularly to Gladstone. Transfer options include a catamaran from Gladstone Marina, helicopter or chartered seaplane. The island operates an hour ahead of mainland Queensland time.
A three-night Turtle Season Escape starts from $597 a person twin share including accommodation, all meals, snorkel hire, boat transfers and a $50 resort credit each day. Children 12 years and under stay, eat and snorkel for free. Phone 1300 863 248.
The Junior Rangers program costs $15 a child and includes a hat, workbook, badges and program activities for the duration of your stay.
Note: Heron Island reopens February 2nd after a brief closure, pending favourable weather.