Situated 35 nautical miles from the coast and 51 (100 kilometres) north of the Port of Bundaberg. It sits on a submerged ridge on the Australian continental shelf which goes on northwards to form reef fringed coral cays and submerged reefs, where it rises close to the ocean's surface, as it has here. Lady Musgrave Island Fairfax Island, which is visible from where we spend the day plus, Hoskins and Boult reefs form the Bunker Group. Lady Elliot Island, on its own, 22 nautical miles South East, is the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. It is not visible on our trip.
The island was named after Jeannie the American born wife of a Queensland Governor Sir Anthony Musgrave. It is some 14 hectares (35 acres) in area. Properly described as a wooded sandy cay. It has been built by wind driven waves pushing coral rubble, sand and broken shells to one end of the reef. Now it is held together by the roots of trees and shrubs fertilised by droppings, called "Guano", from countless sea birds, who feed on fish plucked from the ocean, and rest and breed on the island. There is no soil or rocks there anywhere near the ocean's surface, such as we know of on land. Any soil you might see comes from sand, the guano and a compost of dead leaves and trees.
The lagoon is surrounded by a great oblong coral ring striving to grow outwards which has collapsed in the centre. Overall the reef and lagoon covers about 1,190 hectares (3,000 acres). Yachts and trawlers anchor in the lagoon after entering through the entrance we use, which is the only Deepwater access. There is several metres of water over the reef at high tide but many boats have come to grief trying to cross it whether by design or accident. This entrance is now carved and cleared like a river bed by water rushing through it with the ebb and flow of each tide. Some people claim it was made or widened by Japanese guano miners but such entrances are common in similar reef formations.
History: The guano was removed from the island and taken to Japan for fertiliser around 1900. Goats were turned loose to be food for shipwrecked sailors. History does not relate any being caught. They destroyed most of the vegetation and were removed when the island and reef became a National and Marine Park. Now it is considered a very special place and no coral or shells can be taken away - nothing but memories, photographs and a few scratched if you are not careful. Get some antiseptic from our crew. Seawater itself is antiseptic but coral is quite infectious.
A small holiday resort was built by two Bundaberg entrepreneurs in the1930's in the area now used for camping. The outbreak of war in 1939 forced its closure but for a time it was very popular. Then, some goats did find their way into the evening stew. In his memoirs Stan Bell say that twice the sea was so calm and clear that their boat and the fish in the lagoon seemed to be floating in air; the sea was simply so clear it was invisible. There is often an opportunity to see the reef outline as the we go past the island and through the entrance into the lagoon. It is quite narrow with vertical coral walls marked by two steel tripods. Another marks a hazard just inside.
Coral grows slowly outwards and upwards until it reaches a point where the tide leaves it dry too long to survive. This is why the best coral is seen on the edge of the outcrops called Bomboras or "Bomies". Even so it is a strange and majestic sight to see the reef appear when the tide is low. This provided a chance to walk or wade carefully from the island's sandy beach onto the reef to see black sea slugs, small clams, blue linkia starfish, coral and crabs. Many small things hide under little coral boulders such as sea urchins which have a profusion of stinging spikes protruding from their shell. Even dead looking shells often have a hermit crab inside. This is one "caring for nature" reason to leave even an empty shell for them to use.
On The Great Barrier Reef there are more than 350 species of coral and most of these are here at Lady Musgrave Island waiting to be seen. We tend to think of the hard limestone shapes as "coral" but really coral is both hard and soft almost like grass. The more interesting hard scratchy shapes we look at are formed as home by the tiny coral polyps. They live together in colonies using calcium carbonate, extracted from the water along with their minute planktonic food.
The coral polyps are carnivores and act individually but are linked by a strand of common flesh so that one's food helps the others. They reproduce by releasing sperm and eggs into the water at a special time each year. If egg and sperm meet, a tiny larvae forms which, with luck and a little mobility of its own, may find a suitable place for a new colony. This is usually on dead coral limestone but sometimes one will grow over another. If a place is found it changes to a polyp or bell like shape and eventually begins to divide and multiply into a new colony. The way each specie divides makes the shapes we see. Colour generally comes from the polyps flesh or tentacles. There is no colour in the limestone shapes they leave behind. Dead or deserted coral is collected and painted for sale. Its natural dead state can be seen, bleached white, on the island's shore. Unfortunately most polyps are nocturnal and do not put on their best display in daylight. Even so we see tinges of colour and the various shapes as they grow like Stag's horns, a brain or boulder and beautiful wafer thin dinner plates. The soft grass like corals are there all the time but are not so obvious.
The fish living amongst the coral are the most striking in shape and colour. Some have sweeping fins and a false eye near their tail; to baffle predators. Remember it is not a safe place as little fish are eaten by bigger fish. The coral give small fish some safety but predators lurk there too. Other fish feed on the coral polyps, crunching their limestone home into sand as they go. They can be seen doing this when the tide is rising over the reef. The Beche De Mere or black sea slug consume coral and give back sand too; in their own way. Then there are fish that live amongst the soft waving branches of an anemone which can sting us. The anemone fish is immune and safe there. In return they actually gather food and feed it to the (their) anemone. Out in the clear water silver trevally swim; often near the pontoon hoping for a free lunch while long trumpet fish rest in the shade underneath.
Great broad leafed Pisonia trees (P.Grandis) dominate the island interior; soft wooded and shallow rooted they sometimes topple in storms but live in a tangled mat of trunks and roots. A smaller palm like tree; the Pandanus (P.tectorius) thrives around the island's edge on strong roots that bind the soil and sand. Their pineapple like seeds are said to be edible, tasting like rope but beware they are good laxatives too. Casuarinas thrive in the open spaces their fine leaves giving shade and sighing in the summer breeze. Silver leafed Tournefortia grace the foreshores and Sandpaper Figs find spaces inland to their liking.
Bird lovers can find some 50 species on the island. some spend all year there while others such as the white capped Noddy Tern come in their thousands to nest and raise their young; one chick per couple. The first comers arrive in October and claim the choice sites high up in the trees. Late comers have to settle for a spot only a metre off the ground. They are safe there and are quiet and trusting. We take the bigger risk by looking up to meet some guano coming down. Most of the chicks and adults leave by April. If they stay too long the chicks can become entangled in the sticky seed pods of the Pisonia trees. Wedge tailed Shearwaters or Mutton Birds, who were once hunted for their oil, nest in burrows dug amongst the Pisonia's roots. Their day is spent at sea flying easily on the wind eddies. Returning to land at dusk is not their strong point and they often crash into the trees and tumble noisily to the ground. This must put them in a bad mood as they squawk and squabble all through the night. One pities their poor offspring for this and also because they desert them without handing on their flying skills. somehow the young teach themselves to fly but, as pilot's know, landing is harder than taking off.
Turtles which are cold blooded placid creatures become quite amorous in October - it mating time. both Green (Chelonia mydas) and Loggerhead (Caretta caretta) females will soon struggle up the sand to lay their many eggs in deep sandy holes, she digs with her hind flippers, above the high water mark where they are safe. Ten weeks of incubation follow; where their gender is controlled by sand's temperature, The baby turtles hatch and dash for the water. This is feeding time for sea bird and fish; not many make.
Egg laying takes place on a dark night at high tide. Its spectacular to see but must be done with great care. Any light shone into the female turtle's eyes while she comes up the beach will frighten her to the sea that night's chance to lay her eggs lost. Maybe she will try again the next night but conditions for laying are limited.