Fitzroy Island Cairns: Best things to do at the Great Barrier Reef conservation HQ

Since I moved up to the tropical Far North, one of the places creeping up my must-visit list has been Fitzroy Island, an idyllic atoll 24km off the coast of Cairns, right on the Great Barrier Reef.

Weekends at the Fitzroy Island Resort are unsurprisingly booked some way ahead, so missing two days of primary school is looking like an attractive option. I speak to the principal. “It’s educational,” I say. “Of course it is,” he replies. “Have fun.”

On arriving at Marlin Marina in Cairns, we are stymied by the previous day’s Ironman triathlon. Instead of the promised plentiful parking, there’s a sea of bikes forlornly awaiting collection by their exhausted riders. By the time we’ve found an alternative arrangement, the Fitzroy Flyer has sailed. Lesson number one: schedule in time for the unforeseen.

A couple of hours and a new ferry booking later, we’re underway. Arriving at Fitzroy Island, a long timber jetty – legs planted in ridiculously aquamarine waters – bridges the white coral sand beach and leads directly to the reception of the island’s only resort. We drop our bags and hustle the 100m or so to the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre, where we are booked in for the afternoon tour.

Leilah the green sea turtle was brought in after being washed ashore on Cape York in 2017. At just a week old, she had ingested microplastics, causing an intestinal blockage that resulted in starvation. Today she is one of the long-timers at the rehab center; research has shown that keeping hatchlings until their carapace (the hard upper shell) is the size of a dinner plate doubles their chances of surviving into adulthood. She’ll be here for a while yet.

We hear about the threats Leilah and her fellow patients face from fishing, artificial light, and marine plastics. Turtles like Leilah are known as floaters – this common condition is caused by a build-up of gas in the turtle’s body. After she ate marine debris, her gastrointestinal tract was blocked, and the unreleased gas kept her afloat on the surface of the water, which stopped her diving for food, and made her a sitting target for predators and boat traffic. But the main issue facing our turtle population is global warming. The sex of sea turtles is determined by the temperature of the eggs in the sandy nest – below 27C the turtle hatchlings will be male and above 32C they’ll all be female. Lesson number two: climate change is causing a crisis in sea turtle sex ratios.

Snorkelling at Fitzroy Reef Lagoon. Picture: Darren Jew
Snorkelling at Fitzroy Reef Lagoon. Picture: Darren Jew

The next morning, we’re up bright and early for a snorkel off the beach at White Rock. Fitzroy Island is one of the few holiday islands where you can – tide permitting – wade out onto the reef. Almost the first thing we see is one of those glorious green sea turtles (female, I’m thinking), nibbling on the seagrass just below us. The waters are teeming with fish – parrotfish, butterflyfish, angelfish, clownfish, and the occasional small whitetip shark – swimming in and out of the corals.

The reef here is well preserved, with beautiful colonies of hard and soft corals, and the cover remains good despite the back-to-back bleaching events of 2016 and 2017. The Reef Restoration Foundation (RRF) established a coral nursery in the waters just off Fitzroy Island in 2017 – the first coral propagation project on the Great Barrier Reef. Later that day I chat to CEO Ryan Donnelly, who explains that before 2017 “reef restoration” wasn’t permitted. That changed when a reef summit in May of that year revealed that since 1982 there had been at least 10 bleaching events and they’ve been spreading further south into the cooler waters. (In the 400 years to 1982, there were none.)

Snorkelling with a turtle at White Rock. Picture: Tom Park
Snorkelling with a turtle at White Rock. Picture: Tom Park

The RRF adopted a coral propagation method that was pioneered in the Caribbean, using tree frames suspended in the water. This allows rapid coral growth because the fragments grow spherically and get greater access to sunlight for photosynthesis. The nursery here currently has 30 trees. Volunteer divers collect “fragments of hope” – small pieces of coral that have been dislodged by wave action – which are then grown into colonies and planted back onto the reef.

Fitzroy Island is the RRF’s “learning landscape” and plans are already underway to scale up the project to other sites. They work on a shoestring budget, supported by the local tourism industry, which provides access to the reef from the mainland while the Fitzroy Island Resort helps with accommodation and dive equipment. Recently, smartphone company Oppo came on board, creating an augmented-reality app, Recolour the Reef, which shows what happens to a reef when weather events cause stress. Lesson three: we don’t have to stand by and watch our natural wonders fade before our eyes.

Foxy's Cafe at Fitzroy Island Resort. Picture: Tom Park
Foxy’s Cafe at Fitzroy Island Resort. Picture: Tom Park

But Fitzroy is not all work and no play. This beautiful island resort has so many simple pleasures to offer. We spend an exhilarating afternoon hiking the rainforest tracks. The steep path up to the old lighthouse, built on the site of a World War II radar station, offers views to Green Island on a clear day and, if you’re lucky, perhaps a migrating humpback whale. The award-winning Nudey Beach (ranked number one of Australia’s Top 101 Beaches Awards in 2018) is another top snorkeling spot, and its whiter-than-white coral sand is even better viewed from a glass-bottomed boat tour. We watch the sun sink into the Coral Sea from a beachside table at friendly Foxy’s Bar & Grill.

On the ferry back to the mainland (impossible to miss), the kids are full of conversation about everything we’ve seen and learned. Idyllic tropical holiday? Absolutely. Educational? For all of us.

En route from Fitzroy Island. Picture: Tom Park
En route from Fitzroy Island. Picture: Tom Park

Escape route

Get to Fitzroy Island aboard the Fitzroy Flyer ferry.

Learn about local turtle rehabilitation at the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre.

Check out the Reef Restoration Foundation’s Coral Nurseries Great Barrier Reef project.

Stay at Fitzroy Island Resort.

Explore the island and book activities: fitzroyisland.com/tours-day-trips

More information: fitzroyisland.com

This article originally appeared on Escape and do not necessarily represent the views of australiaexploring.com The writer was a guest of Oppo Australia, a corporate partner of the Reef Restoration Foundation.

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