An eco resort on the Great Barrier Reef

On a tiny island at the bottom of the Great Barrier Reef, it takes a lot of planning and ingenuity to run a resort for tourists.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, Queensland, Australia

We’re standing beside a tree full of birds. The white-capped noddies, as they’re called, are watching us but not with any great sense of trepidation. They are fairly comfortable with humans and have learnt that the ones here are no threat to them these days. So they just watch as Kendall Steers, the maintenance attendant here on Lady Elliot Island, shows me the small wooden box that covers a water pump near the shore.

Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia

I wrote yesterday about the animals here on Lady Elliot Island. This small island at the southernmost point of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has some of the best examples of wildlife both in and out of the water. It is an ecological treasure chest that was lost at sea for many years but recently it has become a base for tourists and scientists who want to experience the wonders of the reef. But that has brought the challenge of accommodating visitors on an island 80 kilometres off the Queensland coast in an area with the highest classification of environmental protection. The only way in or out is on tiny little planes and that restricts the number of people who can visit each day.

Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia

That’s why Kendall is showing me the pump in this wooden box in the dunes at the top of the beach. It is quite small considering its importance to the operation of the island. Every day it pumps 75,000 litres of saltwater out of the Pacific Ocean and into a small shed further up the island. In this shed, the water is put through a high pressure machine that removes the salt and produces about 20,000 litres of drinkable fresh water.

Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia
Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia

“I think that is just completely amazing that we can take the saltwater and turn it into demineralised nice drinking water,” Kendall says.

“It’s fascinating but it’s through a simple process, through a bit of pressure, that you can create this. Most people don’t really understand that through the little pump there we’re supplying water to the whole resort.”

Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia

Many people who stay here on Lady Elliot Island probably don’t think too much about how it runs – but it’s much more complicated than your standard accommodation. There are only 41 rooms here and the resort itself describes them as “unpretentious”. That doesn’t mean they’re not comfortable – it just means they are fitting for the environment they’re in. Every part of this resort is sustainable because there’s no other option when you’re disconnected in the middle of the ocean.

Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia
Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia

The small desalination plant uses up about 30 per cent of the power that is produced on the island and a consistent supply of electricity is crucial for that and for things like the kitchen and lighting. About a third of the power comes from solar panels fitted on top of the buildings in the administration area. But the other two thirds come from diesel generators. Kendall isn’t completely happy about that and he’s working on a plan to start getting power from the wind.

Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia
Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia

“There’s so much wind around at certain times of the year, there’s no need to be burning that diesel. It’s saving you money, it’s saving the environment, it’s protecting everything around here. It’s a green zone and the people come here to be a part of that ecoresort.”

Looking to the future and trying to improve the operations here in Lady Elliot Island is part of Kendall’s job. But he’s also pretty busy just making sure that everything runs smoothly.

“Everything tends to break down. We’re in a very harsh environment with the salt. Corrosion is the number one thing that we fight. Everything gets that little bit of corrosion and it breaks down. So it’s just that constant battle with the elements and you’ve got to be there to maintain it and hold its hand.”

Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia

For most people who work on the operations side of things on the island, the key is good planning. Small items and fresh food come in on the small planes that bring new tourists every day but most things need to be ordered in advance. A barge comes from the mainland every 3 or 4 months and it’s important that everything that’s needed is on board. The cooks in the kitchen need to plan their meals well ahead of time to get most ingredients on that barge, maintenance workers need to think about everything that could break and make sure spares are sent across, and (most importantly) enough beer has to be brought across until the next trip!

Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia

To be as environmentally-friendly as possible, most of the rubbish from the island is then sent back on the empty barges. Only two types of waste stay. Food scraps are buried in the ground where they decompose naturally and glass is put through a special crushing machine and then scattered on land.

“With the glass-crusher, it’s an incredible saving,” Kendall explains.

“For a small outlay of a couple of thousand dollars, you can now crush tonnes of glass. Tonnes of glass mean no trips on the barge for those extra bins just full of bottles. And it’s biodegradable – it came from the sand, it’s going back in the sand. It’s not doing any harm to any of the wildlife here.”

Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia

Lady Elliot island was quite literally stripped bare in the late 1800s when businessmen saw the value in the guano (bird poo) that had accumulated. About 20,000 tonnes was mined off the surface and all the vegetation was removed to make this possible.

Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia
Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia

Tourism started in 1969 and the first version of the resort was built in 1985. It was from the days when tourists started visiting that the restoration of the environment became important. Australia began to see the importance of this special spot that had been so badly mistreated in the name of profit. Native trees were replanted and special ways to deliver nutrients to the tiny outcrops were implemented. A small nursery in the centre of the island is promoting the growth of the native pisonia trees.

Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia

Whatever goes on with the resort and the tourism on the island, it’s still this conservation which is key. Healthy trees bring seabirds which provide nutrients which completes the circle. Animals created this island and they are what will resurrect it. As Kendall Steers puts it:

“The environment is paramount. People come here for the environment, to see pristine wilderness and the aquatic life. That’s top of the line. If we can’t do something that’s effective and harmless to the environment then there’s another way to do it!”

Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Queensland but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

9 thoughts on “An eco resort on the Great Barrier Reef”

    • It’s all those little things that you don’t have to think about if you run accommodation in a well-connected populated area. I wonder how much energy and waste could be avoided if everyone did some of these things, regardless of whether they had to or not!

      Reply
  1. This is a bit similar to the resort we stayed at in the Maldives. Because of the remote location and that the island itself is really nothing more than a sandbar, the resort has to be completely self sustaining. Water is purified onsite and everything is re-usable or biodegradable so as to minimize the impact of the resort. It really makes you appreciate the opportunity to visit places like this when you realize just how much goes into creating resorts like this.

    Reply
    • And one of my biggest thoughts is why more places that don’t need to do this do it anyway? Apart from saving money by using solar, it’s good for the environment. Crushing the glass and then putting it back into the earth is cheaper than sending it off to landfill… and so on. It should be used as an example and not be the exception.

      Reply

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