Heading into Heron Island, I wasn’t totally sure what to expect. I anticipated the whole no internet/phone thing, even looked forward to it, and I knew to expect supple beach time and snorkeling access. However, I don’t think anyone really could have prepared me for the week I had. We started off the journey to Heron Island at midnight on Friday loading onto buses for a long, 8-hour overnight drive to Gladstone. In Gladstone, we had a quick breakfast and last bit of wifi at Mcdonalds (essentially the only thing in Gladstone) before we boarded a ferry that would transport us 80 kilometers off the coast of Australia to Heron Island. The ferry was pretty small, especially compared to the massive ferry we took to Picton while in New Zealand, and the ocean was notoriously rough. That is a nasty combo. We were warned that it would be rough, though, so I took pretty much every precaution possible to avoid getting sick. Thankfully, we had the “smoothest” trip in several years and I don’t think any of us got sick. After 2 hours we docked on the tiny island (only about 40 acres total) it was easy to see why this place had been described as paradise. Located directly on the Great Barrier Reef, Heron Island is listed in the top ten diving & snorkeling locations in the world. However, the abundance of marine life was complemented by an abundance of terrestrial life.. and most of that was birds. This tiny island is home to nearly 150,000 birds. As you can well imagine, getting pooped on seemed inevitable as gross as that sounds. Most people experienced this multiple times; while I myself did not, I realized later that a lot of my stuff did. Like my towel, which is really gross and possibly worse.
Anyways, we were promptly led into orientation for the Heron Island Research Station. That’s where we stayed for the entirety of the week. The only other visitors the island gets are at the resort which costs, at its cheapest, around $400 a night. During our orientation we met a few researchers and got our rooming assignments: 8 people per room, no air conditioning, topped off with community style bathrooms in a separate building. Don’t get the wrong idea, it was fabulous. The accommodations may not have been the most luxurious, but what’s more bonding than wearing a total of 3 articles of clothing for an entire week without showering? Needless to say, we have all pretty much seen each other at our finest. Shortly following orientation, we were each assigned our own mask, snorkel, fins and wet suit that we would have to use at our discretion all week. It took maybe ten minutes for everyone to hop in the water and check out our gear. Since we were on a nationally protected marine reserve, we were briefed on snorkeling & coral etiquette also. On the way back to the research station for dinner, we got to witness something last year’s group went all week without getting the pleasure of seeing: a hatching turtle making its way out to the ocean! A nearby researcher informed us that this hatchling was alone because he hatched four days late and was therefore slow and weak. That didn’t deter about 30 of us from lining a path down the beach to cheer him on the whole way. It took forever but nobody was in any hurry to leave. It was the cutest thing I had ever experienced I think. After several minutes, our little buddy finally made it our to sea! He swam along for approximately 10 seconds before the most horrific thing happened. A seagull swooped straight down and picked up this little baby that we had invested so much in. Everyone started screaming and chasing after it; one girl even went as far as throwing rocks at it unless it dropped the baby back into the water. It was quite the emotional experience. Little did we know, we would end up seeing hundreds upon hundreds more babies hatch throughout our time on the island.
As I mentioned in my last post, classes on Heron Island were a little different than our other class schedules. We had a “donut-hole” schedule where classes were scheduled from 8 am – 12 pm and 7 pm – 10 pm in order to have afternoons free to dive or snorkel or just hang out. While everyday was different, a pretty typical day could go like this:
5:30 am- Wake up to watch sunrise, possibly spot some mama turtles on the beach as we were on the island during nesting season. Start snorkeling by 6 am, head out to shipwreck or jetty area that was prohibited at other times of the day. Breakfast at 7 am then either class or beach until lunch at noon. Afternoons were spent reading/napping on the beach, laying in the shallow lagoon during low tide, snorkeling or diving. Dinner at 5:30 then head out to the jetty to watch the sunset which was, by the way, always stunning. Some classes were at night at 7 pm lasting until 10 pm, and if you didn’t have class you were either studying or playing cards or Bananagrams in the dining area. We played A LOT of cards that week. Later at night we would head out to the jetty or beach with blankets and gaze at an obscene amount of stars before heading to bed to repeat it all the next day.
We had one free day on the island that I spent waking up at the crack of dawn to snorkel, then eating a quick breakfast before heading to the resort’s dive shop to hop on a snorkeling boat. It was pretty cheap and super worth it because we got to see so much more than just snorkeling right off the beach. And I got to *attempt* to take a selfie with a sea turtle. He wasn’t having it but its fine because it was awesome to swim alongside a sea turtle. Like what? The rest of the day was spent hanging out on the beach, mostly in the shade at this point, and you guessed it, playing cards. It was the closest a single day could ever get to perfection I’d say.
Even looking back a week and a half later, I already miss this place. It was such a unique and incredible opportunity to see part of the earth relatively untouched by humans. The lack of phone and internet made me literally waste ZERO time in front of a screen instead of outside enjoying God’s creation. I read two books that week on top of classwork (which I won’t lie, was at an all-time minimum) and got to spend so much undisturbed time getting to know really great friends that I can’t imagine doing life without when this program is over. We now have less than three weeks left of the program and while I miss my family, friends, and American food like crazy, I refuse to think about leaving yet! I promise to have Sydney updates soon about my experience cooking for 35 people, my birthday in the city, and my weekend in the Blue Mountains!