Welcome to Lizard Island, where you’ll find more cod and turtles than reptiles.
The Great Barrier Reef is a spectacular sight from the air. This is especially true when you’re in a small plane flying low enough to check out the seemingly never-ending expanse of coral formations, and the shifting, shimmering shapes of the largest collection of living organisms on Earth. The reef covers an incredible 2000km, along the east coast of Australia. The reef attracts more than 14 million people every year – to boat, fish, sail, dive, snorkel and swim. In the case of Lizard Island, however, visitors also come to hang out with cod. That might seem rather odd; but when you see these goofy spotted fish, you’ll agree that Lizard Island is one for the bucket list.
The 10-square-kilometre, super-secluded paradise in the Outer Great Barrier Reef can only be reached by small planes from Cairns. The island has pristine white-sand beaches, hundreds of awesome diving spots and myriad walking trails. There’s no mobile phone reception and only one place to get on the web – if you really must.
Luxury accommodation on Lizard Island
Lizard Island Resort is the place to be. It has one sprawling open-air restaurant that just screams ‘chill out’ and 35 bungalows surrounded by palm trees and tropical gardens. The piece de resistance is The Pavilion, which sits atop a soaring ridge commanding panoramic ocean views. Glass sliding doors open onto a majestic wrap around deck. A private pathway takes you down to the Pavilion’s gazebo and private plunge pool. It will set you back around $5,000 per night. If you’re aiming for the stars when it comes to luxury and romance, this place will make you feel like you’re the only two people in the world.
If you have a family in tow, The Villa accommodates up to five guests. It has two bedrooms including a master with an en-suite and free standing bath. Double doors lead to an expansive balcony with an impressive 8-metre plunge pool. The outdoor and dining furniture creates an al fresco room that flows naturally as an extension of the interior.
Guests can hire a boat to explore the reef, or sail to a private beach with a bottle of Champagne and picnic hamper. Then there’s paddle boarding, kayaking, scuba diving and snorkelling, and the time to wine and dine whenever you please. What’s not to love about an island paradise named after reptiles large and small? The title, by the way, was Cook’s doing.
Cook and Cleaning Cods
Early explorer Captain Cook named Lizard Island after stumbling upon it way back in 1770. In his own words: ‘The only land animals we saw here were lizards, and these seem’d to be pretty plenty, which occasioned my naming the island, Lizard Island.’ That’s that, then.
Today, goannas and other small lizards are still living it up here. But they’re not the drawcard for most of the nature lovers who make their way to this isle. For them, it’s all about the potato cod – a massive, dopey-looking spotty fish that can grow to around 2.5m in length and weigh 110kg. Like the island, they got their names from English explorers. They’re actually part of the groper family. They earned their potato monicker for the big dark splodges all over their chubby white bodies. They’re as friendly as a pet Labrador. They congregate in a special place on the reef near Lizard Island called the Cod Hole. It’s the only place like it in the world, so cod-seeking divers and documentary makers come in their droves. And they’ve made a remarkable discovery.
Over time, algae grows around the cods’ mouths which makes them ill. To remove it, they head to the ocean’s ‘cleaning stations’, where fish called cleaner wrasse pick parasites, algae and leftover morsels from the potato cod’s jaws. It’s a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship, not unusual in nature… except for what happens if a cod becomes too old or feeble to hunt. Then, a cleaner wrasse might seem like an easy meal for a lazy old cod. ‘He’s right here, cleaning my mouth…’ It’s risky though. If he has a go, the cleaning fish remember and they pass the information around. The old cod is blacklisted from cleaning stations, and the sick, grubby potato cod has sealed his own fate. The lesson: never, ever mess with the help.
Exploring the Great Barrier Reef
Being surrounded by the Great Barrier Reef raises a whole bunch of questions that take some time to grasp. For one, understanding the base structure of the reef as a ‘living thing’ is a strange concept in itself. And within it and on it, billions of organisms all have their own systems and means of survival. The amount of marine life you come across when you’re swimming offshore from Lizard Island is mind-boggling.
Visit the Lizard Island Research Station if you want answers to the questions swimming around in your head. It’s owned and operated by the Australian Museum in Sydney. Students, marine biologists and documentary makers undertake research here and share it with the rest of the world. There’s accommodation, boats, diving gear, laboratories and a seawater aquarium system… and a lovely beach laid out directly in front of the station.
Wining and dining on Lizard Island
The one place to dine on the island is Ospreys Restaurant. It’s an open-air space led up by executive chef Anthony Healy, who has 10 years’ experience cheffing around the world; including at top-notch restaurants in London, Paris and Australia. Ospreys overlooks tropical gardens and palms, white-sand beaches and a deep blue lagoon. When the sun sets, or a tropical storm comes around, it’s pure magic. You feel like you’re on the edge of the world. If you can’t get a bit of romance after a few wines here, it’s time to find a new partner.
Healy draws on modern Australian, Asian and European flavours, adding his own special touches and flair. He works exclusively with the produce that the barges and planes bring from the mainland. So, special requests need to be made ahead of time if you are after something in particular. Healy also puts together hampers for guests to take to a secluded spot on one of Lizard’s many beaches. There is nothing that more aptly sums up island time than nibbling on cheese, cold meats, fruit and biscuits, in between sips of champagne, juice or a cold beer, and diving in and out of the Great Barrier Reef to check out the wonderland of crazy creatures among the coral.
Lizard Island isn’t the only idyllic, secluded escape you can take in Queensland. The Whitsunday islands are slightly more frequented but arguably just as beautiful. Read about visiting the Whitsundays here.