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Tears of joy! Snorkeling with manta rays on Lady Elliot Island in Australia

Tears of joy! Snorkeling with manta rays on Lady Elliot Island in Australia

Read about our unique experience diving with manta rays in the rich pristine waters of Lady Elliot Island in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

“Seby, why are you crying?”

We’d just spent an entire day swimming with manta rays and I was feeling elated and quite emotional.

“I’m just so happy, Stefan, we finally saw them!”

You see, I’ve dreamt of swimming with these giant majestic creatures in the wild since I was a little boy. Our entire Down Under trip was planned around visiting Lady Elliot Island: about a year before this trip took place, I was up late one evening researching the best places in the world to see manta rays.

That’s how I initially stumbled on Lady Elliot Island, a tiny cay surrounded by a living reef thriving with marine life with sharks, turtles, many tropical fish, a few whales, and thanks to a popular marine cleaning station, manta rays!

I knew it would be amazing so I joined the long waiting list to visit this exclusive island and finally, a year later we were heading to the shores of Queensland in Australia for the trip of a lifetime!

We were not disappointed! Our experience diving with manta rays in the Great Barrier Reef at Lady Elliot is up there as one of the most incredible things I've done with Stefan on our travels – a memory neither of us will ever forget.

Where is Lady Elliot Island?

Lady Elliot Island is a teeny tiny coral cay located at the southern end of the UNESCO-listed Great Barrier Reef. You could walk the entire length of the island in 45 minutes. That's how small it is!

It's also one of the most remote islands of the Great Barrier Reef, situated 50 miles (80km) from the mainland. With no boat or ferry services available, the only way to reach Lady Elliot is via a (very scenic!) 45-minute small plane ride from the mainland. The grass landing strip runs the entire length of the island from its southern tip to the north!

The island is run by an eco-resort, aptly named, the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort. The staff live and work on the island, welcoming guests, taking them on various tours, preparing meals, etc. All meals are taken in the resort and accommodation varies from glamping tents to beachfront units. We had the option to visit as a day trip but I wanted to stay for at least 2 nights.

The only downside is that Lady Elliot Island is so popular that whether you’re visiting as a day trip or staying overnight, places are limited that you need to book months, sometimes a year in advance. I was able to secure us a two-night stay after months on their waiting list and getting lucky with a last-minute cancellation!

So after a week of partying in the exciting gay scene of Sydney and checking out the many gay bars of Sydney, we drove up to Hervey Bay to begin this new leg of our Down Under adventure.

View of Lady Elliot Island and surrounding coral reef from plane.
Our view from the plane: Lady Elliot Island and the surrounding coral reef

Is Lady Elliot Island gay friendly?

Yes, very much so! Firstly, this is Australia, which we rate as one of the most gay friendly countries in the world. Two men sharing a double bed? No issue here at all!

In fact, we noticed a large number of LGBTQ+ families on Lady Elliot, particularly lesbian mothers with their children. That pretty much tells you everything you need to know about how gay friendly Lady Elliot is!

Gay couple at the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort welcome sign.
We felt welcome as a gay couple at the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort

Our scenic flight to Lady Elliot Island

The flights to and from Lady Elliot Island are operated by Seair Pacific. There are two main points of departure on the mainland: Hervey Bay and Bundaberg (home to the famous ginger beer).

The planes are tiny and carry up to 12 passengers. As a plane nerd, I was particularly excited to experience this flight. I'd read so much about it online – how shaky the ride is because the plane is so small and sensitive to wind, and the impressive views over the Great Barrier Reef that you could even see whales diving!

We checked in at the small airport at Bundaberg and were escorted to the waiting area with the other guests. The planes are so small that you're limited to one small suitcase per person, so we had to sort through our things and leave behind our second larger suitcases (before you judge, this was part of a big long trip in Australia and New Zealand!).

We were then led out onto the landing strip at Bundaberg airport where the pilot met us and gave us a quick safety briefing before going on board. Heads up, ask if you can sit next to the pilot – sometimes the seat is available!

Once on board, strapped it, we were ready to go! We made a brief stop at Hervey Bay airport to pick up a few more guests and then we were off to Lady Elliot Island.

The total journey took around 40 minutes and they were not wrong about the views! As well as getting an impressive aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef I spotted at least 6 humpback whales diving! I remember excitedly turning in my seat to show Stefan but by this time he had dozed off as he normally does on plane journeys…

Not wanting him to miss out, I poked him awake and we enjoyed the views together. Very soon the circular island came into view with its distinct reef systems around it. We circled it before finally coming in to land.

We had arrived!

Gay couple in front of small plane bound for Lady Elliot Island.
Posing with our teeny tiny Lady Elliot plane

First attempt to spot manta rays: nada!

As soon as we touched down on the island I was itching to get into the water and explore the rich underwater world I had for so long dreamt of, so we grabbed our swimsuits and waded in.

I’ll never forget that moment I first put my face in the water: we saw two black-tip reef sharks swim, followed by a turtle! We continued to swim out letting the current carry us as we watched the marine life going about its daily life.

At one point as Stefan came up for breath, he said: “Seby, do you hear that noise when you dive down? It sounds like mermaids!”

Before I could roll my eyes at him, I realized he had a point. Every time we dove down beyond 10 feet (3 meters), we could hear different frequencies of voices singing to each other in the water.

“Stefan, that’s not mermaids! It’s whale sounds, like the ones Dory makes in Finding Nemo!”

Sound travels fast and far in water, so even if a whale is located miles away from you, you can still hear them from afar.

The thought of seeing a manta ray left my mind as we continued to drift along the current: all this in our first dive?! Could this place get any better? However, I came here to see the manta rays and told Stefan we would not be leaving this island until this happened!

Stefan snorkeling next to a turtle in the Great Barrier Reef at Lady Elliot Island.
Stefan with his new turtle friend

Second attempt to spot manta rays: almost!

On the next day, we booked one of the snorkeling tours offered by the Lady Elliot Eco Resort. It was on a boat with a glass bottom that ventured out to deeper waters that we would not normally reach by ourselves. We thought that by going deeper it would maximize our chances of seeing manta rays.

Our snorkeling tour included a guide who was amazing at leading us all through the waters, pointing out various tropical fish, turtles, and a few sharks. By this point, we were blazé to the turtle and sharks – imagine! But this was because we'd seen so many and by this point, we just wanted to see the manta rays.

Towards the end of this dive, our guide spotted two manta rays. But they were teasing us: they were at least 33 feet (10 meters) beneath us and refused to come any closer. From where we were they just looked like two large blobs.

I can't complain, we got to see manta rays after all, but I wanted to experience them up close. When we returned to the eco-resort after our snorkeling trip other guests told us they had spotted manta rays whilst snorkeling from the beach earlier that day, so I knew it was possible.

It's as if the manta rays knew how badly I wanted to see them but they wanted me to work super hard for it. Oh don't worry, I do not give up that easily!

Seby doing a handstand at sunrise on Lady Elliot Island beach.
Seby: a man on a mission!

Third attempt to spot the manta rays: success!

For our final day, we woke early at the crack of dawn. As we were getting ready I declared to Stefan:

“Today’s the day, Stefan, I know it’s going to happen. I can feel it in my bones!”

We wolfed down a quick breakfast, pulled on our wet suits, and headed into the reef. We went to the feeding station by the lighthouse where fellow divers had just spotted them. We waited a few moments around the feeding station, holding on to it as we fought the pull of the current.

Suddenly, a large shadow passed by the corner of my eye.

I quickly turned round to see, and oh my god, THERE IT WAS!

I called out loudly to Stefan to join me as we watched an enormous manta ray swim toward us.

I stood still, frozen in the water. It almost touched my nose as if it was checking me out, then it turned around and briskly glided away.

We started swimming frantically to try to catch up to it, but it was no use. We were against the flow of current, so it was almost impossible to keep up. By contrast, the manta ray was effortlessly gliding through the water completely unaffected by the strong current! We eventually gave up and watched it disappear into the deep.

It didn’t matter, I had my moment. It lasted for seconds, but it was worth it. I was happy!

Then, as if by magic, a second one appeared! It stopped and swam around us just like the other one did only this one stayed longer.

I held my breath. I was spellbound. It was huge – its wingspan was over 16 feet (5 meters)!

Its large gills were pulsating as it held itself steady in the water looking at me as if it was trying to whisper to me…“Hello Seby, how are you doing today? I’m glad we finally got the chance to meet!”

We continued looking at each other for a few more moments, at one point I remember whispering to it “You are so amazing, so beautiful!”. It continued looking at me, its gills pulsating as if taking in the compliment.

I don't care what anyone says but it felt like the manta ray was trying to communicate with me. We shared a magical moment, Seby and the manta ray!

“I have to go now Seby, but take care and have a wonderful life!”

“Thank you, Mr. Manta Ray, it was so amazing to meet you, you made me so happy!”

…and with that, he circled us one final time and glided away into the world of the Great Barrier Reef.

I am Seby, the Manta Ray Whisperer!

As we were drying in the sun after our dive recalling what had just happened, I wiped away tears of joy that were streaming down my face.

I turned to Stefan and proudly declared:

“Let it be known that from this day forth, I shall forever be called ‘Seby, The Manta Ray Whisperer’!”

Gay couple watching the sunset on Lady Elliot Island beach.
Reminiscing on today's EPIC diving when we finally saw manta rays close up!

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Sebastien Chaneac

Hey everyone, I'm Seby, the co-founder, editor, and know-it-all IT guru behind the Nomadic Boys gay travel least that's how Stefan describes me! I'm also a total travel nerd and food enthusiast. Over the past 10 years, I've travelled to over 80 countries with my partner in crime and the love of my life, Stefan. I've written for a wide range of publications ranging from Pink News, Matador, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian and many more. Want to know more about me? Check my full bio here.