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From humble beginnings, tiny Lizard Island is a major player on the global research stage

Lizard Island, north of Cairns, is about 10 square kilometres in size and has three smaller islands nearby.  (Supplied: Maria Capa)

It has been 50 years since a couple of tents were the humble beginnings of what has become an internationally renowned research station on one of Australia's most remote tropical, tiny islands in the Coral Sea.

Anne Hoggett and husband Lyle Vail have run the Lizard Island Research Station for 33 of its 50 years.

The pair met while carrying out research in 1982 and raised their son Alex Vail, a marine biologist, on the island.

More than 15,000 scientists and their assistants have stayed on the island to carry out research on the Great Barrier Reef.  (Supplied: Abram Powell)

Dr Vail said life on the unique island — 10 square kilometres of national park, 270 kilometres north of Cairns in Far North Queensland — was as "good as you might think".

"You go to work in bare feet basically and see a few goannas along the way, all these different birds, so the wildlife is amazing, both on land and on the water," Dr Vail said. 

The island, on the world-heritage listed Great Barrier Reef, is home to more than 1,600 species of fish and 350 varieties of hard coral .

Dr Anne Hoggett and her husband Dr Lyle Vail.  (Supplied: Abram Powell)

"The setting is very idyllic, but the job is very challenging — but pleasurable," he said.

Those challenges include accommodating about 37 guests at a time at the station.

Researcher Tim Gordon uses an underwater speaker on a reef at Lizard Island. (Supplied: Harry Harding/University of Bristol)

"People think you lay back but it's a busy place. We are full for much of the year.

"There are only four staff and there's a lot of things that can go wrong — pumps, refrigeration, outboard motors and generators and there's a lot to keep going."

Humble beginnings

Back in 1973, former Australian Museum founder and marine biologist Frank Talbot convinced two American philanthropists to part with $200,000 to build a centre on the island, replacing a couple of tents.

The Lizard Island Research Station, 270 kilometres north of Cairns, started off with a few tents.  (Supplied: Australian Museum )

Since then, more than 15,000 scientists and their assistants have stayed on the island, producing 2,700 scientific publications from work carried out at the site, fully equipped with laboratories and aquarium systems .

But getting supplies to the remote location hasn't always been easy.

"It has to get loaded in Cairns almost a week before it gets to us, so by the time it comes to us it's a week to 10 days old and then it has to last another two weeks," Dr Hoggett said.

"There are things that we aren't able to have here, like bananas, fresh berries and salad leaves in bags.

"But you get used to it and it's a small price to pay for being able to live in a fantastic place."

Dr Guillermo Diaz-Pulido is one of many scientists from around the world to conduct research at the Australian Museum's Lizard Island Research Station.  (Supplied: Dr Anne Hoggett and Dr Lyle Vail )

She said the research station relied heavily on the Royal Flying Doctor Service for medical advice, which prescribes the medication stored in a special chest on the island and also evacuates those who are seriously injured.

Climate changes and natural disasters

In its time, the centre has survived multiple natural disasters.

Cyclone Ita struck as a category four system in 2014 and 11 months later, Cyclone Nathan hit with the same force.

Dr Vail said ocean temperatures reached record levels in 2016, causing a mass bleaching event to occur, and the same thing happened in 2017. 

Dr Lyle Vail is the co-director of the Lizard Island Research Station. (Supplied: Rebecca Johnson)

There were also major outbreaks of the coral-destroying crown-of-thorns starfish from 1978 to 1991, 1993 to 2005 and the present outbreak which began in 2010 .

Dr Vail says it is likely the reef will face more challenges.

"The bleaching events are almost happening every summer," he said.

"I've been here for 33 years and summer in the past was always the best time, the ocean was calmer, it was great to get around and see the reef.

"Now, it's a nail-biting situation every summer, we are always worried about the next mass coral bleaching."

He said the coral bleaching events had made people take note of climate change.

"There seems to be fewer climate change sceptics, but the urgency still isn't there about what's coming.

"The threat is here and now."

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