Australia

The Best Southern Great Barrier Reef Islands You Must Visit and Why

Katie Grant, Airguides

8 April 2021

A magical array of tropical islands resting among crystal blue waters and coral reefs set the surface to the Coral Sea. The Islands’ pristine shores hint at a tranquil awakening with hours lost to soaking up summer rays, savouring the golden hour and exploring the native flora and fauna. Stepping into the turquoise waters, one is immediately aware of the underwater world operating below. A marine paradise with the marvellous residents of manta rays, sea-turtles, brilliantly coloured fish and rich coral reefs.

You’ll find this fascinating utopia in the Southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, just off the coast of Australia’s sunshine state, Queensland.

We’ve put together the ultimate guide to the best Southern Great Barrier Reef Islands you must visit and why it’s one of the seven natural wonders of the world with the help of the Great Barrier Reef Guru, Mark Fitz.

Mark Fitz is a travel photographer whose exceptional knowledge of Down Under’s Sunshine State and vision for inspiring travellers near and far, is what landed him the storyteller title. If there’s one thing Mark knows, it’s how to create extraordinary trips, where, by dropping his name in the underwater world you will be a welcomed guest.

Lady Elliot Island

Photograph by Mark Fitz

Lady Elliot Island

Located in the most Southern part of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral cay, Lady Elliot Island is 46 nautical miles from the Bundaberg coast. It is home to the only airstrip on the Great Barrier Reef, providing one-of-a-kind access to the Lady Elliot Island Resort.

Lady Elliot Island Resort is a world-leading, award-winning and ecologically sustainable honeypot with a remarkable approach to adventure -experience it from air, land and water. Simply put, one of Australia’s finest eco-tourism triumphs.

Snorkelers and divers alike will find themselves in pure bliss as they navigate coral reefs and underwater worlds, only to discover majestic Manta Rays and inquisitive Sea Turtles making a home of the surroundings.

Opening the door to a lifetime of memories, Lady Elliot Island offers more than just good snaps, it is an opportunity to immerse yourself in the Great Barrier Reef, its history and an eco-certified resort- a guilt-free holiday with plenty to explore.

How to Get There: Carbon neutral flights organised by Lady Elliot Island Resort depart daily from Hervey Bay, Bundaberg, Brisbane and Gold Coast. Grab yourself a window seat and soak up the view because there’s nothing else like it in the world.

Accomodation: Four words, Lady Elliot Island Resort (if you hadn’t caught on by now). There is something for everyone at the Resort – glamping tents for couples, reef and garden units and eco-cabins perfect for families or couples. You name it and Lady Elliot Island Resort has it.

Mark’s Tip: Keep your eyes peeled for the notorious Terry the Turtle, don’t swim off on him or he may flip you the bird!

Great Keppel Island

Photograph by Mark Fitz

Great Keppel Island

Introducing the big kid on the block, Great Keppel Island- a 1500 hectare paradise with seventeen white sandy beaches to discover. There is plenty of Island to roam as you explore the native Flora and Fauna characterising the Southern Great Barrier Reef’s largest Island.

Take a scenic bushwalk to the lighthouse, where the challenges of a 15.4km hike come to life. As you (quite literally) reach new heights, prepare for the sensory experience of being in the presence of natural beauty. Each step will activate the inner adventure enthusiast!

If chilling out on the beach is more your style, then grab your comfiest beach chair and soak up the serenity, taking regular swims in the refreshing turquoise waters of the GBR. It is the perfect opportunity to start on that book you’ve always wanted to read.

For the snorkelers out there, meet the Island with year-round access to coral, fish, turtles and more! Walk straight into the water with a snorkel in hand and begin your marine discovery expedition. If diving is your go-to you’re in luck because Great Keppel Island boasts unbelievable diving experiences- just ask Mark Fitz!

How to Get There: A short thirty-minute ferry ride departing from Rosslyn, near Yeppoon on the mainland. Adventure things up with a guided sailing tour to truly experience the breadth of the Great Barrier Reef.

Accomodation: There’s plenty on offer at Great Keppel Island with the Great Keppel Island Hideaway and the Great Keppel Island Holiday Village- spoilt for choice!? Accommodation to suit any budget, whether it be family, couples or a group of friends- you’re covered.

Mark’s Tip: Grab yourself a seat on the beach chairs at Great Keppel Island to watch the sunset or even the chance to see the Humpback Whales make their annual migration through the Coral Sea!

Pumpkin Island

Photograph by Tourism and Events Queensland

Pumpkin Island

The exquisite Pumpkin Island is a rare treasure, rightfully earning its spot in one of the world’s natural wonders. The privately-owned island falls under the luxury escape category as it transports you to a universe of relaxation and harmony, fit for royalty.

There is even an opportunity to rent the entire island to yourself as the Pumpkin Island Eco Resort offers 34 guests at one time across seven eco-friendly and self-catering units. Did we mention they are all powered by wind and the sun?

If you needed any more convincing, Pumpkin Island grants exclusive access to a diverse collection of wildlife. Throw dolphins, turtles and whales in the mix of coral reefs and sparkling waters, and you have an adventure-packed trip on your hands.
Best way to see it? From the magnificent perspective of a glass-bottomed kayak.

If access to the lesser-known is your ideal trip, well Pumpkin Island is the one for you.

How to Get There: Similar to Great Keppel Island, Pumpkin Island is accessible by a short thirty-minute ferry ride from near Yeppoon. Keen to raise the stakes? Take a helicopter ride to Pumpkin Island and arrive in style.

Accomodation: Pumpkin Island Eco Resort is your only option, and deservedly so. In 2018 it was crowned Australasia’s Most Sustainable Hotel and continues to be the only positive island resort in Australia. Pumpkin is the name, eco-friendly is the game. 

Mark’s Tip: Pumpkin has three beaches, several hills and rocky outcrops, which have fantastic lookouts including my favourite spot- with an amazing 360-degree view of the island and surrounding areas. You’ll be eager to get in the water and snorkel after taking in these views!

Green Turtle at Heron Island

Photograph by Mark Fitz

Heron Island

Heron Island, better known as divers heaven, showcases some of the best diving locations the GBR (and even the world!) have to offer with sixteen sites within 15mins from the Island.

Snorkelers can revel in a similar experience with the ability to discover corals reefs and their inhabitants by strolling from the shore into the waters and floating above- we call it the birds-eye-view from underwater.

Heron Island is surrounded by 24kms of the reef, proving how expansive the Island’s beauty truly is, and the marine life who call it home are no different either.

If it’s turtles, varied rays or reef sharks you love, then Heron Island is the one for you. Oh, and upon your arrival, these animals will be welcoming you from under the Jetty. No need to gear up just lean over the jetty’s edge and wave hello.

You’ll find the ultimate relaxation at Heron Island Resort, the only accommodation on the Island. The Aqua Soul Spa will have you feeling all sorts of calm as the serenity of Pisonia Forest is the backdrop to the massage and spa treatment rooms.

It doesn’t stop there, Heron Island is home to the largest Island-based research station in the Southern Hemisphere. So grab your thinking hats and immerse yourself in the abundance of research investigating one of the world’s natural wonders.

How to Get There: Located 72kms off the coast of Queensland’s Gladstone, Heron Island is accessible via ferry or helicopter ride. Both are an adventure in themselves.

Accomodation: Heron Island Resort offers the best (and only) accommodation on the Island. The resort caters for all with family rooms, beach houses and suites- just make sure you come prepared to be amazed.

Mark’s Tip: Between November and March of each year hundreds of Sea Turtles nest on Heron Island. Set your alarm for an early start and head down to the beach just before sunrise to watch the Sea Turtles finish up their nesting.

Wilson Island Resort

Photograph by Mark Fitz

Wilson Island

The small one who packs a punch, Wilson Island may be just 5.24 acres in size, but you’d think it was the state of Queensland with the endless opportunities it has to offer.

Wilson Island is a natural Coral Cay in the Great Barrier Reef and surrounded by such environments. Neighbourly love goes along on Wilson Island with Heron Island only a hop and a skip away. The same goes for the accommodation with just nine eco-tents at Wilson Island Resort, hosting up to 18 guests at one time.

If you’re after an off the beaten track adventure, we’ve found the Resort for you. The eco-tents are jungle-like safari tents, which are near noticeable, hidden among the Pisonia Forest.

‘Crystal clear waters teeming with turtles, luxury glamping tents just meters from the water, mouthwatering meals and memories that will last a lifetime’

–Mark Fitz

Beyond the Resort, you can find the dreamy water of the Coral Sea and the spectacular marine residents living freely among rich coral reefs. Off the shore of Wilson Island you can find some of the best snorkelling experiences the Great Barrier Reef has to offer- so don’t waste a minute and welcome them with big arms, just as they welcome you.

How to Get There: Similar to Heron Island, Wilson Island is accessible by ferry or helicopter – take your pick!

Accomodation: Wilson Island Resort is your answer here. Perfect for couples or solo traveller!

Mark’s Tip: If you can’t stay on Wilson Island then hop on an hour-long boat ride from Heron Island. With incredible snorkelling straight off the shore and a gourmet picnic hamper included, it’s the ultimate little escape and an amazing opportunity to see another of the spectacular Southern Great Barrier Reef Islands!

Lady Musgrave Island

Photograph by Mark Fitz

Snorkeling at Lady Musgrave Island

Photograph by Mark Fitz

Lady Musgrave Island

Lady Musgrave Island hosts a range of guests, from families pitching a tent on the Island to Humpback Whales making their annual migration through the Coral Sea.

The Island’s near-perfect swimming conditions are an entrance to the underwater world that far exceeds a regular snorkelling experience.
Firstly, the brilliant coral reefs are some of the most vibrant you’ll find along the entire Queensland coast.
Secondly, it’s appropriate for everyone; experienced snorkelers are free to roam the more diverse and deeper underneath, and freshies can stay close to the shore while experiencing the great wonders of the Great Barrier Reef.

If you’re the adventurous kind, then Lady Musgrave Island offers one of the best adventures you can find – a camp spot in the middle of the Island, looking onto the reef.

Secure a camping permit for no more than $10AUD a night and be sure to pack all your gear (the only facilities on the Island are a composting toilet) because this overnight stay comes with all the experiences of remote living.

How to Get There: Off the coast of the town 1770, Lady Musgrave is accessible via 1770reef Great Barrier Reef Eco Tours, who run daily trips or island transfers. Your other option is boarding the Lady Musgrave Experience, departing from Bundaberg.

Accomodation: The only place to stay on Lady Musgrave Island is on the campgrounds. Tents are the only form of camping allowed, with up to 40 guests at any one time. You can find out more here.

Mark’s Tip: Snorkelling through the stunning coral gardens around the Lady Musgrave Island lagoon is such a special experience. I’ve been visiting here regularly since 2015, and every time I’m back I’m always amazed at how vibrant and full of life the lagoon is!

Heron Island Sunset

Photograph by Mark Fitz

Great Barrier Reef’s Cultural Significance

The Traditional Owners of the Great Barrier Reef are the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who lived on the now sea floor over 7000 years ago.

There are 70 Aboriginal Traditional Owner groups and more Torres Strait Island Traditional Owner groups whose cultural knowledge, heritage values, enduring connections and shared efforts manage Sea Country, to protect the reef for future generations.

When the sea level rose and the Reef formed, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Traditional Owners cared for the Sea Country by intertwining their culture and spirituality with the sustainable treatment of its resources.

You can learn about the Great Barrier Reef’s Cultural Significance here.

Experience the Southern Great Barrier Reef Islands and why they are a natural wonder of the world with Mark’s 10-Day Best of the Southern Great Barrier Reef!