The Lesser-Known Southern Great Barrier Reef

21 February 2015

What comes to mind when someone utters those three quixotic words: "Great Barrier Reef"?

Tropical North Queensland, probably. Cairns, Port Douglas, maybe even Townsville. Airlie Beach, Proserpine and the Whitsundays, of course. Oh, and the Oprah-certified Heart Reef.

For most people, it ends there – but the reef most certainly doesn't. The Great Barrier Reef spans at least three quarters of the Queensland coast. There are more than 100 islands to its name, from Haggerstone way up in Cape York, to Heron off the coast of Gladstone.

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'The Reef', as we often too simply refer to it, lures top models, sitcom stars and blue-blooded royals to its waters, but I'll hazard a guess that few (if any) have spent much time splashing around the southern end.

The Southern Great Barrier Reef is concentrated around the Capricorn Coast, fringing Central Queensland. Stretching the boundaries a little, you should be considering towns like Rockhampton (Rocky), Bundaberg (Bundy), Gladstone (Gladdy), and Yeppoon (just Yeppoon) as potential GBR launch pads.

This untapped region of the Reef has hidden gems aplenty – not so hidden if you know where to look. Luckily, we do.

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Great Keppel Island

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 An aerial of Great Keppel Island (Image: TEQ)

The 'jewel in the crown' of Keppel Bay, this island paradise is a speedy 30-minute ferry ride from Yeppoon. Home to no less than 17 alabaster beaches and acres of walking trail-laced bushland, Great Keppel is one of those rare Queensland places where you can take to the waters all year long.

Around 90 per cent of the island is scrub, making it ideal for nature lovers who can't decide between bush and beach. Due to its relatively unknown status, Great Keppel is also easy on the hip pocket.

Set sail on a Coral Cruise, snorkel the underwater worlds, take a hike, charter a boat, and you'll still be left with budget to splurge on a stay at Pumpkin Island – a little known luxury retreat just a few clicks north.

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Heron Island

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 The clear blue waters of Heron Island (Image: TEQ)

A natural coral cay and exclusive resort in one, Heron Island is accessible via Gladstone by seaplane or boat. We strong suggest doling out the extra $150 for a scenic air entrance.

This island is well-known as a breeding ground for Loggerhead and Green sea turtles during the warmer climes. If you don't get there in time to see the tiny hatchlings scuttle into the ocean for the first time, there is a resident turtle population of approximately 4,000, frequenting the reef year round.

Take a dip at one of the 20 dive sites and you're likely to spot plenty of tropical fish, rays, grey reef sharks and even dolphins. Heron Island has a strict guests-only policy – sorry eager day trippers – so be sure to lock in a one- or two-night stay at the resort if you want to enjoy the island life.


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Plan your stay further north: 
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Lady Elliot Island

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 The underwater vistas of Lady Elliot Island (Image: TEQ)

Tucked between Fraser and Lady Musgrave Islands around 80 kilometres northeast of Bundaberg, Lady Elliot is the closest slice of the Reef to Brisbane. Being a dedicated Green Zone means this lovely lady offers some of the best snorkelling and diving opportunities in Queensland.

Plugged as a prime spot for those in need of a digital detox, Lady Elliot is a 100-acre eco-sanctuary where the entire cast of Finding Nemo frolics freely. You can hop on a glass-bottom boat, grab a snorkel, scuba-suit up, take a reef walk at low tide, or scope the island from the air.

Visitor numbers are restricted, meaning you're pretty much guaranteed an uncrowded refuge for exploration. Unlike Heron Island, day visits are permitted (hooray!) and depart from Bundaberg, Hervey Bay, Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

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Lady Musgrave Island

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 Explore what's below at Lady Musgrave Island (Image: TEQ)

Another dame worth getting to know is Lady Musgrave – Lady Elliot's uninhabited northern neighbour. The best way to see this charming lass is by embarking on a day cruise from the Town of Seventeen Seventy – about a 90-minute journey.

Once moored by the floating pontoon, you can spend the day snorkelling the protected lagoon, bobbing around on a glass-bottom boat, feeding tropical fish, swimming with turtles, or taking the plunge with a certified dive.

If playing in this big, natural swimming pool doesn't offer enough excitement, consider catching your own lunch on a reef fishing excursion, or BYO volleyball and re-enact your favourite scenes from Castaway with an overnight camp stay. Wilsoooon!

Ashton Rigg

When I'm not at home in Brisbane, you’ll find me wanderlusting around hipster bars, eclectic boutiques and arty nooks. From bagels in Brooklyn to strudel in Salzburg, I believe the best way to experience a destination is by taking a bite! Tweets & 'grams at @AshtonRigg