Think the Great Barrier Reef begins and ends in north Queensland? Think again. The reef starts only four hours from Brisbane, stretching north from Bundaberg, so you can be egging on baby turtles and swimming with manta rays before you know it.
In fact, the Southern Great Barrier Reef is teeming with star attractions, from giant clams to whales, and snorkelling and diving hot spots, all the way up through Gladstone to the Capricorn Coast. So kick back in an island resort, camp on a secluded beach, or take a day trip from the mainland to see all the glories of this World Heritage-listed marine wonderland.
Here are three ways to stay and play on the Southern Great Barrier Reef.
Reef Island Camping
Pack up the tent and get ready to stake your claim to a plot of island paradise in the Southern Great Barrier Reef. Multiple alabaster sands, snorkelling galore, nature trails and beach walks await.
Great Keppel Island, for instance, has no less than 17 beaches to explore, and quite a few spots to pitch your tent. After a 30-minute ferry ride from Yeppoon on the Capricorn Coast, you can dive in and explore the unusually high coral cover, go stand-up paddleboarding on impossibly blue water, take a walk through bushland or just gaze out to sea.
You need a permit to camp on Lady Musgrave Island, and only 40 people are allowed at any one time. But you will feel like the luckiest castaway on this truly unspoilt coral cay, accessible only by vessel from 1770. Its protected lagoon is like a giant swimming pool, you can get up close and personal with manta rays, and between November and March you might see turtles laying eggs or hatchlings making a break for the sea.
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If you prefer a little more pampering but still want to stroll sands less travelled, the Southern Great Barrier Reef has you covered, with low-key accommodation in pristine environments.
Take a 25-minute scenic seaplane flight from Gladstone out to Heron Island resort (there are ferries, too). Nature lovers will be in seventh heaven because right now is turtle season (October to March), where hundreds of green and loggerhead turtles visit, 30 years after they hatched here. But there are about 4,000 turtles living on the reef so you can see them in the water most of the time. You can snorkel right off the beach, or there are 20 dive sites, coral gardens and pinnacles to visit. The resort has a range of accommodation, from the Turtle Room set in pisonia forest (a thrill for birdwatchers) to the freestanding Beach House with unrivalled sunset views. And you can sign the kids up to be Junior Rangers.
Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort calls itself Home of the Manta Ray, and for good reason – they gather in large numbers around the island during the winter months, although they can be seen throughout the year. With a wing-span of up to seven metres, the rays are the subject of a University of Queensland study on the island. You can also see turtles, various birds, migrating whales and coral spawning at different times of the year. The small resort has 41 rooms, including suites, units and cabins. There are no telephones, television or radios so if you’re itching to unplug, here’s the place to do it. You can get there by scenic flight from Bundaberg, Hervey Bay (Fraser Coast), Redcliffe (Brisbane) and the Gold Coast.
Short on time? Sail or fly to sugary sands, tropical waters, and alluring seascapes, hit the reef highlights, and be back in time for dinner.
Climb aboard a catamaran for a day cruise from Yeppoon to Great Keppel Island, to reach places accessible only by boat – isolated beaches and coral outcrops inhabited by turtles, dolphins and fish. Go snorkelling, beachcombing, soak up the sun, and enjoy lunch, morning and afternoon tea on board.
Take a day cruise from 1770 to Lady Musgrave Island and its lagoon full of colourful coral and 1,300 species of tropical fish. You might even spot a whale on the 90-minute crossing. Go snorkelling, island walking, take a spin in the glass-bottom boat or try a semi-submersible submarine tour, not to mention diving and fish feeding. Oh, and you can swim with turtles.
Set out from Bundaberg for a scenic flight to Lady Elliot Island, where can take an island tour or explore on your own, before joining a glass bottom boat or guided snorkel tour to meet the fish, dolphins, turtles and manta rays who inhabit this part of the reef. Have a buffet lunch and enjoy the island’s day guest facilities before heading home.