heron-island

5 Secret Southern Great Barrier Reef Islands You Might Not Know About

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When you think of the Great Barrier Reef, you might automatically think of Cairns as I did. But, did you know the secret to finding paradise is at the Southern Great Barrier Reef Islands?

Located from as far north off the coast of Yeppoon and as far down the coast just off Bundaberg will bring you to some of the most beautiful islands in Australia. And to put that into perspective, Bundaberg is just a 3hr drive from Noosa.

I probably wouldn’t have heard of the Southern Great Barrier Reef Islands if I hadn’t moved to Agnes Water & 1770, near the Bundaberg region. When we moved there for a pet sitting gig for a few months, we ended up staying for nearly two years because of Covid and because, well, it’s absolutely stunning!

You’ll find a mixture of Southern Great Barrier Reef Islands in this list; a couple are super affordable, one is a luxury glamping experience, and the eco-friendly islands are really quite something.

We’ve been lucky to visit all of the islands we’re mentioning in this post! So, we’re going to break down each island and what we loved about them, what wasn’t so great and how much they cost to visit.


What makes the Southern Great Barrier Reef Islands special?

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At Heron Island

Firstly, the Southern Great Barrier Reef Islands might not be as well known as the islands in Cairns such as Green Island or Fitzroy Island, for example. But, what makes it special is that you won’t find crowds at any of these islands, and you’ll practically have most of them all to yourself.

Also, all of the islands mentioned (except Great Keppel Island and Pumpkin Island) are further away from the mainland than the islands you’ll find up in Cairns. This means the run off from the mainland is further away from the reef systems which means you’ll find fantastic coral reef and plenty of colourful fish and marine life here. Trust me, snorkelling off Cairns or Whitsundays doesn’t even come close to what we’ve seen in the islands mentioned in this article.

To be honest, we witnessed the best scuba diving and snorkelling in the world on these islands!

Don’t Expect 5 Star Resorts

It’s also worth noting that you really shouldn’t expect these islands to be like Hamilton Island or five star resorts because none of them are. In fact, bar the exception of Wilson Island which is a luxury glamping island, all islands have basic food and accommodation.

If you’re OK with this, what’s in store for you are some proper gems which we just adored. Come to these islands to experience a natural beauty like no other on the Great Barrier Reef without the crowds.


Southern Great Barrier Reef Islands map

If you’re not familiar with the Southern Great Barrier Reef area, we’ve created this map for you so you can visually see where every island is located.


1. Lady Musgrave Island

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Lady Musgrave Island was the first island we visited in the Southern Great Barrier Reef. You can get here from either Agnes Water & 1770 or from Bundaberg with different companies running tours.

We went to Lady Musgrave Island from Agnes Water & 1770 and after a 2 hour boat ride, we couldn’t believe it when we arrived to turquoise waters and an island that looked like we had been transported back to the Maldives.

Make sure you check out our full review of Lady Musgrave island below.

Cost: from $220 for a day trip

Book:
Reef 1770 (from Agnes Water & 1770)
Lady Musgrave Experience (from Bundaberg)
Reef Sleep (from Bundaberg)

Lady Musgrave Island Pros

  • Authentic completely untouched island
  • Can camp here for under $10 a night
  • Easy to get to from Agnes Water or Bundaberg
  • Snorkelling, diving, glass-bottom boat tour and island tour
  • New Reef Sleep experience!

The staff are super friendly and very welcoming on this tour and make it a really fun experience. It’s a full day tour so you’ll spend half of the day snorkelling and the other half on a glass-bottom boat trip before venturing onto the island to walk around it and learn all about the biodiversity.

Lady Musgrave Island is home to thousands of birds and biodiversity like no other. When you step onto the tiny island, you’ll be able to walk around in about 10 minutes or so. It’s untouched and one of the most authentic islands in the Great Barrier Reef.

You won’t find any buildings on this island, but you can camp here for under $10 a night.

There’s a small space to pitch your tent, but you’ll need to organise a drop-off and pick up through Reef 1770.

When you’re snorkelling or diving in Lady Musgrave Island, you might come across manta rays, turtles and many more marine life. The snorkelling is good here, but we experienced better snorkelling on the other islands to be honest. But we’re keen to head back again and see what it’s like second time around.

Tip – We really want to visit the new Lady Musgrave Island Reef Sleep, a pontoon you’ll sleep amongst the stars in the Great Barrier Reef. How amazing!

Lady Musgrave Island Cons

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  • It’s a coral cay so no sand – you’ll need to wear reef shoes on the beach
  • Boat ride from Agnes Water & 1770 is very bumpy
  • No resort or buildings on this island (but we see that as a bonus!)

Lady Musgrave Island is a coral cay which means the island is made up of coral, not sand. If you’re camping here, bring a good pair of reef shoes because you won’t want to be walking on your bare feet.

The boat ride with Reef 1770 is bumpy. Many people were sick when we went, so make sure you take sea-sickness tablets before you go. If you book with the Lady Musgrave Experience in Bundaberg, the boat ride is supposed to be less bumpy as the boat is bigger and newer. Both boat trips take the same amount of time to get to Lady Musgrave Island.

Watch Our Video To Lady Musgrave Island


2. Lady Elliot Island

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I have to say, Lady Elliot Island completely stole our hearts and we’re still contemplating whether this one is our favourite Southern Great Barrier Reef Island and quite possibly our favourite place in Australia. Maybe it’s because we got to know the owner and the staff and the story behind the island which made us feel overwhelmed with love for this special place. Or maybe it’s because we had the best diving and snorkelling experience in the world here. Both make a good case regardless!

Located just 20km from Lady Musgrave Island, this island is only accessible by a small plane from Brisbane, Gold Coast, Hervey Bay, Bundaberg and Agnes Water.

Read our guides for Why We Fell In Love With Lady Elliot Island and 10 Reasons To Visit Lady Elliot Island.

Cost: Day trip from Gold Coast or Brisbane starts from $599 per person

Book: Full list of packages

Lady Elliot Island Pros 

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  • Warm water all year round with 1200 species marine life
  • PADI has claimed it as the best diving with manta rays in the world!
  • The only pink manta ray in the world can be found here
  • Unbelievably inspiring regeneration and conservation of the island is incredible
  • Fantastic for families 

The most southern of the Southern Great Barrier Reef Islands is also 5km off the continental shelf, which brings in warm waters year round and plenty of incredible underwater life.

The conservation efforts of Lady Elliot Island are so remarkable, it’s no wonder Prince Charles met with some of Australia’s biggest corporate leaders to highlight what conservation should look like for the rest of the Great Barrier Reef going forward.

It’s also no wonder the Irwin family holiday here and Sir David Attenborough filmed here too.

The island was once known as ‘The Rock’ because there was nothing on it which is hard to believe now when you’re looking at over 20,000 pisonia trees. The regeneration program is so impressive; they recycle everything they put into the island (you can do a tour like we did to learn more about it).

Snorkelling and diving is also the best I’ve experienced anywhere in the world. Home to the world’s only pink manta ray, it’s a rarity to actually see it but makes the diving experience a little extra special. But, that doesn’t really matter because this island’s marine life is like no other in this protected lagoon. We saw whales inside the reef splashing about, so many eagle rays and manta rays, it was mind-blowing.

When we snorkelled in the famous lagoon, we heard there were 30 turtles in there the day before. We saw so many, I have no idea how many were there but we were both in complete shock at what an experience it turned out to be. And this wasn’t a lucky day, it’s like this all the time.

This is a fantastic island to bring kids because there are so many activities to keep you busy that they will learn heaps. Plus the snorkelling is rigged up with a line so kids can hold onto it if needed.

Honestly this island blew us away!

Lady Elliot Island Cons

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  • It’s not cheap to get here
  • You’ll need to stay the night if you want to snorkel in the lagoon (massive highlight)
  • Don’t stay here if you’re looking for 5 star resort – although the safari tent rooms are amazing
  • No sand as it’s a coral cay so wear reef shoes (you can borrow on them on the island)

There’s not many cons from us except it isn’t cheap to come to this island because you have to fly here (the flight is awesome though).

There’s just a day trip option if you come from Agnes Water. I would come for at least one night to witness snorkelling in the lagoon at high tide which is in the afternoon (after the day trip finishes). Trust me, you don’t want to miss snorkelling in the lagoon.

Don’t expect the accommodation to be a five-star hotel. This is an eco-friendly resort built in the 1980s which can host up to 150 guests at one time (they only take half to let everyone have enough space). If you’re looking for a resort with swimming pools and luxury mod cons, you won’t get it. Actually, you won’t even get internet access (you can purchase data if needed).

But, what you will get is five-star service. The staff went out of their way for us loads and it certainly didn’t go unnoticed for us.

It’s also on a coral cay so you’ll need to wear reef shoes around the island (thongs won’t cut it if you’re staying more than a night).

Watch our video at Lady Elliot Island


3. Heron Island

Heron Island is a stunningly beautiful island in the Southern Great Barrier Reef, located 2 hours off the coast from Gladstone in Central Queensland. You’ll need to either jump on the large ferry to get here or take a private helicopter to get here.

Check out our guides for the The Ultimate Guide To Heron Island and Best Things To Do In Heron Island.

Cost: Starting from $350 per couple (look out for discounted rates)

Book: Find out more about the packages here

Heron Island Pros

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  • Unbelievably beautiful idyllic island
  • See hundreds of turtle hatchlings and nesting between Nov – Jan
  • Fantastic snorkelling around a wreck you can swim to off the beach

Heron Island is undoubtedly the main island in this list that will make you say ‘WOW’ as soon as you arrive.

The wreck, jetty and beach welcome will certainly make you feel like you’ve landed in paradise, and paradise is exactly what it is. It blew our minds that somewhere as beautiful could be off the coast of Gladstone because Gladstone isn’t exactly a place we would personally spend any time in.

The snorkelling is fantastic on Heron Island, especially around the jetty and wreck.

We paid for a snorkelling trip just off Heron Island and we personally found it better by the jetty which is free! You’ll see eagle rays, plenty of turtles, reef sharks and more here. It’s amazing!

The island has white sand all around it, with some of the best sandy beaches we’ve seen!

Go during the turtle nesting season between November – February and you’ll see turtles nesting on the island. We went on a guided night walk not expecting to see any and they were everywhere. It was absolutely amazing to see that final moment of the turtles coming to shore from their long trip from the Solomon Islands to nest, and something I won’t forget any time soon.

Heron Island Cons

  • It’s not a five star resort – food and accommodation is quite basic
  • Service isn’t great and is run by mostly backpackers
  • Ferry ride can be bumpy but not nearly as bad as the Lady Musgrave boat
  • Absolutely no drones allowed on this island

We don’t have many cons for Heron Island because it really is fantastic and excellent value for money. The thing to note is that it is a bird nesting island too so there is a lot of bird poo around and you might get poo’d on so bring a hat for sure.

It’s also not a five star resort and it’s clear the accommodation is quite old. The facilities are slightly better than on Lady Elliot Island with a big bar area, pool table and separate restaurant. David Attenborough stayed here during his visit to the Great Barrier Reef. The food is quite basic – expect toasted sandwiches for snacks (remember it is an island after all).

Personally we thought it’s slightly busier here than on Lady Elliot Island but it’s not crowded or anything and you’ll certainly have loads of space to get a big stretch of beach to yourself. Most of the island is run by backpackers and it was obvious we weren’t getting five star service.

Bring water with you as the water from the taps is desal. The bar forgot to order bottled water when we visited which was fine as we still had some with us as we only stayed the night. This is not the first time I’ve heard of this happening. When we went to Wilson Island next door, we took a box of water with us because of what we experienced on Heron Island, but as a luxury island, they kinda thought we were a bit mad. They were right, Wilson Island is not the same as Heron Island.

Watch our video to Heron Island


4. Wilson Island

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You get given a cheese board to take to the beach for sunset!

Wilson Island is the sister island to Heron Island. This adults only luxurious island is beyond incredible that we just instantly fell in love with it and the hidden gem that it really is.

You can only get here from Gladstone by taking the same ferry to Heron Island and then a small 30 minute boat ride from there (both islands are run by the same company). Or you can go there in style by helicopter which we would have loved to have done.

Make sure you read our Guide To Wilson Island: Luxury Glamping In Paradise.

Cost: Starting from $1000 per night, per couple, all inclusive

Book: Find out more

Wilson Island Pros

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  • Literally feel like castaway on an adults only luxury all inclusive glamping island
  • Good value for money for what you get
  • Personal chef to cook all your meals
  • Fantastic service
  • Help yourself to the free bar
  • Free kayaks
  • Watch turtle nestings and hatchlings 
  • Best star lit sky I have ever seen anywhere in the world

Wilson Island has a totally exclusive and authentic feel to it. It is not like any of the other islands in the Southern Great Barrier Reef and I just loved how they got the experience absolutely spot on. It’s practically untouched but designed for couples with ample secluded seating areas to relax in.

You get to spend a couple of hours on Heron Island before jumping on the small boat for half an hour to Wilson Island. All of the staff on Heron Island were telling us how wonderful Wilson Island is and they are right.

We were greeted by a couple and a French guy who run the island when we got there. There were just six of us staying there which was really incredible.

With loads of space to walk around and private benches all over the island, it really feels like you’ve got the entire island to yourself.

Because it’s an all inclusive island, you’ll have a private chef cooking up amazing meals. There’s a help yourself to the bar to make your own cocktails, grab a bottle of wine or a beer, put it in an esky, and take it down the beach. It’s a wonderful place.

The main snorkelling highlight is the famous huge bommie to snorkel around – if you can find it which we sadly couldn’t. You can grab a kayak like we did for free from the beach and go out for a paddle whenever you like.

At sunset you’ll see thousands of birds fly back to the island at night time to sleep, it’s a fantastic sight to be seen. Make sure you sit out on the beach at night time because the stars are the best I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world. It’s an absolutely amazing experience to watch the shooting stars.

Wilson Island Cons

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  • The island is closed from 1 February – 1 April for bird nesting
  • Birds can be noisy at night time
  • Snorkelling is better on Heron Island
  • You’ll need to share bathrooms at this eco friendly resort
  • No drones are allowed on this island

The island is closed from 1 February – 1 April for bird breeding every year. With this in mind, there are a lot of birds on the island year-round which can be noisy at night time (you’ll need ear plugs).

It visually doesn’t have the same wow appeal of Heron Island as there isn’t a wharf, but there is something truly special about this island, like absolutely amazingly special.

We found the snorkelling better on Heron Island personally, but maybe it was because we didn’t find the big bommie during our visit.

It’s not an activites-led island like Lady Elliot Island or Heron Island is. This is more of an island to spend quality time with your partner without wifi. You’ll simply want to park up with an esky filled with your favourite drinks from the bar and sit and relax on one of the secluded benches around the island.

Watch our video to Wilson Island


5. Great Keppel Island

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Located just a 30 minute ferry ride from the beautiful sea side town of Yeppoon, Great Keppel Island is one of those hidden gems that is really affordable for a day trip or even holiday. With camping options, a resort and even dive centre on the island, this is the biggest of all of the islands we visited in this article. There are also homes on the island but no cars are allowed.

We didn’t really know what to expect before visiting, but it absolutely surprised us to be a beautiful island.

Make sure you check out our guides What To Do On A Great Keppel Island Day Trip and 23 Things To Do On Great Keppel Island.

Cost: Return ferry day trip from just $40pp

Book: Book your ferry tickets

Great Keppel Island Pros

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  • Super cheap to visit and can do a day trip
  • Home to one of the top 20 beaches in Australia called Long Beach
  • Can camp or get cheap accommodation
  • Can dive here
  • Snorkel with turtles, snorkel trips and more
  • Great for hiking

Great Keppel Island is a beautifully authentic island just off Yeppoon and Rockhampton. I loved how untouched it is, even though it might be a little too untouched with the remains of the resort known for putting on legendary parties and the ‘get wrecked’ tagline still sit just off the beach.

There’s a shop you can pick up supplies and hire out snorkel gear to snorkel at the famous Monkey Beach.

With loads of hiking paths around the island, we did a loop down to the famous Long Beach which is stunning and back via Monkey Bay. If you get too tired, there is a taxi service and probably the only car on the island to pick you up and bring you back to the resort.

Make sure you go to Long Beach which is one of the top 20 beaches in Australia. It’s stunning (we had it all to ourselves!).

Spend the afternoon at Great Keppel Island Hideaway for a beer and some food while watching the sun go down. It’s a brilliantly affordable and authentic Great Barrier Reef Island to visit without having to pay crazy prices.

Great Keppel Island Cons

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Long Beach
  • It’s a run down island but it adds to the authenticity
  • Food isn’t great on the island

It’s definitely not a resort island and you might think it’s a little run down. To me, I could see the beauty past this and loved the authenticity of this island.

While the food wasn’t great on the island, if you can see past that and just feel grateful to experience a Great Barrier Reef Island for under $50 with pristine beaches, then I’m sure you’ll love it like we did.

Watch our video to Great Keppel Island


Still on our list to visit: Pumpkin Island

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Pumpkin Island is the only one of the Southern Great Barrier Reef Islands we haven’t seen yet but we hope to visit one day soon. It’s located next to Great Keppel Island and is more of an island you can hire out in its entirety – good for a special occasion. Or, you can simply book a cabin and they’ll supply you food to cook for yourself on the BBQ in your cabin. It’s supposed to be stunning!

If we ever make it over to Pumpkin Island, we’ll update this article for you 🙂


Summary

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Lady Elliot Island

There are so many things we love about all of the islands mentioned in this guide so it’s hard to break it down for you. From what we’ve seen here’s how we would sum it up!

Best snorkelling: Lady Elliot Island & Heron Island

Best diving: Lady Elliot Island

Best service: Wilson Island & Lady Elliot Island

Best beach experience: Great Keppel Island & Heron Island

Best food: Wilson Island (by a mile)

Most affordable island: Great Keppel Island

Best untouched island: Lady Musgrave Island & Wilson Island

Island we could go back to in a heartbeat: All of them!


Southern Great Barrier Reef Islands!

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