Southern Great Barrier Reef Guide

The ultimate Southern Great Barrier Reef visitor’s guide

The Great Barrier Reef is rather large, stretching some 2300km along the Queensland coastline. The result? Plenty of places to get your snorkel or dive on, one of which is the Southern Great Barrier Reef.

North Queensland may hog most of the Great Barrier Reef limelight, but it’s the southern township of Bundaberg, an easy 400km drive from the state’s capital of Brisbane, where the Reef officially begins.

The Southern Great Barrier Reef, with its flagship cities of Rockhampton, Gladstone and Bundaberg, and its idyllic islands of Great Keppel, Pumpkin, Wilson, Heron, Lady Musgrave and Lady Elliot, is packing plenty of lesser-known experiences to rival its northern neighbours.

So go on, find out more about this region in our guide.

WHY GO

For anyone who loves their reef and beef, you’ve arrived in one of the most divine destinations in which to experience both.

Rockhampton boasts the mantle of Australia’s Beef Capital and you’ll relish the country hospitality and hearty fare on offer here.

Head to Rocky’s nearby coastal town of Yeppoon and its laidback lifestyle, where old beach shacks and cool cafes are reminiscent of your childhood holidays.

Beyond the shore, and out towards the horizon, sit two of Queensland’s most beautiful islands, Pumpkin – which you can rent like a rock star – and Great Keppel.

Great Keppel is a favoured destination of families for many reasons.

Further south, Gladstone delivers those same old-school feels with its tiny, but terrific Tannum Sands and the twin towns of Agnes Water and 1770, named after one Lieutenant James Cook who was so enamoured with the place, he popped in for a visit during the year 1770, and after which it takes its name.

Offshore sits Heron Island, with its beautiful birds and larger-than-life underwater creatures, as well as Wilson Island, whose new glamping resort has just opened.

Travel further south again, and you’ll arrive in the cane country of Bundaberg, whose fertile volcanic soil makes it one of Australia’s major food bowls.

Turtle | Southern Great Barrier Reef visitors guide

There are two incredible islands on offer here: Lady Musgrave Island and Lady Elliot Island, both renowned for their nesting turtles, sensational sea life and the chance to swim with giant manta rays.

With its relatively cooler sea temperatures due to its southern position, you’ll find the Reef in pristine condition on the Southern Great Barrier Reef.

But it’s not just the coastline that delivers memorable holiday moments in this region.

Inland, you’ll find gem fossicking, barramundi fishing, and epic national parks – we’re talking Carnarvon, Byfield, Kroombit Tops and the Capricorn Caves – on the menu.

WHEN TO GO

Perched around latitude 24, the Southern Great Barrier Reef is home to one of the most temperate climates on the planet.

Boasting mild winters and warm summers, visitors can swim and snorkel all year round.

The ocean here is also stinger and crocodile free, and cyclones this far south are extremely rare.

WHAT TO DO THERE

So many different experiences, so little time.

Our advice: make the time and you will be richly rewarded.

Rockhampton has undergone a fabulous facelift in recent times. If architecture and history are your thing, wander Quay Street, the largest heritage-listed street in Australia where latticed verandas typical of Queensland overlook the Fitzroy River.

The riverfront itself has also had a freshen-up and there’s some cool dining, fun playgrounds and great walks to take along here.

Catch a boat out to Great Keppel Island and snorkel and swim to your heart’s content on a tour which will also allow you to board a glass-bottom boat and view the reef without getting your feet wet.

Glorious Gladstone has taken a lot of effort to develop its cruise industry and foreshore with plenty of pretty parklands for visitors.

At Agnes Water and 1770 you can ride Queensland’s most northern surf break with the cheapest surf schools in the country.

Take a tour in an old amphibious army vehicle or end your day with a sunset kayak tour searching for dolphins.

Heron Island is not only about its nesting birds but is also home to gigantic sea life. Snorkel or dive with the mantas here out to the shipwreck or take a submarine tour.

A must-do at Bundaberg is a food tour taking in the local farms and produce. And you can’t leave Bundy without a taste of its world-famous Bundaberg Rum.

Take a day trip out to Lady Musgrave Island and you’ll be richly rewarded with a languid lagoon in which to snorkel with the turtles and some awesome reef in which to dive deep.

Back on dry land, head down to Mon Repos during turtle nesting and hatching season and you can experience Mother Nature at her brilliant best.

A scenic flight will deliver you to Lady Elliot Island which has arguably some of the best snorkelling and diving of the entire Great Barrier Reef.

WHERE TO STAY

Southern Great Barrier Reef guide

Photo by @_markfitz

Beautiful island digs, new hotels, cool camping grounds, beachfront shacks and relaxing resorts mean there’s plenty of choice for travellers in the Southern Great Barrier Reef.

Choose to stay on the mainland in the holiday hubs of Bargara, near Bundaberg (for the closest proximity to turtle tracking at Mon Repos), in a luxurious holiday home in Agnes Water, or in a heritage hotel in the heart of Rockhampton.

For those who prefer to go off-grid, allow us to introduce the Sandstone Wilderness that is Carnarvon Gorge.

Conservation and being eco-friendly are extremely important principles of the Southern Great Barrier Reef.

Pumpkin Island is carbon positive and offsets 150% of its annual carbon emissions.

Lady Elliot Island was once completely ravaged by mining but is now rejuvenated and home to an abundance of wildlife. Owner Pete Gash is aiming for the resort to be completely sustainable by 2020.

Wilson Island and Heron Island are both eco-friendly and committed to the conservation of the Reef and the marine life that visits.

Guests at Heron can go for a tour of the University of Queensland Research Station on the island to learn more about coral reef and ecological research that goes on.

The Junior Rangers Program also allows kids to learn more about the work of the marine biologists on the island in a fun and interactive way.

The Lady Musgrave Experience works with local suppliers as much as possible and aims to provide an excellent catering service with zero-waste.

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK

Refurbished pubs, kitsch cafes, retro restaurants and waterfront dining, the Southern Great Barrier Reef has it all.

Due to its location, climate, and rust, red soil, it’s also one of most flavoursome food destinations in Australia. The seafood is plucked fresh from the ocean while its paddock-to-plate scene rivals that of anywhere in the world, coupled with the friendly faces of its primary producers. 

Get the lowdown on where to eat in Gladstone, Rockhampton and Bundaberg with these guides.

BEST DAY TRIPS TO TAKE

This rollicking region lends itself to delightful drives pausing to admire the surrounding country and heritage along the way.

But make sure you get wet too, with a boat trip out to one of the islands, there are numerous operators bursting to show you why they love the Southern Great Barrier Reef so much.

If hiking is more your thing, these day hikes in Carnarvon Gorge should be at the top of your bucket list.

GETTING THERE

The Southern Great Barrier Reef is easy to access.

Bundaberg, Gladstone and Rockhampton all have domestic airports with flights from within and outside Queensland.

Lady Elliot Island also offers direct flights from Hervey Bay, Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

THINGS TO KNOW

Southern Great Barrier Reef guide

Photo by @_markfitz

You’ll fit right in if you speak like a Queenslander and drop the formal pronunciation of place names around these parts.

So Rockhampton is Rocky, Bundaberg is Bundy, and Gladstone is, you guessed it, Gladdy.

LOCAL’S TIPS

Leave your cash at home, as the Southern Great Barrier reef is the leading Australian tourism region in which you can spend cryptocurrency.