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The best Southern Great Barrier Reef islands you need to visit

If you want to know where to find colourful corals and amazing marine life, wriggle into your wettie (wetsuit for those unfamiliar), strap on your fins and follow our lead. We’ve uncovered the very best Southern Great Barrier Reef islands you need to visit ASAP – and why.

Wilson Island

Wilson-Island-Southern-Great-Barrier-Reef-photo-by-@_markfitz

Photo by @_markfitz

This new kid on the block (tourism-wise) is set to turn heads on the reef.

Next-door neighbours with Heron Island, Wilson brings the expected – rainforest, reef and pellucid waters – but there is so much to discover on this island.

Why it’s incredible: The island is home to just nine eco-tents and capacity is limited to 30 people only. Plus, the island lives and breathes sustainability from the use of battery and solar power to shared bathroom facilities.

Perfect for: Solo and couple travels who are looking for sweet solitude on a sustainable sub-tropical paradise.

How to get there: Wilson is accessible via a 45 minute boat ride to Heron. Travel to Heron by boat from the Gladstone Marina (two-hour transfer departs 9:30am and returns 3:15pm daily) or fly over the reef via a helicopter from Gladstone Airport (approximately 30 minutes).

Pumpkin Island

Located 14 kilometres off the coast of Yeppoon, you have the opportunity to book this entire island out to yourself (or your small group of friends), staying in their eco-friendly self-contained units that are powered by the wind and sun.

Get in quick as this will be the place stay – or get married.

Why it’s incredible: Where else can you head off on a tropical escape and book the entire island to yourselves? If you don’t want to hire the entire island, you don’t have to. Individual rooms are available to book as well.

Perfect for: A great island getaway for romantics, couples and those who want to combine the two and tie the knot. Their Pebble Point accommodation has its own pool on the deck.

How to get there: A quick 24-minute boat transfer from Yeppoon, or take to the skies and arrive like a rock star by chopper.

Lady Musgrave Island

Of the coast from Queensland’s birth town, the town of 1770, Lady Musgrave Island is where you can actually camp without a resort guest insight.

This protected pocket of water is like swimming in an ocean aquarium. Its calm waters are perfect for families and swimmers of all abilities to snorkel and explore the colourful reef.

You can take a day trip out to the island with several operators who provide the gear for you to snorkel and scuba. The more adventurous can secure a camping permit and pitch a tent on the island to truly escape and spend a night out on the reef. Campers need to be fully independent (bring all of your gear, including fresh water) as the only infrastructure on the island is a composting toilet.

Why it’s incredible: Where else in the world can you camp on a coral cay?

Perfect for: The protected coral lagoon is ideal for first-time snorkelers and families. Adventurous campers also love this island locale. Be sure to secure a camping permit in advance if you wish to pitch your tent during school holidays.

How to get there: Lady Musgrave Cruises and 1770reef Great Barrier Reef Eco Tours offer day trips and island transfers from the town of 1770. And, Lady Musgrave Experience departs from Bundaberg.

North West Island

This remote coral cay 75 kilometres off the coast of Gladstone is the stuff of dreams for adventurous campers wanting to pitch a tent and surround themselves with nothing but nature.

Forget your thousand-thread-count sheets and day spas, North West Island is all about snorkelling and enjoying the simpler things in life. Between spotting turtles and watching the bird life, you can also catch your dinner straight from the ocean.

Be sure to check out the zoning regulations: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Queensland Government Department of National Parks, Sport and Racing before you leave home.

Why it’s incredible: There are not many day-trippers, meaning campers generally have the island to themselves. Oh, and the fishing.

Perfect for: You don’t need to be Bear Grylls to camp on North West Island, but you’ll have to be fully independent. Pack plenty of freshwater and a sense of adventure (just brush up on these beach camping tips first).

How to get there: Curtis Ferry Services offer regular island drop-offs from Gladstone right to your beach campsite on North West Island.

Lady Elliot Island

Snorkelling with Manta Rays on Lady Elliot Island

Located 46 nautical miles off the coast of Bundaberg, Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort is (as the name suggests) eco-certified and attracts divers from around the world who want to swim with super-sized manta rays. It’s so impressive that it has attracted the documentary cameras of the legendary Sir David Attenborough, who simply couldn’t resist its turtles, mantas and stunning coral.

Accommodation ranges from beachside suites to glamping tents. It’s no six-star resort, but you’re not there to sit in your room when you have the reef within easy reach.

Access to the island is super simple with the resort providing return flights to the island from Bundaberg, Hervey Bay, Brisbane or the Gold Coast. If you’re limited for time, you can take a day trip here.

Why it’s incredible: There are probably a few things you didn’t know about this slice of paradise. Here’s more reasons why you should pick Lady Elliot Island for your next island escape.

Perfect for: First-timers who want to snorkel in the protected lagoon or professional divers.

How to get there: Flights are included with accommodation packages. Make sure you bag a window seat as the views over the reef are amazing.

Heron Island

Snorkelling on Heron Island | How to plan your Great Barrier Reef holiday

World famous diver Jacques Cousteau ranked Heron Island‘s Bommie dive site as one of the 10 best dives in the world, so we’re pretty sure its fringing reef will keep the fussiest of divers happy.

Located 89 kilometres north-east of Gladstone, this coral cay packs a punch with 16 superb dive sites within 15 minutes of the island. Plus, there’s no need for long boat transfers to the reef when you reach this island. You can literally swim off the beach and drift snorkel above colourful coral.

However, it’s not all diving and snorkelling at this island paradise. You can easily reach your inner nirvana at the on-island spa with a relaxing massage or treatment. If you have kids, plan your visit around school holidays where they can join the Junior Reef Ranger program to learn about the island’s delicate ecosystem and marine life.

Accommodation ranges from family rooms through to romantic suites with reef views. Learn to dive, hire a kayak, enjoy a picnic on the beach or take in a romantic sunset cruise – there are oodles of activities to keep you or your kids busy.

Why it’s incredible: Heron Island is home to some of the best dive sites on the reef (and in the world). And, it’s perfectly accessible for a long weekend getaway!

Perfect for: Kids will love the kids program and parents will love kid-free time to dive or relax by the pool. This island escape is perfect for holidaymakers wanting to see the true beauty of the Reef with creature comforts included.

How to get there: Holiday packages often include seaplane flights or boat transfers from Gladstone.

Great Keppel Island

Family on Great Keppel Island

Photo by @awolfamily

A quick hop across the bay from Yeppoon, Great Keppel Island has 17 pristine white-sandy beaches perfect for lounging, sand-castle building and beach cricket.

No matter the size of your tribe, Great Keppel Island Hideaway and Great Keppel Island Holiday Village offer everything from tents, cabins and beach houses to suit every budget and need.

The protected bays provide safe swimming year-round and are perfect for kayaking, snorkelling, water-skiing, wake-boarding and tubing.

Follow the locals and head to the bar at sunset from the deck at The Island Bar and Bistro.

Why it’s incredible: An affordable island holiday that has plenty of beaches to explore. Get in the car kids, it’s Keppel time!

Perfect for: Families, romantics and couples who are looking for an affordable island escape that offers fewer bells and whistles and more value for money.

How to get there: Join a ferry transfer, hire a private transfer, or take a guided sailing tour to this island gem. Your toes will be in the sand within 30 minutes of departing Yeppoon.

*DON’T FORGET: Some of the islands have seasonal camping closures. Check out the Department of National Parks, Sport and Racing’s website for island updates and online permit information.