Southern Great Barrier Reef – Where Great Begins…

If the Southern Great Barrier Reef (SGBR) were a sitcom, without doubt it would be Cheers. Not because it boasts an extraordinary amount of bars per capita, but because it's the kind of uncrowded getaway where soon enough everybody knows your name and they're always glad you came.

The comparison might be a little cheesy, but the Southern Great Barrier Reef – a leisurely four-hour drive from Brisbane city – is known for low-key, intimate reef holidays, super-friendly locals, world-class diving and snorkelling and megafauna galore.

It's a place of jaw-dropping natural beauty; a list of superlatives as long as your arm could never do it justice. Sitting pretty off the coastline, Queensland's southern ladies – Lady Elliot Island and Lady Musgrave Island – share the fauna-rich waters with nearby Great Keppel Island and Heron Island, where your hosts are passionate about protecting the pristine environments they live and work on. 

On the mainland, stretches of beach are peppered with quiet coastal towns, offering a laid-back atmosphere. The small, twin villages of Agnes Water and The Town of 1770 (the first place in Australia where Captain Cook came ashore back in the year 1770) are renowned as the southernmost jumping-off point for reef tours and for the northernmost surfing beach in Australia.

You can also expect to get up close and personal with nature – after all, this region supports the biggest turtle rookery in the Southern Hemisphere at Mon Repos near Bundaberg (and another significant site a short drive up the beautiful coastline to Deepwater National Park, just south of Agnes Waters and the Town of 1770).

Add These To Your Bucket List

  1. Watch turtle hatchlings burst out of their nests and race to the oncoming waves under moonlight at Mon Repos.
  2. Join the amphibious LARC! in the Town of 1770 for a trip up to the Bustard Head Lighthouse and toast the sunset – one of only a handful of places on Australia's east coast where the sun melts into the ocean.
  3. Take your pick of 17 pristine beaches (and a range of budget-friendly accommodation) on Great Keppel Island – 30 minutes by ferry from Rosslyn Bay, just south of Yeppoon.
  4. Camp atop Lady Musgrave Island's 3000 acres of living reef with the seabirds and turtles as your only neighbours.
  5. Hire a boat and spend your day snorkelling the untouched ecosystem of the closed ring reef of Fitzroy Reef Lagoon or camp like a local on North West and Masthead islands.
  6. Dive with the resident manta rays and snap a turtle selfie in the megafauna-rich waters surrounding gorgeous Lady Elliot Island, a secluded coral cay where you can totally immerse yourself in nature.
  7. Sail 15 kilometres east of Yeppoon and anchor at one of the three beaches on Middle Island – chances are you'll have this beautiful place all to yourself.
  8. Equalise and dive your way around the 20 world-class Great Barrier Reef dive sites surrounding Heron Island. The father of scuba diving, Jacques Cousteau, named this idyll (in particular Heron Bommie) among his Top 10 dive sites on the planet.
  9. You'll be hooked when you join a week-long liveaboard fishing charter to the Great Barrier Reef from Gladstone marina.
  10. Hunt down the northernmost surf break on the east coast of Australia. The elusive break does happen, you just need to speak to the right locals to find out where.

Immerse Yourself In Nature

  • Summer (November to January) – is turtle nesting season while January to March is turtle hatching season. Tourists can assist rangers relocate eggs where needed and direct hatchlings to the ocean. Summer is also peak breeding activity for most seabird species.
  • Autumn – humpback whales arrive in the Southern Great Barrier Reef as part of their winter migration journey. They calve, mate and socialise in Queensland's tropical waters.
  • Winter – manta rays gather at feeding locations (and cleaning stations) near the surface. Lady Elliot Island, on the Southern Great Barrier Reef, is known as the home of the manta ray.
  • Spring – September is the best time to see humpback whales in the Southern Great Barrier Reef as they migrate south to Antarctica with their calves. This time of year, you can also expect to see turtle mating and nesting.

World Class Aquatic Adventures
The SGBR region offers extraordinarily beautiful diving conditions and rich megafauna experiences – all without the threat of stingers (it's too far south for irukanji).  

DIVE THE BARCOOLA & CETACEA & KARMA WRECKS

Site: These shipwrecks are situated offshore from the stunning coastal towns of 1770 and Agnes Waters.
Location: Southern Great Barrier Reef.
Dive Type: Shipwreck.
Depth: 32m.
Visibility: 10-20m (weather dependent).
Skill Level:
All levels. Fitzroy Reef Lagoon also has many dive sites of varying depths for the novice to the more experienced.
Known For:
The 13m wreck of the trawler, 'Barcoola', sits 32m underwater on a sandy bottom and attracts a variety of marine life. The 'Karma' is considered an accessible dive for both open water and advanced divers.
Wildlife:
Rays, grouper, tuna and trevally.
Hot Tip: The Cetacea is a standout dive lying in 41m of water and home to groupers, cod, kingfish and giant cobia. Large rays, bull sharks, and bronze whalers are often spotted.

Whilst on the Southern Great Barrier Reef, why not check out North West Island, Broomfield Cay/Reef and Wreck Islands. Fitzroy Lagoon and Reef are worth a look and don't forget Fairfax, which is absolutely stunning. This region is one place on the reef where divers can spot all of the Great Eight – sharks, whales, manta rays, potato cod, giant clams, clownfish and maori wrasse.

BARGARA BEACH

Site: A beautiful beach and dive site is just east of Bundaberg.
Location: Southern Great Barrier Reef.
Dive Types: Reef / Artificial Reef / Drift.
Depth:
The sites vary from 0m to 10m (Barolin); 2m to 10m (Hoffman's) and from 16m to 18m (Cochrane Artificial Reef).
Visibility:
0m to 10m (Barolin), 2m to 15m (Hoffman's) and 5m to 20m (Cochrane).
Skill Level:
All levels.
Known For:
Shore dive from Bargara Beach, nearby Hoffman's Rocks and Barolin Rocks or access Evan's Patch, Two Mile Reef and the WWII Beaufort Bomber by dive charter.
Wildlife: In this area you'll find soft coral gardens with small to medium reef fish species, wobbegongs and eels. Nudibranchs and dugong have also been sighted.

GREAT KEPPEL ISLAND & MIDDLE ISLAND

Site: Great Keppel and Middle islands are 15km offshore from Yeppoon, and accessible by a 30-minute ferry from Rosslyn Bay Harbour. Experience fringing reef right off the island's beach or journey slightly further afield.
Location: Southern Great Barrier Reef.
Dive Type: Reef / Underwater structure.
Depth: Variable from 2m to 12m depending on the site.
Visibility:  10-15m (weather dependent).
Skill level: All levels. These sites are suitable for snorkelling as well as diving. Known for: Fringing coral reef, white sandy beaches. Some sites are accessible from beaches that are within walking distance of the island's accommodation. Others are a short boat ride away. 
Wildlife: Olive sea snakes at Olive Point. Turtles, small to medium reef fish, clown fish and anemone beds, moray eels, rays, sea cucumbers, crayfish, dugong.
Hot tips: Visit Big Peninsula and Secret Beach. Egg Rock is another world-class dive site just 15km south-east of Great Keppel Island. Nearby Barren and Child islands (12km from GKI) offer great drift diving for intermediate and experienced divers and North Keppel Island (Maizie and Considine Bays) offers beautiful scenery for snorkellers and divers of all skill levels.

HERON ISLAND BOMMIE

Site: Situated on a natural coral cay off the coast of Gladstone, Heron Island is accessible by launch boat and HeliReef, departing via the airport.
Location: Southern Great Barrier Reef.
Dive Type: Coral Cay / Reef.
Depth: From 3m to 25m.
Visibility: Up to 50m.
Skill Level: All levels. Discover Scuba Diving for beginners or become a certified diver in just two days. Dive sites are just 5 to 15 minutes from the island and night dives are available.
Known For: Heron Island is a true coral cay where divers can step off the island and reach breathtaking coral gardens and pinnacles, just minutes from the beach. Heron Bommie has been a signature dive site for more than 40 years and is one of Jacques Cousteau's favourites. 
Wildlife: Convenience aside, the diving is excellent with manta rays, reef sharks and plenty of pelagic species.

Hot Tip: Heron - and nearby Wilson -  Islands are important nesting grounds for green and loggerhead turtles from November to March, so expect to see plenty of megafauna in the summer months. On Heron Island, you can live in your dive kit for days (eat, sleep, dive and repeat) so make sure you add Pams Point, Gorgonia Hole, Coral Cascades, Tenements, 3 Rocks, Coral Canyons and Coral Gardens to your bucket list.

LADY ELLIOT ISLAND

Site: Dive straight off the coastline fringed by reef and coral gardens.
Location:
Southern Great Barrier Reef.
Dive Type: Coral Cay / Reef.
Depth:
From 12m (Coral Gardens); from 3m to 16m (Light House Bommie); and from 14m (Maori Wrasse Bommie).
Visibility:
30m visibility year-round.
Skill Level:
All levels.
Known For:
The island's biggest claim to fame is its resident manta ray population. Incredible dive sites are The Blowhole, Hiro's Cave and The Encounters (a full-on coral dive with large plate and staghorn sections and explosive fish action at 6-12m depth).
Wildlife:
Manta rays, marine turtles, reef sharks, batfish, white-spotted shovelnose rays and all manner of megafauna found in this region.

Hot Tip: Just minutes offshore, the 'Severance' is a two-masted sailing boat which sank off the island in 1998. Remnants of the sails can still be seen. The area also has huge schools of pelagics (fish who live close to the water surface), moray eels and more.

LADY MUSGRAVE ISLAND

Site: Lady Musgrave is a coral cay that is accessible by seaplane or boat from both Bundaberg and the Town of 1770.
Location: Southern Great Barrier Reef.
Dive Type: Coral Cay / Reef.
Depth: From 5m to 30m.
Visibility: From 10m to 30m.
Skill Level: All levels.
Known For: Fabulous dive sites including:

  • Coral Gardens for the magnificent coral structures harbouring many large fish species;
  • Manta Ray Bommie featuring coral domes and a Manta 'cleaning station';
  • The Aquarium, a large dive area inside the lagoon with special species of soft and hard coral and many reef fish;
  • Hidden Caves, a coral cave swim through experience;
  • Magic Drop-Off Wall where the reef drops off to show a wall of superb colours and formations of coral and a variety of fish.

Wildlife: Scuba divers and snorkellers can come face to face with manta rays, turtles, moray eels, reef sharks and many of the large rainbow coloured fish, including coral trout, red emperor, maori wrasse, potato cod and grouper to name a few.
Hot Tip: See marine turtles lay their eggs from November to January, while hatching occurs from January to late March.

SWAIN REEFS

Site: The Swain Reefs are accessible by boat charter from Gladstone or Keppel Bay Marina on the Capricorn Coast or by seven or nine-day charter from Bundaberg. (FYI this reef is more than 200km from the mainland and can take a day and night's travel to reach).
Location: Southern Great Barrier Reef.
Dive Type: Reef.
Depth: 1m to 40m.
Visibility: 20m.
Skill Level: Experienced.
Known For: The Swains is often referred to as 'virgin territory' and is a vast patchwork of coral reefs, sometimes with more than 20m water visibility, sandy atolls and shallow lagoons. The diving includes towers, terraces, swim throughs and spirals of coral.
Wildlife: Expect an abundance of marine life including sharks, manta rays, sea snakes and tropical fish.
Hot Tip: Depending on your departure point, you will visit either the northern or the southern section of the reef. Either way, you'll get excellent diving without a lot of people.

It's Live! In Queensland

SUMMER

  • Agnes Blues Roots & Rock Festival (Agnes Water)
  • Agnes Water Longboard Classic (Agnes Water)
  • Reef 2 Beach Longboard Classic (Gladstone)


AUTUMN

  • Captain Cook 1770 Festival (1770/Gladstone region)
  • Gladstone Harbour Festival (Gladstone)
  • Boyne Tannum Hook Up (Boyne Tannum
  • Bundaberg Crush Festival (Bundaberg)
  • Capricorn Coast Running Festival (Yeppoon)
  • Capricorn Food and Wine Festival (Rockhampton)
  • Yeppoon Triathlon Festival (Yeppoon)
  • Great Barrier Reef Swim (Heron Island)

  WINTER

  • Bundaberg North Burnett Winterfeast (Bundaberg)
  • Rockhampton River Festival (Rockhampton)
  • Southern Great Barrier Reef Golf Classic (Capricorn)
  • Yeppoon Triathlon Festival (Yeppoon)

Hidden Gems

  • Make like Swiss Family Robinson and rent out all seven chalets on Pumpkin Island for just under $2000 per night.
  • Meet Bev and Nev McLaughlin, volunteer turtle trackers, at Deepwater National Park every summer nesting season
  • Go off grid and get onto an uninhabited island like Lady Musgrave, off Gladstone.
  • Pick up a slab of Great Barrier Beer, locally brewed at Bargara Brewing Company and say cheers to mother nature's greatest gift to the world.

 

Word Count: 2095

Author: Tourism and Events Queensland

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