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The Southern Great Barrier Reef – Discover Idyllic Islands and Coastal Towns

While many visitors to Australia head to northern Queensland to experience the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), this unique World Heritage Area extends far south into Southern Queensland where many more unspoiled islands are waiting to be explored.

The Southern Great Barrier Reef is one of the best kept secrets on the Queensland coast offering visitors a true discovery experience to this relatively untouched part of the Great Barrier Reef. The southern region boasts the breath-taking smaller islands of Heron Island, Lady Musgrave Island and Lady Elliot Island, all only a short distance from the thriving city of Gladstone.

The Gladstone region is home to Queensland’s largest multi-commodity shipping port and an active fishing fleet both servicing the local region adding to the fame of being the state’s engine room. South of Gladstone lies the relaxed seaside towns of 1770 and Agnes Water linked by a picturesque coastline. Just over a 100 km north of Gladstone is Rockhampton, nestled inland on the Fitzroy River.


The Gladstone city area is surrounded by the Calliope and the Boyne Rivers and in between lies a natural deep-water harbour where the Gladstone Port Corporation and Gladstone Marina are based. The city, along with the port and marina are protected by two outlying islands – Curtis Island and Facing Island.

Each year in April the harbour plays host to the annual Brisbane to Gladstone Yacht Race, marked by the Gladstone Harbour Festival that spans three days of entertainment, novelty events and attractions.

The marina area has been developed with stunning parklands close by including Spinnaker Park and Palm Point on either side of the marina entrance. They both offer excellent walking trails, cafes plus a swimming beach and stunning views across the inlet.

An easy walk across the waterway is the Gladstone Yacht Club known for its sundowners in the Beer Garden right on the waterfront. Further down from the marina area is the East Shores Precinct, a recreational destination running between the waterfront and Flinders Parade offering relaxed activities for families, an outdoor cinema, the Gladstone Maritime Museum and the cruise terminal.

Gladstone also offers a range of entertainment and cultural experiences including the Regional Art Gallery and Museum housed in the Heritage Listed Town Hall building, colonial buildings in the CBD and a wide variety of bars and restaurants. The Toodoon Botanic Gardens stands out for being one of the few in Australia with all native plant species. The gardens also play host to Luminous, the multi award-winning event creating mesmerising visual displays of illuminated art in July each year.

Other key events in the Gladstone annual calendar include the ‘Boyne-Tannum Hook Up’, Australia’s largest family fishing competition held over three hotly contested days in late April; Beach Arts Music (BAM) Markets, a series of events throughout the year providing great food and live outdoor entertainment; the music and arts festival ‘Under the Trees’ on Boyne Island each September; and the Multicultural Festival in September celebrating the diverse multiculturalism in the local community.

Gladstone Marina

Gladstone Marina is close to the port entrance in deep water with four metres available at dead low tide. It caters for superyachts with several berths up to 50m. It also has a fixed wharf offering vehicle and crane access. For superyachts over 50m, contact the Marina directly to discuss availability of alternate berthing options within the port. Fuel and other marine services are located at the marina.

Getting there:

Gladstone Airport services domestic flights and is only 15 minutes’ drive from the marina and downtown. The airport makes Gladstone one of the more popular destinations for visitors to access the Southern Great Barrier Reef and enjoy many of the islands’ water activities, all of which can be organised through local tour operators.

Southern Great Barrier Reef Islands

Heron Island

Heron Island is a small coral cay of 29 hectares located just 80 km northeast of Gladstone and lies in the Capricorn Group of islands of the Great Barrier Reef, close to the tropic. Access onto the island itself is through the Heron Island Resort via boat from Gladstone or by helicopter.

Heron Island has long been known as a premier dive destination and was visited by Sir David Attenborough several decades ago describing it as ‘his most magical place on earth’. It is also popular with the green and loggerhead turtles who return to breed and lay eggs from September to March each year.

Lady Musgrave Island

Part of the Bunker Group of islands, Lady Musgrave Island is the second to most southern island in the reef and is the only coral island on the GBR with a navigable lagoon. Although small at only 14 hectares of coral cay, with its 1,192 hectares of surrounding reef it over-delivers on both exceptional underwater experiences and tranquil secluded above-water activities. Visitors to Lady Musgrave Island can go ashore onto the island and enjoy snorkelling off the beach, isolated lazy walks exploring the island followed by relaxed sundowners in the sand.

For diving and snorkelling experiences in and around Lady Musgrave Island, secure the services a local tour operator or agent from Gladstone who can advise vessels on the channel entry and provide local knowledge for the best scuba diving, snorkelling and fishing locations both in and outside the reef as well as the best anchorage areas inside the reef.

Lady Elliot Island

Lady Elliot Island is the most southernmost coral cay of the Great Barrier Reef lying 80 nm from Gladstone and is also part of the Bunker Island Group. The island is only 46 hectares and is managed by the Lady Elliot Eco-Resort operating privately since 2005 and accessible only by aircraft with departure points from Agnes Water, Hervey Bay and further south from Brisbane and the Gold Coast. Flights provide stunning bird’s eye views over the reef.

Lady Elliot Island sits within the protected ‘green zone’ of the GBR and is known as the ‘Home of the Manta Ray’ for its abundance of manta rays, turtles and for over 1,200 other marine life species due to its easterly location benefiting from the Eastern Australian current. The diverse corals on the reef surrounding Lady Elliot Island are in excellent condition and divers can enjoy a wonderful mix of hard and soft corals along with the local marine life.

South of Gladstone

1770 and Agnes Water

South of Gladstone lies the two beachside communities of Seventeen Seventy (1770) and Agnes Water. 1770 is famous for being named after then Lieutenant James Cook and his crew from the ‘Endeavour’ who came ashore there on 24 May 1770. The township has built up around Cook’s landing site and celebrates every May with the Captain Cook 1770 Festival.

To make the most of the visit, book a friendly local tour operator for a half or full day tour to visit the historic sites of 1770 including a relaxed 30-minute walk to the lookout and enjoy the serenity of the Paperbark Forest Walk. Finish the day with a refreshing surf at Agnes Water.

Agnes Water operates as the local service town but is more known for its white sandy beaches and for being the most northern surf beach on the east coast of Australia before the reef. Tours out to Lady Musgrave Island also leave from 1770.

North of Gladstone


Rockhampton is a short 100 km drive north of Gladstone and has experiences galore lined up for visitors. This central Queensland city has world-class mountain bike trails, treetop boardwalks in Mount Archer National Park with views over the city; and cheeky animals at the free zoo – you can even book a private visit for a meerkat encounter!

The newly opened Rockhampton Museum of Art and its significant art collection hosts a vibrant program of exhibitions, talks and events. Other attractions include the Capricorn Caves, an above limestone cave with an in-cave light show; the Koorana Crocodile Farm, home to over 3,000 crocodiles; fishing for trophy Barramundi and King Thread on your doorstep in the Fitzroy River; visit the two cultural centres to explore the diverse cultures in the region including On Country experiences and tours plus enjoy he many local bushwalks and hiking trails on offer.

This article was first published in Superyacht Australia Magazine Issue 10

Images courtesy of Tourism Events Queensland, Gladstone Area Promotion and Development Limited and Advance Rockhampton.

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