Guide to the Southern Great Barrier Reef
Explore the Southern Great Barrier Reef and see a different side of this majestic natural wonder. The region is home to tropical islands, a famous surf beach, manta rays, baby turtles and colourful corals – as well as some of Australia's friendliest people.
By Katrina Lobley
Covering 344,400 square kilometres (214,025 square miles), there's much more to the Great Barrier Reef than Cairns. Those who take the time to explore the lesser known Southern Great Barrier Reef will find themselves rewarded with pristine islands, snorkelling and diving and extraordinary marine creatures including manta rays and colourful coral gardens. There's even a surf beach where anyone can learn to ride the waves. Find the "real" Australia in down-to-earth cities and laid-back towns such as the quirkily titled Seventeen Seventy (also known as Town of 1770), so named after the year in which the British explorer Captain James Cook landed here.
- Learn to surf at Queensland's most northerly surf beach
- Swim with giant manta rays at Lady Elliot Island
- See cute baby turtles hatch on a beach
How to get there
The coastal city of Bundaberg, gateway to the Southern Great Barrier Reef, is a 4.5-hour drive from the Queensland state capital of Brisbane (you can also reach Bundaberg by bus, train or plane). Other major transport hubs in the region include the cities of Gladstone and Rockhampton.
Things to do and top attractions on the Southern Great Barrier Reef
Meet baby turtles at Mon Repos
See endangered loggerhead turtles nesting and hatching at Mon Repos – a beach in the laid-back city of Bundaberg. This important site hosts the South Pacific's largest loggerhead turtle nesting population, and the area's turtle encounter tours, which run from November to January, let you watch turtles coming ashore to nest. From January to March you can see cute baby turtles hatch and make their way down the sand into the sea. Both tours are very popular, so be sure to book ahead.
Learn to surf for next to nothing
Roughly 120 kilometres (75 miles) north of Bundaberg you'll find Agnes Water, home to Queensland’s most northerly surf beach (further north from here, the Great Barrier Reef protects beaches from waves). Here you'll find great waves for beginner and intermediate surfers as well as several surf lessons. Fifteen minutes down the road is the aforementioned town, Seventeen Seventy (though the two towns are so close they're almost interchangeable). Both towns are favoured by backpackers and families, with plenty of affordable water activities on offer such as surfing, stand-up paddle boarding and kayaking, and several youth hostels. Agnes Water Bakery serves some of the best meat pies on the east coast.
Try Australia's most famous rum
Say the word "Bundy" to any Australian bartender, and you'll be served a nip of the enormously popular Bundaberg Rum - a sweet, dark Australian liquor widely available around the country, made with sugar cane from Bundaberg's subtropical surrounds. There's no better place to try a glass than the place it's made, so visit the Bundaberg Rum Distillery in Bundaberg for a Blend Your Own Rum experience, in which visitors make personalised bottles of rum from barrels imbued with other spirits.
Meet Lady Elliot Island’s manta rays
PADI (the global Professional Association of Diving Instructors organisation) rates Lady Elliot Island as one of the world’s top five destinations to dive with manta rays, which have wings spanning up to 7 metres (23 feet). The island itself is also very beautiful, and home to a pretty 41-room eco-resort. Visitors can take a day trip here (it’s a 25-minute scenic flight from Bundaberg), but as the island is only accessible by plane it's worth spending a few days snorkelling, diving and relaxing on its glittering white beaches.
Say g’day to Heron Island’s turtles
Another 130 kilometres (80 miles) north of Seventeen Seventy and Agnes Water, or a 65-minute flight from Brisbane, you'll find the city of Gladstone, where boats and flights depart daily for postcard-perfect Heron Island. Surrounded by 24 square kilometres (nine square miles) of reef, Heron Island is home to a comfortable resort, nesting places for green and loggerhead turtles and, of course, memorable snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef. Access the island via a two-hour boat trip or 30-minute seaplane ride from Gladstone.
Explore Great Keppel Island’s 17 beaches
The vibrant Central Queensland hub of Rockhampton – another 108 kilometres (67 miles) north of Gladstone, or just over a one-hour flight from Brisbane – is the gateway to Great Keppel Island. Once famous as a party island, Great Keppel Island is today more like a private paradise. Serenity seekers can while away the days roaming the island's 14 square kilometres (5.4 square miles), discovering the 17 dazzling beaches that surround the island, or hike through bush hinterland rich with jewel-coloured butterflies. Thanks to a protective fringing reef, visitors can also wade straight into calm waters to see schools of technicolour fish. A number of relaxed, comfortable accommodation options are also available here. The island is accessible via a half-hour ferry ride from the town of Yeppoon (near Rockhampton).
Explore Lady Musgrave Island's astonishing lagoon
Lady Musgrave stands out from other Great Barrier Reef islands for one big aquatic reason: it's the region’s only coral island surrounded by a vast turquoise lagoon. In fact, the lagoon encircling the uninhabited cay measures eight kilometres (five miles) in circumference, making the jungle-draped island seem tiny by comparison. This beautiful place is accessible via a day trip from Seventeen Seventy, Agnes Water or Bundaberg.