Green Island and Fitzroy Island are two islands on the Great Barrier Reef close to Cairns. Just 25-30 km offshore, a catamaran or ferry take just under an hour from the Reef Fleet Terminal in Cairns.
The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is the world’s largest coral reef. As one of the seven wonders of the world, it stretches for 2600 km along the east coast of Australia and comprises over 3000 reef systems and 900 tropical islands.
Choosing Between The Two Islands
Proximity to Cairns makes a day trip to Green Island or Fitzroy Island very feasible. So, what is the difference between them, and how to choose which one to visit?
Perhaps we should first look at their similarities.
As a day trip destination, both are surrounded by in-shore reefs. This means lovely tropical beaches, safe swimming, and snorkelling, with windsurfing, stand up boards, kayaks, glass bottom boat tours, and scuba diving also on the activity list. And both islands offer day trips to the Outer Reef as well.
But, they also have many differences giving you a completely unique experience.
Let’s look first at Green Island.
Green Island, A True Sand Cay
Green Island is a true sand cay and the only one bearing a rainforest.
Formed on top of existing reef structures about 6000 years ago, secondary wave action over time created a sand island. Seabird poo cemented the sand providing nutrient for germinating seeds drifting to the island.
Abundant Australian Flora And Fauna
Because of this, Green Island attracts a wide range of land and seabirds with at least 15 types nesting there. There are also 80 types of plants, some trees over 100 years old.
The island is quite small but immersed in wildlife. You can walk around it under an hour, with various inland paths accessing the different beaches. There are free, daily guided nature walks and tours.
Green Island birds include elegant white and grey Reef herons which are everywhere, as are cute, opportunistic cheeky Rails who regularly steal unattended food! You may spot an Osprey or Sea-eagle, and a few megabats also roost in certain areas.
Marine life abounds with daily sightings of turtles, reef sharks, rays and tropical fish. Coral and fish are close to shore, especially around the jetty and old underwater observatory.
Green Island snorkelling is thus very easy from the beach. On an incoming tide, we saw two rare epaulettes or ’walking’ sharks along beach rocks.
As well as natural wonders, a Green Island day trip offers visitors their own tropical beachside pool, a small boutique and massage centre, and a choice of eateries, bar, and restaurant.
Green Island Resort – Sit Back And Relax
For longer stay guests, Green Island accommodation comprises luxury apartments nestled in the rainforest with a private secluded pool. Additional to the island’s general facilities are complimentary late afternoon fish feeding, sunset drinks and nocturnal guided nature tours for guests.
The resort has a strong commitment to preserving the rainforest and surrounding reef. As such, it is a world class eco-sensitive resort and has won many well-deserved awards. This includes an Advanced Ecotourism Certificate.
Visit Marineland Melanesia
Green Island is the only island in the Great Barrier Reef to have its own crocodile zoo. First opened in 1964, Marineland Melanesia is still privately owned and run by the Craig family.
Grandparents George and Shirley Craig spent their early years in Papua New Guinea and many of their personal and original Melanesian artifacts and relics adorn Marineland.
This family business is a time warp back to the 80’s and is definitely worth a visit. Not only is it a historical museum to a bygone time, third generations Sue and Steve live in and still operate the zoo and their gift shop, along with their children.
Daily tours offer croc feeding and photo opportunities for both large and baby crocs. Of the dozen or more crocodiles from Australia and PNG, Cassius is the largest croc in captivity in the world. Of all the Green Island crocs, at 5.28m and approx. 113 years old, he sets the record. And he’s still looking good!
Green Island – An Important Role In Queensland’s History
It is worth noting a little about the history of Green Island as not many people know that it lays claim to many ‘world firsts’.
It was named Green Island after Captain James Cook’s astronomer, Mr Charles Green in 1770. Prior to that, a strong and proud Aboriginal history dates back to the 1700’s, who used it for fishing, hunting and manhood ceremonies.
Green Island Sets The World On Fire
1924 heralded the beginnings of a holiday resort, with Green Island launching the world’s first glass bottom boat in 1937.
Later in 1954, the world’s first underwater observatory was built on the island which still remains there today.
And finally, Green Island built the world’s first island movie theatre in 1961, showcasing the earliest 1930’s historical underwater films of Noel and Kitty Monkman.
Fitzroy Island, A Continental Island
Fitzroy Island, on the other hand, is a continental island, once connected to the mainland over 10,000 years ago. Even today it gets most of its water from a natural spring originating in the Atherton Tablelands which surfaces behind the island’s resort.
First named by James Cook in 1770, it became a smallpox quarantine station for goldfield workers in 1876. Later it was used as an Aboriginal mission for growing fruit and vegetables.
But in the Second World War, its strong military influence began. Fitzroy Island was used for Radar Stations and became home to Air Force and Navy Units monitoring Grafton Passage for enemy boats.
A lighthouse was built then but replaced with another in the 1970’s, which still stands today although was closed in 1992.
However, it is the geological origins of Fitzroy Island that create a different island topography to Green Island. Huge granite outcrops, open woodlands, rainforest, mangroves as well as white coral beaches are its features.
Fitzroy Island Resort
As you approach the island to hook up to the small jetty, Fitzroy Island Resort overlooks the protected calm Welcome Bay, popular with boaties, divers, and fishers.
The recently renovated resort offers various styles of accommodation including luxury rooms, cabins, and self-contained apartments with a beachside restaurant, large pool, swim up bar, dive shop, and an indoor cinema.
Fitzroy Island camping is also a great way to experience the island, with a small General Store selling everyday provisions.
However, the only real place for food and drink for Day Visitors is the rather dated 80’s Foxy’s Bar & Grill. Whilst a throwback to another time, it plays great 80’s music as well as serving good food, but is in desperate need of a renovation. Nonetheless, the bar is beachside and still proves very popular.
For a small fee, Guided Eco Walks take you through the resort grounds covering topics such as plant ecology or their traditional bush use.
Sand, Sea And Sun
Fitzroy Island activities include sun baking or snorkelling in warm calm tropical waters. There are coral formations just offshore but king tides are a factor here, with some tides too low to enter or exit the water safely without damaging the coral.
The best Fitzroy Island snorkelling areas are between the Resort and White Rock, and around the rocks between Foxy’s bar and Nudey beach. However, unlike Green Island, the water is rather milky with generally poor visibility.
You may be able to see a few fish or a rare turtle, especially near White Rock. Note that stinger suits are essential from November to May.
Because of the poor water clarity and general lack of marine life, the resort offers extremely well-priced scuba diving, with dives from an unbelievable $20. But this would best suit novice divers to practice basic skills, rather than hope to see the best the Great Barrier Reef can offer.
Nudey Beach is very popular on a Fitzroy Island day trip. A well-loved coral beach, Nudey is a slightly secluded spot easily accessed by a pleasant 20-minute stroll through tropical rainforest. Definitely a sunbathing, swimming or snorkelling mecca.
Bushwalking In Fitzroy Island National Park
There are four more short nature walks on the island. They can be a little challenging due to a vertical climb and rough ground. So decent comfortable walking shoes are best, rather than ‘flip flops’ or thongs. Take water, sunscreen and insect repellent with you, as well as a free walking map from the ferry staff or resort reception.
Secret Garden Track
A 45 minute, 1km round trip, this track starts from just behind Foxy’s Bar. Don’t let the regular rustle of skinks scare you. Be reassured, snakes are rarely seen! The fauna of the walk is classic rainforest with an elevated boardwalk and deck at the end, where you can enjoy a moment or two in harmony with nature.
The more challenging Summit Walk (269m high) offers spectacular scenery through woodland strewn with huge granite boulders. However, from the path starting at the Campground, there are 996 steps. But at the top are 360-degree views of the island, mainland, and surrounding reefs.
This has the reputation of being the hardest track on the island. However, the great local advice is to do the full 2.5-hour circuit.
First climb the Summit as it is downhill to the Lighthouse from there, with great views of Little Fitzroy Island, Grafton Passage and seasonal migrating whales. Or, if you only want to do the steep, concrete hill walk to the Lighthouse, give yourself 1.5 hours for a return trek.
Overall, wildlife on Fitzroy appears more scarce compared to Green Island. We only saw a Brahminy kite, a few doves and scrub fowls in the campsite, along with many small skinks during our walks. But the island’s largest predator, the yellow-spotted monitor, remained elusive on our day visit to Fitzroy Island.
Turtle Tours On Fitzroy Island
Returning from the Lighthouse to the Resort, the path takes you past the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre.
Tropical cyclones destroy seagrass habitats, and man-made factors such as ingestion of plastics or boat strike, seriously threaten turtles. Starvation, injury, and infection are their main issues.
Many sick and injured turtles are treated here, some transferred from Cairns. Still recuperating from severe injuries or sickness, a few have been there for many years.
From 1 pm each day, there are regular short tours of this volunteer-run facility. They are well worth doing, if only for the take-home message of what we can each do to improve their plight and numbers.
So, Green Island or Fitzroy Island? Take your pick, or, visit both and enjoy all that the Great Barrier Reef can offer island style!
While visiting Tropical North Queensland, you’re likely to spend some time in and around Cairns. If you’re a wildlife lover, check out the baby megabats and microbats at the Tolga Bat Hospital and the fabulous Cairns Aquarium. Further north, near Port Douglas, discover more wildlife experiences at Wildlife Habitat Port Douglas. South of Cairns is the charming Paronella Park, which is an amazing attraction to visit.
Kuranda Scenic Railway is a bucket list experience. Find out more.