At the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, about 80km east of Gladstone, which is an hour’s flight north of Brisbane, there’s a little island of natural wonders. This 800-metre-long coral cay ringed by silica-white sand and surrounded by a fringing reef and the turquoise Coral Sea is home to hundreds of thousands of seabirds, a multitude of marine creatures and endangered turtles that nest there every summer. I’ve been to Heron Island three times now, and every time I find new reasons to return. Here are 10 reasons to love Heron Island.
1-Nesting Turtles: November-March
You could visit Heron Island for the turtle-watching alone and not leave disappointed. Between November and March, as many as 1700 female green and loggerhead turtles (two of the six species of marine turtle found in Australian waters) haul themselves out of the water to lay their eggs in the sand above the high tide mark.
When you arrive on the island, you’re given guidelines on the best time to see the nesting turtles (two hours either side of the evening high tide) and “turtle etiquette” (how not to disturb them), otherwise you’re free to wander. This is one of the great, unchaperoned wildlife experiences on the planet.
2-Turtle Hatchlings: January-April
Nesting turtles are only half the wonder. The other half is seeing up to 100 turtle hatchlings emerge from each sand nest and make a desperate dash to the sea, running the gauntlet of hungry silver gulls and sharks.
What makes this spectacle poignant is that (a) only one hatchling in 1000 will survive to maturity and (b) only the females will return to Heron Island to lay their eggs; male turtles never again return to land.
The best time to see hatchlings is between January and April at sunset, when the approaching darkness that will give them the best chance of surviving. (Note: there are 4000 resident turtles in the waters surrounding Heron, so no matter what time of year you visit, you’ll always see some.)
Look, up in the air! In fact, on every branch of every tree and sunning themselves on the paths, as well as filling the evening sky after a day’s fishing, black noddy terns are by far the dominant species on Heron.
As many as 100,000 “noddies” arrive on the island every September/October to breed, which is a sight to see – they also provide a constant avian soundtrack.
Don’t be surprised if you’re pooped on; the resort staff insist it’s good luck and it does wash off, though it’s a good idea to always wear a hat. The resort offers complimentary bird walks around the island most days.
Heron Bommie, a short boat trip offshore, was one of Jacques Cousteau’s top 10 dive spots and it’s not hard to see why. Even just snorkelling there, I’ve seen manta rays, three kinds of shark, green turtles and some of Heron’s 900 species of tropical fish.
Heron has more than a dozen world-class dive spots – dive boats leave three times a day for SCUBA divers and snorkellers – but even just snorkelling off the beach you’ll see coral, turtles, rays and sharks.
For those wanting to see the reef without getting wet, there’s Heron Island’s newest vessel, the I SPY semi-submarine, which allows you to sit behind glass just below water level; the boat departs twice daily for one-hour viewings.
5-Heron Island Resort
One of the longest-running resorts in Australia, the Advanced Eco-accredited Heron Island Resort has been operating since 1936 and is the only tourist accommodation on the island (the island’s University of Queensland research station also accommodates visiting students and scientists).
It’s low-key, and key-less, and designed not just to minimise visitor impact on the island’s natural environment but to maximise your understanding of it.
As well as turtle-themed “do not disturb” signs that say “Make Tracks” and wildlife-watching guidelines (such as: draw your curtains at night so your room lights don’t disorient nesting turtles), there are free interpretive activities such as island walks and bird talks.
6-The Heron Island “Big Five”
A must-do experience is the complimentary reef walk led by one of the island’s resident marine biologists. Meet at the resort’s information centre at low tide and you’re in for a two-hour treat: an expedition along sandy channels (reef shoes provided) between coral heads while your guide shows, and lets you handle, some of the reef’s most fascinating marine animals.
If you’re lucky, you might see some or all of Heron’s “Big Five”, the five most elusive animals found on the reef flat: the pin-cushion sea star, the black-tailed sea hare, the white-spotted hermit crab, the philinopsis headshield slug and the epaulette shark.
It’s not just the noddies that make Heron an Hitchcockian birdland. The island was named for its “herons”, after all (although the birds seen by the crew of HMS Fly when it sailed past in 1843 are actually white and grey eastern reef egrets). And the resort’s open-air restaurant has aviary netting around it, to keep wayward birds from flying in.
You might not see the island’s muttonbirds, aka wedge-tailed shearwaters, which nest in burrows around the island, but you’ll certainly hear their eerie “oohs” and “aahs” when mating pairs call to each other at night.
Other species include brown boobies, black-naped terns, pied cormorants, sea eagles and buff-banded rails; pick up a copy of the island’s Twitchers List and tick them off as you go.
New this summer are guided sea kayaking tours around the island – in clear kayaks. These aren’t just sit-on-tops with Perspex panels.
These purpose-built kayaks (which are shaped more like canoes) are completely clear, all the better to watch coral, turtles, rays and tropical fish gliding beneath you as you paddle.
You can also rent them for self-guided paddles. Depending on the tides and the weather, try to go early in the day when the sea is most likely to be glassy.
Between June and October, the two-hour boat ride from Gladstone to Heron Island becomes an unofficial whale-watching cruise when humpbacks pass to or from their nesting grounds in the warm waters of north Queensland.
Because Heron is so far off the coast (70km offshore) and surrounded (beyond its fringing reef) by deep water, there’s also a good chance you’ll see whales and their calves simply by standing on the beach or the island’s jetty.
The journey is part of the destination at Heron. Most visitors opt for the boat transfer from Gladstone, during which you’ll often see birds, turtles, rays and dolphins.
Or take things up a notch with a 25-minute seaplane flight, also from Gladstone, which promises a magical overview of atolls, lagoons, reefs and uninhabited islands en route and lands right next to Heron’s jetty, allowing you to step off the plane’s pontoons into the aquamarine shallows and arrive barefoot.