Secrets of the Southern Great Barrier Reef

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Mention the Great Barrier Reef and most people think of Cairns and Tropical North Queensland or the Whitsundays but not far from Brisbane, the Southern Great Barrier Reef is a quieter part of the reef that’s just as beautiful.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was formed in 1975 and extends into the airspace above and into the earth beneath the seabed.

The Great Barrier Reef covers a huge area – it is 23,000km long and covers an area of 348,000 square kilometres. 

One of the facts about the Great Barrier Reef to keep in mind is it’s not just one living thing.

There are around 3000 individual reefs and over 900 islands, ranging from small coral cays to continental islands.

southern great barrier reef coral
Southern Great Barrier Reef coral near Lady Elliot Island in the Bundaberg region.

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem, with 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusc.

It’s a habitat of species such as the dugong (sea cow) and the large green turtle, which are threatened with extinction. 

southern reef islands
Heron Island is a fantastic island on the Southern part of the Great Barrier Reef.

Most visitors wanting to experience the Great Barrier Reef often end up in Cairns, which is the most popular gateway to the reef and the World Heritage Daintree Rainforest

From the northern tip of Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef stretches all the way down to Bundaberg.

It’s between 60km and 250km in width with outer reefs and continental slopes plunging to depths of more than 2000m while the waters close to shore are around 35m deep.

This otherworldly seascape has some of the most spectacular maritime scenery on the planet and is one of the most famous Australian landmarks when seen from the sky.

Southern Great Barrier Reef

snorkeling southern great barrier reef
Two snorkellers enjoying a snorkel around the Southern Great Barrier Reef.

The Southern Great Barrier Reef stretches from the Coral Coast, Lady Elliot Island and the Bundaberg coast to Lady Musgrave Island and Seventeen Seventy and up to Heron Island, the Capricorn Coast and Great Keppel Island.

The southern section of the Great Barrier Reef is a quiet corner but it is every bit as special as the more popular tourist areas in the north.

Reasons to visit the Southern Great Barrier Reef are:

  • In the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, there are no hordes of tourists or large high-speed catamarans.
  • In many places in the Southern Great Barrier Reef, you can snorkel from the beach and find yourself floating in an underwater paradise of coral just metres from shore.
  • The Southern Great Barrier Reef has no marine stingers, which means you can swim year-round and come face to face with fish and turtles. 
Fitzroy Reef lagoon in southern great barrier reef dive
The Southern Great Barrier Reef is a wondrous underwater world. This is Fitzroy Reef Lagoon in the Gladstone region

There’s a variety of coral in different shapes, sizes and colours.

Although they look like plants, they are actually colonies of very small animals called coral polyps, which are closely related to jellyfish. 

An abundance of plankton supports marine life like turtles and manta rays.

In the south, the main Queensland island resorts on the Great Barrier Reef are Great Keppel Island, Heron Island and Lady Elliot Island.

Southern Great Barrier Reef Islands

Lady Elliot Island

southern barrier reef Lady Elliot Idland
The Southern Great Barrier Reef Islands, such as Lady Elliot Island, are hidden gems.

Lady Elliot Island, which is a pristine coral cay, is the closest Southern Great Barrier Reef island to Brisbane.

We board a Cessna Caravan at Brisbane’s Redcliffe Airport and fly over the vast ocean. 

The sun’s rays dance through puffy clouds as we wing our way along the Queensland coastline and out over the vast expanse of ocean of the Southern Great Barrier Reef. 

From the sky, Lady Elliot Island is an isolated coral cay that looks like an emerald in a gleaming aquamarine ocean. 

The aircraft lands on a grass runway and we’re welcomed by the cheerful faces of the staff of the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort.

There are no room keys and no mobile phone reception. 

We collect our masks and snorkels and head for the water.

As the island is surrounded by beautiful coral gardens, we step off the beach and find ourselves floating above the coral.

The ocean of the Southern Great Barrier Reef is also famous for its resident population of manta rays.

After lunch, we pile into a glass-bottom boat and cruise over coral gardens.

turtle great barrier reef southern end
Swim with turtles around the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef.

Minutes later, a green sea turtle is spotted next to the boat. 

The underwater landscape of the Southern Great Barrier Reef is a wondrous world of coral, bommies and blowholes.

As soon as I put my face into the water, I spot all the usual suspects, including parrot fish, angel fish, giant groupers and huge wrasses.

Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort is the only hotel on the island and an eco-lodge with Advanced Ecotourism Certification through Ecotourism Australia.

The programme at Ecotourism Australia requires resorts to contribute to environmental conservation, assist local communities and use resources wisely.

Some of the initiatives at Lady Elliot Island include operating on solar power, using desalinised seawater and collecting rain for drinking water.

There are four different styles of accommodation: Eco Cabins are permanent safari-style tents with home comforts furnished with four bunk beds, polished timber floors and power. Guests have access to communal bathrooms.

Reef Rooms are designed for families, with a double bed and two bunk beds.

They have tea and coffee making facilities, verandahs, fridges, ceiling fans and private bathrooms.

The Island Suites are one- and two-bedroom air-conditioned beachfront units, with separate bedrooms and lounge areas.

Staying here is an opportunity to get away and relax, with no televisions, radios or telephones.

Protecting the environment
southern great barrier reef snorkel
The waters around Lady Elliot Island is a treasure trove of fish and other marine life on the Southern Great Barrier Reef.

Like most destinations with pristine environments, Lady Elliot Island faces the challenge of maintaining its environment while continuing to allow visitors from all over the world to experience its natural beauty and fragile ecosystem.

A high priority is to protect the birds and marine creatures that inhabit the island and its surrounding reef.

The ocean is home to green and loggerhead turtles and red-tailed tropic birds, a species that spends most of its life at sea, come to the island to nest.

For divers, the Tubes descend over a ledge of soft and hard coral to the base of the wall, which has two one-metre wide swim-throughs.

The island’s lush greenery was cut down during the 19th century by guano miners but reforestation took place in the 1960s and there are ongoing tree-planting initiatives in place to re-establish vegetation and the island’s bird habitat.

Another focus is the restoration of resort buildings and heritage-listed properties, such as the light keeper’s houses.

Recently, a trial plan was implemented to establish environmentally-friendly anchoring areas for trawl operators, where coral is unlikely to get damaged.

One of Lady Elliot Island’s biggest drawcards is its accessibility as the island is a 45-minute flight from Brisbane and a 30-minute flight from Bundaberg.

You can visit Lady Elliot Island as a day trip but it would be a pity not to stay longer.

There are also direct flights from Hervey Bay (Fraser Coast), Brisbane (Redcliffe) and Gold Coast (Coolangatta).

Lady Musgrave Island

southern great barrier reef queensland
Lady Musgrave Island on the Southern Great Barrier Reef allows camping.

Lady Musgrave Island is a day cruise from Bundaberg, Seventeen Seventy and Gladstone. 

It’s one of the few Great Barrier Reef islands that allows camping and it has a calm lagoon that is a great place for a snorkel. 

Find out how to camp on Lady Musgrave Island here and book a Lady Musgrave Island tour.

Heron Island

southern great barrier reef day trips
Swimming with turtles around the Southern Great Barrier Reef at Heron Island.

Heron Island is a helicopter or boat transfer from Gladstone.

The section of the Southern Great Barrier Reef around Heron Island offers amazing diving with over 20 dive sites. 

Listed as one of Jacques Cousteau’s top ten favourites, Heron Bommie is one of the most photographed dive sites in Australia. 

Heron Island Resort is in a great location with fantastic snorkelling straight off the beach.

The island is a breeding ground for green and loggerhead turtles that arrive to lay their eggs between September and March. 

Check out the accommodation at Heron Island Resort here

Great Keppel Island

southern great barrier reef island
Great Keppel Island is a no-frills island in the Southern Great Barrier Reef.

Great Keppel Island has beautiful beaches but the facilities are badly in need of updating. 

You can do a day cruise to the island to swim, snorkel and cruise around the island on a glass-bottom boat to see lots of colourful fish, coral and turtles.

A $600 million eco-tourism resort has been on the cards off and on for years and if it does go ahead, it will be the first major development within the reef in two decades. 

There were plans for a 250-room beachfront hotel, 350 apartments, 700 luxury villas, a 250-berth marina and championship golf course designed by Greg Norman.

The development comes with some controversy as environmentalists are concerned about the impact to the environment.

Great Keppel Island is a 30-minute boat transfer from Rosslyn Bay and a 30-minute charter flight from Rockhampton. 

Check out accommodation at Great Keppel Island Holiday Village and Great Keppel Island Hideaway

Pumpkin Island

Pumpkin Island is a small island that is a 30-minute boat ride from Keppel Bay Marina. 

You can stay on the island in a cottage or an apartment or if you’re looking to throw a party for 34 of your friends, booking out the entire island is an affordable way to impress.

Southern Great Barrier Reef towns


southern great barrier reef city
Bundaberg is a historic town to visit in the Southern Great Barrier Reef region.

Bundaberg is the gateway to Lady Elliot Island and Lady Musgrave Island: both are spectacular parts of the reef where you can swim with turtles, manta rays and other marine life.

Bundaberg has a coast and country vibe with a selection of beachside cafes and bars. 

There are boat charters that take divers to dive sites from Bundaberg, including the Karma shipwreck, a 47m prawn trawler sitting in 30m of water.

Nemo southern great barrier reef fish
Finding Nemo near Bundaberg around Lady Elliot Island.

From November to January, loggerhead, flatback and green sea turtles lay their eggs on the beach.

Hatchlings emerge from January to March and make their way back to sea.

Shore diving is available off Bargara Beach, Hoffman’s Rocks and Barolin Rocks, where there are soft coral gardens.

The Severance Wreck, a sunken two-masted sailing boat, is a few minutes offshore.

Highlights of Bundaberg
  • Visit the Bundaberg Rum factory and taste the traditional 125-year-old Bundaberg Rum recipe. 
  • See the loggerhead turtles nesting at Mon Repos. 
  • Shipwreck diving and shore diving off Bargara Beach. 
  • Take a day trip to Lady Musgrave Island.

Check out accommodation in Bundaberg here

Town of 1770

southern great barrier reef tours
Fitzroy Lagoon near 1770 is a great spot to snorkel the Southern Great Barrier Reef.

The Town of 1770 is where Captain Cook landed in the year 1770.

Most of the region hasn’t changed much since it was discovered and combining a visit to 1770 and a day tour to Fitzroy Reef gives you the best of history and nature. 

Highlights of 1770
  • See hundreds of thousands of butterflies in autumn and winter on the Butterfly Walk, starting from the Captain Cook monument
  • Take a day tour to Lady Musgrave and Fitzroy Reef
  • Relive history at the 1770 Festival

Check out accommodation in 1770 here

Check out tours in the Town of 1770 here


Yeppoon is a gateway to the Southern Great Barrier Reef.

The Capricorn Coast’s cultural centre, Yeppoon is also the centre for some of the largest pineapple farms in Queensland. Sip pineapple juice in a cool cafe or go shopping in the boutiques. 

Yeppoon is also home to an impressive outdoor ANZAC gallery that tells the story of Gallipoli as well as other famous battles. 

Highlights of Yeppoon

  • Yeppoon Lions Tropical Pinefest in October celebrates the region’s history as a pineapple producing place.
  • Take a day trip to Great Keppel Island
  • Explore The Centenary of ANZAC Memorial Walk

Check out accommodation in Yeppoon here

Byfield National Park

A 4WD adventure in Byfield National Park with a park ranger is a fun way to spend the day, even though the roads are rough and the ride is bumpy.

You drive past sand dunes, forest areas and onto the beach.

The first big hill on Stockyard Point Track is called Big Sandy and is difficult to navigate so don’t be surprised to pass a couple of cars stuck half-way up.

If you’re not experienced at off-road driving you’ll be glad you’re with a ranger who is. 

The park is popular for camping and part of the ranger’s duties is to keep the park’s facilities in working order.

Facilities in the park include toilets and I can report that they were all pretty clean and stocked with toilet paper!

Along the way, keep an eye out for rare and endangered plants and birds, such as migratory shorebirds and little terns.

Stockyard Point is a highlight of the park and has sweeping views of the coastline.


Queensland’s beef capital is a gateway between the ocean and the hinterland. 

One of the best experiences out of Rockhampton is taking a helicopter flight in a Robinson 44 with Heli-Central, a business that does aerial surveying and inspections, agriculture spraying and seeding, stock mustering, transporting equipment to remote locations, as well as joy flights.

The ground rushes beneath your feet as you lift off from Emu Park Airstrip.

You fly along the coastline and out towards the ocean over Great Keppel Island then over Byfield National Park, Nine Mile Beach, Stockyard Point and Five Rocks camping area.

It’s exhilarating to see the region from the sky and a fantastic way to put the pieces of the jigsaw together.

The water is a shimmering aquamarine while the islands are lush green jewels fringed by strips of golden sand.

Check out accommodation in Rockhampton here

Southern Great Barrier Reef Video

Threats to the Great Barrier Reef

Research by the Australian Institute of Marine Science has found 50 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral cover has been lost in the past 27 years, due to storms, beaching and crown of thorn populations (an invasive starfish that preys on coral).

The Great Barrier Reef also faces future threats from planned port development and climate change.

Conservationists believe that plans to develop new gas and coal ports along the coastline will result in dredging, dumping of spoil and increased ship traffic that will threaten the coral.

Fight for the Reef (a partnership between WWF-Australia and the Australian Marine Conservation Society) is working to protect the Reef through raising awareness of the industrialisation occurring on the Great Barrier Reef’s coastline.


SS Yongala is a fabulous diving spot to put on your bucket list.

Secrets of the Southern Great Barrier Reef

Secrets of the Southern Great Barrier Reef

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Christina Pfeiffer Travel Writer
Christina Pfeiffer is a writer, photographer and video blogger based in Queensland, Australia. She has lived in three continents and her career as a travel journalist has taken her to all seven continents. Since 2003, she has contributed travel stories and photographs to mainstream media in Australia and around the world such as the Sydney Morning Herald, CNN Traveller, The Australian and the South China Morning Post. She has won many travel writing awards and is a full member of the Australian Society of Travel Writers.