There are countless ways to enjoy the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef, but if I had to pick a favourite, it would have to be a long weekend trip to Heron Island. The photos speak for themselves, and if you find yourself falling in love with this gorgeous island paradise, be sure to check out these tips to help you make the most of your visit.
Heron Island is a highly sought-after destination, so it’s recommended to book your stay well in advance. To avoid any frustration, make your reservations* as soon as possible.
When is the best season to visit Heron Island (Great Barrier Reef)?
We always go there early in the year, and it has always been amazing. Although there could be storms at this time of the year, it’s worth the risk because this is when the turtles are hatching and the hatchlings overlap. Turtles come to Heron Island to lay their eggs between November and February, and the eggs hatch two months later, from January to April.
Witnessing the turtles hatching on Heron Island was an unforgettable experience for us. During our stay in late January, we saw dozens of adult turtles every day and countless baby turtles, juvenile blacktip sharks, and juvenile shovelnose rays along the beach. We also had the opportunity to see baby birds on land. We already had the chance to see turtles hatching in Bundaberg, but experiencing this more privately on Heron Island was a hundred times better.
Additionally, the summer months have longer days than the winter months, which is a bonus if you’re only there for a quick trip. In winter, you’ll get a chance to see the humpback whale migration from June to September and lucky scuba divers have higher chances of spotting manta rays. Although the water is colder, the visibility is usually a lot better than in summer.
We also visited the island during the Easter long weekend and saw plenty of turtle hatchlings, and one turtle nesting which was very late for the season. The water temperature was still lovely, but we would have loved to have an extra hour of daylight!
Keep in mind that Heron Island can get fully booked during peak season, so make sure to book early to avoid missing out (check availability here*).
Are you covered for scuba diving by your travel insurance? It’s worth double-checking. If not, I recommend DAN (Divers Alert Network) for those who dive regularly. WorldNomads* and Covermore* also make it easy to add adventurous activities like scuba diving to your plan.
Is a short visit to Heron Island worth it?
You’ll have to spend at least one night on Heron Island. This itinerary will give you an idea of all the things you can see and do on a quick visit, but a longer stay will for sure allow for a more relaxed and enjoyable experience.
A short visit can be worth it during summer if you are lucky with the weather.
A couple of hours after disembarking on Heron Island, our stay already met our expectations. And it quickly exceeded them in the evening. Rays welcomed us at the jetty and on the beach. Turtle hatchlings showed up in the afternoon to make their way to the ocean. Older ones were waiting for us as we snorkelled around the wreck, with a lot of other colourful fish around. In the evening, dozens of turtles came up on the beach, a truly unforgettable sight.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that the weather can be unpredictable and affect your plans, especially for outdoor activities like snorkelling and diving. We were fortunate to have mostly good weather during our visit, but it’s always a risk to take, especially when you’re there for a very short time.
Take a look at some of the photos I captured while snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef and at the wreck on Heron Island:
Your underwater pics don’t look that good? Check out my tips for beginners to take underwater photos that aren’t blue!
Which one is the best island on the Southern Great Barrier Reef: Heron Island or Lady Elliot Island?
The question of whether Heron Island or Lady Elliot Island is the better island on the Southern Great Barrier Reef has no straightforward answer, as it largely depends on what activities you’re interested in.
For budget travellers, Heron Island may be the better choice as it’s cheaper if you can drive up to Gladstone from Brisbane instead of flying.
Divers might prefer Heron Island, as it has more diving sites, including one from Cousteau’s top 10 list. However, if you’re keen to see manta rays, Lady Elliot Island is the place to go, as they’re frequently spotted there. While there are manta rays around Heron Island too – especially during winter – they’re not seen as often as on Lady Elliot.
Snorkellers might prefer Lady Elliot Island. I spotted more marine life in Lady Elliot’s lagoon, and experienced snorkelers may have a chance to see manta rays while snorkelling on the deeper side of Lady Elliot Island. But Heron Island is fun too and there’s a lot to see around the wreck – for good swimmers only – and the harbour (only accessible early in the morning and in the very late afternoon).
For non-divers and non-snorkelers, Heron Island is a better option as it’s three times larger than Lady Elliot Island and offers more alternative activities and surprises (which will be discussed later in this article).
Heron Island Resort offered a more comfortable experience than Lady Elliot Island for a similar price when we last visited, with spacious rooms and ensuite. There’s also a spa on the island and sandy beaches compared to Lady Elliot Island’s mostly coral beach. However, eco-conscious travellers may prefer Lady Elliot Island, which is an eco-resort that aligns with their values, particularly in such a fragile environment threatened by climate change.
A few photos I took while diving Heron Island Great Barrier Reef:
Is it worth visiting Heron Island (Great Barrier Reef) if you don’t want to snorkel or dive?
I think so, if you pick the right season.
Staying on Heron Island will provide you with a unique opportunity to spot amazing marine wildlife even without going into the water. As one of the best places in Australia for wildlife encounters, you’re sure to have memorable memories of the animals you see from ashore. We were thrilled to see turtles nesting on the beach, as well as baby blacktip sharks and shovelnose rays just a few centimetres away from us. From the jetty, we felt lucky watching eagle rays gracefully swimming by, with the occasional spectacle of them leaping out of the water.
And it’s not all about marine life. Heron Island is also an excellent destination for bird watching, with many species of birds scattered throughout the island.
There are plenty of complimentary organised tours available that do not require getting too wet, such as the reef walk, turtle tour, and research station tour. You can also go for a cruise on the glass-bottom boat, which provides an excellent opportunity to explore the Great Barrier Reef’s beauty from a different perspective.
At the end of the day, you can enjoy stunning sunsets from the bar or near the jetty, or even during a sunset cruise.
Budget for a long weekend on Heron Island
With a private resort managing everything for tourists on the island and no all-inclusive package offered, it might seem like a pricey destination at first. However, with some careful planning, it’s not more expensive than other trips to the Great Barrier Reef.
Cost to get to Heron Island
The two-hour boat transfer from Gladstone to Heron Island costs $170 per person return, departing at 9.30 am from Gladstone. Make sure you book it in advance and keep in mind that there are no transfers on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
You can fly from Brisbane to Gladstone, and it’s recommended to arrive the night before to make sure you don’t miss the boat if your plan is late. If you book in advance, you can find an online deal for affordable motels for around $90/night in Gladstone. Some are within walking distance (15-20 minutes) from the Gladstone Marina, such as Mid City Motor Inn* or Gladstone Backpackers*, if you don’t want to pay for a cab in the morning.
But we prefer to drive to make it cheaper. It usually takes us around 7 hours with breaks, and we camp at a free rest area on the way. If you don’t like camping, you’ll find a few hotels under $100 in Maryborough*, which is approximately halfway between Brisbane and Gladstone. Maryborough City Motel* has a 24-hour reception which can be useful if you’re leaving Brisbane after work and arriving late.
Accommodation, food and activities on Heron Island
If you’re planning to visit the island with friends, you can save money by booking the small Turtle Family room, which costs $340 per person for two nights for four people and includes breakfast. However, it’s quite small for four adults. Make sure you check if you can get a better deal: I once scored a Booking.com discount for two Turtle Rooms* for only a few extra dollars.
The island offers plenty of free activities, including snorkelling from shore, walking tours, and talks by naturalists. However, the costs can add up if you decide to go on scuba diving and snorkelling tours.
For certified scuba divers, there’s a package available that includes three dives for $325, and all the necessary equipment that you can keep for snorkelling. Alternatively, you can opt for an individual dive at $80, while full equipment hire is $50 per day.
So, the total cost for this three-day weekend (two nights) with three dives – food not included – is $170 + $340 + $325 = $835 per person.
If you’re planning to have dinner at the restaurant, expect to pay around $50 per person. There are also sandwiches sold at the bar for lunch, while lunch at the restaurant costs approximately $25 per person for the mains. To save some money, you can buy chips, snacks and two-minute noodles at the shop instead as you have a kettle and a small fridge in your room.
Please note that there’s no 4G/phone reception on the island and a Wi-Fi connection would come at an extra cost. If you can’t survive without being connected to the rest of the world, make sure to factor in these costs.
While it’s not a cheap weekend, it’s actually an affordable trip that offers plenty of activities and amazing experiences compared to other destinations on the Great Barrier Reef.
What do you need to bring to Heron Island?
You can get snorkelling gear (mask, snorkel and fins) for free on the island. But I always prefer packing my own for comfort and convenience. This is especially true for fins: rental fins have multiple times ruined my feet, and I had to wear a pair of socks to keep using them.
Plus, if you have very limited time on the island, bringing your own gear allows you to start snorkelling right away, without waiting for rentals and doing the paperwork.
Responsible tips: Be extra careful with your fins when you snorkel or dive on a reef not to damage the coral. If you can use shorter fins, you will reduce the risk of accidentally hitting the coral.
You’ll spend most of your time outside, in or near the water. The sun is very strong in Australia and can cause skin damage, so make sure you protect it. I personally avoid sunscreen and use protective clothing instead such as a wetsuit or rash vest.
Responsible travel tip: Did you know that your sunscreen could harm the fragile ecosystem of the coral reef? It’s essential to be mindful of what you’re applying to your skin when snorkelling or swimming near the reef. The best way to protect your skin from the sun is to cover up with long sleeves and pants. If you must use sunscreen, choose a mineral-based one to avoid harmful substances (see the full list here). Mineral ingredients are less harmful to the environment and provide excellent protection. Apply the sunscreen at least 20 minutes before entering the water to ensure maximum effectiveness.
Have you been to Heron Island? How was your stay there? Share your experience in the comments below!
Where is Heron Island?
Heron Island is in the southern area of the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland (Australia). You can take a boat or a helicopter from Gladstone to reach it. It takes at least seven hours to drive to Gladstone from Brisbane including breaks.
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