If you’re planning a trip to Heron Island but only have a limited time, you might be wondering if it’s worth the visit. While I do recommend a longer stay to fully experience everything the island has to offer, don’t let limited time hold you back. With some strategic planning, you can still have a memorable and enjoyable day on Heron Island.
But you’ll need to spend at least one night on the island as the transfer boat arrives and leaves around midday. If you’re short on time and unable to spend a night on Heron Island, consider visiting Lady Musgrave Island (a boat trip from Bundaberg) or Lady Elliot Island (a flight from Bundaberg/Hervey Bay or even Brisbane, which means you won’t be able to scuba dive).
In this article, I’ll share some tips to help you make the most of your short visit to Heron Island, especially for nature lovers seeking adventure more than relaxation. So, let’s dive in and discover the wonders of Heron Island, even with a tight schedule.
Due to its popularity, Heron Island can fill up quickly. To avoid disappointment, I recommend booking your stay as soon as possible. You can check availability here* and secure your spot on the beautiful island.
What you can do in one day on Heron Island
Even with just one day to spend on Heron Island, there are plenty of exciting things to see and do. During our first 24 hours on the island, we had already gone scuba diving and snorkelling, where we had the pleasure of seeing turtles, sharks, rays, stunning corals, and an abundance of colourful fish.
While some visitors may prefer to simply relax and take in the beautiful beach views, those who are looking to experience the best of Heron Island in a short amount of time should be prepared for a busy schedule.
How to see most of Heron Island in one day
I’ve created an example itinerary for one day on Heron Island. However, it’s important to note that schedules may vary depending on the season or the staff’s schedule, so make sure to double-check the times when you check in. There are plenty of other activities to do on the island, so make sure you look at what’s available during your visit and adjust the itinerary based on your preferences and interests.
Keep in mind that the times and activities available may be subject to change depending on the weather. While wildlife sightings are never guaranteed, there is always something incredible to discover on Heron Island. To maximise your chances of snorkelling from the beach, it’s best to avoid visiting the island on days when low tide occurs in the early afternoon.
8.30 am Check-in at Gladstone Marina
It’s a lot less stressful to spend the night before the boat transfer in Gladstone. When we planned our trip, there was a great online offer on Booking.com at Oaks Gladstone Grand Hotel*, which is one of the closest hotels to the Gladstone Marina.
Although the journey can be a bit bumpy and last up to three hours, there are ways to make it more comfortable. If you’re prone to seasickness, consider taking medication beforehand. Alternatively, you can enjoy the scenic views and take advantage of the opportunity to have a light snack if the waters are calm. Keep in mind that lunch may be served later than usual on the island.
To reach Heron Island, you’ll need to take the transfer boat unless you have the budget for a helicopter. As the three-hour journey can be bumpy, consider taking pills beforehand if you’re prone to seasickness. Otherwise, you can catch up on some sleep or enjoy the scenic views. Lunch may be served later than usual on the island, so take advantage of the opportunity to have a light snack if the waters are calm.
12.30 pm – Arrival on Heron Island
As you approach the lagoon, make sure you’re awake to take in the mesmerising views of the varying shades of blue. You’ll cruise very close to the wreck, which will give you a great opportunity to spot birds, including the funny-looking boobies.
Once you’ve reached the jetty, keep an eye out for wildlife such as rays, sharks, and turtles that often swim in the harbour or under the jetty.
Your stay on Heron Island will commence with a briefing from the on-site naturalist, giving you an ideal chance to learn more about the area, particularly if you’re not familiar with the Great Barrier Reef and its preservation. Be sure to listen to which guided activities are offered that evening or the following morning. If you’re a bird enthusiast, you may want to consider joining the bird walk for example.
1.30 pm – Check-in and lunch
Your room might not be available before 3 pm and, and although checking in for accommodation is of course important, it’s actually not your only top priority when you have very limited time on Heron Island.
When you arrive, another crucial check-in is at the Marine Centre. If you don’t have snorkelling gear, you can borrow a set for the duration of your stay. The staff can also provide you with advice on the best places to snorkel based on the day’s weather and tides. To maximise your exploration of Heron Island, I suggest joining the 2.30 pm diving or snorkelling tour. These tours can fill up quickly, so it’s a good idea to email in advance to reserve your spot.
2.30 pm – Scuba diving or snorkelling trip
You can certainly go snorkelling from the island, but it’s highly recommended that you explore the reef a bit further out. The boat trips are not very long and take you to stunning coral walls and reefs.
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.
4.30 pm – Snorkel from the shore
I loved our late afternoon snorkelling sessions after the boat trips. The staff at the marine centre can recommend the best spot for you.
Personally, I enjoy going around the wreck and ending up in the harbour. In addition to beautiful small fish, you’ll have the chance to see sharks, turtles, shovelnose rays, and eagle rays. If you head under the jetty towards the end of the day, you can see schools of fish gathering, including giant groupers.
Sunset at the jetty, turtle peak hour or night dive
After your snorkelling session, stay for a little bit longer near the jetty. It’s one of the best spots to watch the sunset, but some will argue that Baillie’s Bar is better as you can enjoy a fresh drink while watching the sky changing colours.
If you visit Heron Island between November and April, you’ll be there during turtle season. From sunset, adult turtles come ashore to lay eggs on the beach (Nov-Jan), and hatchlings emerge to reach the ocean (Dec-April). This time of day is perfect for spotting them, as there’s still enough light (artificial light is prohibited on the beach). Keep an eye on the water, too, as sharks often circle around, waiting for the baby turtles to make their way to the ocean.
If you’re interested in a night dive, it’s best to let the marine centre know via email before you arrive. Then, make sure to mention your interest to as many marine centre staff as possible once you’re on the island. Unfortunately, night dives are rarely possible due to weather conditions and limited staff. We’ve only had the chance to do a night dive once during our several multi-day trips to Heron Island.
After dinner, take a leisurely stroll along the beach for another opportunity to catch a glimpse of the turtles coming up to lay eggs or the hatchlings making their way to the ocean. As night falls, the island comes alive with the sounds of various bird species returning to their roosts. Keep your eyes and ears open to appreciate the unique nightlife on Heron Island.
To protect the turtles, artificial lights are not allowed on the beach, which makes it a perfect spot for stargazing!
I love taking early morning walks on Heron Island to catch a glimpse of the island’s wildlife just before sunrise. And if you find yourself with some downtime between activities, I highly recommend spending some time at the pier. We were lucky enough to witness a few eagle rays leaping out of the water, which was truly breathtaking.
Then, it’s already time to check out. You can leave your main bags at reception or in front of your room (if instructed). Keep your day bag with you so you can continue to enjoy the island for the remaining few hours. Don’t forget to keep with you all your scuba or snorkelling gear, clothes for the journey back to the mainland, and the beach towels provided by the resort.
9 am – Scuba diving and snorkelling trip
Make the most of your time on Heron Island and book one last boat trip to snorkel or dive before you leave. After the trip, you may have one last chance for a very quick snorkelling session around the wreck. It was worth it for us as in under 10 minutes, we saw a shark, a few rays and three turtles!
Then, head back to the marine centre for a quick shower (towels and toiletry products are provided) so you’re comfortable for the trip back to the mainland. Don’t forget to return any rented snorkelling gear before you leave.
Are you covered for adventurous activities by your travel insurance? I recommend double-checking to avoid bad surprises if an incident happens. Adventurous activities are often extra. Some travel insurance like WorldNomads* and Covermore* make it easy to include adventurous activities.
11.45 am – Departure from the jetty
As you wait at the jetty for the ferry to arrive, your time on Heron Island isn’t finished just yet. Take your one last chance to appreciate the stunning marine life surrounding the island. The jetty is one of my favourite spots on Heron Island for this. Keep a lookout for rays, turtles and sharks swimming around in the crystal-clear water – it’s common to spot all these beautiful creatures there!
Did you go to Heron Island for one night only? Share your experience in the comments below!
Where is Heron Island?
Heron Island is one of the most southern islands on the Great Barrier Reef (Queensland, Australia). It takes about three hours to get there via a ferry from Gladstone. You can fly to Gladstone from Brisbane, or drive for about 7 hours.