Enjoying the Whitsundays

The Whitsundays provides excellent recreational opportunities including boating, snorkelling and fishing. Here are some important things to consider when planning and enjoying your trip.

Boating in the Whitsundays

Before heading out in a boat, refer to your local tide times as there's a large tidal variation in the area. Remember that the tides at the Gloucester group are approximately 30 minutes to an hour ahead of Airlie Beach and Shute Harbour.

Be aware of tide times when accessing the public boat ramps located at Shute Harbour, Airlie Beach, Abell Point, Altman Avenue, Dingo Beach, Proserpine River and Wilsons Beach. Make sure you are also aware of responsible Reef practices for boating and yachting while out on the water.

If you don’t already have your own boat, hiring a self-sail bareboat is a popular way to see the Whitsundays. Bareboats are generally six to twelve metres in length, and you can choose from a vessel with or without a sail.

The length of your vessel and the group size matters as they determine which setting area you can access.

View information on anchoring and mooring in the Whitsundays.

View information on superyachts in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Remember to check responsible Reef practices for:

Fishing and other activities

Before engaging in an activity, you need to be aware of zoning (for example, no fishing in a Marine National Park Zone, also known as a green zone). Zoning is a way of ensuring sustainable use of the Marine Park.

Some activities have special rules that you'll need to know:

View information about responsible Reef practices for:

Visiting the Whitsunday national park islands

The Whitsunday group is the largest offshore island chain along the entire Australian coastline and includes more than 90 islands. The islands and their surrounding waters are internationally significant and protected in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, the first World Heritage Area declared in Australia (1981).

Islands in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, especially the national park islands, are popular destinations. Six national parks further protect the islands’ wildlife, plants and scenic islands. These are:

  • Gloucester Islands National Park
  • Holbourne Island National Park
  • Lindeman Islands National Park
  • Molle Islands National Park
  • Repulse Islands National Park
  • Whitsunday Islands National Park.

There are numerous walking tracks, campgrounds and day visit areas on these islands. Contact the Department of National Parks, Sport and Racing for more information on national parks in the Whitsundays.

Camping on the Whitsunday national park islands

There are a range of camping opportunities on the Whitsunday’s national park islands. Before you set out, it is a good idea to visit the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service or phone them on 13 74 68.

Campsites must be booked, as visitor numbers are limited to ensure a quality visitor experience. More information about camping on national parks, including permits and fees, is available online.

Please be aware:

  • No pets are allowed on national park islands. In addition, in the Whitsunday Islands National Park, dogs are not permitted on any beach, even intertidal areas.
  • Fires are not permitted on national park islands and there is a ‘no fires’ policy in the Whitsundays.
  • From 1 February 2017, smoking cigarettes or using e-cigarettes within 10 metres of any camp site in use is not allowed.

Commonwealth islands in the Whitsundays

A number of islands within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park are managed by the Commonwealth of Australia or the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and collectively form the Commonwealth Islands Zone. Generally, these islands are used for research, tourism or recreational purposes and have Aids to Navigation on site. They are the only land component of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority works in partnership with the Queensland Government, the tourism industry, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, Department of Defence, Indigenous representatives, community groups and public and private lessees to provide for long-term conservation of these islands.

Commonwealth islands within the Whitsunday Planning Area include:

  • Dent Island (southern part only) - activities include heritage conservation and tourism
  • Eshelby Island - strictly for management purposes.

Commonwealth islands can generally be used or entered without permission for low impact (non-extractive) activities (for example, filming, photography, sound recording and limited educational programs) with the following limitations:

  • Most Commonwealth islands are subject to private lease arrangements, defence activities, or have a caretaker. Additional management arrangements may exist for these islands - contact the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority for more information on (07) 4750 0700.
  • Some islands are subject to seasonal or year-round bird closures - view more information on restrictions applying to significant bird sites below.
  • Eshelby Island is surrounded by a Preservation Zone (pink zone) - no access to this island is permitted, except for authorised management purposes.

Protecting wildlife in the Whitsundays

The area is home to a variety of protected species of wildlife, including whales, dolphins, dugong, turtles and seabirds.

Protecting whales and dolphins

Few wildlife experiences could compare to the sight of an enormous whale majestically rising out of the water, or a pod of dolphins playfully showing off their acrobatic skills.

The Whitsundays is an important calving ground for humpback whales which trek to the Great Barrier Reef’s warmer waters from Antarctica between May to September.

Most of the waters around the islands are part of the Whale Protection Area designed to minimise disturbance to mother whales. To help protect whales in the Whitsundays, make sure you follow these rules while travelling in a boat:

  • Inside the Whale Protection Area, vessels and people must not approach within 300 metres of a whale.
  • Outside the Whale Protection Area, vessels must not approach within 100 metres of a whale.
  • Outside the Whale Protection Area, if there are already three vessels within 300 metres of a whale, all additional vessels must remain outside a 300 metre radius from the whale.

Several species of dolphins also inhabit the Whitsundays, including the protected Australian snubfin dolphin and the Australian humpback dolphin.

To help protect whales and dolphins while in the Marine Parks, make sure you follow the laws for whale and dolphin watching.

View responsible reef practices for when you encounter whales and dolphins.

Please report sick, injured or dead whales and dolphins to 1300 ANIMAL (1300 264 625) as soon as possible.

Protecting dugong and turtles

Dugong and marine turtles together with their habitats and lifecycles are of significant cultural, spiritual and social importance, especially to Traditional Owners. Dugong populations in the southern Great Barrier Reef are severely depleted and both dugong and turtles are under pressure from habitat loss, gill netting, illegal hunting and boat strikes.

Seagrass meadows are important habitats for dugong and green turtles as they provide a critical food source and important nursery habitat. The Whitsundays includes seagrass meadows at Repulse Bay, bays surrounding Whitsunday Island such as Tongue Bay, and mainland coastal bays such as Shoal Bay.

To help protect dugong, a Dugong Protection Area is located in northern Repulse Bay, and restrictions apply on the use of mesh nets in this area.

Several threatened species of marine turtles inhabit the Whitsundays. Loggerhead turtles, which pass through the Whitsundays on their way to southern nesting sites, are listed as endangered.

Please take extra care in summer and autumn during the nesting and hatching season.

View responsible reef practices for when you encounter turtles.

Please report sick, injured or dead dugong and turtles to 1300 ANIMAL (1300 264 625) as soon as possible.

Protecting seabirds

Please note: As a result of the Whitsundays Plan of Management amendment 2017, a remaining amendment in relation to significant bird sites will commence on 1 January 2018. The restriction periods at East Rock, Edwin Rock and Olden Rock will be extended by three months. All 11 significant bird sites now have definitive spatial boundaries. Please refer to the Whitsundays Plan of Management for further information.

A number of islands and rocks in the Whitsundays are important for seabirds, shorebirds and several migratory species. As roosting and nesting birds are very vulnerable to disturbance, several sites have been identified as requiring special management (refer to the Whitsundays Plan of Management Detailed Overview map).

There are some times of the year when access to significant bird sites is limited (refer to table below). Where nesting species are most easily disturbed by noise, a ‘boat-free zone’ applies during the stated period.

Please ensure that you do not feed birds or throw food overboard. Raptors, in particular, can become used to boats and steal lures and fishing bait.

View responsible reef practices for bird watching.

Significant bird sites 

Management arrangements include:

  • a six knot speed limit within 200 metres of the low water mark
  • aircraft (including helicopters) can be operated above 1500 feet and 1000 metres from significant bird sites
  • a boat-free zone (within 200 metres of the high water mark) also applies around the following islands between 1 October and 31 December each year
    • East Rock
    • Edwin Rock
    • Olden Rock (south of Olden Island)
  • intertidal beaches may be closed temporarily to protect endangered wildlife.

Significant bird sites and times

IslandPeriod of restriction

Bird Island

East Rock

Edwin Rock

Eshelby Island

Little Eshelby Island

All year

Armit Island (south beach)

Double Cone Island (west island)

Grassy Island (south beach)

Little Armit Island 

Olden Rock (south of Olden Island)

Shaw Island (beach east of Burning Point) 

South Repulse Island (west beach, excluding campsite)

Between 1 October and 31 March (inclusive)

Looking after the marine environment in the Whitsundays

While you are visiting the Whitsundays, you can make a big difference to your enjoyment and to the enjoyment of others by:

  • respecting other people using the area
  • keeping your noise low
  • always aiming to leave no trace of your visit.

Remember to take all rubbish home with you, never throw it overboard or leave it somewhere it can blow into the marine environment.

When you’re out in the Marine Park and you see something happening that you think might be against the law, you can report the incident.

If you are witness to a marine emergency, such as an oil spill or navigational aid fault, contact your local Maritime Safety Queensland.

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