There are many ways to enjoy the Great Barrier Reef, and a long weekend trip to Heron Island may be my favourite.
You’ll quickly understand why just by looking at the photos. And if you fall in love like I did, also read these tips to optimise your visit.
Travelling along Australia’s East Coast? Check out this list of the best diving sites there!
When is the best season to visit Heron Island (Great Barrier Reef)?
We went there at the end of January and it seemed perfect. Although there could be storms at that period, it’s worth taking the risk. It’s the period when the turtles hatching and the hatchlings overlap. Turtles come on Heron Island to lay eggs between November and January, and the eggs hatch two months later, from January to March. We already had the chance to see turtles hatching in Bundaberg, but experiencing this more privately on Heron Island was a hundred times better.
During our stay in late January, we saw dozens of adult turtles every day and stopped counting the hatchlings. We felt like we were in a nursery as, in addition to the baby turtles, baby black tip sharks and shovelnose rays were everywhere along the beach. And we also had baby birds on land.
Plus, days are longer during summer than during winter. If you’re there for a quick stay, it makes a difference!
In winter, you’ll get a chance to see the humpback whale migration from June to September.
Is a short visit to Heron Island worth it?
The timetables of the boat transfers are not optimised for short stays and you won’t be able to make it in just one weekend, even if you’re a local. Unless you spend more than $500 to fly to the island, you’ll arrive on there late in the afternoon and must be ready to leave it at 9.30 am to arrive back in Gladstone for lunch time. It’s frustrating.
But 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 early and swam with us. Older ones were waiting for us to snorkel at the wreck, with a lot of other colourful fish around.
As the night came, we saw dozens of turtles coming up on the beach. Seriously, how good is that?!
However, there was one day on the island (our last day, luckily) when the wind picked up in opposite direction to the tidal current: the visibility for snorkelling became poor. We only had a short snorkelling session planned before leaving at 9.30am, so it didn’t affect our stay too much. But it could have wasted our day if it happened any other day – as we are avid snorkellers and divers. The weather forecast was pessimistic but we had a sunny weekend, so we cannot complain at all. Weather is always a risk to take with outdoor activities.
A few photos taken while snorkelling Heron Island Great Barrier Reef and wreck:
Which one is the best island on the Southern Great Barrier Reef: Heron Island or Lady Elliot Island?
There is no straight answer to that one as it depends on the activities you want to do.
For those travelling on a budget, Heron Island is cheaper if you can drive up to Gladstone and avoid flying.
Heron Island has more diving sites – and even one from Cousteau’s top 10 (the man who invented scuba diving) – so it could be a better destination for divers. Unless you really want to optimise your chances of seeing manta rays: then you may opt for Lady Elliot which is particularly famous for it. There are manta rays around Heron Island too, but they are not as often spotted as on Lady Elliot.
Snorkelling near the wreck is good at Heron Island but nowhere as good as on Lady Eliott. Although we could still spot some marine life in the lagoon on Heron Island, many spots sadly looked bleached and/or dead. I haven’t visited Lady Elliot in 2018 to compare, but it looked way better in 2017. Plus, if you’re an experienced snorkeller, you may see Manta rays while snorkelling on the deeper side of Lady Elliot.
If you don’t snorkel or dive, Heron Island is three times bigger than Lady Elliot Island and will provide more alternative activities and surprises (see more details later in this article).
If you look for comfort and luxury, Heron Island resort will probably offer you a better experience. Rooms are more spacious, there is a spa on the island and the beach is made of sand (whereas it’s mostly coral pieces on Lady Elliot’s beach). However, Lady Elliot Island is an eco-resort, which makes a lot more sense in such a fragile environment threatened by climate change and could be a better fit with your values.
A few photos taken 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.
The Reef around the island with the wreck looks lovely with the stunning contrasts – and you’ll see beautiful sunsets. You’ll be staying on the Great Barrier Reef.
Even without going into the water, you’ll have the opportunity to spot amazing marine wildlife. We saw turtles on the beach, as well as cowtail rays, baby black tip sharks and shovelnose rays just a few centimetres away from us. From the jetty, we watched eagle rays (sometimes even jumping!), sharks, and turtles passing by…
The island is also amazing for bird watching. There are many species of birds everywhere on the island.
There are organised tours – most of them complimentary – that do not involve getting wet such as the reef walk, the turtle tour or the research station tour for example. You can also go for a cruise on the glass-bottom boat.
Budget for a long weekend on Heron Island
With only a private resort managing everything on the island, and no all-included package offered when we booked, it initially appears like an expensive destination. But if you are careful, it’s not more expensive than other trips to the Great Barrier Reef.
We drove up there from Brisbane so it only cost us $20 per person for petrol. We left Brisbane on Thursday night and camped in a free rest area on the way (Belli Creek).
Transfer by boat to the island cost $60 per person, one way. The boat leaves at 2 pm from Gladstone, and there are no transfers on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
We were four people sharing a room and three nights on the island cost $400 per person, breakfast included. Add $20 for environmental management fees on top of that. There is a small fridge and a kettle in the room so we brought food for most lunches and dinners. There is a package with three dives at $295, all equipment included (and you can keep it for snorkelling). Otherwise, an individual dive is $75 and full equipment is $45 per day.
Many activities on the island are free: snorkelling from shore, walking tours (stargazing, turtle tour, bird tour), talks by naturalists…
If you are a certified diver, there is a package with three dives at $295, all equipment included (and you can keep the equipment for snorkelling). Otherwise, an individual dive is $75 and full equipment is $45 per day.
So the total cost for this four day weekend (two days and a half, three nights on Heron Island) with three dives – food not included: $20 + $60×2 + $400 + $20 + 295 = $855 per person.
If you want to have dinner at the restaurant, allow $45. There are sandwiches sold at the bar for lunch for $7.50. Buying all our meals from the resort would have added $45x 3 + $7.50×2 = $150 per person.
Note that there is no 4g/phone reception on the island. Phone calls and WIFI connexion would come at an extra cost if you cannot survive being disconnected from the rest of the world.
It is not a cheap weekend but when you compare it with other destinations on the Great Barrier Reef, it’s actually one of the affordable trips.
What do you need to bring on Heron Island?
Snorkelling gear. You can hire gear but you would not have it available in the afternoon when you arrive if you want to make the most of the few hours available on your first day. The fins they rent at the dive shop are also not the best, so you’ll be happy to have your own.
Food/Snacks: As there is no package organised for food, it can quickly become a big expense. And it can also be a waste of time to go to the bar or the shop to buy snacks, as you’d need to change your wet clothes and find your shoes first! I really appreciated having food easily available when I wanted.
Sun protection: You’ll spend most of your time outside, in or near the water. The sun is very strong in Australia, so you’ll have to protect your skin. I personally avoid sunscreen and use protective clothing instead. If you do want to use sunscreen, have a look at this one from SunBear; as it has no chemical, it is not as bad as regular sunscreen for the corals!
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. You can take a boat or a hydroplane from Gladstone to reach it. It takes at least six hours to drive to Gladstone from Brisbane. Because of the boat transfer schedule, I recommend taking four days away to travel to Heron Island from Brisbane, with two days and a half and three nights on the island.
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Eloise lives in Brisbane (Australia), but you won’t find her often in the city. When she is not disconnected underwater or in a national park, she loves sharing her travel tips and inspiring her readers to take care of our beautiful planet. She considers every weekend as a two-day holiday break. Her approach: you don’t always need to go far to travel. Still, she also enjoys exploring the world and discovering new cultures. Eloise is originally from France and, before moving to Brisbane, she lived in Sydney, Istanbul and England.