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Capricornia Cays National Park

Collette Bagnato © Queensland Government

Capricornia Cays National Park

Discover a paradise of forest-clad coral cays, magical coral reefs, abundant birdlife and iconic marine life in the southern Great Barrier Reef.

Luxuriate on pristine white island beaches.
Luxuriate on pristine white island beaches. Maxime Coquard © Tourism and Events Queensland
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Park Capricornia Cays
Traditional Owner Traditional Owners
Park Ranger Park Ranger

Paradise is only a boat-ride away! Snorkel, dive or fish on world-renowned coral reefs, explore rich pisonia forests alive with birds on low-lying coral cays, and enjoy stunning sunsets on white beaches lapped by waters of the Coral Sea. From your base on Lady Musgrave, North West or Mast Head island camping areas, immerse yourself in ‘island life’ and spend lazy days exploring the cays and reefs.

Capricornia Cays support one of the largest green turtle breeding populations and, together with the nearby coastline, encompass the entire breeding ground of loggerhead turtles in the South Pacific. If you're here at the right time you may see them nesting or hatching on the beaches.

Birdlife is prolific—nearly 75 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef's seabirds roost and breed here so you're bound to see (and hear!) wedge-tailed shearwaters, black noddies, eastern reef egrets… and many more. Walk around the cays' beaches with your binoculars and camera—you’ll circumnavigate North West and Mast Head islands in a few hours and Lady Musgrave in less than an hour.

Most of Australia’s pisonia forests are found on the Capricornia Cays. You can explore these fascinating forests, reaching 20m high in places, on the North West Island track and Lady Musgrave Island track.

Capricornia Cays National Park is part of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, famed for its superlative natural beauty, outstanding examples of reef ecosystem development, evolutionary history and amazing diversity.

Keep discovering

Top things to see and do

Immerse yourself in a remote island paradise.

Cap Cays' camping areas

See Cap Cays' camping areas.

Emerge from the forest and onto the beach for sweeping views of the coral lagoon.

Cap Cays' journeys

See Cap Cays' walks.

Getting there and getting around

Capricornia Cays National Park is at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, 60–100km offshore from Gladstone. You can reach the islands by private boat, commercial vessel or seaplane. The nearest departure points are Gladstone, Bundaberg and Seventeen Seventy.

Lady Musgrave Island

  • Lady Musgrave Island has a daily commercial ferry service.
  • The services are weather-dependent so you need to check with operators for timetables.

North West and Mast Head islands

  • North West Island and Mast Head Island do not have regular services.
  • Access is restricted by tides. Commercial vessels (barges) will generally drop you and your gear on the beach at high tide.

For tourism information for all regions in Queensland, see Queensland.com, and for friendly advice on how to get there, where to stay and what to do, find your closest accredited visitor information centre.

Fuel and supplies

You can get fuel and supplies on the mainland at Gladstone, Seventeen Seventy and Bundaberg.

Wheelchair access

There are no wheelchair-accessible facilities.

Camping

Set up right beside the beach at one of the three island camping areas. You need to be totally self-sufficient and we don't allow camping on any of the other islands.

See camping areas

Other accommodation

Guided tours and talks

Commercial tour operators offer guided tours to Lady Musgrave Island. The resort on Heron Island also offers guided tours for guests.

For tourism information for all regions in Queensland, see Queensland.com, and for friendly advice on how to get there, where to stay and what to do, find your closest accredited visitor information centre.

Walking

Explore walking tracks that cross the islands and return along the beaches, or walk along the reef at low tide (remember to step only on the sand and to wear shoes).

Map of walking tracks

Picnicking

Pack some snacks and a picnic rug and spend the day at one of the park's six accessible islands.

  • You can picnic on North West, Lady Musgrave, Heron and Wilson islands at any time of the year.
  • Mast Head and Erskine islands are only open from the first day of the Queensland Easter school holidays until 15 October.

Viewing wildlife

The Capricornia Cays and surrounding marine park waters offer a wide range of exciting wildlife viewing experiences, both above the water and below.

Turtles

The islands and surrounding reef are valuable feeding and nesting areas for marine turtles. Four species are found within this area—green and loggerhead turtles are commonly seen, while flatback and hawksbill turtles are occasional visitors.

Read more about what you need to know about camping and turtles.

Birds

Birds are plentiful on all the cays, particularly between October and April when many thousands of seabirds migrate here to nest. Grab your binoculars and look for migratory ruddy turnstones, whimbrels, Mongolian plovers and bar-tailed godwits. Stay well clear of nesting seabirds. If disturbed, adult birds can abandon their nests, leaving the eggs and chicks exposed to temperature and predation. At all times of the year you'll see white-bellied sea-eagles, boobies, egrets, oystercatchers and silver gulls feeding and roosting on the reef flat and island beaches.

Shearwaters nest in burrows in the sand, leaving at dawn to feed at sea and returning at dusk. Their mournful howling call at night is hard to miss. If you keep to the island's tracks, you'll also avoid collapsing shearwater burrows. Noddies nest throughout the islands' pisonia trees, including those in camping areas. As a special treat, look for Capricorn silvereyes flitting through the pisonia forest.

Whales and rays

During winter, humpback whales pass through the Capricornia Cays on their way to and from tropical waters during the winter months. It's important that you know the rules for watching marine mammals. These rules ensure marine mammals can live naturally, without being disturbed, while at the same time allowing you to watch them in safety. If you're lucky while snorkelling, you may also see impressive manta rays gliding over the reefs.

Cultural and historic sites

This areas has a varied and colourful shared history, ranging from Indigenous peoples' uses and enduring connections, to shipwrecks from early European exploration and early maritime industries of guano mining and turtle canneries, to tourism.

  • These sites are easily damaged and are irreplaceable. Look at them, enjoy them, but please do not touch or damage them.

  • Read more about the park's cultural history.

Canoeing and kayaking

Canoe or kayak in the sheltered lagoons and over the reef flats at high tide.

Read about how to stay safe around water on these islands.

Swimming

The best places to swim are in the crystal-clear waters just off the beaches of the cays. Beaches are not patrolled and you enter the water at your own risk.

  • Beware of strong currents and changing tides.
  • Stay clear of access channels and keep an eye out for boats.
  • Read water safety for important information about staying safe in and near water and caring for parks.

Diving and snorkelling

The lagoons, reef edges and reef flats are popular spots for snorkelling and diving.

  • Walk across the reef flat (remember to wear shoes or diving boots to protect your feet), or, if the tide is high, swim across the reef flat.  Drop over the reef edge to explore a fascinating underwater world.
  • You'll need a boat to reach the more distant snorkelling and diving sites.
  • Read about how to stay safe while diving and snorkelling around these islands.

Fishing

Fishing is popular in the Capricornia Cays, but you can't fish just anywhere.

Boating

There's so much to see and do by boat. Head out onto the water and explore, fish and swim around the cays and reefs.

When to visit

Opening hours

Capricornia Cays National Park is open 24hrs a day.

Check park alerts for the latest information on access, closures and conditions.

Seasonal closures

There are some seasonal closures to protect wildlife and vegetation.

North West and Lady Musgrave islands

  • North West Island and Lady Musgrave Island camping areas are open from the first day of the Queensland Easter school holidays until the day after the Australia Day long weekend (or the day after the Australia Day public holiday, if the holiday falls midweek).
  • The camping areas are closed at all other times, but you can visit the islands during the day.

Mast Head and Erskine islands

  • You can visit Mast Head and Erskine islands from the first day of the Queensland Easter school holidays until 14 October.
  • The islands are closed to all visitors at other times.

Heron and Wilson islands

  • Open all year round.

Climate and weather

Capricornia Cays National Park straddles the Tropic of Capricorn and has a tropical climate. Conditions are pleasant throughout the year with hotter, humid days (26–30°C) from October to January. Balmy nights follow afternoons cooled by strong, north-easterly sea breezes. January to April is the wet season, although a shower may fall in any month. Between April and September, daytime temperatures are mild to warm (21–26°C) with cool nights (16–22°C), particularly when prevailing south-easterly winds blow. Water temperatures on the reef flat vary from 20°C in July to 27°C in January. Cyclones are possible between November and March.

Permits and fees

Camping permits

Organised events

  • If you are planning a school excursion or organising a group event such as a wedding, fun run or adventure training, you may need an organised event permit. Maximum group sizes and other conditions apply depending on location and activity type.

Pets

You can have domestic animals on your boat but you can’t take them onto the islands, including the beaches and tidal areas.

Staying in touch

Mobile phone coverage

Unreliable. Check with your service provider for more information.

Tourism information

For tourism information for all regions in Queensland, see Queensland.com, and for friendly advice on how to get there, where to stay and what to do, find your closest accredited visitor information centre.

Be prepared

  • Parks are natural environments and conditions can be unpredictable. You are responsible for your own safety and for looking after the park.
  • Read stay safe and visit with care for important general information about safety, caring for parks and essentials to bring when you visit Queensland’s national parks.

  • Our national parks, including our precious Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area islands, need your help to remain pest‑free.

Camping

  • You may get dropped off some distance from your camp site so you need to be sensible about what you pack.
  • Remember to bring:
    • everything you need to be self-sufficient
    • strong, animal-proof containers for food and rubbish
    • tick-removing tweezers. Beware bites and stings.
    • a free-standing marquee to protect your camp and cooking area from bird droppings.
  • When setting up camp:
    • Stay clear of brittle pisonia branches.
    • Make sure you are behind the roped-off revegetation areas.
    • Avoid camping on walking tracks as sometimes shearwaters use these as flight paths!
  • Ticks are common, particularly during the seabird breeding season from October to May, and centipedes are active at night, especially in wet weather.
  • Shake out bedding, clothing, footwear and dive gear, and keep tents securely zipped. Beware bites and stings.
  • There are no toilets at Mast Head Island camping area. Dig a pit about 1m deep for continual use during your stay. Locate it well away from the beach, turtle nests and nesting shearwaters. Bag all personal hygiene products including disposable nappies and place them in your rubbish.
  • Our national parks, including our precious Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area islands, need your help to remain pest‑free.
  • Read camp with care for tips on camping safely and camping softly.

Open fires

  • Open fires are not allowed. Use a gas or fuel stove for cooking.

Drinking water

  • Bring at least 5L per person per day, plus a bit extra in case of an emergency.

Rubbish

  • There are no bins. Take your rubbish with you when you leave.

Emergencies

  • You will need a marine VHF radio as mobile phone reception is unreliable.

North West Island and Mast Head Island

  • You can hire a portable VHF marine band radio from Volunteer Marine Rescue (VMR) Gladstone (VMR446 Gladstone). One radio is allocated to each island so if you have it, make yourself known to the other campers.
  • There is a 24hr watch on VHF channels 16 (emergency) and 82.
  • VHF channel 82 is monitored from 6am to 6pm by VM446 Gladstone and Gladstone Harbour Control.
  • VHF channel 16 is monitored from 6am to 6pm by Gladstone Harbour Control.
  • You can also contact vessels in the area on these channels.
  • Weather forecasts from the Bureau of Meteorology in Rockhampton are broadcast on VHF channel 82 at 6.40am, 11.40am and 4.40pm; and on VHF channel 21 at 7.20am, 12.10pm and 5.05pm.

Lady Musgrave Island

  • There is an emergency VHF marine band radio in the toilet block.
  • The Queensland Police Service (Bundaberg) monitors VHF channel 81, 24hrs a day.
  • You can also contact VMR477 Round Hill (6.30am to 6pm) and VMR488 Bundaberg (6am to 6pm) on VHF channel 81.

Evacuation procedures

Capricornia Cays National Park lies within the Queensland tropical storm (cyclone) zone. We have an emergency contingency plan to provide early warning and possible evacuation of campers if a cyclone or other event threatens your safety.

  • We will attempt to inform you of impending severe weather and the need for evacuation.
  • During an evacuation, all camping permits will be cancelled and you will be required to leave the cays. The decision to evacuate may be made well in advance of a cyclone or other threatening event, while sea conditions are still moderate.
  • If you need a permit refund, see camping and vehicle access permit fee and pre-paid booking refunds.
  • The unpredictable nature of cyclones may mean campers are evacuated, but the cyclone doesn't eventuate.
  • Commercial charter vessels will collect you during the evacuation.
  • Sea conditions may prevent the evacuation of camping equipment and private boats. In these circumstances, you may be able to store you equipment in the toilet blocks. Where this is not possible, you will need to secure and store your equipment as best you can. No responsibility will be accepted for items or boats left on the island. You will need to organise your own transport to the cays to retrieve your property.
  • When delivered to the mainland, you will need to look after your own accommodation.
  • Read safety during extreme weather for important information about what to do during floods, bushfires and cyclones.

Walking

  • When island walking, stay on the tracks to avoid trampling and collapsing wedge-tailed shearwater burrows in the sand.
  • If reef walking, walk in sand channels and avoid stepping on live corals—they are easily damaged and will cause nasty cuts. Don't stir up sand and sediment, and beware of strong currents and changing tides. Wear shoes to protect your feet.
  • Read walk with care for tips on walking safely and walking lightly.

Around water

  • When swimming beware of strong currents and changing tides.
  • Stay clear of access channels and keep an eye out for boats.
  • You'll need diving boots or other shoes to protect your feet when crossing the reef flat.
  • Read water safety for important information about staying safe in and near water and caring for parks.

Diving and snorkelling

  • You'll need diving boots or other shoes to protect your feet when crossing the reef flat.
  • Beware of strong currents and changing tides.
  • Stay clear of access channels and keep an eye out for boats.
  • Use the dive compression bunkers while diving off North West and Lady Musgrave islands. We don't allow you to use a dive compressor on Mast Head Island. Store your fuel and oil in the storage areas on North West and Lady Musgrave islands.
  • Read water safety for important information about staying safe in and near water and caring for parks.

Boating and fishing

  • The waters adjacent to Capricornia Cays National Park are in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Great Barrier Reef Coast Marine Park.
  • Before heading out on the water make sure you have a zoning map, know the zones and what's allowed there.
  • Access to the cays and to many activities depend on tide times and heights. The islands' average tidal range is about 2m.
  • You can anchor in the Lady Musgrave Island lagoon, as long as you are outside the no anchoring area.
  • Make sure you don't anchor in vessel loading areas.
  • We don't allow you to place temporary moorings, such as star pickets, on the reef flats or over reef edges.
  • Stay below 6kts when travelling over reef flats and shallow water.
  • Dump fish scraps at sea, at least 500m seaward of the reef edge. Vary dump sites to discourage scavenging sharks.
  • Fisheries regulations apply. You can obtain information on bag and size limits, restricted species and seasonal closures from Fisheries Queensland.
  • Read boat and fish with care for tips on boating and fishing safety and caring for parks.

Natural environment

Islands and reefs

The Capricorn and Bunker groups encompass 22 reefs straddling the Tropic of Capricorn, at the Great Barrier Reef's southern end. There are 16 coral islands, known as cays, on these reefs. The Capricornia Cays National Park protects eight vegetated coral cays—Lady Musgrave, North West, Mast Head, Broomfield, Wilson, Erskine and Tryon islands, and part of Heron Island.

A further six cays form Capricornia Cays National Park (Scientific). These are Wreck, One Tree, East Hoskyn, West Hoskyn, East Fairfax and West Fairfax islands. There is no public access to these cays. Typically the islands rise only a few metres above high water mark.

World Heritage Area

Capricornia Cays National Park's islands and reefs are part of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Their biological diversity, exceptional beauty and endangered plants and animals are internationally significant. The stunning white beaches and outstanding coral reefs of these small, relatively untouched cays make them popular destinations. Unlike rocky continental islands, the Capricornia Cays were completely built by corals. Rich forests of Pisonia grandis, which are typically only found on coral cays, dominate the island vegetation. A fringe of tough, small trees and shrubs such as coastal she-oak, octopus bush, native grasses and pandanus surround the cays' pisonia forests. On North West Island, strangling figs and native elms are scattered through the forest, and native mulberries, sandpaper figs and lantern bushes grow in small clearings.

Seabirds

Birds are plentiful on all the cays, particularly between October and April when many thousands of seabirds migrate here to nest. Black noddies, wedge-tailed shearwaters and some of the resident island birds are quite tolerant of walkers but others are easily disturbed. Shearwaters nest in burrows, leaving at dawn to feed at sea and returning at dusk. Their mournful howling call at night is hard to miss. Noddies nest throughout the islands' pisonia trees, including those in camping areas. Most noddies and adult shearwaters leave in April. The fledgling shearwaters remain in their burrows for another six weeks before they also fly off. White-bellied sea-eagles breed during the winter months but nest sites are now restricted to six islands including North West. While bridled terns prefer the cover of fringe vegetation, more timid black-naped and roseate terns nest on exposed rubble beaches and in rocky crevices. Their nests are camouflaged and easily disturbed.

Turtles

The islands and surrounding reef provide valuable feeding and nesting sites for marine turtles. Four species are found within this area—green and loggerhead turtles are commonly seen, while flatback and hawksbill turtles are only rarely seen. Capricornia Cays and the adjacent Bundaberg coast support the largest breeding population of endangered loggerhead turtles in the South Pacific region. North West, West Hoskyn and Wreck islands are important nesting sites for green turtles. The annual nesting population is highly variable and influenced by climatic conditions in the previous year or earlier. Marine turtles take 30–50 years to prepare for their first breeding migration. From late October to February, females return to the general area of their birthplace to nest. Loggerhead and green turtles lay about 125 eggs—each the size of a ping pong ball—in a clutch. Each nesting season they lay several clutches at about two-week intervals. Depending on the species, turtles only nest every 2–7 years. Eggs are incubated in the sand with hatchling sex determined by incubation time and sand temperature. Hatchlings emerge 7–12 weeks later, generally from December to late April.

Request a species list to see what plants and animals have been recorded here.

Culture and history

Aboriginal culture

Eighteen thousand years ago, the reefs of Capricornia were limestone hills on a coastal landscape. Aboriginal family groups painted in the caves and harvested rich food supplies from the coastal plains and fringing reefs. Then, generation after generation, traditional hunting grounds were flooded by a slowly rising sea. The marine waters and islands in the area continued to be used by the Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and today the area is still an important part of local groups' cultures and spirituality. They used the rich marine resources of the intertidal zones, reefs and surrounding seas to support their community.

A shared history

The cays has a long shared history. Historic shipwrecks are located near Lady Musgrave Reef and Heron Island. The wreck at Lady Musgrave Island is thought to be the Jane Lockhart, a wooden schooner that sank in 1868. During the 1890s, guano was mined on Lady Musgrave, Fairfax and North West islands and some evidence of these operations remains. The grave of the infant daughter of a guano ship’s captain is on North West Island. Turtle soup canneries operated on North West and Heron islands in the early part of the 1900s. Remnants of these operations are still present on these islands. Lady Musgrave hosted a resort during the 1930s and a concrete slab remains. Australian defence forces used East and West Fairfax islands as a bombing range, although this ceased over 30 years ago. In addition, oil exploration was once conducted at Wreck Island and a capped drill-hole remains.

Ships and lighthouses

In 1770, Captain James Cook travelled up the Queensland coast close to the mainland, out of sight of the islands of Capricornia. Flinders in 1802 may have seen Masthead Island, but the first definite sighting of the Capricornia Cays was by Captain Bunker in 1803.

Because of its location, Lady Elliot Island was seen more frequently than the other islands during the early part of the nineteenth century. This southern-most cay was named after the Lady Elliot, which sailed past it in 1816. The island's position was fixed three years later by Phillip Parker King, on the first of his three voyages to the southern reef. On his second voyage in 1820, King named the island and in 1821 he observed several other Capricornia islands.

Mast Head Island was named on 21 June 1839 by Wickham and Stokes on HMS Beagle. In 1843 Captain Blackwood in HMS. Fly, accompanied by the Bramble, surveyed all the islands and reefs of Capricornia. Jukes, the naturalist on board, made many observations. The party visited North West Island, and named Wreck Island (after the America which was wrecked there in 1831), Heron Island (after the graceful reef egrets) and One Tree Island. Jukes also wrote about Lady Musgrave, calling it 'First Bunker' Island.

Later, as the ports of central and northern Queensland became established, shipping in the vicinity of Capricornia increased. In 1866 a temporary light was erected on Lady Elliot Island, and a more permanent structure was built in 1873. North Reef light followed in 1878. A light was placed on Lady Musgrave Island in 1974. In spite of these beacons, there have been numerous shipwrecks over the years. The passenger liner Cooma grounded on North Reef in 1926 but fortunately all passengers were rescued. In 1983 a large bulk carrier, the TNT Altrans, grounded on Lady Musgrave Reef, but was refloated.

Exploitation and industry

Capricornia's peace was shattered in the late 19th century with the arrival of miners seeking phosphate rock or guano. They began on Lady Elliot Island in 1863. They left a devastated landscape stripped of trees and topsoil. Grazing goats aggravated the damage and only in the last 20 years has the island started to recover.

Fairfax and Lady Musgrave Islands were mined at the end of the century, and on both these islands goats also caused extensive damage. Over 100 miners, many of them Asians, worked on North West Island in 1899 and 1900. Here, as on Lady Elliot Island, reminders of mining days can be seen in the remnants of tramways, jetties and washing mounds. The baby daughter of a guano transport ship's captain lies buried in a tiny graveyard on the island.

The next industry to begin was the harvesting of green turtles for soup. A canning factory operated intermittently on North West Island between 1904 and 1928, and another factory was set up on Heron Island in 1923. The resource was over exploited and, by 1928, turtles were becoming scarce. Harvesting ceased by 1930 and turtles were protected 20 years later.

Guano mining and turtle harvesting were short-term industries with heavy impacts on the environment. Feral animals including rats, cats and chickens were left behind, causing deaths and local extinctions of many island animals. In the 1930s two new industries started in the area—fishing and tourism.

Cristian Poulsen took fishing parties into Capricornia and in 1932 he began to convert the turtle canning factory on Heron Island into a tourist resort. His family's association with the resort continued until 1977.

Lady Musgrave Island was the site of the second tourist resort, established in 1939, but this was soon forced to close because of financial troubles. Don Adams built an airstrip on Lady Elliot Island and established a day visit tourist operation in 1969. This developed into the present resort, established under careful guidelines in 1985.

Observing and conserving

Some 50 years after the naturalist Jukes visited Capricornia, another British naturalist, Saville-Kent, spent some time on Lady Elliot, Heron and North West Islands. During the early 1900s, a number of keen birdwatchers visited the islands, and 1910 marked the first official birdwatching expedition. Field trips by zoologists and geographers in the 1920s and 30s resulted in detailed surveys of the islands and reefs. Turtle research began on Heron Island in 1929.

The construction of a research station on Heron Island in 1951 provided easier access to the reef and cay environments. The Queensland Government began the process of conserving Capricornia in 1937, with the first national park in the area was declared over Hoskyn and Fairfax islands. Other islands followed, including Heron in 1943 and, the most recent, Masthead in 1988. The first marine national park was declared on Heron and Wistari Reefs in 1974.

A threat to mine part of the Great Barrier Reef in the late 1960s resulted in a massive public campaign to ensure the whole reef was protected. The people of Australia were beginning to appreciate the national and international importance of this unique resource. In 1975 the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act was passed and this led in 1979 to the declaration of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Management activities began in Capricornia in 1982.

Last updated: 22 March 2018
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