Note: This is a trial version, featuring our 34 most popular parks. View the full list of parks.

Whitsunday Islands National Park

© Tourism and Events Queensland

Whitsunday Islands National Park

Discover your own slice of tropical paradise on the secluded beaches and jewel-green islands of Whitsunday Islands National Park.

Take in spectacular vistas over Hill Inlet from the Hill Inlet lookout track.
Take in spectacular vistas over Hill Inlet from the Hill Inlet lookout track. © Tourism and Events Queensland
View map
Park Whitsunday
Traditional Owner Traditional Owners
Park Ranger Park Ranger
Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area

Treasured as one of the world's most beautiful destination getaways, the Whitsunday Islands are famous for their pure-white silica sand, secluded reefs and beaches, diverse wildlife and crystal-clear waters.

Explore an underwater world of vibrant colour, snorkelling and diving with manta rays, fish and turtles in the fringing coral reefs of this Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

Witness the awe-inspiring acrobatic displays of majestic humpback whales visiting the Whitsundays every year between May and September to birth their calves.

Walk along the swirling, pure-white sands of world-famous Whitehaven Beach and see graceful migratory waders and seabirds visit the islands to feed and roost.

Hike through enchanted forests of towering native hoop pines on the headlands and hillsides to spectacular views. Keep your eyes peeled for unadorned rock-wallabies foraging about the forest for food.

Visit Hook Island's Nara Inlet and explore the ancient rock art and middens of Australia's earliest recorded Indigenous groups—the Ngaro People—who were seen by Captain James Cook during his exploration of the Whitsunday Passage.

Stay overnight and wake to the sound of waves breaking on the shore, camping at one of many secluded island camp sites.

Whitsunday Islands 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

Enjoy views of this famous beach from your camp site at Whitehaven Beach camping area.

Whitsunday's camping areas

See Whitsunday's camping areas.

Take in spectacular vistas over Hill Inlet from the Hill Inlet lookout track.

Whitsunday's journeys

See Whitsunday's walks.

Enjoy a picnic and a swim off the beach at Black Island day-use area.

Whitsunday's attractions

See Whitsunday's day-use areas.

Getting there and getting around

Whitsunday Islands National Park is offshore from Queensland's central coast, 25km east of Airlie Beach.

  • Travel on the Bruce Highway to Proserpine, 125km north of Mackay.
  • From Proserpine, drive 25km east along Shute Harbour Road to Airlie Beach, and continue a further 10km to Shute Harbour. Book your tour or charter boat or launch your vessel from here.
  • All roads to the boat launch sites are suitable for conventional 2WDs.
  • Read boat and fish with care for tips on boating and fishing safety and caring for parks.
  • 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.

The islands' national park is easily accessible by commercial tours and transfers, charter boat and private vessel from the coastal towns of Airlie Beach and Shute Harbour. Hamilton Island (20km south-east of Shute Harbour) is also accessible by aircraft.

Commercial tours

  • Commercial operators offer day trips, camping tours and boat, camper and kayak transfers departing from Abell Point Marina at Airlie Beach and from Shute Harbour.

Charter boat

  • Bare boats or private charters are available from Airlie Beach, Shute Harbour and Hamilton Island.

Private vessel

  • There are public boat ramps at Port of Airlie and Abell Point Marina in Airlie Beach, Shute Harbour, Cannonvale (4km east of Airlie Beach), Dingo Beach (50km north-west of Airlie Beach), Conway Beach (38km south of Airlie Beach) and Midge Point (60km south of Airlie Beach).
  • Always take the weather and tidal influences into account when boating in the Whitsundays.

Aircraft

  • Hamilton Island and Airlie Beach have airstrips and commercial operators offer sightseeing tours.

Road conditions

All roads to the boat launch sites on the mainland are suitable for conventional 2WD vehicles.

Navigating the waters around the Whitsundays by boat can be challenging. The Whitsunday area has a large tidal range of up to 4m, with an average range of 2m–3m. Tidal currents are variable and weather conditions can change quickly.

Fuel and supplies

The nearest fuel and supplies can be found in Proserpine and Airlie Beach.

  • 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.

Wheelchair access

There are no wheelchair-accessible facilities.

Camping

The Whitsunday Islands are a great place for camping. Secluded beaches, fringing coral reefs and distinctive hoop pines complete the spectacular island picture. Accessible only by boat, most sites have basic facilities including a toilet and a picnic table.

Make your own way to your island of choice or join a guided commercial camping tour where transport, food and equipment are supplied.

When walking

Keep to the track

  • The islands are rugged and densely vegetated; you can get lost or hurt.
  • They are not places to explore off-track.
  • You can damage the soil surface, which increases sediment run-off and smothers coral

Follow sign directions

  • Some walking tracks may be closed for maintenance, fires, cyclone damage or other safety reasons.
  • Access to some areas is restricted; do not enter.
  • Signs are there for your safety.

Wear sturdy footwear 

  • The terrain is uneven and rocky in places.

Do not touch stinging tree leaves

  • These almost heart-shaped leaves have fine hairs with an irritant poison.
  • When you touch them or brush up against the leaves, the hairs break off.
  • The poison is almost 'injected' into your skin; extremely painful!—like a nettle burn.
  • Use sticky tape to remove the hairs.
  • Do not wash the area under water or vinegar; it just pushes more of the irritant into the skin.
  • Do not rub the area or use sand.

Take plenty of drinking water

  • Generally in this climate 1-2 litres per person per day is recommended.

Wear a hat and sunscreen

  • Swimming in a thick, long-sleeved shirt or a wet suit can avoid polluting the water with sunscreen sediment.

See camping areas

Camping permits

Other accommodation

Guided tours and talks

Many commercial operators offer tours throughout the Whitsundays.

  • 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

Walking tracks and beaches allow you to explore the fringes of these rugged, densely vegetated islands.

The Whitsunday Ngaro Sea Trail brings together a variety of walks across three national park islands. Visitors can choose to walk a small section or stay overnight and link the walking tracks with short boat or kayak trips.

If you don’t have a boat or kayak, you can access these islands and their walks either on day tours with a variety of tour operators or by ferry transfer to island resorts.

Map of walking tracks

Picnicking

  • Some of the islands offer picnic areas for day-use.
  • Most are near a beach.
  • They may include picnic tables and toilets.
  • Some have no facilities at all; be prepared.
  • For a complete list see the Parks of the Whitsundays map (PDF, 1.9M).
  • You must use gas or fuel stoves for cooking; open fires and ash-producing stoves are not permitted on national park islands or intertidal lands adjacent to national park islands.

Map of picnic tables/facilities

Viewing wildlife

You can spend a few idyllic hours or a week exploring the islands of this beautiful park and enjoying the wildlife spectacle on offer.

Birdwatching is rewarding, particularly from October to March when thousands of waders migrate here to nest. Please observe any access restrictions or closures for the safety of these animals.

Look out for sooty oystercatchers, white-faced herons and reef egrets on the shoreline and around rocks. You might also see brahminy kites and white-bellied sea-eagles soaring above or perched high in the tree tops.

Walk along beaches to see marine life. As the tide recedes, oysters and marine snails seal their shells and worms retire to their burrows. Rock crabs dart for the nearest crevices as the shadow of a soaring brahminy kite skirts the rugged shoreline. Inevitably, some crabs are surprised and fall prey to these handsome chestnut and white birds.

Cultural and historic sites

The Ngaro Aboriginal people, Traditional Owners of the Whitsunday Islands and coastal fringe, were seen by Captain James Cook while exploring the Whitsunday Passage. Rock art and middens at Hook Island's Nara Inlet provide a record of their special way of life over thousands of years and you can read about their unique lifestyle on signs along the Hill Inlet lookout track.

During his expedition, Cook named many of the places we know today, including 'Whitsunday's Passage', which he described as:

Indeed the whole passage is one continued safe harbour …

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

  • Read about the park's culture and history.

Canoeing and kayaking

Set out for a true island adventure by canoe or kayak. You'll need a carefully-planned itinerary, equipment and excellent fitness to carry drinking water and to paddle the distance.

Swimming

  • Swimming outside patrolled beaches is not recommended.
  • Be aware that there are dangers associated with swimming from the beach and you enter the water at your own risk.
  • There are no patrolled swimming beaches in the Whitsunday Islands.
  • Read about swimming with care in Whitsunday Islands National Park.

Diving and snorkelling

Enjoy rewarding snorkelling off the islands' beaches. The best places to snorkel are around the northern bays of Hook, Black and Langford islands.

Scuba divers have more opportunities to explore coral bommies, crevices and caves along the reef edge and slope. You need a boat to reach distant snorkelling and diving sites around the islands.

Fishing

The Whitsundays offer great fishing experiences around the reef-fringed scenic islands. The waters adjacent to Whitsunday Islands 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.
  • Fisheries regulations apply. You can obtain information on bag and size limits, restricted species and seasonal closures from Fisheries Queensland.
  • Read about fishing with care in Whitsunday Islands National Park.

Boating

The Whitsundays is a boating paradise with deep blue waters, tropical weather and secluded islands to explore. The waters adjacent to Whitsunday Islands 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.
  • Read about boating with care in Whitsunday Islands National Park.

When to visit

Opening hours

Whitsunday Islands National Park is open 24 hours a day.

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

Seasonal closures

To protect vulnerable coastal birds, activity restrictions apply at some important sites.

A six-knot speed limit within 200m of low water mark applies year-round to:

  • Bird Island
  • East Rock
  • Edwin Rock
  • Eshelby Island
  • Little Eshelby Island.

A boat-free zone (within 200m of high water mark) also applies to these islands between 1 October and 31 December each year.

A six-knot speed limit within 200m of low water mark applies 1 October to 31 March (inclusive) to:

  • Armit Island (southern beach)
  • Double Cone Island (western island only)
  • Grassy Island (southern beach only)
  • Little Armit Island
  • Olden Rock (south of Olden Island)
  • Shaw Island (east of Burning Point)
  • South Repulse Island (western beach).

Boats are not permitted within 200m of high water mark between 1 October and 31 December (inclusive) every year at East and Edwin rocks.

Climate and weather

Pleasant conditions can be experienced throughout most of the year in the Whitsundays. From April to 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 22°C in July to 27°C in January.

From October to January, days are hotter (26–31°C) and more humid. Balmy nights follow strong but cooling north-easterly afternoon sea breezes.

January to April is the wet season though showers may fall in any month. Cyclones are more likely 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.

Transfers

  • Commercial operators offer boat transfers to the national park islands. Fees apply. If you are camping, make sure you book your transfer before obtaining your camping permit.

Pets

Domestic animals are not allowed here.

Staying in touch

Mobile phone coverage

Unreliable. Satellite phones are best and a marine VHF radio is very useful. In emergencies you can contact other vessels in the vicinity on VHF marine channel 16 (emergency channel) or VHF channel 81. The Whitsundays receive good broadcast radio reception and weather forecasts are available on most channels hourly, or by calling 1300 360 426. Check with your service provider for more information.

Tourism information

Brochure

Download this brochure and take it with you:

Information provided in this guide is correct at the time of printing. Check park alerts for the latest details.

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.
  • Carry a first-aid kit and medical supplies. At least one member of your group should have first aid training or practical knowledge. Be familiar with first aid procedures for blisters, heat exhaustion and sprained or twisted ankles.
  • Carry emergency supplies—include food, water, AM/FM radio and spare batteries.
  • Mobile phones are useful but not reliable—satellite phones are best.
  • Monitor weather forecasts—listen to radio messages for vital information about changing weather conditions.
  • Leave your itinerary with a reliable friend or family member—keep them informed of your whereabouts.
  • Our national parks, including our precious Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area islands, need your help to remain pest‑free.
  • 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.

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

Camping

  • The islands are isolated. To enjoy a safe visit, plan carefully to bring all the equipment and supplies you need to be self-sufficient, plus extra in case of emergency.
  • Remember to bring insect repellent, dehydrated food, minimal packaging, sturdy food containers and rubbish bags and a tarpaulin for shade.
  • Do not leave food or scraps around your camp site. Keep your food and scraps safe from wildlife in secure containers, not in plastic bags hanging from trees.
  • Read camp with care for tips on camping safely and camping softly.

Open fires

  • Open fires are not allowed in the marine park (beaches, mangroves and other tidal areas) and national park areas (all parts of the islands).
  • Bring a fuel or gas stove for cooking.
  • Read camp with care for tips on camping safely and camping softly.

Drinking water

  • Fresh drinking water is not provided on any of the islands in the park.
  • Ensure you carry enough fresh water for drinking, cooking, washing and bathing. Allow at least 5L per person per day.
  • Treat all water before use.

Rubbish

  • There are no bins. Take your rubbish with you when you leave.
  • Pack all rubbish, including food scraps and fishing tackle in secure containers and take back to the mainland.
  • Remove excess food packaging before your trip to minimise the rubbish you bring home.
  • Do not bury or burn anything. Even small fragments of line and string can become entangled around birds' legs with fatal results.
  • Dump fish scraps at night. Food scraps and fish frames thrown from passing boats can attract crocodiles and silver gulls, unnaturally increasing their population and predation on seabird young.

Walking

  • Choose your walks carefully—some longer walks are difficult and are suited to fit and experienced walkers only. Be well prepared before departing and leave enough time for your return journey.
  • Avoid disturbing turtles and nesting sea and shorebirds. Using strong lights, making loud noises or moving suddenly can disrupt nesting behaviour.
  • Read walk with care for tips on walking safely and walking lightly.

Canoeing and kayaking

  • If you plan to access the island by kayak, you need to develop an itinerary according to your fitness level and ability to carry water.
  • You need to know and understand the effects of weather to cross various passages and channels, and know what to do when the weather prevents you from following your itinerary and camp bookings.
  • Consult the trip planner for the Whitsunday Ngaro sea trail for approximate paddling distances around camping areas and points of interest.
  • Read water safety for important information about staying safe in and near water and caring for parks.

Boating and fishing

  • The waters adjacent to Whitsunday Islands 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.
  • There are public moorings in the waters around the Whitsundays. Moorings reduce coral damage from anchors and provide safe and sustainable access to popular reefs and islands. They suit a variety of vessel sizes and are accessed on a first-come-first-served basis. Time limits may apply during the day, but all mooring are available overnight between 3pm and 9am. Learn more about moorings and responsible anchoring and see maps and mooring locations.
  • Fisheries regulations apply. You can obtain information on bag and size limits, restricted species and seasonal closures from Fisheries Queensland.
  • Go slow when boating to avoid colliding with turtles basking at the water surface.
  • Report marine strandings. To report injured, sick, or orphaned wildlife, phone RSPCA Queensland on 1300 ANIMAL (1300 264 625).
  • Stingers (dangerous stinging jellyfish) may be present all year. Beware marine stingers.
  • Read boat and fish with care for tips on boating and fishing safety and caring for parks.

Around water

  • Stingers (dangerous stinging jellyfish) may be present all year. Beware marine stingers.
  • Look but don't touch! Some marine organisms, such as cone shells, blue-ringed octopus and stonefish deliver painful and potentially fatal stings if handled. Beware bites and stings.
  • Never dive or snorkel alone. Be very careful of tides and currents.
  • Beware of estuarine crocodiles. They inhabit mainland estuaries but may be present in island waters. Be croc-wise in croc country.
  • Read water safety for important information about staying safe in and near water and caring for parks.

Communication

  • Mobile phones are unreliable on the islands. Satellite phones are best and a marine VHF radio is very useful. In emergencies you can contact other vessels in the vicinity on VHF marine channel 16 (emergency channel) or VHF channel 81.
  • The Whitsundays receive good broadcast radio reception and weather forecasts are available on most channels hourly, or by calling 1300 360 426.

Natural environment

With over 90 islands stretching from Bowen in the north to the Repulse Islands in the south, the Whitsunday group is part of Australia’s largest offshore island chain, known as the Cumberland group. All the islands and their surrounding waters (collectively known as 'the Whitsundays') have international protection as part of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. In addition, some islands have been declared national parks by the Queensland Government. The six national parks of the Whitsundays are Whitsunday Islands National Park, Gloucester Islands National Park, Molle Islands National Park, Lindeman Islands National Park, Repulse Islands National Park and Holbourne Island National Park.

The Whitsundays are internationally famous for their rugged, green-clad islands, blue waters and white sands. But behind that beauty lies much more: a tumultuous geological history, a long tradition of Indigenous use, and a complex ecosystem with thousands of animal and plants, including rare and endangered species.

Volcanic beginnings

To understand the Whitsunday landscape, we must go back 110 million years. At that time, volcanoes were active in what was to become Australia, and slow but steady movements of the earth’s crust were breaking up the super-continent Gondwana (which originally included present-day Australia, as well as South America, Africa, New Guinea, New Zealand, India and more).

The Whitsundays lay in a geologically active zone, where volcanic activity continued for 37 million years. Explosive eruptions threw rock and ash into the air to rain down on the surrounding land. Layers of volcanic debris built up and gradually formed a solid bedrock. Today, this bedrock, composed of ash and rock fragments 'welded' together, can still be seen (e.g. on Whitsunday and Hook islands). This hardened rock appears as a smooth greenish grey to brown, and is worn away by saltwater wave action.

Later, less violent volcanic activity injected lava flows into gaps in the bedrock, creating upright bands of darker rock, known to geologists as 'dykes'. Examples of these can be seen on Hook Island.

Ranges pushed upward

Throughout this volcanic period, the earth’s crust continued to move (as it still does today). Tectonic plates—large, rigid segments that make up the outer 100km of the crust—slowly drifted, moving apart in some cases and colliding in others. These movements created mountains, valleys and other landforms, everywhere from India’s Himalayas to Australia’s Great Dividing Range. Mountain ranges also formed in central Queensland. Millions of years later, some of these mountains would become the Whitsunday islands.

From mountain range to island chain

The rocky islands of the Whitsundays are 'continental' islands—that is, they were once part of the continent of Australia (unlike coral cays found in other parts of the Great Barrier Reef, which formed from reef shingle). The Whitsunday islands we see today were originally part of a mainland mountain range.

Over millions of years, these mountains have separated from, and then rejoined, the mainland a number of times, as ice ages have come and gone and sea levels have risen and fallen. Substantial parts of the coastal plain have been exposed and then flooded, exposed and then flooded. During the driest period, the central Queensland coastline may have been up to 200km east of its present location.

The most recent change happened around 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age. Glaciers melted, and the Coral Sea rose over the coastal plain, leaving only mountain-tops and ridges exposed as the rocky Whitsunday islands we see today.

Sea so blue, sand so white

Many visitors comment on the aquamarine shade of the sea throughout the Whitsundays. Very fine sediment suspended in the region’s waters scatters sunlight as it penetrates the water, creating the shade of blue that makes the Whitsundays famous.

Contrasting with this brilliant blue are the fine, white, silica sands of Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island. Whitehaven differs from most beaches in the Whitsundays, which tend to have coarser sand that includes fragments of shell and coral.

Geologists generally agree that Whitehaven’s quartz-rich sand has not come from a local source, because rocks in the area do not contain large quantities of quartz. The most likely explanation is that the sand drifted north along the Queensland coast, carried by prevailing sea currents, millions of years ago. Trapped by rocks and headlands, some sand accumulated to form the dunes of Whitehaven Beach. Sea levels rose and fell around the dunes as ice ages came and went. Over time, impurities were leached from the sand by fresh water, leaving it the fine, white silica you see today. The most recent rise in sea levels, about 10,000 years ago, brought the sea to the foot of these dunes, creating Whitehaven Beach.

Fringed by reefs

Surrounding the Whitsunday islands are 'fringing' reefs—coral reefs that form in clear waters around continental islands and occasionally along the mainland. Approximately 400 species of corals are found in the marine park, and exploring these reefs is one of the most popular visitor activities. The best snorkelling opportunities are around the northern bays of Hook, Hayman, Black and Langford islands, though the inshore islands can also be rewarding. Fringing reefs often contain a surprising diversity of corals, especially soft corals which survive better than hard corals in water with a high sediment load.

All coral reefs are built by polyps, tiny animals resembling small (3–56 mm) sea anemones, with a simple, sac-like body and a mouth-opening surrounded by tentacles. A single founder polyp establishes itself and new polyps build from it, forming a coral colony. As more colonies grow, they spread over a wider area and form a reef. Some reefs around the Whitsundays extend over several square kilometres. When corals die, new polyps grow on top of them and develop new colonies. Today’s colourful corals are actually a thin veneer covering many metres of dead coral.

The Whitsundays are generally ideal for coral growth: warm, clear, relatively shallow water, with an average temperature of around 20–30 degrees Celsius. In addition, the Whitsundays’ large tidal range causes fast currents to stream south with the incoming tide. These currents transport food and nutrients that nourish a rich and colourful diversity of corals on the edges of the fringing reefs. Vivid and beautiful, these corals also provide food and habitat for many sea-dwellers.

Closer to shore, increased sun exposure at low tide limits coral growth, and reef flats on the islands are less colourful, with areas of algae-covered coral rubble and sandy mud washed from the islands. These reef flats are an important part of the marine ecosystem, and home to many small creatures.

Inside the cells of each coral polyp live the algae zooxanthellae, which use light to produce food for the polyp, and also give corals most of their bright colours. Because these algae rely on light for survival, reefs can be adversely affected by increased sediment in the water, which reduces the light they receive. The southernmost reefs of the Whitsundays receive more river sediment than other reefs in the island chain, and so are not as abundant as those further north.

Plant life

Different plants grow on different parts of the islands, influenced by variations in soils, exposure to the elements, and availability of fresh water.

At the top of the beaches grow tough pioneer plants like goat’s foot convolvulus, sea bean and spiky spinifex, which can tolerate wind, salt spray and shifting sands. On the foredunes behind these stabilising creepers and grasses, grow salt-tolerant shrubs and trees such as octopus bush and coastal she-oak. Further inland, vine forests and lush vegetation grow in moist, sheltered gullies and on steep, rocky hillsides, with tall hoop pines scattered through them. Hillsides with drier, deeper soils support open eucalypt forests and, on many islands, undulating native grasslands. Below all of these, along the shorelines, patches of mangroves flourish.

Within these ecosystems grow a number of rare and vulnerable plant species. The plants of the Whitsundays are too diverse to describe in detail, but some of the most typical and distinctive species are discussed below.

Coastal she-oak

A dominant foredune tree, coastal she-oaks (or casuarinas) have reduced leaves that hang in needle-like clusters/branchlets that hang in clusters from small, weeping branches. The tree’s tough, grey bark protects it from sand-laden winds, and it tolerates salt in both soil and air. Coastal casuarinas Casuarina equisetifloia are important in stabilising dunes, and can also be found growing in sandy soils on headlands and rocky shores.

Hoop pines

With their distinctive radiating branches, and tufts of deep-green foliage, hoop pines Araucaria cunninghamii make a dramatic statement on the headlands and hillsides of the Whitsundays. This species dates back about 200 million years and, despite great climate change events, still survives today. Sensitive to fire, hoop pines have found refuge in sheltered gullies and on rocky outcrops, including many headlands. They take their name from the horizontal 'hoops' in their bark, which often remain even after the rest of the tree has rotted away.

Eucalypts

Blue gums, Moreton Bay ash and poplar gums can all be seen in the islands’ open eucalypt forests. Blue gum leaves are long and thin, and their smooth bark often appears to be a mottled blue. The straight trunks of Moreton Bay ash are covered in dark-grey, ribbed bark on their lower sections, forming a 'sock' that contrasts with the smooth, light bark above. Stark white bark and heart-shaped leaves make poplar gums easy to identify. Pink bloodwood and white mahogany are also common in the open forests.

Grasstrees

Grasstrees Xanthorrhoea sp are tall shrubs with long, needle-like leaves that fall gracefully from the top of the plant. In the Whitsundays, grasstrees typically grow on sandy, infertile soils on ridges and ranges. Their large flowering spike attracts birds, butterflies and other insects.

Mangroves

Mangroves are common along the mainland coast of the Whitsundays and also along the shorelines of the islands, especially where freshwater streams discharge. About 13 mangrove species are found here. These resilient plants are salt-tolerant and have adapted to flourish in water-logged soils. They are a vital nursery for marine life, particularly fish and small crustaceans. Mangroves also provide a buffer between land and sea, filtering and trapping sediment that could otherwise harm coral reefs.

Native hibiscus

A native hibiscus Hibiscus tiliaceus (or cottonwood) is can be found along the landward edges of mangrove communities, on the whte sand beaches and near swamps, shorelines and tidal streams. Growing up to 10m tall, it has large, heart-shaped leaves that form a dense canopy, and branches that may extend to the ground. The flowers are large and yellow with a purple centre, and its bark is thick and grey. It is often mistaken for a mangrov.

Orchids

Despite their delicate appearance, golden cane orchids thrive in rocky areas of the Whitsundays, where they get the strong light and good drainage they require. Their chocolate-brown to yellow flowers make a spectacular show as they hang on their long spikes. The plant can be found clinging to rock faces (even on exposed headlands, where it happily tolerates wind and salt spray), or growing in higher tree branches.

Seagrasses

Whitsunday plant life extends under the water. Here seagrass beds support an abundant marine community. They are highly productive and are an important food source for dugong and green turtles. Like mangroves, seagrass beds are nurseries for prawns, and shelter fish species including juvenile barramundi, whiting, bream and flathead. Large seagrass beds can be found in Repulse Bay and around the northern bays of Whitsunday Island.

Animal life

While bird life is plentiful on the islands of the Whitsundays, other animal species are less diverse than on the nearby mainland. This is typical of most islands, because their isolation reduces the number of new species being introduced, and creates a smaller gene pool. However, animal life in the Whitsundays is more diverse than that of many islands further from the coast. This is because the flooding that isolated the Whitsundays—at the end of the last ice age—is relatively recent in evolutionary terms, so fewer species have been lost.

Animals found on the islands include birds, mammals, macropods, reptiles, spiders and insects. In and around the sea, fish, turtles, dugong, whales and many small intertidal species are found. Key species are described below.

Birds

Many birds live on the Whitsunday islands and thousands more visit to breed there. Different island habitats attract different types of birds.

Soaring above the shoreline and the sea are the handsome birds of prey: white-bellied sea eagles, brahminy kites and ospreys. They hunt fish, crabs and other small animals with their keen eyes. These coastal raptors, which nest on the islands, indulge in spectacular aerial courtship displays in breeding season.

On the water’s edge look for pied oyster-catchers probing for molluscs on the rocky shores. The rare sooty oyster-catchers may also be seen. Eastern reef egrets, striated (mangrove) herons and white-faced herons stalk small fish in the shallows. These resident waders are an important part of the islands’ ecology.

Thousands of other migratory waders also visit each year. The Whitsundays are an important stopover for species such as ruddy turnstones, whimbrels, lesser sand plovers and bar-tailed godwits, which feed and roost on the reef flat and island beaches. Birds are particularly plentiful from October to April, when thousands of waders and seabirds migrate here to nest. In order to protect the nesting seabirds boating restrictions and beach closures may apply—see Taking care of nesting birds for details. Always avoid disturbing waders, as fleeing an approaching human uses hard-earned energy that they may need for their return migration.

Just above the high-tide mark nests the beach stone-curlew, a resident island bird that rarely leaves the ground. At night, the curlews’ wailing calls are often heard as they patrol the beach in search of crabs. As a ground nester, beach stone-curlews are susceptible to predators and human disturbance, and are now classed as 'vulnerable' in Queensland. They are also easily disturbed, so all visitors are asked to keep their distance and watch out for nests.

Further inland orange-footed scrubfowl and brush turkeys search the leaf litter for insects and worms. Clumsy pheasant coucals may also be seen darting across walking tracks, though you are more likely to hear their 'woop woop' call than to see this black and brown, secretive bird. In the air, noisy groups of rainbow bee-eaters swoop and dive, catching insects on the wing. If you hear screeching overhead or chattering in the trees, sulphur-crested cockatoos or rainbow lorikeets are probably around. When summer approaches, visitors such as pied imperial-pigeons and buff-breasted paradise-kingfishers will also arrive.

Macropods (wallabies, kangaroos, etc.)

A number of macropods are found in the Whitsundays. The most notable is the endangered Proserpine rock-wallaby, found naturally on Gloucester Island and introduced as part of a species recovery program to Hayman Island. It is unusual to find these wallabies on the islands of the Whitsundays, though their major populations are found on the nearby mainland (in Dryander National Park, Conway National Park, the Clarke Range west of Proserpine, parts of the Conway Range and around Airlie Beach township).

One of the prettiest wallabies, this species has mostly light-brown or greyish fur (which turns yellow-brown on their outer limbs), a white stripe along their upper lip and face, and black hands and feet. The end of their tail is also black with a white tip. They live mainly near rocky outcrops and ledges in vine forest with a closed canopy. Mostly nocturnal, they may move into more open areas at night to feed on leaves and grasses. They are shy and hard to spot, but you may see their long, cylindrical droppings around their day-time shelter sites.

Proserpine rock-wallabies are probably a remnant species from an ancient time when much of Australia was covered in rainforest. Today, fragmentation of habitat due to clearing is the major threat to their survival. The department has a number of recovery strategies in place for the species.

Other macropod species are found elsewhere in the Whitsundays. Whitsunday Island supports a population of unadorned rock-wallabies, which are sometimes confused with Proserpine rock-wallabies because they have similar habitat preferences. However, as their name suggests, unadorned rock-wallabies are plainer in appearance.

Black flying-foxes

A number of flying-foxes (large fruit bats or macrobats) are found on the Whitsunday islands. Black flying-foxes are the largest and most common. Like other bats, they spend their days roosting in colonies, and their nights hunting for food. As the sun goes down, these bats leave their treetop camps and stream across the sky, creating an impressive and noisy spectacle. They prefer to eat flowers from native trees, but will also eat introduced blossoms and fruit. Flying-fox colonies can easily be seen on South Molle, Lindeman and Hamilton islands.

Other mammals

A common camper companion are fawn-footed melomys, or native rodents. They naturally scavenge among the leaf litter in search of insects and carrion to feed, but these searches can also include campers’ rubbish and tents! Be sure to keep your food and rubbish in secure containers and zip your tent closed.

Lace monitors

Lace monitors, also known as goannas, are the most commonly seen reptiles on the islands. They are usually dark in colour, with white, cream or yellow scales making contrasting markings. They are impressive animals, and can measure up to 2 m from head to tail. A lace monitor’s natural diet consists of insects, reptiles, small mammals, nestling birds, and carrion (rotting carcasses). However, following prolonged human contact, these normally reserved animals will readily approach visitors for food. Please do not feed them, as it may make them sick or aggressive. If disturbed, a lace monitor will usually climb a tree to escape.

Spiders

Both jewel and orb weaver spiders are common on many Whitsunday islands (e.g. along South Molle’s walking tracks). Jewel (or Christmas) spiders are small and spiny, with bright yellow or white patches on their otherwise black bodies. Females are about 7–10 mm across; males are similar in appearance but smaller. Orb weavers are often silvery grey or brown, but vary greatly in colour. They also contrast greatly in size, with the bodies of female orb weavers up to 40 mm long, while the tiny males measure only 6 mm! The orb weaver’s web is very strong and often has a yellowy colour (hence their name). You may see the web being shared by tiny dewdrop spiders (only 2–3 mm), which feed on insects that are too small for the orb weaver to bother with.

Ants

Green tree ants build leafy nests in the islands’ trees, as they do in many mainland areas of north Queensland. Each leaf of the nest is pulled into place by a chain of ants grasping each other around the waist. These ants will aggressively defend their home. If disturbed, they will use their strong jaws to bite, and then spray formic acid from their abdomens onto the bite site. While they do not have a sting, their bite can be annoying.

Turtles and whales

The islands and surrounding reefs provide valuable habitat for marine turtles. Six of the world’s seven species are found within the Whitsundays—green and hawksbill turtles are commonly seen, while flatback, loggerhead, pacific ridley (olive ridley) and leatherback turtles have also been recorded. Green, hawksbill and flatback turtles are all vulnerable to extinction, and the loggerhead is endangered.

Each year humpback whales migrate north from their feeding grounds in Antarctica to warmer waters near eastern Australia. They travel along the east coast to the north of the Great Barrier Reef where they give birth and mate, before returning home. You may see groups (pods) of whales heading north through the Whitsundays during June and July, or returning south between August and October.

Recognised as an important calving ground, most of the waters around the islands are part of the Whale Protection Area designed to minimise disturbance to whales. Inside the Whitsundays Whale Protection Area, vessels and people are not permitted within 300 m of a whale.

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

Culture and history

Indigenous people

The Whitsundays and the neighbouring coastal fringe are the traditional home of the Ngaro Aboriginal people, who are also known as the 'Canoe People'. Archaelogical research shows that the Ngaro inhabited the Whitsundays for at least the past 9,000 years. Evidence of Ngaro occupation includes stone axes and cutting tools found in a stone quarry on South Molle Island, numerous fish traps (stone structures made for catching fish) throughout the Whitsundays, and rock art discovered at Nara Inlet on Hook Island. At Nara Inlet, middens (large piles of discarded shells and bones) have enabled archaeologists to determine that people began using the cave there about 2,500 years ago. Hundreds of other sites—many much older—have been found across the islands.

The writings of early explorers describe some of the Ngaro people’s skills in using and living in the marine environment. In 1788, James Cook recorded a Ngaro expedition in an outrigger, while others describe sturdy three-piece bark canoes capable of journeys on the open sea. These canoes, much more common than outriggers, were constructed from three diamond shapes of bark, one for the bottom and two for the sides. A fibrous root was used to sew the three pieces together.

Ngaro men were skilled navigators. European seafarers reported seeing Aboriginal people paddling from Double Cone Island to South Molle Island, a distance of 21km.

Ngaro people were also adept at using island plants. Grasstrees provided food and tool materials, yielding starch, nectar, shoots and grubs, and the ingredients for glue, firesticks and spear handles. The Ngaro also used many other plant species, including the coastal she-oak (bark and twigs for medicinal purposes, hard wood for spears and woomera pegs), and the native hibiscus (some parts apparently eaten, while bark was soaked and separated, then woven into dilly bags, fishing lines, nets and ropes). Ngaro women collected vegetables, seeds and fruits, and prepared them for cooking and eating.

A great variety of tools, utensils and weapons were used for fishing, hunting, gathering plants and cooking. The most effective and simple tools were broken pieces of rock used for cutting, crushing grains and as axe heads. Other tools included animal teeth and twists of bark. Woven grass nets were used to gather shellfish and fish, while fishing hooks were made from wood, bone, turtle shell and shells. Detachable harpoons, with points made from wood and bone, were used to hunt dugong.

Fire was used for warmth and cooking, and to maintain grasslands and open up areas for hunting in forests.

Explorers in ships

In 1770, Captain James Cook travelled up the Queensland coast on a scientific expedition in his ship the HMB Endeavour, entering the Whitsundays on 1 June. Two days later he sailed around Cape Conway and saw a wide, deep stretch of water separating the mainland from a string of islands. As 3 June was the day on which Christians celebrated the Festival of Whitsun that year, Cook named the passage 'Whitsunday’s Passage'. He wrote of it at the time:

Indeed the whole passage is one continued safe harbour …

Cook named a number of other landmarks during this trip, including Repulse Bay, the Cumberland Islands, Cape Hillsborough, Cape Conway, and 'Cape' Gloucester (later re-named Gloucester Island). The Molle Islands, however, were not named for another 45 years. In 1815, Lieutenant Charles Jeffreys sailed his brig the Kangaroo through the Whitsunday passage on his way to Ceylon on a naval mission. While passing through, he named the Molle Islands after the Lieutenant-Governor of New South Wales, George Molle, and the highest point on Molle Island after himself: Mount Jeffreys.

White settlement, Aboriginal removal

European settlement began on the Whitsunday islands in the 1860s, mainly in the form of camps that harvested hoop pine timber to construct buildings in nearby Bowen. This industry operated strongly for the next 40 years, and finally petered out in the 1930s. Also in the 1860s, settlers attempted to establish grazing operations on some islands, but these proved unsustainable. Over the next 35 years, grazing leases were granted over various islands (e.g. Cid, Long, South Molle and Hamilton), but none thrived.

It was not until late in the 19th century that viable sheep-grazing businesses were established on some islands, many of which were to go on to be the more popular islands today. Tourism began in the late 1920s, with boats taking visitors on day trips to these settled islands. Gradually the tourist industry grew, with Lindeman Island one of the first to encourage visitors to stay overnight. Daydream, Long, Grassy and Hayman islands also became popular, and family-run tourist resorts prospered, though many were eventually taken over by larger companies.

In 1927, Henry Lamond purchased the six Molle islands, establishing a farm on South Molle. Lamond had a strong interest in natural history and wrote widely on that subject (and others) in the popular press. His articles did much to publicise the Whitsundays internationally, though that does not seem to have been his aim. During his years on South Molle, he successfully applied to the Queensland Government to gazette his leaseholdings as a bird and animal sanctuary, with him appointed as ranger. However, by 1937, he had sold all the islands and moved to a farm at Lindum, Brisbane. A plaque on Lamond Hill, South Molle, commemorates Henry and other members of his family. The Bauer family, who bought South Molle from the Lamonds, went on to establish the South Molle resort.

From the 1880s onwards, many Ngaro people were forcibly removed from their homeland and much of their culture disrupted. By the 1930s, few Aboriginal people remained on the islands, other than those employed by white settlers.

Protecting the Whitsundays

In the latter part of the 1930s, the Queensland Government proclaimed a number of Whitsunday islands as national parks. More were added in successive decades, so that now most islands are wholly or partly national parks. More than 96 percent of the 30,000 ha of wooded hills, rocky headlands and shingle beaches are managed to protect plants, animals and the environment.

Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service Rangers consult with descendants of the Ngaro people to protect areas that have Aboriginal cultural significance.

Last updated: 15 April 2019
  • Share: