Are you looking for a family holiday guaranteed to be turtle-y awesome? With no need for flights, incredible snorkelling, and hundreds of baby turtles, Heron Island is the perfect island escape for kids of all ages.
What is Heron Island?
Heron Island is a coral cay, a low island formed entirely from the reef on which it stands—the Great Barrier Reef—the world’s largest and most diverse coral reef system. It is not a continuous barrier but a broken maze of coral reefs spread along 2,300 kilometres of Queensland’s East Coast. It includes about 2,900 individual reefs, 300 coral cays, and 600 continental islands. You are near the southern end of this immense natural structure at Heron Island. Heron Island is the most frequented cay in the Capricornia Cays National Park. Around 30,000 people visit annually for recreation, education and research.
Heron Island is also home to the most prominent and longest-established coral reef research facility on the Great Barrier Reef. With 12 resident staff and a capacity of 80 visitors, research groups are regularly working on the island and the surrounding reef.
Getting to Heron Island
Boat transfers to Heron Island depart from Gladstone Marina, a five-hour drive from the Sunshine Coast. As the ferry leaves at 9.30 am, we broke that drive up with a night at Agnes Waters, which provided the perfect stop-off.
When you arrive at the Marina, check in your luggage at the desk, and they will deliver them straight to your room. Keep a day bag with everything you need for the crossing and the first few hours on the island—swimmers, sunscreen, toys, drinks—as you won’t get your bags until about 3 pm.
The two-hour crossing to Heron Island is smooth aboard the Heron Islander catamaran. They show a kid’s movie or a nature documentary on the screens during the trip, so there is something to keep little ones occupied.
What to pack
We had only two clothing needs: swimmers and several shorts/t-shirt combos. We were either in the water, walking on the beach, playing games in the bar or eating in the restaurant. We didn’t need runners; we were either barefoot or in thongs. However, if your little one has sensitive feet, it could be worth packing an old pair of sandals or runners to use as reef shoes. During the turtle season, you can spend a lot of time walking the beach looking for hatchlings, and, as it is crushed coral, the sand can be pretty coarse.
Snorkel, mask and flippers are included in your stay, which you pick up when you arrive. They also have flotation vests and noodles for kids and unconfident swimmers. And they provide beach towels, so there’s no need to pack them either!
Food and drink on Heron Island
You can’t take food onto the island, but don’t worry—the whole family will be well-fed!
Your stay includes a daily buffet breakfast, which is an impressive spread. There you can feast on hot items such as bacon, eggs and sausages, as well as pancakes, cereal, bread, pastries and fruit.
Sandwiches are available in the bar for lunch, or the restaurant offers a sit-down lunch menu. And then the restaurant is open for dinner.
Dinner is also buffet style, with a wide range of dishes, salads and sides. Even our fussy eaters could always find something to fill up on! There is also a small shop with snacks and souvenirs.
Turtles, turtles, everywhere!
One of the main reasons visitors travel to Heron Island is to experience the turtle nesting season.
Female turtles clamber into the dunes from November to March to lay their eggs. Two months later, sometime between dusk and dawn, that nest will erupt with 100-150 baby turtles. Take the guided turtle walk with a naturalist, as they know which nests will likely hatch. But walk along the beach at dusk, and you will probably see some. Watch where you step!
Tip: While this is an awe-inspiring sight, it’s important to note that it can also be a bit confronting for little ones as sharks and seagulls prey on the baby turtles as they run for the water’s edge.
Snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef
The snorkelling on Heron Island is some of the best you can experience across the whole of the Great Barrier Reef. But the primary reason it is so incredible for kids is that it is straight off the island—it’s shallow, and it’s reeeeeeally easy to access. There’s no need to get on a boat out into the open ocean; you can walk straight out of your room onto the beach and into the reef. Even brand-new snorkellers will be happily exploring in a matter of minutes.
For the more confident swimmers, there is a shipwreck to explore. The wreck is the best place to see larger marine species, such as rays, sharks, and turtles. However, we saw turtles in the shallow reef just outside the resort. And for those wanting to explore the deeper waters, a snorkel boat can take you to the reef’s edge.
Don’t forget the birds!
As well as being a turtle haven, Heron Island is a registered bird sanctuary. And there are birds everywhere! The island belongs to the birds first, so they sit on the paths, nest wherever they choose, and come into your room. They are tame and beautiful, and it’s a genuine honour to live amongst them for a few days. Each season sees different birds on the island; visit the website for what species are migrating through during your stay.
Tip: wear a hat, and don’t look up with your mouth open under the trees!
Things to do on Heron Island
As well as the incredible snorkelling, there are plenty of things to do on Heron Island with kids. Eco activities include guided bird walks, island walks and reef walks. There are also several animal talks throughout the week. A Junior Rangers club operates during the school holidays, which whisks kids away on an eco-adventure for an hour and a half.
Another must-do is the fascinating behind-the-scenes tour of the research station. We unquestionably come home with budding marine biologists following that tour!
The I-Spy boat is another wonderful experience for families. This semi-submersible boat takes you to the edge of the reef, where you can see the reef and all the sea creatures below the water—an aspect that most kids (and less confident grown-ups) would never see.
There is no mobile coverage or wi-fi on Heron Island, so pack a book and travel games. They have giant chess, two pool tables in the bar area, and several board games. There is also a lovely swimming pool to enjoy.