These Southern Great Barrier Reef Experiences Let You Swim With Baby Turtles & Cuddle Some Cows

Contributor: David Allegretti

Ahhh the Southern Great Barrier Reef. Doesn’t it just make you wanna dive right in and prance and frolic and lose yourself completely in its undeniable natural splendour? Doesn’t it just make you wanna stare at its boundless beauty for hours on end until you’ve dissolved into a hypnotic trance so powerful you’ve managed to grasp the very meaning of existence and now everything but the reef seems cold and futile? Hey, you and me both kid. They don’t call it Great for no reason.

But I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. Come closer. A little closer. Too close, back up a little freak. It’s called personal space, yeah? Anyway, the reef. It’s great, sure, but often when we think of the reef, we picture Cairns or the Whitsundays — and while these are absolutely gorgeous destinations, the Southern Great Barrier Reef region, a mere four-hour drive north of Brissy, is just as iconic. Proving you don’t have to venture out of Southeast Queensland to experience the reef in all its splendour.

To help you out, I’ve compiled a little list of some absolutely life-altering experiences you can have while you’re in town visiting the reef, with most of these locations allowing you to get from your room to the reef in just 60 seconds. You’re extremely welcome.

Lady Musgrave Island & Lady Elliot Island

Just a stone’s throw (if you’re an Olympic shot-putter) from the Bundaberg coastline, and easily accessible from Bundaberg and the town of 1770, you’ll find the lovely Lady Musgrave Island — one of the southernmost coral cays on the Southern Great Barrier Reef. What’s a coral cay you ask? It’s basically an island formed from reef sediment, and as far as cays go, Lady Musgrave is one of the biggest and prettiest, with more than 3,000 acres of living reef teeming with sea life to be explored. And the best part? You can sleep right on the reef on the new Pontoon, opening in July.

Just a few kilometres down the road — or sea, whatever — you’ll find Lady Elliot Island. Also easily accessible via a quick 30-minute flight from Bundaberg, this is your perfect spot to disconnect from the day-to-day grind and instead connect with one of the 700 individual manta rays living, feeding, and just generally vibing in the surrounding waters. See if you can name them all!

Splitters Farm Glamping Tents

Glamping gets a bad rap from supposed ‘real’ campers. But screw that, what’s so bad about a little creature comfort while immersing yourself in the great outdoors? It’s called duality sweetie. And as far as glamping spots go, Splitters Farm is up there in god-tier.

See, the fine folk running Splitters have created a sanctuary for rescued farm animals that have been abused or mistreated in their past. Can you imagine spending the day just straight up chilling with cows, horses, alpacas and baby goats all living their best life — free of pain and neglect? And then, after a long day of rolling around lush meadows with happy animals, you retreat into your nice luxurious tent? Just imagine the vibes. Brb booking flights to Bundaberg.

Capricorn caves

Just 30 mins north of Rockhampton you’ll find Queensland’s first-ever tourist attraction — the Capricorn Caves. These bad boys have won multiple awards for advanced eco-tourism experiences, and honestly, if you’re looking to be mesmerised by the sheer raw power of mother nature, you’ve come to the right caves.

These limestone caves were once an ancient reef, but have since become a living laboratory as daily discoveries on both current and ancient ecosystems make these caves one of the region’s must-see attractions.

Byfield State Forest

Immerse yourself in the utter serenity that is Byfield State Forest‘s freshwater creeks, and definitely bring a camera or waterproof phone because you’ll want something to capture just how bloody stunning some of these natural waterways are.

Bring a towel too, because once you’re done splashing around you’re gonna wanna explore the surrounding forest and campgrounds. And for the real adrenaline chasers, make sure you pack your favourite four-wheel drive, as nearby Byfield National Park is home to some of the best 4WD tracks in QLD. I’m talking proper sand dunes and rugged headland, my friend.

If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can even try your hand at tackling “The Big Sandy,” an adrenaline-pumping 1km uphill run that leaves little room for error. You’ve been warned.

Wilson Island aka Cast Away Island

Yes, that’s right, you can live your Tom Hanks Cast Away fantasy on your very own island. If you’re into seclusion and relaxation then hoo boy is this the place for you — Wilson Island (love that name) is a mere 5.24 acres, and it’s completely adults-only. Ahh, can you hear that? That’s right, sweet silence. Bliss.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get more relaxing, boom, you find out only 18 guests are allowed on the island at any one time, and you can spend the night glamping in Reef Safari Tents. And that’s not all, you can also book your own private, designer inspired tent if you’re so inclined, or you can reserve the entire island, exclusively to yourself. Honestly, stunning.

But don’t think you’ll actually be left fending for yourself to the point of volleyball-befriending delirium. When you stay on Wilson Island, you stay in all-inclusive style — expect to be greeted on arrival by your host and chef. And don’t worry about a thing as all meals, drinks and snacks are included for the entirety of your stay — that’s breakfast, lunch, dinner and everything else in between.

Watch baby turtle hatchlings(!!!) at Heron Island

My dear friends, I’ve saved the best for last. You can have the honour of watching lil baby turtle hatchlings erupt from their nest and wiggle and waddle their way to the water’s edge at Heron Island. Ugh, can you overdose on cuteness?

The island is surrounded by 24 square kilometres of reef, and because of this, over 5,000 Green and Loggerhead turtles have decided to call this island home — with that number regularly boosted by a swarm of visiting turtles during breeding season.

Look, the island is absolutely stunning year-round, but if you wanna see the lil baby turtles, you’re gonna want to time your trip right. Take note: nesting season occurs from November to March every year, with hatchlings beginning to emerge in early January, so keep that in mind when booking your next turtle-y-awesome (I’m sorry) stay on this lovely lil island.

But don’t fret if you can’t make it to Heron, or you arrive off-season. While Heron is known for its turtles, that’s not to say you can’t see baby turtles elsewhere in the area — in fact the Southern Great Barier Reef is full of the little critters, and there are guided and unguided baby turtle experiences throughout the SGBR. Cute!