The Whitsunday islands are inner reef islands near the town of Airlie Beach south of Bowen. It has for many decades been the destination of choice for holidaying Australian couples, but has been having its ups and down in response to competition from cheap overseas resorts. While some budget resorts have closed, there are still plenty of niche resorts left to offer access to the islands. The activities seem to vary from the child-friendly family fun activities of Daydream Island, to those selling the idyll of coconut palms on an exclusive white beach (Hamilton Island, Hayman Island, and Palm Bay Resort on Long Island). The energetic will enjoy the opportunities to dive, sail, kayak and snorkel. Every scenic flight or boat cruise seems to have to go to the postcard attractions of Whitehaven Beach, Hill Inlet and Heart Reef, but there is lots more on offer than that. Sailing tours of the islands are also popular and are another great way to see the more remote areas of the 74 island group and their secluded beach campsites and picturesque bays.
Despite all the offerings of cocktails and sunburned bodies by the pool, most of the islands are still largely untouched wilderness areas preserved in a national park. There is plenty of wildlife including sea eagles, kites, ospreys, turtles, reef fish, dolphins, manta rays and humpback whales (between June- September).
Access is by private or commercial boat from Airlie Beach or Shute Harbour. Some commercial transfer companies drop off and collect campers to more remote locations. Campers must be self-sufficient and visitor numbers are limited. You will need to book your site early with Queensland National Parks Service. Camps are at Cid Harbour: Dugong, Nari’s Beach and Joe’s Beach. Small camping areas on Hook Island including Maureen’s Cove, Crayfish, Steens and Curlew beaches all offer great snorkelling from shore.
The Whitsunday area has a large tidal range of up to four metres. The average range is about two to three metres.
Access and many activities depend on tide times and heights. Water visibility for snorkelling and diving also depends on the weather. Ideal conditions occur during periods of small tides and calm seas.
Every resort seems to offer some diving, but a budget alternative is to base yourself on the mainland. Although there has been a contraction in the number of dive businesses across Australia, there are still some left in Airlie Beach.
Most of the diving occurs close to the resorts, or for the more determined in the Northern Section of the Whitsundays around Hayman and Hook Islands. There sites are the most sheltered in the south easterly winds that prevail for most of the year.
When the winds swing to the North you are likely to get the opportunity to dive the eastern side of the Whitsunday Islands at Mackeral Bay, or Pitstop on Border Island.
Just off Airlie Beach the Aquarium dive site is easy and sits in a sheltered lagoon. The lagoon provides a sandy bottom with some small marine life.
The dive site is a wall dive with giant trevally, barramundi and mackerel.
Wally’s Wall is a wall dive with large Humpheaded Maori. There are also large coral gardens with staghorn and blue coral. Manta rays, eagle rays, turtles and deep sea sharks can be seen at times.
Wuggle Fish Wall
A current-affected wall drop off usually done as a drift dive. It also offers a shallow coral garden, with an abundance of marine life. Turtles and sharks are sighted frequently as well as a variety of pelagic fish.
Hook Island offers excellent snorkelling and diving sites which are accessible from other resorts and mainland dive shops. It is the second largest island in the group, 58 square kilometres in size. Many of the local tours will bring you to Hook Island to experience snorkelling on the northern side and Macona and Nara inlets on the southern side. At Nara inlet there are fresh-water rock pools and a waterfall after rains, ancient Ngaro rock paintings. There is a campsite just inside Macona at Curlew Beach.
The island is almost uninhabited and quite rugged. The only habitation on Hook Island is the Hook Island Wilderness Resort which has had a variable track record and is currently closed. It was serviced in former days by large catamaran you may still find some irregular services.
Maureen’s Cove Hook Island
Location: 20°04.1′, 148°56.2′
This site is popular for snorkeling with local tours on some reasonably good shallow reef. It is better at the back of the cove off the western side of the beach, where there are bommies rising to near the surface from 12-15 metres of water. Gullies and shallow caves make for an interesting dive. Good medium-sized fish life. It has some nice caves and ledges with angelfish, butterfly cod, coral trout and sweetlips. It is well protected, except in strong northerly weather.
Along the eastern side of Maureen’s Cove is another dive site known as the “Boulders”. Plate corals and other acropora coral dominate the shallows. The ledge then drops off a small wall into depths of 10-12 metres high. Better formations including large gorgonian fans are found near the point, but this area is currents affected and not suitable for beginners.
Luncheon Bay Hook Island
Location: 20°03.8′, 148°57.3′
This site is popular for snorkeling with local tours and overnight charter boats. It is also a very popular dive spot and can be crowded in peak season. There is often reasonably good visibility and plenty of fish life to be seen amongst good sized coral formations. The area can be subject to strong currents in more open areas of the bay.
Location: 20°03.7′, 148°57.4′
Protected Mantaray Bay is one of the most popular snorkelling and diving locations in the Whitsundays with charter boats. The bay is located at the northern most tip of Hook Island in a ‘No Fishing zone’. Anchoring is prohibited and during the day a two hour limit applies to the moorings. Only 2 boats are allowed in the dive site at a time and the Parks Service has an on-shore camera to monitor it. The boats often encourage fish with hand feeding, so fish often swarm around an arriving boat including batfish, small damselfishes and Maori wrasse. The larger bommies are found in 10-12 metres but almost reach to the surface. Plate corals dominate the top of the bommies and fields of staghorns in the shallow water near the beach. A small coral canyon in 10 metres can be found about 50 metres off the western end of the beach. Manta rays are common in the winter months, May to September. Visibility is often good.
3 to 21 metres
This site is often touted as the best Whitsunday snorkel & dive site. It is noted for good hard coral growth on pinnacles, especially off the western beach, adjacent to the “Woodpile” site in 7-15 metres. There are plenty of fish, Maori wrasse, parrot fish and Manta Rays (between May and October). Staghorn and plate corals are common but there are also huge and slow-growing porite brain corals. Located on the North Eastern corner of Hook Island, Pinnacle Bay is exposed during strong South East winds and Northerlies over five knots. Like most sites on northern Hook Island the visibility ranges from 3-15 metres.
The Wood Pile
The Wood Pile is located at the opposite end of Pinnacle Bay to The Pinnacles dive site. It is more protected from the wind than the Pinnacles and deeper along a noticeable rock wall dropping on to sand. Halfway between the beach and the point there are soft corals in 5-7 metres. In deeper areas the coral is poor but there are interesting crevices and overhangs. Away from the wall there are some coral bommies, including some large porite corals. Some black coral trees can be found between 10 and 15 metres depth. The fish life is similar to that of The Pinnacles but with Black and White Tip Reef Sharks added in. Swell from strong south-easterlies can make anchoring on the site uncomfortable. The visibility ranges from 4-15 metres.
Location: 20°07.2′, 148°56.6′
Located on the eastern side of Hook Island this area is dived only during northerlies. The northern end of the bay is studded with small bommies in shallow water, dropping down to scattered bommies at 7 – 12 metres among coral rubble and sand. The fish are small- to medium-sized. Visibility is adversely affected by the tide, so it is best dived during neap tides. It ranges from 2-12 metres.
This is another popular dive site during northerly winds which can be better at some times than others depending upon visibility. It is a relatively shallow dive through coral bommies which form shallow canyons and ledges. There are some very interesting swim-throughs in 12 metres. The fish life is medium in size and quite good and turtles and rays are relatively common. The visibility is slightly cloudier and ranges from 2-10 metres.
It’s a nice site with spectacular above-water scenery, the backdrop being the higher cliffs of Hook Island. It is a popular overnight rest point in an area well sheltered from the prevailing southerly winds and strong offshore tides. It is recommended to be dived in the middle of the day for the best light penetration due to the shadow from the cliffs. This is part of the marine park and there are good corals and fish life. Visibility ranges from 2-10 metres.
Alcyonaria Point Hook Island
Excellent coral and fish life, particularly along the shallow ledge that runs along the point to Flat Rock. Plate corals dominate the shallow water. Ledge drops vertically with wall penetrated by numerous gullies and small caves. Many colourful soft corals at 10 metres, hence the site name. Large wrasse, cod and sweetlip found at depth. Current can be a problem, particularly at midtide. Anchorage is difficult due to drop-off. Exposed to northerlies and strong south-easterlies.
This is a usually easy, shallow dive off Hook Island, very near the old Underwater Observatory which is now closed. It has reasonably good coral cover on a gently descending slope with silty sand patches. Coral cover dominated by large plate corals. Plenty of small friendly reef fish looking for a handout. Occasionally, large pelagic fishes will cruise through. Excellent protection in all wind conditions with visibility of 4-15 metres. Current can be a problem during spring tides.
This site attracts hordes of tourists because of its iconic white beach, which is in the very nice. There is a natural tendency to have a go at the snorkelling, which does offer interesting shallow sites with lots of small marine life including damselfish, christmas-tree worms and nudibranchs. Dive parties also visit the area as a short hop from the resorts. The corals are small but diverse, good for macro photographers or beginners. The visibility is variable and is best during the neap tides.
Located on the northern tip of Hayman Island, Dolphin Point offers a great diversity of marine life and some spectacular undulating terrain. Scattered bommies and fallen blocks litter the bottom at about. Trevally, mackerel and clown fish are present and you may also come across the occasional hammerhead shark.
Blue Pearl Bay
Blue Pearl Bay on the northern side of the island is very popular site for charter boat diving & snorkelling. A diverse range of larger tropical fish life is present including Priscilla, a giant Hump Headed Maori Wrasse. A vertical wall at offers some good coral cover, tunnels and overhanging ledges. Visibility of 15 metres isn’t uncommon.
A shallow site that is relatively rarely visited as its needs a calm day and a slack tide. There is very good coral cover in 6-8 metres. Small bommies are found on sand and-coral rubble in 8 to 15 metres. There is plenty of small, friendly fish. Visibility is usually 5-15 metres.
Bird Island & Langford Reef
Bird Island & Langford Reef is located between Hayman and Hook Islands and is a popular anchorage. The small island of Langford is surrounded by reef with a tidal sandbar that is popular with tourists. Just off the north-western end of the beach there are small coral bommies on coral rubble and sand. Cod, coral trout, and parrot fish and smaller schooling fish can also be seen. Visibility is usually in the 2-10 metre range. There is nearly always a current flowing past the reef, which makes for some great drift diving but care is needed. Some shallow walls are aslo found at the eastern end of the island.
Cataran Bay- Border Island
Cataran Bay is a North facing bay on Border Island. Border Island is frequently used as a stopover on the trip to Whitehaven Beach. It is a fully protected Green Zone with a good variety of very friendly fish life. It is a great snorkelling location as almost everything is in the shallows. There is a good cover of coral which becomes very shallow at low tide, making the shore only accessible during high tide. Along the edges of the bay and the outer corners of the bay are walls with deeper canyons, caves and overhangs.
Chalkies Beach, Haslewood Island
Many of the small and idyllic bays offer a nice simple snorkel of dive on shallow corals. Opposite Whitehaven Beach, Chalkies Beach is just as white, but is often overlooked. Visibility is often good for this area (5-15M).
Bauer Bay, South Molle
Bauer Bay is used for the mooring of boats for the adjacent resort. The bay contains extensive fringing reef, mudflats, sandbars and seagrass beds, particularly in the eastern half of the Bay. The resort maintains a jetty and uses the waters of the bay for diving and snorkeling. The waters adjacent to Bauer Bay are Conservation Park and will contain many small items of interest to the resort guest of beginner snorkeller/diver.
Hannah Point, North Molle Island
This are is sometimes used for night diving. The visibility is often variable and not as good as Hook or Hayman Islands. There are some good corals and fish life. Off the end of the point there is a noticeable current.
Bait Reef is located on the Great Barrier Reef proper and is one of the closer reefs to the northern end of Hook Island. This is pristine offshore reef with the huge array of coral and fish that the GBR offers including schools of bait fish and squid, green turtles, loggerhead turtles, nudibranchs, sea hares, pineapple fish, cuttlefish, anglerfish, catfish, eels, wobbegongs, rays and lionfish. The reef is large enough to host a number of dive sites.
Manta Ray Drop Off, Bait Reef
Manta Ray Drop Off is a spectacular underwater plunging wall. The wall is covered with gorgonians, soft coral trees, feather stars, sponges and sea whips. It is best known for the Manta Rays found cruising the wall in winter (May to September), reef sharks and schools of pelagic fish including fusiliers, trevally, mackerel and barracuda are also seen at any time of year. The site is exposed to the prevailing southerly winds and is prone to strong currents. Best dived during slack water on neap tides on calm days.
The Stepping Stones, Bait Reef
This area of the reef holds a set of 18 or more flat-topped coral- covered pinnacles in a row along the south-west side of the reef. They are 15 metres to 50 metres in diameter and create many interesting channels and caves. The sand behind the Pinnacles is covered in staghorn coral. Schools of batfish, Maori wrasse, moray eels, wrasse, sweetlip, cod, trevally and coral trout can be seen. Manta rays can be seen from May to September. There are several dive sites within the Stepping Stones complex.
Gary’s Lagoon, Bait Reef
Gary’s Lagoon is shallow and well protected, making it an easy site for snorkelers and beginner divers. The coral cover is excellent and the lagoon is home to all sorts of tropical marine life. Expect to see soft corals, turtles, wobbegongs, cod, mackerel, barracuda and other reef fish. The visibility ranges from 10-20M. There is some more adventurous and current affected diving along the nearby walls of Bait Reef.
Southern Face, Bait Reef
This site drops away quickly from coral-filled shallows in 5 metres down to deep gullies with fish and colourful invertebrates. Angelfish, sweetlip, cod, soldier fish, turtles, manta rays, mackerel and barracuda are encountered. It needs calm weather at slack water as it is exposed to southerly winds and current.
15 m -35m
This much more distant reef is occasionally visited by private boats and regularly from Airlie Beach by a day ferry that operates a pontoon. Larger groups and cruise ship visitors are taken to Knuckle Reef Lagoon. The pontoon is a bit commercialised and it’s a long trip for a 4 hour stay. The reef flat is currently quite barren due to bleaching caused by warming waters and also cyclone damage, although this will slowly recover. The deeper diving is reasonable with lots of big fish being attracted by the pontoon. There are interesting coral and marine life. Typical visibility is 10 – 30 m.
Hardy Reef Lagoon
This large coral lagoon is about 60km from Airlie Beach. It is popular with scenic flights as it is home to the iconic “Heart Reef” – a heart-shaped area of coral. Ironically this reef is a protected area that is off-limits. Hardy Reef has plenty of other attractions and is rich with marine life. The shallower lagoon waters are often protected from the swell and offer an easy spot for beginners. The walls at the edge of the reef offer deeper spots for the more adventurous. It takes 2.5 to 3 hours to get to Hardy Reef from Airlie Beach depending on the weather and sea conditions. Leaving from Hamilton Island cuts the journey in half.
The Canyons, Hardy Reef
This dive offers tunnels, canyons and shallow caves full of fish, gorgonia sea fans, crays and school fish. The site is well- protected except from northerly winds. Outside of the canyons, including on the reef top, the current can be quite strong.
Shark Alley, Hardy Reef
The steep wall is a good spot for sharks, mainly white tip and black tip reef sharks. There is also the chance of seeing bronze whalers, hammerhead and even tiger sharks. The visibility can be reduced for this area (6-15 metres depending on the tides). The site is relatively sheltered.
Hardy Reef South
It needs a calm day to dive the southern face of Hardy Reef, but it offer spectacular diving. In good weather, this area offers shallow water covered in coral. The deeper steep slope drops to 30 metres very quickly and is covered in a variety of corals. The numerous deep gullies are often full of fish life. The walls are affected by current.
Fantasea Reef World Pontoon, Hardy Reef
A regular ferry runs tourists out to the moored pontoon moored in a protected channel between the reefs where there are deck chairs, massages, a restaurant and fish observatory. Snorkelling trails are set up around the pontoon. There is also a dive station running mostly courses and its often teeming with bright and eager rugrats. It is bit commercialised but you can stay overnight and enjoy the quiet when the daytrippers leave, but its Spartan and very pricey. For 15 years the pontoon has been feeding the fish who are big and friendly. Getting away from the pontoon a little, the nearby reef walls offer good coral down to 10 metres with a few canyons and ledges. It is easy and relaxing. The fish life is great with huge groper, Maori wrasse, trevally, trout and cod. A steady current means the dive is a drift dive. It is possible to descend to 60 metres in the channel.
Henry’s Bommie, Fairey Reef
This is a safer dive inside the reef lagoon on a sandy bottom carpeted with small coral outcrops. Henry’s Bommie is a prominent coral outcrop containing a cave. Inside there is a giant clam and usually a resident turtle. Clouds of small tropical fish can also be seen.
There is minimal current and visibility of 10-20 metres.
Little Fairey Inlet, Fairey Reef
This shallow of inlet offers small coral outcrops and great fish life. A small current exists outside the inlet but it is an easy and relaxing dive inside.
The Shoals, Fairey Reef
A very easy diving site with negligible current in the shallows. The dive is along a low wall cut by canyons and crevices opening into small lagoons. There are giant clams, sea cucumbers, spotted rays, Maori wrasse, reef shark and small tropical fish. The average depth is only 8 metres.
Tina’s Arm, Fairey Reef
This colourful site is one of the best on this reef. It runs along a coral wall studded with bommies. There is very good coral cover including large porites brain coral. There is plenty of fish life and invertebrates including gorgonian fans reef sharks, barracuda and turtles. Currents are noticeable and the dive is more relaxing at slack water.
This wall dive is current-exposed and best planned as a drift dive. The coral wall with small gullies and deep ledges. Wall slopes down to 10-15 metres then more steeply to coral rubble and sand. Small soft corals, fans and other invertebrates are common under the ledges. Fish life is good but less than other sites in the area. The visibility ranges from 8-18 metres.
This small reef is located between Line and Hardy Reefs and is current affected. The shallow top of reef is covered with staghorn coral showing some anchor damage. The dive is similar to Line Reef with steep walls and caves patrolled by a good range of reef fish.