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About Capricornia Cays

Getting there and getting around

Beautiful coral beaches greet your arrival to the Capricornia Cays. Photo courtesy of J Augusteyn

Beautiful coral beaches greet your arrival to the Capricornia Cays. Photo courtesy of J Augusteyn

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, Wilson, Erskine and Tryon islands, and part of Heron Island. Camping is permitted on North West, Mast Head and Lady Musgrave islands only. Access to Tryon Island is currently not permitted to assist the vegetation to rehabilitate.

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, except North West Island, which rises to six metres at its eastern end. You can walk around North West and Mast Head islands in a few hours, and Lady Musgrave in about 45 minutes, but seasonal closures to protect breeding seabirds or high tides can restrict circuit walks.

The islands are accessible only by boat. Gladstone, Bundaberg and the Town of 1770 are the closest departure points and it is possible to access the islands by private and charter vessels. Tides, group size, equipment and cost are factors determining the type of vessel required.

North West and Mast Head islands have restricted tidal access. Generally, barges drop campers and their gear on these beaches at high tide. Mast Head Island, although seemingly remote, has high speed catamarans and helicopter flights operating close by, ferrying resort guests between Gladstone and Heron Island.

See tourism information links for more information on charter vessels servicing the islands.

Wheelchair accessibility

There are no wheelchair-accessible facilities on Capricornia Cays National Park.

Park features

The Capricornia Cays support large pisonia forests. Photo courtesy of J Augusteyn

The Capricornia Cays support large pisonia forests. Photo courtesy of J Augusteyn

Capricornia Cays National Park's eight islands 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. This national park offers a variety of recreation opportunities ranging from commercial resort relaxation to nature-based camping and day visit enjoyment. 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.

Camping and accommodation

Camping

Camping is permitted on three islands in the Capricornia Cays National Park. You will need to purchase a camping permit in advance. Bookings can be made up to 11 months in advance and fees apply. School holiday periods are often fully booked soon after bookings open.

Before you leave

An information pack must be collected prior to camping on the islands. Camping tags are provided in the pack and must be displayed on your tents showing your booking number. The pack can be obtained through the various charter vessels servicing the islands.

You must be self-sufficient during your stay, so keep this in mind as you prepare for your visit. See essentials to bring for further information and remember to observe minimum impact guidelines while on the islands.

Other accommodation

Heron Island provides resort accommodation and there is a wide range of accommodation available in Gladstone, Bundaberg and the Town of 1770, from which tours and charter boats depart. See tourism information links for more information. Ask the charter operators how they can assist with your camping.

Things to do

Noddies are a common sight on the cays. Photo courtesy of J Augusteyn

Noddies are a common sight on the cays. Photo courtesy of J Augusteyn

Walking

Short walking tracks on North West and Lady Musgrave islands cross the islands and walkers can return along the beaches. Take drinking water and wear a hat and sunscreen. Wear shoes when walking on the coral rubble beaches and tracks.

Reef walking

You can walk with care on the reefs surrounding all the Capricornia Cays. Please observe the following guidelines to minimise damage to corals and other animals.

  • 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. Murky water stresses reef plants and animals.
  • Return overturned coral boulders to their original position. Many animals and plants shelter on the undersides of boulders and will soon die if exposed.
  • Never collect animals for souvenirs. Other visitors are not able to enjoy anything you take away. Collecting of any kind is not permitted in the Marine Park green zones adjoining the cays. Collecting of any coral or clams, living or dead, is not permitted in any zone.

Snorkelling and diving

Lady Musgrave Island's lagoon is ideal for beginner snorkellers and divers as the surrounding ring of reef provides a barrier against outside currents. Patch reefs and bommies adorned with corals rise vertically from the lagoon's sandy floor, providing shelter for fascinating reef creatures. You will discover more delicate and luxuriant coral forms in this well-protected area. Snorkelling is rewarding for those prepared to swim toward the reef edge.

Scuba divers have greater opportunities to explore bommies, crevices and caves along reef perimeters and slopes. Divers and snorkellers should wear diving boots to protect their feet, as they might have to walk across coral rubble to the water. A boat is the only safe way to reach distant snorkelling and diving sites.

Beware of strong currents and changing tidal conditions. Although Lady Musgrave Island's lagoon provides protected water for snorkelling you must stay clear of access channels to the island, and be wary of boats. Never dive or snorkel alone.

Guided tours and talks

A commercial operator offers guided tours to Lady Musgrave Island. The resort on Heron Island also offers guided tours for guests. See tourism information links for further information.

Picnic and day-use areas

Enjoy a picnic on North West and Lady Musgrave islands at any time of the year. Mast Head and Erskine islands have seasonal closures. You can visit from the start of the Queensland Easter school holidays until 15 October. Remember to pack a picnic blanket, as there are no picnic tables on these islands.

Boating and fishing

Boating and fishing among the Capricornia Cays and adjoining reefs are popular activities, however please follow the guidelines below.

When boating

  • Take care when handling boats and anchors to minimise your impact on coral and other marine animals.
  • Anchor in sand whenever possible to avoid damaging coral.
  • Use a reef pick if anchoring in coral is unavoidable.
  • Motor towards the anchor to prevent dragging when hauling anchor in.
  • Maintain a speed of six knots or less over reef flats or shallow waters to avoid turtle strikes, coral damage and for the safety of people in the water.
  • Place no temporary moorings. It is illegal to place temporary moorings such as star pickets on reef flats or over reef edges.

When fishing

  • Catch only as much fish as you need for your next meal. Remember, fish are an important part of the reef ecosystem.
  • Never collect animals for bait. Collecting of any kind is not permitted in the Marine Park green zones adjoining the cays. Limited collecting is permitted only in yellow and blue Marine Park zones.
  • Observe Marine Park zoning regulations. Zoning allows for wise use and protection of this great natural asset. See the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority website and Great Barrier Coast Marine Park web page or contact us for detailed zoning information.
  • Do not feed scraps to birds such as silver gulls. Fish cleaning scraps must be dumped more than 500m seaward of the reef edge. Alternate dumping of fish scraps to various spots to stop sharks developing scavenging behaviour at one location.
  • Observe bag limits and minimum and maximum size limits which apply for popular fish species. See the Fisheries Queensland web pages for more information.
  • Disarm any speargun brought onto the national park islands.

Viewing wildlife

Turtle watching

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.

In spring and summer, turtle mating and breeding activity means turtles are on the reef flat at high tide and are generally slow to react. Please slow down when operating vessels on the reef flat and take care not to come in contact with turtles.

Take care of sea turtles

Bright lights and noises can disturb nesting turtles and hatchlings. If disturbed, female turtles are likely to return to sea without laying their eggs. Please follow these simple guidelines to avoid disturbing them.

  • Ensure camp and boat lights are not visible from nesting areas. Cook early, shield camp lights and use small torches to find your way around.
  • If turtle watching, use small torches only (3 volts or less) and avoid using them whenever you can.
  • Never shine lights on turtles leaving the water, moving up the beach or digging nesting chambers.
  • Approach and observe the turtle from its rear with dim torchlight but only after egg-laying begins—usually 10 minutes after the turtle stops moving sand.
  • Be as invisible as you can—remain quiet and calm.

Birdwatching

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.

Seventy per cent of the total breeding population of wedge-tailed shearwaters on the east coast of Australia nest on North West Island. Hundreds of thousands of these birds and black noddies arrive in October. 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, and some campers find it disturbing. Noddies nest throughout the islands' pisonia trees, including those in campgrounds. Camping in summer provides constant close encounters with shearwaters and noddies. This can be a wonderful experience for many campers.

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. Always try to avoid them. During nesting season walk at the water's edge unless signs tell you otherwise.

Sea-eagles, boobies, egrets, oystercatchers, silver gulls and migrant waders including ruddy turnstones, whimbrels, Mongolian plovers and bar-tailed godwits are among many species feeding and roosting on the reef flat and island beaches.

A variety of land-dwelling birds are permanent island residents. Silvereyes and buff-banded rails are familiar with our presence.

Take care of nesting seabirds

  • Avoid areas marked off by temporary fencing and closure signs. They protect timid ground-nesting species such as roseate and black-naped terns. These birds will desert their nests if approached too closely. Exposed eggs and chicks will be killed rapidly by reef egrets, silver gulls, heat or cold.
  • Keep to the tracks to avoid collapsing shearwater burrows. If a burrow collapses, clear the entrance with your hand so eggs, chicks or adults are not trapped.

Whale watching

During migration, whales congregate in key breeding areas, which makes them susceptible to disruption and interference. Minimum approach distances regulate people, vessels, fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters to prevent disrupting whales while they are at their most vulnerable. See whale watching guidelines for further information.

Take care when whale watching

Everyone can enjoy these special marine creatures by following these simple guidelines.

  • When boating, stay more than 100 m from a whale, or 300 m if three or more boats are already closer. Keep 300 m away when moving in a similar direction to a whale or travelling at more than 4 knots.
  • Intentionally feeding, touching or making noises likely to disturb or attract a whale or dolphin is prohibited.

Things to know before you go

Essentials to bring

You will need to be self-sufficient during your stay but only take what you need. When packing, minimise bulk, weight and packaging for easy transport and to reduce rubbish. Consider your camping gear carefully and remember that dehydrated food saves weight and space. Be aware that your vessel may drop you off a considerable distance from your campsite.

Pack essential items such as:

  • Plenty of water. Allow five litres per person each day, plus extra in case of emergency.
  • First-aid kit, and know how to use it. Ensure it includes tweezers as ticks are common, particularly during summer.
  • Fuel stove and fuel. Campfires and ash-producing fuels are not permitted.
  • Strong, animal-proof containers for food and rubbish. Birds and mice eat through thin plastic bags. Bins are not provided so take your rubbish with you when you leave.
  • Waterproof tent and fly, blade or screw-style pegs and a mallet.
  • Reliable torch.
  • Portable cooler.
  • Tarpaulins to shelter your camp and cooking area from bird droppings, particularly during the October–April nesting season.
  • A marine radio. Mobile phones may not work on the islands.

Avoid exotic introductions

When packing, check your camping equipment and supplies are not contaminated with soil, ants, insects, rats, mice or plant seeds. Non-native introductions will permanently alter cay ecology and could impact on future camping or visiting opportunities.

Opening hours

Seasonal closures help protect the islands. Turtle hatchlings, nesting seabirds and the islands' vegetation are particularly susceptible to disturbances. Further temporary closures may apply in case of cyclones, natural disasters, nature conservation and park management activities.

North West and Lady Musgrave islands: Open all year round to day visitors. Camping is not permitted  after the Australia Day long weekend, or day after Australia Day public holiday (if holiday falls mid-week) until the start of the Queensland Easter school holidays.

Mast Head and Erskine islands: Open from the start of the Queensland Easter school holidays until 14 October.

Heron and Wilson islands: Both islands have resort accommodation available and are open all year round. See tourism information links for more information.

Permits and fees

Camping permits are required and fees must be paid to reserve a place. A camping tag with your booking number must be displayed at your campsite. An information pack must be collected prior to camping on the islands. Obtain your information pack from the various charter vessels servicing the islands. It is important you read the Camping in Capricornia Cays information, especially regarding bookings and conditions.

Pets

Domestic animals are not permitted in Capricornia Cays National Park.

Climate and weather

Pleasant conditions continue 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 though a shower may fall in any month. Cyclones are more likely between November and March.

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 in the reef flat vary from 20 °C in July to 27 °C in January.

Tides

Access and many activities depend on tide times and heights. The islands' average tidal range is about two metres. Extreme low tides are most suitable for exploring the reef. Water visibility for snorkelling and diving activities depends on weather and tides. The best conditions are during periods of small tides and calm seas.

See tourism information links for more information.

Fuel and supplies

The islands in Capricornia Cays National Park are remote and you need to be self-sufficient. The nearest supplies are available in Gladstone, Bundaberg, Agnes Water or the Town of 1770. For more information see the tourism information links below.

Staying safe

Warning! Coral cays are remote. Strong winds, rough seas and cyclones can isolate campers. To enjoy a safe visit, follow these simple steps. In the event of an emergency, campers will be evacuated. See evacuation procedures for details.

Be prepared for emergencies

  • Carry emergency food, water, AM/FM radio, spare batteries and medical supplies (particularly an iodine-based antiseptic for cuts).
  • First aid training is desirable.
  • Mobile phones are useful but not reliable. For a small fee, portable emergency radios are available from Volunteer Marine Rescue in Gladstone (for Mast Head and North West islands). Lady Musgrave Island has an emergency radio on the toilet block deck.
  • Monitor weather forecasts and radio messages about changing weather conditions and possible evacuation.
  • Be familiar with evacuation procedures and discuss these with your group. Being prepared will help evacuations go smoothly.

A marine VHF radio is preferred to mobile phones, which may not have reception on the cays. In emergencies the following channels can be contacted. Take a note of these details and keep them with you:

Lady Musgrave Island

  • VMR477 Round Hill or VMR488 Bundaberg are both available from 7 am to 6 pm on channel 81 marine VHF.
  • Queensland Police Service (Bundaberg) monitors channel 81 marine VHF all day and night.

North West and Mast Head islands

  • VMR446 Gladstone is available 6am-6pm on channel 82 marine VHF daily.
  • Gladstone Harbour Control monitors VHF Ch. 16 and 82 for emergency traffic only from 6 pm to 6 am.
  • You can also contact other vessels in the vicinity on channel 16 (emergency channel) or channel 82 marine VHF.
  • Weather forecasts from the Bureau of Meteorology in Rockhampton are available on channel 82 marine VHF at 0650, 1150 and 1650 hours.

Evacuation procedures

Capricornia Cays National Park lies within the Queensland tropical storm (cyclone) zone. The Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) has developed an emergency contingency plan to provide early warning and possible evacuation of campers should a cyclone or other event threaten the safety of island visitors.

  • QPWS will attempt to inform campers of impending severe weather conditions and possible evacuation.
  • During evacuation, all camping permits will be cancelled with campers 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.
  • Commercial charter vessels involved in camper drop-offs will collect you during the evacuation. On board, a QPWS officer and possibly a police officer will assist in the evacuation.
  • Sea conditions may prevent the evacuation of camping equipment and private boats. In these circumstances you may be able to store equipment in toilet blocks. Where no structures are available, 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 negotiate directly with charter vessel operators if wishing to collect belongings left behind during the evacuation.
  • When delivered to the mainland, you will be responsible for your own accommodation.
  • The unpredictable nature of cyclones can mean campers are evacuated, but no cyclone eventuates. In such situations, you will need to negotiate directly with the charter vessel operator if wishing to return.
  • QPWS will offer alternative camping or reimburse camping fees for lost days.

It is important that all members of your group understand and accept the consequences associated with camping in a remote location that is prone to extreme weather conditions.

Island safety

While on the island please:

  • Protect yourself from biting invertebrates. Wear insect repellant to deter bird ticks. If bitten, carefully lever them out with tweezers, then disinfect the area around the bite. Large centipedes are active at night, especially in wet weather. Shake out bedding, clothing, footwear and dive gear. Bites usually result in local pain and some swelling, lasting only a short time. Treat with ice (if possible).
  • Do not camp beneath large or brittle pisonia branches. They can break and fall unexpectedly.
  • Wear suitable footwear. Sturdy footwear will protect your feet from sharp shells, broken coral and beach rock.
  • Treat coral cuts carefully, as even small scratches can become infected.
  • Take extra care during summer. Take precautions to avoid sunburn and heat exhaustion. On hot days, drink plenty of water and stay in the shade if possible. When exploring, wear sun-safe clothing, sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat.
  • Be aware that marine stingers may be present all year round. Wear suitable protective clothing while you are in the water.
  • Never dive or snorkel alone. Be very careful of tides and currents.

Looking after the park

Although QPWS officers visit the cays during regular marine park patrols, no rangers live on site. For this reason, campers are an important source of information for cay management. Promote minimal impact camping by following these guidelines and discussing them with other campers and friends. You can play a part in preserving the cays for future generations to enjoy by following the guidelines below.

  • Camp only within designated areas.
  • Ensure your tent and all equipment is behind the roped off revegetation areas—foredunes are important nesting habitats for seabirds and turtles.
  • Pitch your tent to either side of walking tracks, which also serve as wedge-tailed shearwater flight paths.
  • Avoid clearing plants and leaf litter when setting up camp. All vegetation—including grasses, vines, fallen timber and leaves—are part of the cay ecosystem. Remember, all plants are protected on national parks and collecting is not permitted.
  • Ensure tents and tarpaulins are freestanding. Please do not tie off tent ropes to trees. Trunks become scarred and the brittle branches are easily damaged and broken.
  • Keep the islands free from mainland pests. Ensure all equipment and clothing brought to islands is free of insects, rodents and plant material.
  • Campfires and ash-producing fuels are not permitted. Past traditions of lighting campfires caused unacceptable environmental damage. Trees were destroyed for firewood, multiple fire rings scarred the beachfront, and birds and turtle hatchlings were attracted to fires. Charcoal darkened some areas of sand, influencing turtle egg development.
  • If you are organising a camping trip on behalf of a group, ensure each member is aware of camping guidelines and restrictions that apply. See Caring for parks for more information about protecting our environment and heritage in parks.

Park management

A Capricornia Cays National Park and Capricornia Cays National Park (Scientific) management plan (PDF, 10M)* guides the management of these parks.

Tourism information links

Charter boat operators

Vessels travelling to Lady Musgrave Island

Lady Musgrave Cruises
www.lmcruises.com.au
Shop 2, 535 Captain Cook Drive, Seventeen Seventy
ph 1800 63 1770 or (07) 4974 9077
fax (07) 4974 9505
email info@1770reefcruises.com

Group Charters are also available to Mast Head Island

Vessels travelling to North West and Mast Head islands

Curtis Ferry Services
www.curtisferryservices.com.au
215 Alf O'Rourke Drive, Gladstone Marina
ph (07) 4972 6990 or 0418 729 641
email info@curtisferryservices.com.au

Gladstone Water Taxis
(maximum of 10 passengers)
ph 0499 776 160
email colrobinson.cr@gmail.com

Parking

Security parking for North West or Mast Head island visitors

O'Connell Wharf
Gladstone
ph (07) 4972 6666

Marina Bait & Tackle
Gladstone
ph (07) 4972 7283

General tourism information

Gladstone Visitor Information Centre
www.gladstoneregion.org.au
Marina Ferry Terminal, Bryan Jordan Drive
Gladstone QLD 4680
ph (07) 4972 9000
email gladstonevic@gapdl.com.au

For tourism information for all regions in Queensland see the Queensland Holidays website

Further information

Contact us

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
ph 1800 990 177
www.gbrmpa.gov.au

Queensland Boating & Fisheries Patrol
www.daff.qld.gov.au/fisheries/services/queensland-boating-and-fisheries-patrol

For information about fishing regulations: ph 13 25 23

To report illegal fishing—Fishwatch Hotline ph 1800 017 116

VMR 446 Volunteer Marine Rescue Gladstone
ph (07) 4972 3333
Marine VHF channel 82

VMR 477 Volunteer Marine Rescue Round Hill Inc
Lot 28 Tupia Street, Round Hill Qld 4677
ph (07) 4974 7477
Marine VHF channel 81

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Last updated
6 January 2014