Visiting Capricornia Cays safely
Getting there and getting around
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, Broomfield, 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. To protect nesting seabirds and turtles, access to Erskine and Masthead Islands is prohibited from 15 October to the commencement of the Easter weekend or Queensland state school Easter holiday period (whichever is earlier).
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 45min, but seasonal closures to protect breeding seabirds or high tides can restrict circuit walks.
The islands are accessible only by boat. Gladstone, Bundaberg and Seventeen Seventy 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.
North West Island has wheelchair accessible facilities.
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 7am to 6pm 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 6pm to 6am.
- 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.
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.
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.
Our precious Great Barrier Reef World Heritage islands are among the most pest-free islands in the world. They need your help to stay this way. Please Be pest-free! , Be pest-free! video—YouTube before your visit.
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.
- Fires: Prohibited (open and closed). Gas or liquid fuelled stoves for cooking purposes are 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.
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 Island: This island has resort accommodation available and is 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. It is important you read the Camping in Capricornia Cays information, especially regarding bookings and conditions.
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.
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.
- Mast Head Island and Beach and Erskine Island and Beach - Seasonal Closure 15 October 2021 to 1 April 2022
- North West Island declaration of Special Activity Area (Sharks) 22 October 2021 to 15 October 2022
- Lady Musgrave Island, Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) Hazard 18 December 2020 to 23 August 2022
- Visitors to Great Barrier Reef reminded to be SharkSmart 14 October 2020 to 23 August 2022