Nature, culture and history
With over 90 islands stretching from Bowen in the north to the Repulse Islands in the south, the Whitsunday group is part of Australia’s largest offshore island chain, known as the Cumberland group. All the islands and their surrounding waters (collectively known as 'the Whitsundays') have international protection as part of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. In addition, some islands have been declared national parks by the Queensland Government. The six national parks of the Whitsundays are Whitsunday Islands National Park, Gloucester Islands National Park, Molle Islands National Park, Lindeman Islands National Park, Repulse Islands National Park and Holbourne Island National Park.
The Whitsundays are internationally famous for their rugged, green-clad islands, blue waters and white sands. But behind that beauty lies much more: a tumultuous geological history, a long tradition of Indigenous use, and a complex ecosystem with thousands of animal and plants, including rare and endangered species.
To understand the Whitsunday landscape, we must go back 110 million years. At that time, volcanoes were active in what was to become Australia, and slow but steady movements of the earth’s crust were breaking up the super-continent Gondwana (which originally included present-day Australia, as well as South America, Africa, New Guinea, New Zealand, India and more).
The Whitsundays lay in a geologically active zone, where volcanic activity continued for 37 million years. Explosive eruptions threw rock and ash into the air to rain down on the surrounding land. Layers of volcanic debris built up and gradually formed a solid bedrock. Today, this bedrock, composed of ash and rock fragments 'welded' together, can still be seen (e.g. on Whitsunday and Hook islands). This hardened rock appears as a smooth greenish grey to brown, and is worn away by saltwater wave action.
Later, less violent volcanic activity injected lava flows into gaps in the bedrock, creating upright bands of darker rock, known to geologists as 'dykes'. Examples of these can be seen on Hook Island.
Ranges pushed upward
Throughout this volcanic period, the earth’s crust continued to move (as it still does today). Tectonic plates—large, rigid segments that make up the outer 100km of the crust—slowly drifted, moving apart in some cases and colliding in others. These movements created mountains, valleys and other landforms, everywhere from India’s Himalayas to Australia’s Great Dividing Range. Mountain ranges also formed in central Queensland. Millions of years later, some of these mountains would become the Whitsunday islands.
From mountain range to island chain
The rocky islands of the Whitsundays are 'continental' islands—that is, they were once part of the continent of Australia (unlike coral cays found in other parts of the Great Barrier Reef, which formed from reef shingle). The Whitsunday islands we see today were originally part of a mainland mountain range.
Over millions of years, these mountains have separated from, and then rejoined, the mainland a number of times, as ice ages have come and gone and sea levels have risen and fallen. Substantial parts of the coastal plain have been exposed and then flooded, exposed and then flooded. During the driest period, the central Queensland coastline may have been up to 200km east of its present location.
The most recent change happened around 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age. Glaciers melted, and the Coral Sea rose over the coastal plain, leaving only mountain-tops and ridges exposed as the rocky Whitsunday islands we see today.
Sea so blue, sand so white
Many visitors comment on the aquamarine shade of the sea throughout the Whitsundays. Very fine sediment suspended in the region’s waters scatters sunlight as it penetrates the water, creating the shade of blue that makes the Whitsundays famous.
Contrasting with this brilliant blue are the fine, white, silica sands of Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island. Whitehaven differs from most beaches in the Whitsundays, which tend to have coarser sand that includes fragments of shell and coral.
Geologists generally agree that Whitehaven’s quartz-rich sand has not come from a local source, because rocks in the area do not contain large quantities of quartz. The most likely explanation is that the sand drifted north along the Queensland coast, carried by prevailing sea currents, millions of years ago. Trapped by rocks and headlands, some sand accumulated to form the dunes of Whitehaven Beach. Sea levels rose and fell around the dunes as ice ages came and went. Over time, impurities were leached from the sand by fresh water, leaving it the fine, white silica you see today. The most recent rise in sea levels, about 10,000 years ago, brought the sea to the foot of these dunes, creating Whitehaven Beach.
Fringed by reefs
Surrounding the Whitsunday islands are 'fringing' reefs—coral reefs that form in clear waters around continental islands and occasionally along the mainland. Approximately 400 species of corals are found in the marine park, and exploring these reefs is one of the most popular visitor activities. The best snorkelling opportunities are around the northern bays of Hook, Hayman, Black and Langford islands, though the inshore islands can also be rewarding. Fringing reefs often contain a surprising diversity of corals, especially soft corals which survive better than hard corals in water with a high sediment load.
All coral reefs are built by polyps, tiny animals resembling small (3–56 mm) sea anemones, with a simple, sac-like body and a mouth-opening surrounded by tentacles. A single founder polyp establishes itself and new polyps build from it, forming a coral colony. As more colonies grow, they spread over a wider area and form a reef. Some reefs around the Whitsundays extend over several square kilometres. When corals die, new polyps grow on top of them and develop new colonies. Today’s colourful corals are actually a thin veneer covering many metres of dead coral.
The Whitsundays are generally ideal for coral growth: warm, clear, relatively shallow water, with an average temperature of around 20–30 degrees Celsius. In addition, the Whitsundays’ large tidal range causes fast currents to stream south with the incoming tide. These currents transport food and nutrients that nourish a rich and colourful diversity of corals on the edges of the fringing reefs. Vivid and beautiful, these corals also provide food and habitat for many sea-dwellers.
Closer to shore, increased sun exposure at low tide limits coral growth, and reef flats on the islands are less colourful, with areas of algae-covered coral rubble and sandy mud washed from the islands. These reef flats are an important part of the marine ecosystem, and home to many small creatures.
Inside the cells of each coral polyp live the algae zooxanthellae, which use light to produce food for the polyp, and also give corals most of their bright colours. Because these algae rely on light for survival, reefs can be adversely affected by increased sediment in the water, which reduces the light they receive. The southernmost reefs of the Whitsundays receive more river sediment than other reefs in the island chain, and so are not as abundant as those further north.
Different plants grow on different parts of the islands, influenced by variations in soils, exposure to the elements, and availability of fresh water.
At the top of the beaches grow tough pioneer plants like goat’s foot convolvulus, sea bean and spiky spinifex, which can tolerate wind, salt spray and shifting sands. On the foredunes behind these stabilising creepers and grasses, grow salt-tolerant shrubs and trees such as octopus bush and coastal she-oak. Further inland, vine forests and lush vegetation grow in moist, sheltered gullies and on steep, rocky hillsides, with tall hoop pines scattered through them. Hillsides with drier, deeper soils support open eucalypt forests and, on many islands, undulating native grasslands. Below all of these, along the shorelines, patches of mangroves flourish.
Within these ecosystems grow a number of rare and vulnerable plant species. The plants of the Whitsundays are too diverse to describe in detail, but some of the most typical and distinctive species are discussed below.
A dominant foredune tree, coastal she-oaks (or casuarinas) have reduced leaves that hang in needle-like clusters/branchlets that hang in clusters from small, weeping branches. The tree’s tough, grey bark protects it from sand-laden winds, and it tolerates salt in both soil and air. Coastal casuarinas Casuarina equisetifloia are important in stabilising dunes, and can also be found growing in sandy soils on headlands and rocky shores.
With their distinctive radiating branches, and tufts of deep-green foliage, hoop pines Araucaria cunninghamii make a dramatic statement on the headlands and hillsides of the Whitsundays. This species dates back about 200 million years and, despite great climate change events, still survives today. Sensitive to fire, hoop pines have found refuge in sheltered gullies and on rocky outcrops, including many headlands. They take their name from the horizontal 'hoops' in their bark, which often remain even after the rest of the tree has rotted away.
Blue gums, Moreton Bay ash and poplar gums can all be seen in the islands’ open eucalypt forests. Blue gum leaves are long and thin, and their smooth bark often appears to be a mottled blue. The straight trunks of Moreton Bay ash are covered in dark-grey, ribbed bark on their lower sections, forming a 'sock' that contrasts with the smooth, light bark above. Stark white bark and heart-shaped leaves make poplar gums easy to identify. Pink bloodwood and white mahogany are also common in the open forests.
Grasstrees Xanthorrhoea sp are tall shrubs with long, needle-like leaves that fall gracefully from the top of the plant. In the Whitsundays, grasstrees typically grow on sandy, infertile soils on ridges and ranges. Their large flowering spike attracts birds, butterflies and other insects.
Mangroves are common along the mainland coast of the Whitsundays and also along the shorelines of the islands, especially where freshwater streams discharge. About 13 mangrove species are found here. These resilient plants are salt-tolerant and have adapted to flourish in water-logged soils. They are a vital nursery for marine life, particularly fish and small crustaceans. Mangroves also provide a buffer between land and sea, filtering and trapping sediment that could otherwise harm coral reefs.
A native hibiscus Hibiscus tiliaceus (or cottonwood) is can be found along the landward edges of mangrove communities, on the whte sand beaches and near swamps, shorelines and tidal streams. Growing up to 10m tall, it has large, heart-shaped leaves that form a dense canopy, and branches that may extend to the ground. The flowers are large and yellow with a purple centre, and its bark is thick and grey. It is often mistaken for a mangrov.
Despite their delicate appearance, golden cane orchids thrive in rocky areas of the Whitsundays, where they get the strong light and good drainage they require. Their chocolate-brown to yellow flowers make a spectacular show as they hang on their long spikes. The plant can be found clinging to rock faces (even on exposed headlands, where it happily tolerates wind and salt spray), or growing in higher tree branches.
Whitsunday plant life extends under the water. Here seagrass beds support an abundant marine community. They are highly productive and are an important food source for dugong and green turtles. Like mangroves, seagrass beds are nurseries for prawns, and shelter fish species including juvenile barramundi, whiting, bream and flathead. Large seagrass beds can be found in Repulse Bay and around the northern bays of Whitsunday Island.
While bird life is plentiful on the islands of the Whitsundays, other animal species are less diverse than on the nearby mainland. This is typical of most islands, because their isolation reduces the number of new species being introduced, and creates a smaller gene pool. However, animal life in the Whitsundays is more diverse than that of many islands further from the coast. This is because the flooding that isolated the Whitsundays—at the end of the last ice age—is relatively recent in evolutionary terms, so fewer species have been lost.
Animals found on the islands include birds, mammals, macropods, reptiles, spiders and insects. In and around the sea, fish, turtles, dugong, whales and many small intertidal species are found. Key species are described below.
Many birds live on the Whitsunday islands and thousands more visit to breed there. Different island habitats attract different types of birds.
Soaring above the shoreline and the sea are the handsome birds of prey: white-bellied sea eagles, brahminy kites and ospreys. They hunt fish, crabs and other small animals with their keen eyes. These coastal raptors, which nest on the islands, indulge in spectacular aerial courtship displays in breeding season.
On the water’s edge look for pied oyster-catchers probing for molluscs on the rocky shores. The rare sooty oyster-catchers may also be seen. Eastern reef egrets, striated (mangrove) herons and white-faced herons stalk small fish in the shallows. These resident waders are an important part of the islands’ ecology.
Thousands of other migratory waders also visit each year. The Whitsundays are an important stopover for species such as ruddy turnstones, whimbrels, lesser sand plovers and bar-tailed godwits, which feed and roost on the reef flat and island beaches. Birds are particularly plentiful from October to April, when thousands of waders and seabirds migrate here to nest. In order to protect the nesting seabirds boating restrictions and beach closures may apply—see Taking care of nesting birds for details. Always avoid disturbing waders, as fleeing an approaching human uses hard-earned energy that they may need for their return migration.
Just above the high-tide mark nests the beach stone-curlew, a resident island bird that rarely leaves the ground. At night, the curlews’ wailing calls are often heard as they patrol the beach in search of crabs. As a ground nester, beach stone-curlews are susceptible to predators and human disturbance, and are now classed as 'vulnerable' in Queensland. They are also easily disturbed, so all visitors are asked to keep their distance and watch out for nests.
Further inland orange-footed scrubfowl and brush turkeys search the leaf litter for insects and worms. Clumsy pheasant coucals may also be seen darting across walking tracks, though you are more likely to hear their 'woop woop' call than to see this black and brown, secretive bird. In the air, noisy groups of rainbow bee-eaters swoop and dive, catching insects on the wing. If you hear screeching overhead or chattering in the trees, sulphur-crested cockatoos or rainbow lorikeets are probably around. When summer approaches, visitors such as pied imperial-pigeons and buff-breasted paradise-kingfishers will also arrive.
Macropods (wallabies, kangaroos, etc.)
A number of macropods are found in the Whitsundays. The most notable is the endangered Proserpine rock-wallaby, found naturally on Gloucester Island and introduced as part of a species recovery program to Hayman Island. It is unusual to find these wallabies on the islands of the Whitsundays, though their major populations are found on the nearby mainland (in Dryander National Park, Conway National Park, the Clarke Range west of Proserpine, parts of the Conway Range and around Airlie Beach township).
One of the prettiest wallabies, this species has mostly light-brown or greyish fur (which turns yellow-brown on their outer limbs), a white stripe along their upper lip and face, and black hands and feet. The end of their tail is also black with a white tip. They live mainly near rocky outcrops and ledges in vine forest with a closed canopy. Mostly nocturnal, they may move into more open areas at night to feed on leaves and grasses. They are shy and hard to spot, but you may see their long, cylindrical droppings around their day-time shelter sites.
Proserpine rock-wallabies are probably a remnant species from an ancient time when much of Australia was covered in rainforest. Today, fragmentation of habitat due to clearing is the major threat to their survival. The department has a number of recovery strategies in place for the species.
Other macropod species are found elsewhere in the Whitsundays. Whitsunday Island supports a population of unadorned rock-wallabies, which are sometimes confused with Proserpine rock-wallabies because they have similar habitat preferences. However, as their name suggests, unadorned rock-wallabies are plainer in appearance.
A number of flying-foxes (large fruit bats or macrobats) are found on the Whitsunday islands. Black flying-foxes are the largest and most common. Like other bats, they spend their days roosting in colonies, and their nights hunting for food. As the sun goes down, these bats leave their treetop camps and stream across the sky, creating an impressive and noisy spectacle. They prefer to eat flowers from native trees, but will also eat introduced blossoms and fruit. Flying-fox colonies can easily be seen on South Molle, Lindeman and Hamilton islands.
A common camper companion are fawn-footed melomys, or native rodents. They naturally scavenge among the leaf litter in search of insects and carrion to feed, but these searches can also include campers’ rubbish and tents! Be sure to keep your food and rubbish in secure containers and zip your tent closed.
Lace monitors, also known as goannas, are the most commonly seen reptiles on the islands. They are usually dark in colour, with white, cream or yellow scales making contrasting markings. They are impressive animals, and can measure up to 2 m from head to tail. A lace monitor’s natural diet consists of insects, reptiles, small mammals, nestling birds, and carrion (rotting carcasses). However, following prolonged human contact, these normally reserved animals will readily approach visitors for food. Please do not feed them, as it may make them sick or aggressive. If disturbed, a lace monitor will usually climb a tree to escape.
Both jewel and orb weaver spiders are common on many Whitsunday islands (e.g. along South Molle’s walking tracks). Jewel (or Christmas) spiders are small and spiny, with bright yellow or white patches on their otherwise black bodies. Females are about 7–10 mm across; males are similar in appearance but smaller. Orb weavers are often silvery grey or brown, but vary greatly in colour. They also contrast greatly in size, with the bodies of female orb weavers up to 40 mm long, while the tiny males measure only 6 mm! The orb weaver’s web is very strong and often has a yellowy colour (hence their name). You may see the web being shared by tiny dewdrop spiders (only 2–3 mm), which feed on insects that are too small for the orb weaver to bother with.
Green tree ants build leafy nests in the islands’ trees, as they do in many mainland areas of north Queensland. Each leaf of the nest is pulled into place by a chain of ants grasping each other around the waist. These ants will aggressively defend their home. If disturbed, they will use their strong jaws to bite, and then spray formic acid from their abdomens onto the bite site. While they do not have a sting, their bite can be annoying.
Turtles and whales
The islands and surrounding reefs provide valuable habitat for marine turtles. Six of the world’s seven species are found within the Whitsundays—green and hawksbill turtles are commonly seen, while flatback, loggerhead, pacific ridley (olive ridley) and leatherback turtles have also been recorded. Green, hawksbill and flatback turtles are all vulnerable to extinction, and the loggerhead is endangered.
Each year humpback whales migrate north from their feeding grounds in Antarctica to warmer waters near eastern Australia. They travel along the east coast to the north of the Great Barrier Reef where they give birth and mate, before returning home. You may see groups (pods) of whales heading north through the Whitsundays during June and July, or returning south between August and October.
Recognised as an important calving ground, most of the waters around the islands are part of the Whale Protection Area designed to minimise disturbance to whales. Inside the Whitsundays Whale Protection Area, vessels and people are not permitted within 300 m of a whale.
- Read more about responsible whale and dolphin watching practices.
- See Enjoying the Whitsundays in the Guide to visiting the Whitsundays Plan of Management Area for recreational users for more information.
The Whitsundays and the neighbouring coastal fringe are the traditional home of the Ngaro Aboriginal people, who are also known as the 'Canoe People'. Archaelogical research shows that the Ngaro inhabited the Whitsundays for at least the past 9,000 years. Evidence of Ngaro occupation includes stone axes and cutting tools found in a stone quarry on South Molle Island, numerous fish traps (stone structures made for catching fish) throughout the Whitsundays, and rock art discovered at Nara Inlet on Hook Island. At Nara Inlet, middens (large piles of discarded shells and bones) have enabled archaeologists to determine that people began using the cave there about 2,500 years ago. Hundreds of other sites—many much older—have been found across the islands.
The writings of early explorers describe some of the Ngaro people’s skills in using and living in the marine environment. In 1770, Lieutenant (later Captain) James Cook recorded a Ngaro expedition in an outrigger, while others describe sturdy three-piece bark canoes capable of journeys on the open sea. These canoes, much more common than outriggers, were constructed from three diamond shapes of bark, one for the bottom and two for the sides. A fibrous root was used to sew the three pieces together.
Ngaro men were skilled navigators. European seafarers reported seeing Aboriginal people paddling from Double Cone Island to South Molle Island, a distance of 21km.
Ngaro people were also adept at using island plants. Grasstrees provided food and tool materials, yielding starch, nectar, shoots and grubs, and the ingredients for glue, firesticks and spear handles. The Ngaro also used many other plant species, including the coastal she-oak (bark and twigs for medicinal purposes, hard wood for spears and woomera pegs), and the native hibiscus (some parts apparently eaten, while bark was soaked and separated, then woven into dilly bags, fishing lines, nets and ropes). Ngaro women collected vegetables, seeds and fruits, and prepared them for cooking and eating.
A great variety of tools, utensils and weapons were used for fishing, hunting, gathering plants and cooking. The most effective and simple tools were broken pieces of rock used for cutting, crushing grains and as axe heads. Other tools included animal teeth and twists of bark. Woven grass nets were used to gather shellfish and fish, while fishing hooks were made from wood, bone, turtle shell and shells. Detachable harpoons, with points made from wood and bone, were used to hunt dugong.
Fire was used for warmth and cooking, and to maintain grasslands and open up areas for hunting in forests.
Explorers in ships
Lieutenant (later Captain) James Cook travelled up the Queensland coast on a scientific expedition in his ship the HMB Endeavour, entering the Whitsundays on 1 June 1770. Two days later he sailed around Cape Conway and saw a wide, deep stretch of water separating the mainland from a string of islands. As 3 June was the day on which Christians celebrated the Festival of Whitsun that year, Cook named the passage 'Whitsunday’s Passage'. He wrote of it at the time: 'Indeed the whole passage is one continued safe harbour …'.
Cook named a number of other landmarks during this trip, including Repulse Bay, the Cumberland Islands, Cape Hillsborough, Cape Conway, and 'Cape' Gloucester (later re-named Gloucester Island). The Molle Islands, however, were not named for another 45 years. In 1815, Lieutenant Charles Jeffreys sailed his brig the Kangaroo through the Whitsunday passage on his way to Ceylon on a naval mission. While passing through, he named the Molle Islands after the Lieutenant-Governor of New South Wales, George Molle, and the highest point on Molle Island after himself: Mount Jeffreys.
White settlement, Aboriginal removal
European settlement began on the Whitsunday islands in the 1860s, mainly in the form of camps that harvested hoop pine timber to construct buildings in nearby Bowen. This industry operated strongly for the next 40 years, and finally petered out in the 1930s. Also in the 1860s, settlers attempted to establish grazing operations on some islands, but these proved unsustainable. Over the next 35 years, grazing leases were granted over various islands (e.g. Cid, Long, South Molle and Hamilton), but none thrived.
It was not until late in the 19th century that viable sheep-grazing businesses were established on some islands, many of which were to go on to be the more popular islands today. Tourism began in the late 1920s, with boats taking visitors on day trips to these settled islands. Gradually the tourist industry grew, with Lindeman Island one of the first to encourage visitors to stay overnight. Daydream, Long, Grassy and Hayman islands also became popular, and family-run tourist resorts prospered, though many were eventually taken over by larger companies.
In 1927, Henry Lamond purchased the six Molle islands, establishing a farm on South Molle. Lamond had a strong interest in natural history and wrote widely on that subject (and others) in the popular press. His articles did much to publicise the Whitsundays internationally, though that does not seem to have been his aim. During his years on South Molle, he successfully applied to the Queensland Government to gazette his leaseholdings as a bird and animal sanctuary, with him appointed as ranger. However, by 1937, he had sold all the islands and moved to a farm at Lindum, Brisbane. A plaque on Lamond Hill, South Molle, commemorates Henry and other members of his family. The Bauer family, who bought South Molle from the Lamonds, went on to establish the South Molle resort.
From the 1880s onwards, many Ngaro people were forcibly removed from their homeland and much of their culture disrupted. By the 1930s, few Aboriginal people remained on the islands, other than those employed by white settlers.
Protecting the Whitsundays
In the latter part of the 1930s, the Queensland Government proclaimed a number of Whitsunday islands as national parks. More were added in successive decades, so that now most islands are wholly or partly national parks. More than 96 percent of the 30,000 ha of wooded hills, rocky headlands and shingle beaches are managed to protect plants, animals and the environment.
Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service Rangers consult with descendants of the Ngaro people to protect areas that have Aboriginal cultural significance.
- Visitors to Great Barrier Reef reminded to be SharkSmart 14 October 2020 to 14 October 2021