Australian wildlife locations
Heron Island
Heron Island is located at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, just on the tropic of Capricorn. Access is via the port town of Gladstone on the Queensland central coast which itself is an hour north of Brisbane by air. After the flight there is a two and a half hour boat trip out to the island, which can be decidedly choppy. An expensive alternative is to take the 30 minute helicopter ride.

Heron Island is part of the Great Barrier Reef National Park and comprises a privately owned and run resort and a research station. The resort has good quality accommodation and no camping or day trips. It offers great diving, lovely beaches and walk-in reef snorkeling with an abundance of fish, including many types of shark and ray. It also has up to 100,000 sea birds, nesting turtles and, of course, lots of herons.

Having not yet entered the no doubt exciting world of underwater photography, the photographic aspect of this article is just about the opportunities on terra firma.

Heron Island is all about wildlife. Sure the beaches are beautiful but it's the animals that will take your breath away. It's a good idea to start with the ranger tours so as to learn the do's and don'ts with regard to watching the turtles. The bird- and reef-tours are also worth going on. After that you can quickly acquaint yourself with the island (it takes only about an hour to walk around it) so that you know the best spots for viewing and for photography.

When to go.

Being in the tropics, the weather is going to be warm all year round. Daytime maxima range from about 20C in winter to 32C in summer, and night-time minima range from about 13C to 21C. For year-round weather averages click here.

Green turtle returning to the sea
Where to stay. No choice here (unless you're doing research with the University of Queensland). The Resort's web site is

Monthly diary. For an overview of the monthly activity of the main wildlife on the island click here for the Heron Island Resort calendar.

Equipment. Most of the wildlife on the island will allow you to get close enough to not need long lenses. However, I would always recommend using a lens of at least 300mm so as to a) not distress the wildlife and b) to help cut out unwanted background. That said, if you are thinking about bringing anything longer than a 400mm lens I wouldn't bother, the opportunities for using it will be very limited. I would suggest that something like a 100-400 zoom would be ideal.

I found no use for a tripod but a monopod proved helpful for early morning shots.

Polarizing filter.

Plenty of memory capacity or film.

Cleaning cloth and brush - sand could be an issue.

How long to stay. I think you will pretty much exhaust above-water photographic and watching opportunities within 3-4 days but a return visit at another time of year would certainly be fruitful.

Turtles (mainly Green but also some Loggerheads) are found all around the coast in the breeding season. They will haul up overnight and into the early morning, returning to the sea having laid their eggs after a few hours. Thus your best viewing times are early morning and this is is certainly the best time for photography. Try to get some different angles without getting too close and look for the first surfacing for air, a few seconds after returning to the sea. Egg laying begins in November and continues through to March. Hatching takes place from January to May so the best time to visit for turtles is Jan to March. For the hatchlings be aware that the experience is over in a matter of a few minutes so have your camera ready at all times. Hatchlings which are still moving down the beach after dawn are likely to be taken by the Silver gulls. Some may find this a bit distressing but from a photographic point of view it can be an exciting time.

Green turtle after laying
Reef Herons abound on the side of the island furthest from the resort (although you will find them anywhere), in both white and grey phases. Watch for fights on the beach for good shots as well as nesting activity in the trees. Make sure you are shooting no more than 3/4 hour after sunrise/before sunset. The herons are not nearly as tame as the other birds on the island but patience will still allow you to get plenty close enough with a 300mm to 400mm lens without the need for a hide.
Reef egrets fighting
Black/White-capped Noddies are on the island in huge numbers. Those unfamiliar with large colonies on tame birds are in for a shock. There are 70,000 on the island inhabiting everywhere that the pistonia trees exist. They nest down to head height in some places but mainly it can be quite difficult to get good nesting shots without having lots of white sky in the background, so hunt around for good locations - they do exist. Morning and evening you will see them leaving/returning to the island so getting in the right place for flight shots is not difficult. Also, you will often see them hovering to collect nesting material from the ground. Chicks that fall from the nest will be taken by the gulls. Overcast conditions are the best for photographing these interesting birds but some good arty shots can be obtained of birds sunning themselves on the paths around the island.
Nesting noddy
Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, or mutton birds (so called because they supposedly taste like mutton) are also here in large numbers, and are also easy to see. However, the fact that they only return to to their burrows on the island after dusk means photography is difficult. Sometimes you will see exhausted birds sitting in the open. Be aware if looking for the arriving birds in the open, they are poor at landing and you run the risk of being hit. However, the most notable thing about shearwaters is the noise, something akin to a ghost being slowly murdered. Shearwaters are on the island from October to May
Other birds. There are 30-40 species of endemics and migratory birds on the island, including large numbers of buff-banded rails (below), silver gulls, occasional white-breasted sea eagles and brown boobies, and plenty of turnstones and lesser golden plovers in summer. Look for overcast conditions to photograph birds that are in the forested areas. For a full list of Heron Island's birds click here.
Buff-banded rail
Whales. Humpback whales can be seen during their migration period of June to October. However, sightings are likely to be limited to viewing from the shore or whilst out on the scuba boat trip because at present the Resort does not offer whale watching trips. Humpback whales are well known for their tendency to breach, creating good photo opportunities - if you can get close enough.
Fish. Heron Island is said to be one of the best locations on the Barrier Reef for diving and snorkeling and is listed in the BBC's 'Unforgettable Places to see before you die'. It is a true coral cay which means that you can snorkel directly from the beach and the waters will at worst be only slightly choppy. On top of that the sea temperatures don't go below 20C and in summer are up around 27C. You are pretty much guaranteed seeing turtles - green and loggerhead - if you go at the right time of year (they may rest underwater during the day, waiting for nighttime before coming ashore to lay), sharks and rays and of course an enormous variety of fish and other sea creatures. Of course if you go diving then it only gets better.
Congregation of several types of Ray
All images copyright Gerry Pearce