7 tips to get the most out of your next island holiday

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  • Swimming with Wally the massive maori wrasse
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You’ve heard all about an amazing island destination and now you want to experience it for yourself. Before you click the "book now" button, check out these 7 valuable tips to get the most out of your next island holiday:

1. Check the tides

On an island, the tides play a big part in what activities can happen and when. Depending on the island and how the tides affect it, high tide or low tide can be your best friend. Below are a few of my favourite Australian islands and snorkelling spots and the best tides to visit them on:

  • Heron Island
  • Turtle swimming at Heron Island
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  • Turtle nesting on Heron Island

Heron Island

When snorkelling straight off the beach at Heron, the best time to snorkel is 2 hours either side of high tide. At low tide the coral around the island becomes exposed and it’s too shallow to snorkel over. The good news is you’re not restricted to just snorkelling at high tide, you can also book snorkelling tours that run several times a day and the team take you by boat to snorkel some incredible spots.

The other important thing to note about snorkelling at Heron is if you’d like to snorkel in the harbour, make sure you check what time it’s open for snorkelling. The ferry and other boats use this harbour during the day so snorkelling generally isn’t allowed between 8am and 5:30pm. The shipwreck is able to be snorkelled during the day though, just check with the dive shop team first as to the best time to do this. I’d recommend 2 hours either side of high tide, just make sure you always snorkel with a friend and that you don’t stray into the harbour or boat channel as you’re heading out there.

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Wilson Island

The most popular snorkelling spot at Wilson is the giant coral bommie just off the western side of the island. It’s around 5m tall, 5m wide and hundreds of years old. It’s actually that big you can even spot it from the air when you’re flying over the island on a scenic helicopter flight!

My favourite time to snorkel the bommie is 2 hours either side of low tide. The low tide means there’s less water over the top of the bommie and so you don’t have to swim down as far to check it out, in fact depending on just how low the tide is, the top of the bommie can be just centimeters below the surface. The other big benefit to snorkelling at low tide is the current is significantly less than at high tide. At high tide the current can be quite strong and it takes a lot longer to swim out to the bommie.

  • Fish selfie at Lady Musgrave Island!
  • Turtle at Lady Musgrave Island
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  • Great Barrier Reef Selfie!

Lady Musgrave Island

Similar to Wilson Island, I find that low tide is my favourite time to snorkel at Lady Musgrave. The coral is a lot closer to the surface and so you don’t have to swim down as far. A lot of the coral isn’t that far down even on high tides although if you want to swim down and check out the turtles as they’re getting cleaned by the fish at the turtle cleaning stations then low tide is a big help!

  • Flipping the Bird
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  • Swimming with turtles

Lady Elliot Island

One of the big drawcards to Lady Elliot is the opportunity to swim with the turtles in the calm waters of the lagoon. So many turtles swim through the lagoon daily however the lagoon is only able to be accessed around 2 hours either side of high tide. At low tide the water level is significantly lower and there’s not enough water to snorkel in as the coral becomes exposed. If you can time your trip so that high tide is around the middle of the day, you’ll get the maximum amount of time in the lagoon with the turtles!

Snorkelling at Lady Elliot isn’t just restricted to high tide in the lagoon though, there’s also some amazing snorkelling spots straight off the beach on the western side of the island that are open on both high and low tides. When looking to snorkel on the western side of the island, be sure to head over to the dive shop first and have a chat with the team about the conditions and where they recommend you snorkel. You can also book a snorkelling safari tour here where the guide will take you by boat to some of the best snorkelling locations around the island. The coral gardens here are phenomenal and teeming with all sorts of marine life!

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  • Helicopter views of Hill Inlet
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Hill Inlet - Whitsunday Island

The turquoise and silica swirls of Hill Inlet are a real show stopper and makes Whitsunday Island one of the most photographed spots in the Whitsundays. There’s a couple of great options to see Hill Inlet, you can do a day trip that takes you to the northern end of Whitehaven Beach and includes a stop at the 3 lookouts overlooking Hill Inlet or alternatively you can do a scenic flight over the island. To see Hill Inlet at its most stunning, I’d recommend visiting or flying over it around 2 hours before or after high tide and preferably during the middle of the day. The blues and the whites are at their most photogenic at this time.

  • Swimming with Wally the massive maori wrasse
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Hardy Reef – Cruise Whitsundays Reefworld pontoon

The snorkelling and diving at Reefworld is great on any tide, my favourite time though is 2 hours either side of low tide. Similar to Lady Musgrave and Wilson Island, this is due to there being less water over the top of the coral so it’s less swimming down I have to do!

  • Hamilton Island
  • Hamilton Island
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Catseye Beach – Hamilton Island

A couple of hours either side of high tide at Hamilton Island is the best time to swim here, there’s plenty of water over the coral and you can snorkel, sail and SUP to your hearts content. As the tide drops, the coral becomes exposed and so it’s not possible to do the various water sports activities.


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Walker Reef Cay – Orpheus Island

One of the most amazing snorkelling spots I’ve visited just a short boat ride from Orpheus Island, Walker Reef has the added bonus of a stunning sand cay that you can swim to. My tip would be to visit here at low tide if you can. At low tide the sand cay is more exposed meaning there’s more sand to enjoy and the coral gardens are a lot closer to the surface. 

  • Horseshoe Bay, Bowen
  • Snorkelling at Horseshoe Bay
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Horseshoe Bay – Bowen

With the installation of the underwater sculpture Bywa at Horseshoe Bay in 2019, Bowen’s most well-known snorkelling spot straight off the beach is becoming more and more popular. Bywa is an intertidal sculpture, this means that at high tide it is fully submerged and at low tide part of it is above the water. For beginner snorkellers this is great as at low tide they don’t have to even go below the surface to check out the sculpture whilst at high tide more advanced snorkellers can dive down to experience it.

If you can be a little flexible when booking the dates for your holiday, check out the tides on a website such as willy weather first and see how they line up for the dates you want to stay. I use it regularly to see what the tides will be and then I try and line up the dates of the trip to coincide with the best tide times for snorkelling, eg if the best tides for snorkelling are high tides, I like to try and choose a day where the high tide is around midday. Midday is when the sun is at its highest point in the sky and gives you great light for shooting photos underwater.

2. Check the swell forecasts

The amount of swell in the ocean can have a big impact on how enjoyable a time you’ll have on your island holiday. Water sports activities such as snorkelling are hugely affected by swell and waves.

In an ideal world you want as little swell as possible so that the water is calmer, the visibility underwater is then better and you’ll get to spend more time in the water enjoying the underwater world around your chosen island. If you can time your trip so that the weather gods are smiling on you with little swell and perfect tide times then you’ll have the most enjoyable experience.

You can use a website such as willy weather to check out the swell forecast.

  • Helicopter flight arriving at Heron Island
  • Helicopter picnic on Whitehaven beach
  • Helicopter ride into Daydream Island
  • Helicopter views of Hill Inlet

3. How light do you need to pack?

Depending on how you are getting to your island destination, there can be weight restrictions on your luggage. If you’re flying by helicopter or light plane, it’s always important to check with the airline first. A lot of helicopter and light plane services have a maximum of around 12-15kgs per person so you want to know ahead of time so you can pack accordingly!

If I’m travelling to an island to shoot photos and I’m trying to save weight for these flights, I’ll often leave my laptop at home and instead take several camera memory cards that I can use instead. Most cameras these days have dual memory card slots so the camera you’re shooting with can save the images to 2 cards at once. You’ll then have 2 copies of the files saved if something goes wrong with one of the cards. I’ll usually take 2 memory cards per day of the trip eg a 3 day island stay will mean 6 memory cards. These memory cards are a lot lighter than a laptop and will mean I can then fit in more clothes or camera equipment!

4. Will you need to take a day bag?

If you’re arriving at your island destination in the morning, check and see what time your room and luggage will be available. Sometimes your room won’t be available until 3pm or later and if you don’t have access to your luggage until that late in the day then that can limit the activities you’re able to do.

If your room and luggage aren’t available until later in the day, I’d recommend bringing a day bag with your swimmers, towel etc so you can still enjoy all the watersports and not waste an afternoon of your trip!

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  • Horseshoe Bay, Bowen
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5. Do you need to pre-book activities?

If you’re heading off on an island holiday during peak season, check with them before you go and see if you need to pre-book any activities or tours before you get there. If you’re only going to be there for a couple of days and you have a limited time to do a snorkel tour for example, it would be heartbreaking to arrive at the island and find out that all the spots have already been booked! If you pre-book before you get there this will give the best chance to do that awesome tour!

6. Do you need to bring your own medication?

Are you travelling by boat to the island or will you by doing any day trips on a boat while you’re there? If so, then it can pay to bring some seasickness medication along just to be safe. Quite often there will be medication available on site but it’s a good idea to have a chat with your chemist or healthcare professional before the trip to find out what will work best for you.

Some medications also require you to take it half an hour before you start to feel unwell so if you think you might need to take it always allow enough time for it to work!

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  • Baby turtle on Heron Island
  • Green Sea Turtle at Heron Island

7. What time of the year is best to see certain wildlife or marine life around the island?

A big reason to book a holiday to an island can be to see some of its well-known wildlife or marine life. However, depending on the time of year, that particular animal might not actually be there when you arrive. Examples of this are the turtle nesting and hatching season which take place from November through to April each year on the southern Great Barrier Reef or the humpback whale migration up the east coast of Australia from July to October each year. Always check before you book if the dates you’re looking to visit line up with the timeframe that the particular wildlife will be there. Also check and see if there’s a particular spot on the island that the wildlife like to congregate at, this will increase your chance of seeing them and give you a much more enjoyable experience. Be sure to also follow and respect the guidelines the island has around wildlife experiences.

What are your top island holiday tips?

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