Discover spectacular Orpheus Island

Only accessible by helicopter or boat, this stunning reef island attracts researchers, day-trippers, campers and luxury seekers.

Sunset on Orpheus Island near Townsville
  • Peter Barrett
  • April 2019

I spot my first shark minutes after stepping foot on the island: a couple of fins lazily break the surface just half a metre from the shoreline and ripple past, parallel with the beach. The fish (I later learn she is a blacktip reef shark) is only a 50-centimetre baby, but for a city slicker like me it’s a thrilling encounter with nature.

Orpheus Island, named after an Australian naval ship that sank in New Zealand waters in 1863, is 11 kilometres long, one kilometre wide and about 80 clicks north-east of Townsville. Surrounded by the pristine, protected waters of the Great Barrier Reef, and with most of the island a national park, the place is simply teeming with animal life. As well as reefs covered in colourful corals, sponges and starfish, you’ll see giant clams, more than 1000 species of fish and, if you’re lucky, humpback whales making their graceful migratory journey along the east coast from late June to September.

Although it is possible to visit on a daytrip from mainland ports in Townsville or Lucinda (including with a seasonal ferry service by Sealink Queensland), the island is home to three campsites, the luxury Orpheus Island Lodge and a marine research station run by James Cook University, which takes volunteers.

Just another day at the office

Early in my stay I organise a visit to meet Ashton Gainsford, the station’s then-acting general manager. Standing barefoot on the white sandy beach, Ashton lists the many elements that make up her varied working day: boat transfers, moving the station’s tractor, corresponding with academics and schools, organising bookings and going for dives to service the facility’s many specimen tanks. “But then, at the end of the day we get to look at this,” she says, gesturing to the aquamarine horizon fringed on either side with lush mangroves.

Today, a group of three researchers has arrived, planning to set up 360-degree cameras on the reef so students thousands of kilometres away can observe what happens in real time.

Meanwhile, the station’s five volunteers are busy doing their four hours of maintenance tasks, which they happily exchange for staying in a beautiful place where they can spend the rest of their time snorkelling and hiking. Volunteers are selected through an application process.

“Obviously we are in a remote place,” says Ashton, “so we don’t let people come here that have medical problems … but generally it’s open to the public.”

Exploring an ancient environment

Camping is another option. John Schmidt of Absolute North Charters says campers who make the trip with his boat charters to Orpheus Island tend to be young families and couples planning to stay a couple of nights for the excellent snorkelling, and peace and quiet. Locals also make the trip with their own boats on big holiday weekends, from ramps located at Lucinda and Taylors Beach.

John has been ferrying passengers to Orpheus and nearby Hinchinbrook Island, Australia’s largest island national park, since 2003. “It’s not chance that [the area] is on the World Heritage List,” he says. “The natural vistas are quite special. And when you dig a little bit deeper and start to see what actually lives here it all starts to look like an ancient environment.” He regularly sees dugong and unusual-looking snubfin dolphins, adding to the almost prehistoric feeling about the place. John is keen to protect the area from ‘overtourism’ and is involved in a program with the research station that regularly collects plastic rubbish from Orpheus, swept there by currents from as far away as Indonesia. “When you see turtles with bits of stuff around their flipper, it’s embarrassing as far as humanity goes. The funny thing is you know there’s nobody out there who wants to hurt that turtle but some people are ignorant about how water works.”

Hop to Hinchinbrook

Back on Orpheus, we decide to take the 40-minute voyage to Hinchinbrook Island – a trip that’s available to Orpheus Island Lodge guests (transfers are also available from mainland operators).

During the crossing I spot something just off the starboard bow. It’s a hammerhead shark, casually cruising through the choppy waves towards the mainland. I’m struck again how exciting it is to see this ancient-looking creature in the wild – even if it’s without a Sir David Attenborough soundtrack.

Soon, the sheer rock walls of Hinchinbrook’s Hillock Point loom over the swell and our captain makes for the sheltered waters of Zoe Bay. Here we disembark for a short hike to Zoe Falls, a natural freshwater pool serviced by countless tributaries and creeks channelling water from the island’s cloud-covered mountain peaks of Burnett and Bowen. As we set off, our guide pockets a couple of march flies we’ve swatted and I wonder why. The mystery is solved when, after trekking through rainforest and an ankledeep creek, we arrive at our destination and she drops the insects into the freshwater pool. Suddenly there is a bubble and boil and then all is calm again. Below, a large school of jungle perch cruise the shallows, begging for more bush treats.

We spend the day swimming with the beautiful fish and hiking up to the top of the falls for the view. Hinchinbrook is a stunning island with multiple landscapes and microclimates, courtesy of how the land slopes towards the sun and prevailing winds.

Although our stay is short, plenty of hikers linger longer, taking three nights and four days to walk the popular 32-kilometre Thorsborne Trail, which runs north-south along the island’s east coast.

But back on Orpheus, it’s time to take the trip of a lifetime. Lunches packed, we zoom across the glassy ocean northeast some 20 nautical miles (nearly 40 kilometres) to the outer reaches of the Great Barrier Reef. Without a speck of land in sight we plunge in and enter another world. An eagle ray slips gracefully by, moving languidly through the water. Meanwhile, I’m distracted by the coral reef and its inhabitants, including vivid blue starfish, black, white and yellow-striped Moorish idol angelfish and myriad other colours and shapes.

Then, in a patch of deep water next to the coral, resting on the sand, I spot another shark. This time it’s a whitetip reef shark (generally not dangerous to people), about a metre-and-a-half long. As she slowly slips away into the deep I wish I could call her back so I could observe her longer.

Bucket list bed: Orpheus Island Lodge

Established in the 1930s and refurbished by its current owner over the past seven years, the Orpheus Island Lodge opens in new window is a five-star luxury eco resort, limited to 28 guests at a time.

The premium level service and top facilities come at a cost, however, with studio-villas starting from AUD $1500 per night (meals and drinks included).

Access is by helicopter only, from Townsville or Cairns, with one-way flights costing AUD $295 and AUD $725 per person from those towns, respectively.

Getting there

For boat transfers and daytrips to Orpheus from Lucinda see Absolute North Charters opens in new window (all boat crossings are weather and tide dependent).

From April until October, Sealink Queensland opens in new window runs regular daytrips out to Orpheus Island. The service departs Townsville at 10am to travel through the Palm Island Group to Yanks Jetty on Orpheus Island, returning to Townsville by 5pm.

For camping, permits are required; see Queensland Parks opens in new window.

Find out more and apply for volunteer positions at James Cook University’s Orpheus Island Research Station opens in new window.

Read more about Orpheus, Hinchinbrook and surrounds opens in new window.

Jetstar has great low fares to Townsville from across the network.