Lady Musgrave Island appears in front of us after two hours of steaming into the open ocean. A sheltered blue lagoon so clear that Rainbow parrotfish and abundant corals are visible from the boat, surround the island’s white sandy beach. Turtles float to the surface and a large manta ray drifts past. We have arrived at paradise. Aborigines call this uninhabited island Wallaginji meaning Beautiful Reef.
About Lady Musgrave Island
Lady Musgrave Island is in the Great Barrier Reef and part of the Capricornia Cays National Park. At only 700 metres long it’s one of the smallest coral cay islands on the reef. Over 1200 varieties of marine fish and corals call the kaleidoscope of clear blue waters around the island home. The island is an important nesting site for Green and Loggerhead turtles and a significant breeding and nesting site for coastal birds.
Self-sufficient camping is available on the island for a maximum of 40 campers at one time. Annie and her partner Jim from the turtle monitoring team greet us and showed us the campsites. They lead a team of volunteers and for the last 20 years have camped on the island for four weeks during the height of the turtle season doing research. Annie tells us this year is an excellent turtle season with an average of about 150 turtles laying their eggs on the beach every night. She advises us that we will need to put a log in front of our tent to stop the turtles from entering at night. We think she is surely exaggerating…
Camping sites are set in the casuarinas and pisonia trees and our tent faces the ocean and nestles amongst nesting Black noddies, Bridled terns and Wedge-tailed shearwaters (mutton birds). Only the turtle research team and two other groups camp on the island. Campsites are spread out enough that we feel we are on a deserted island.
Thousands of seabirds migrate from the Torres Strait to Lady Musgrave every year to breed and nest. Fluffy chicks and their protective parents surround us. It’s chicks galore and seventh heaven for nature lovers and bird watchers with them so close! The noddies nest in the trees above our tent, the terns on the ground and the mutton bird nest in burrows in the ground. When walking on the paths we are careful not to stand on any of the chicks. The terns make a barking sound to warn their chicks to get off the path and hide in the nearby bushes when anyone comes along.
All these birds lay only one egg per couple. The parents take turns sitting on the egg or with the chick while the other leaves at dawn and spends the day fishing on the ocean and returns at dusk. The remaining parent has to fight off seagulls and other predators that fly in and steal the chicks.
Nesting Site for Turtles
Lady Musgrave Island’s ecosystem supports a large population of vulnerable Green turtles and a smaller population of endangered Loggerhead turtles during the breeding season. One night during our stay 175 turtles made their way up to the sand dunes to lay their eggs which is one of the highest numbers recorded.
At sunrise we walk around the island which takes about 45 minutes. Hundreds of turtle tracks decorate the soft silky sand. A turtle is still on the beach flicking sand in the air with her flippers to cover her eggs. We have seen female turtles on the beach at night before but never in the daytime and are amazed. We think she is a one-off until further up the beach more sand goes flying high in the air and turtles in various stages of egg-laying traverse awkwardly over the sand.
Some lay their eggs and some are returning to the ocean. We watch as one digs the nest with all four flippers and then uses her back flippers to dig the deep chamber in the wet sand for her precious eggs. She then lays about 100 eggs that look like little ping-pong balls. Exhausted, she covers the nest with her back flippers to compress the sand over the egg chamber. It’s gruelling work and from the time she leaves the ocean to the time she gets back into the water three to five hours have gone by.
This morning they have a long wait to get back to their ocean home. The tide is still a long way out and the sun is already red-hot. Out of their comfort zone, the turtles have to make their way over sharp rocks to meet the high tide. Some decide to wait it out and sit in shallow pools from the incoming tide. Others clumsily make their way slowly over the rocks in their effort to reunite with the ocean. Moving so painstakingly laboriously on land is a stark contrast to their gliding effortlessly and gracefully underwater. We sit on the beach and watch this natural wonder until the tide comes in and all the turtles are back in the ocean. In about two weeks times they will repeat this all over again when they return to lay more eggs.
The lagoon is sheltered and safe for snorkeling as the surrounding reef provides a barrier against the currents. From the shore, at low tide, it’s possible to walk the 100 metres out to the reef. Our days are spent snorkeling in the lagoon and reef with blue starfish, sea cucumbers, clams, darting damsels, gliding turtles, incredible sea hares, Rainbow parrotfish, small reef sharks, cuttlefish and clownfish defending their anemones.
A large coral bommie full of Tomato clownfish and entwined with their anemone is incredible and we go back to it every day. Turtles swim beside us; they rest on coral bommies, sleep in caves, float with the currents and wait in line at a turtle cleaning station. An encounter with a turtle is almost guaranteed.
Sharing the island with turtles, seabirds and other marine life and being this close to nature leaves us in wonder. We are the only ones sharing the beach with turtles in the morning and when birds start leaving their nests and fly over the ocean towards the molten orange sunrise. It’s like nature’s dream and we have to pinch ourselves.
Breakfast is on the white sand while we watch Pied oystercatchers and seagulls fishing in the shallows and the last of the nesting birds leave for the day. Turtles in the lagoon swim close to the shore. It’s as though they are examining the beach from the ocean in preparation for nesting at night. As soon as we see them, we grab our snorkels and flippers again! With nothing to do but snorkel, dive, swim, eat, read in hammocks and photograph nesting birds our few days here sail along too quickly.
We take our table and chairs down the beach, cook our dinner and have drinks while watching the sunset and the tide come in. The very same beach has both the prettiest sunrises and sunsets! Against the orange sky, thousands of birds fly back to shore to feed their little chicks after a day of fishing on the ocean. Tomorrow they will relieve the parent that sits on the nest today. Turtles slowly make their way up the beach to look for a suitable place for their nest.
As the night darkens and stars sparkle in the clear sky, silhouettes of turtles make their way up the moonlit sand dunes. One crosses the path and moves toward our tent in an endeavour to find the best and safest spot for her eggs. We put a log across to stop her so she doesn’t get tangled up or confused… In our tent, we listen to waves gently splash on the shore. The haunting sound of the Shearwater chicks crying in the dark is overwhelming. They sound like a ghost wailing in the wind. It is melancholy but also one of the most beautiful sounds we hear.
Camping on Lady Musgrave is one of our best nature experiences and a real eye-opener for us. Not only gorgeous beaches and stunning blue waters but the marine and birdlife is immense. The wildlife thrives in this secluded ecosystem like a mini Galapagos Island.
Lady Musgrave Island Information
Our Camping transfers cost $440 (AUD) per person return with Lady Musgrave Experience (children $300 return). Their main service is a daily cruise to Lady Musgrave for day-trippers.
Book camping sites through the National Parks. There is a maximum of 21 days stay.
Campers are allowed one-third cubic metre square of gear on the boat. This isn’t much and they can charge for excess at their discretion. Our allowance was way over the limit and thankfully the staff never charged us.
The boat leaves Burnett Heads Marina, Bundaberg at 7.30 am and arrives at Lady Musgrave at 10 am. On the return, it leaves at 2.30 pm and arrives back in Burnett Heads at 5 pm.
Campers load their gear on the boat the afternoon before or at 6.30 am the morning of departure.
Other Transfer Options
Curtis Ferry Services – Camping transfers to Lady Musgrave, North West and Masthead Islands.
1770 Creek2Reef – Camping transfers to Lady Musgrave Island.
The boat stays on the reef. It can’t go to shore on Lady Musgrave so staff use an inflatable to transfer campers from the boat to the island.
At low tide, there is no access to the camp side of the island even in an inflatable, so campers get dropped off on the other side of the island. From here it is about a 500-metre walk to the camp.
Usually, there are trolleys at the drop-off for campers to load their camping gear. If not, take what you can to the camp and bring a trolley back for everything else if necessary.
Day visitors on the cruise spend about an hour doing a tour of the island. Apart from this, campers have it all to themselves.
Be prepared for the heat, especially in summer. With the perfect sunny days come humid balmy heat and scorching sand. The middle of the day is boiling in summer and when the breeze stops it’s stifling. The more open and spacious the tent, the more comfortable it is.
A lot of creepy crawlies crawl around the island including centipedes so screens on tents are a must.
A tarp over the tent is a good idea otherwise, it will get covered in bird poo!
Reef shoes are necessary to walk out in the lagoon to the reef during low tide because of the sharp corals and rocks.
Don’t be too skimpy on food and water. You want to enjoy the idyllic seclusion and running low on food will spoil it. We brought heaps of food and a 10-litre container of water per day between us. There is no fresh water on the island.
If you do run out of supplies you can arrange with the staff at Lady Musgrave Experience to drop some off. This has to be arranged the day before. We ran out of ice so we had to order more.
Snorkeling and dive equipment can be hired from Lady Musgrave Experience.
There is absolutely no phone coverage on the island but there is an emergency radio.
Composting toilets are the only facilities.
*Take great care when watching the turtles laying their eggs at night. Don’t shine the torch directly on her. Any light shone in her eyes will frighten her back to the ocean without laying her eggs.
The Best Time to Visit Lady Musgrave Island
We went in early December which is one of the best times for the nesting birds and turtles. The island closes for camping during part of the nesting season to give them some quiet time. Closure from Australia Day-26th January to Easter-16th April 2017 (Dates vary slightly each year). The best and only opportunity to camp here at the height of the season is November to January.
During the offseason turtles still swim in the lagoon, the snorkeling is great and there’s a fair chance of having the island all to yourself especially in winter.
Book camping sites through the National Parks up to 11 months in advance. On the site, you can check availability and also see how many people have booked already.
Turtle Breeding Season
Turtles start mating in October.
Females nest and lay their eggs during November to February.
Baby hatchlings emerge during January to March.
Bird Breeding Season
Migrating birds start arriving in October. The first-comers build their nest in the choice sites high up in the trees. Most chicks and birds leave the island by April. If they stay for too long, they can become stuck and entangled in the sticky seed pods the pisonia trees produce.
Our Camping Gear
Air mattress and bedding
Camp table and chairs
2kg gas bottle and single burner
1 frypan and utensils
1 large plastic box for our food
10-litre containers of water
Insect Repellent (Though we didn’t come across biting insects).
Snorkel gear & Reef shoes
Lots of sunscreen is necessary
If camping is not an option, Lady Musgrave Experience has day tours that include snorkeling, lunch and a tour of the island. Currently, they also have ‘Sleep on the Reef’ packages for one and two nights on a boat moored in the lagoon.
Discover 1770 arranged our camping transfers and they also organise trips to the islands of the Southern Barrier Reef – Lady Musgrave, Lady Elliot, Heron and Great Keppel Island.