When you fly into Brisbane and pass over the water as you approach the airport, you get a feel for the Bay, the islands and wetlands that make up Moreton Bay and the entrance to the Brisbane River and city of Brisbane.

Most people arriving in Brisbane will be heading to the City or to the Gold Coast or Sunshine Coast – the most populated areas of Queensland. Greater Brisbane has a population of over 2 million people, the Gold Coast over half a million people and the Sunshine Coast around 260,000 people.

The islands in Moreton Bay however have populations ranging from zero to just a few thousand, and of the 360 islands that make up the Moreton Bay Island, most are uninhabited – making the area quite unique.

Moreton Bay (Aboriginal name – Quandamooka) has an average water depth of less than 7 metres, and covers an area of just over 3400 square kilometres, with a 90 kilometre long shipping channel providing access for ships to enter and leave the Brisbane River and port facilities. The shipping channel is dredged to a depth of 14 metres, measured at low tide, and around 2600 ships berth each year in Brisbane – Cruise ships at the Portside Wharf at Hamilton, and container and bulk grain ships mostly at the Fisherman Islands terminal at the mouth of the Brisbane River.

The Bay itself is very special, with the waterways largely being part of the Moreton Bay Marine Park, which covers a large part of the bay and waterways between the islands. The Bay is one of the most significant wetland areas in the world with tidal mudflats, mangroves, sand flats, sand banks, saltpans and marshland providing habitats for worms, yabbies, fish, crabs, prawns, migratory and shorebirds. An estimated 50,000 wading birds come to Moreton Bay each year, while under water large beds of seagrass (sea grass meadows) provide food for Loggerhead, Green and Hawksbill Turtles and Dugongs (sea cows) who graze there. Dugongs are a unique sea animal that can grow up to 3 metres in length and weigh up to 400kg, and Moreton Bay is home to around 600 to 800 Dugongs, and the only place in Australia where the Dugongs graze in herds.

In the Bay there are also Dolphins – both Bottlenose Dolphins and Indo-Pacific Hump back Dolphins, sharks and of course many types of fish.

Over the years a number of ships have run aground or sunk in Moreton Bay, and there are said to be around 102 ships that have been sunk or abandoned here. Most have long gone, but there are still a few shells of rusting ship hulls that can still be seen around the Bay, with the location of 26 being found.

Six rivers flow into Moreton Bay – the Brisbane River, Logan, Albert, Pine, Pimpama and Caboolture Rivers bringing with them sediments and fresh water to mix with the salty ocean water. The Rivers also flood at different times, bringing with them soil and also debris from the cities too. Maintaining the quality of the water in the Bay is therefore a big task.

To help build up fish numbers and provide greater protection to fish from tidal flows, currents and predators, six artificial reefs have been constructed and placed inside the Marine Park. These vary in size and location, and are made up of specially constructed Reef Balls, fish boxes, fish caves and also an old ship (the Tiwi Pearl – sunk 7km off St Helena Island in 2010), but also old pipes, car tyres and even shopping trolleys! The purpose of all of these artificial reefs is to provide safe places for the fish to swim in and out off, with the holes and shapes being of a size that allows the fish to do this, but also too small for sharks and other predators to catch them. Seaweeds, molluscs and other crustaceans grow on the surfaces of the Reefs, providing an added food source for the fish too, with the reefs also becoming a breeding ground for the fish too.

Recreational fishing, but not professional fishing is allowed in the Marine Park, with the artificial reefs creating better fishing spots, but there are also restrictions on what fish can be caught, and the type of fishing allowed.

The two biggest islands in Moreton Bay are North Stradbroke Island and South Stradbroke Island. These were originally one island, but in 1896 a large storm surge created a channel (The South Passage or Jumpinpin Channel) across the middle of the one long island, splitting it into two separate islands.
North Stradbroke Island is bigger than South Stradbroke Island and is the second biggest sand island in the world, with the biggest sand island being Fraser Island, north of Noosa. It has been occupied for thousands of years by the Quandamooka people, who called the island ‘Minjerribah’.

North Stradbroke Island is 38 kilometres long and has just 3 settlements on it – Dunwich being the main village on Moreton Bay, Point Lookout on the Pacific Ocean side and Amity Point on the northern tip of the island where a Pilot station was set up in 1825.

Dunwich has a small museum to show some of the island’s history, and it was here that the first Catholic Mission to Australian Aborigines was set up in 1843 by 4 Italian Passionist Missionaries. It only lasted a couple of years, closing in 1847. The wreck of the ‘Hercules’, a dredge and ‘Lady Loch’ are also located off Dunwich.

The sand island is covered by natural bushland, with hot summers bringing with it the threat of bush fires – the last one being in 2014. There are over 100 inland lakes and swamps on the island – including Blue Lake and Brown Lake, and a freshwater swamp called Eighteen Mile Swamp – said to be one of the biggest freshwater swamps in the world. A car and passenger ferry service which takes around 45 minutes connects Dunwich to Cleveland on the mainland, and there is also a Water Taxi service which takes around half an hour. (see and )

Weekends sees many mainlanders heading for the island to stay in camping grounds, backpacker places and holiday homes, attracted to the relaxed beach lifestyle, the surf beaches, lakes, swimming, fishing, natural bush, koalas, kangaroos and bird life. Main Beach on the ocean side is a 32 kilometres long stretch of open white sand and sand dunes, while Gorge Walk takes in the headland, where you can look down into the water and see Rays and other sea life.

While the island has been used for sand mining for over 60 years, today Tourism is playing a large part in the Island’s economy.

South Stradbroke Island is smaller than North Stradbroke Island being just 21 kilometres long and not as wide, and is just 200 metres away from the Spit near Southport on the Gold Coast.

The ocean side is a 21 kilometre long surf beach, while the Bay side is a haven for fishing, canoeing, swimming, and other water sports. A ferry service operates from Runaway Bay Marina to the island. The Ramada Couran Point Island Beach Resort is also located on the island.

The island has sand dunes, the beaches, natural bushland for walks and rock climbing and wallabies that come around the campgrounds – of which there are four but you need to book a campsite before going. Tel: (07) 5577 3932 or (07) 5577 2849.

If you are looking for a quiet place to take in nature, away from people it is worth taking a trip to the island for the day or to camp or stay over.

Bribie Island – is north of North Stradbroke Island and it is possible to drive there from the mainland. Take the Bribie Island turnoff near Caboolture, north of Brisbane.

The island sits alongside the Pumicestone Passage and the island has a population of around 17,000 people spread around the island’s small villages. The ocean side has a long ocean sandy beach which goes for miles, and 4WD vehicles can travel along it at low tide, while the Bay side has quieter water and is home to Dugongs, Turtles, Dolphins and fish making it a great place to see and spend time on the water

There are lots of places to stay from resort style hotels to camping grounds, and the main activities include all the water sports, fishing, bush walking and sightseeing. A large part of the island is National Park, but there is also a gold course, shops, restaurants, a movie theatre, boat ramps, markets, boats for hire and lots more.

Moreton Island – is the third biggest sand island in the world, and its Ngugi Aboriginal clan name is ‘Moorgupin’ – meaning “place of sandhills”.
The island is a natural wilderness, with long, wide open white sand beaches on the ocean side and quieter bays and beaches on the Bay side, which is also where the Tangalooma Resort is also located. ‘Tangalooma’ is the Ngugi name meaning ‘Where fishes meet’.

On the northern tip of the island is Cape Moreton Lighthouse built in 1857 overlooking the channel, while on the southern end of the island are large sand dunes – called Big Sandhills and Little Sandhills.

During World War II, some defence batteries were built at Cowan Cowan (Bay side) and also on the ocean side called Rous Battery, and the remnants of these batteries can still be seen. Just off the coast at Cowan Cowan lie the Kos I and Kos II whale chaser boats which were scuttled here. Divers can still see the wrecks.

In 1950 a whaling company set up a large whaling station, with the first whales harpooned in 1952 and the last in 1962. Over the 10 year period more than 6000 humpback whales were killed, before the whaling station was closed, and whales protected from slaughter. Today whale watching between June and October each year has become a popular tourist activity, and boats leave from the island to do this.

Near Tangalooma Resort, you will also find ‘The Desert’ – a large sand dune area where you can even toboggan down the sides of the dunes, while to the north of the Resort there are a number of old rusting ship wrecks and barges which were part of the original dredging fleet.

The island is a naturalist’s dream with birds and natural bushland surrounded by ocean on the one side and Moreton Bay on the other. The island has a number of camping locations and walking tracks as well as old ship wrecks just to the north of Tangalooma Resort.

St Helena Island – see Brisbane History on this website to read about this most interesting island and its history.

Macleay Island – is home to around 3500 people and has a school, golf club, bowls club, and small shopping centres as well as homes for the residents. It is the biggest of what are called the ‘Bay Islands’ – the other islands being Russell Island, Lamb Island, Karragarra Island and Coochmudlo Island. The island was also first occupied by Aboriginal clans, who gave it the name of ‘Alcheringa’ or possibly ‘Jencoomercha’, with the first Europeans occupying the island in the 1860’s, even building a sugar mill and salt works there in 1869, the ruins of which can still be seen today.

A barge and ferry service operate to the island from Redland Bay – Weinam Street wharf, and the island also has good fishing, swimming and bar-b-cue set ups for visitors.

Russell Island – near Macleay Island has a population of around 2500 people, and was first established in 1866, with land being sold to farmers and oystermen . By the early 1900’s a pineapple cannery, sawmill, picture theatre and small school had been built. The island came to fame or infamy in the 1970’s when blocks of land were being heavily promoted to investors in Sydney and Melbourne, based on their huge potential and waterfront views! Many investors bought the land sight unseen, only to find out that at high tide their land was underwater, and the promised bridge to the mainland would never be built.

Coochimudlo Island – often called “Coochi” lies a short distance off Victoria Point in the Redlands area, with a ferry running from the wharf at Colburn Ave in Victoria Point to the island. The name Coochimudlo is from the Goenpil aboriginal language with “Coochi” meaning “Red Earth”, and “mudlo” meaning “stone”, which describes the red rock found on the island. There are about 700 residents on the island, and a number of beaches with fishing and water sports being the main attraction. There are also holiday flats and other accommodation options, including the “Coochi Resort – Tel” (07) 3207 7521.

Peel Island – This island, just to the west of Dunwich on North Stradbroke Island is Heritage listed and has quite an amazing history, being used as a quarantine station in the 1800’s, then later as an Asylum for vagrants from Brisbane, who were then used to grow sisal on the island and make ropes, and then between 1907 and 1969 the island was used as a leper colony, (or Lazaret) with patients kept in isolation single unit buildings in a larger compound. Leprosy is now called “Hansen’s Disease”.

The Lazaret opened in 1907 with 71 patients, and over the years of its operation over 500 patients were housed here, with 200 of these dying from the disease or from other causes in appalling conditions.

Today it is possible to see some of the early sisal plantations can be seen on the western side of the island, while on the northern side there are some of the buildings that still remain from the old Leprosy colony.

The island also has an artificial reef with 341 reef balls has been set up to the west of the island, and the waters surrounding the island are popular with boaties and fishermen, with Horseshoe Bay being a popular destination.

THE MORETON BAY ISLANDS – all have their own character and histories, and even though they are close to Brisbane and the mainland, they remain largely undeveloped, creating a distinct difference to the more popular Gold Coast and Sunshine beach areas and the way that they have developed.
We hope that you have enjoyed finding out more about the islands near Brisbane.

Happy Travelling!

Geoff Stuart

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