Magnetic Island…strangely alluring


Magnetic Island holidayMagnetic Island, off the coast of Queensland just out from Townsville, has to be one of the most family friendly holiday destinations this country has to offer, at least outside of stinger season.

We went in July 2011 and while the locals thought it was too cold to swim, we had no problem taking the plunge — especially given the gorgeous swimming and snorkelling opportunities on offer.

We stayed at Arcadia on the southeast coast, across the road from toddler friendly Geoffrey Bay and a short walk from the good swimming beach of Alma Bay. Having visited the other settlements on the island, Arcadia is where I would choose to stay again for its proximity to what were, for me, some of the islands main attractions.

Alma Bay is a patrolled beach and there’s a kids playground with shady lawn and amenities that fronts on to the sand.

Magnetic Island holidayLow tide at Geoffrey Bay is perfect for beach-combing, the kids chasing hermit crabs and paddling around in the shallow water. This is an ideal beach for building sandcastles and decorating them with shells, coral and seaweed, all of which are in ample supply.

At the northern end of Geoffrey Bay a dirt road curves around the water to Bremner Point. The road is lined with the volcanic boulders that characterise Magnetic Island’s dramatic landscape, and at sunset rock wallabies come down from the cliffs, balancing on the boulders with the dexterity of circus performers. They gather in the carpark where people feed with specially purchased pellets or certain types of fruit and vegetables (outlined on a sign). However, it’s not necessary to feed the rock wallabies to get close and the photo opportunities are amazing. Look out for joeys in the pouches and keep clear of the boxing males.

Magnetic Island is rich in native wildlife. If the clamour of the curlews doesn’t wake you in the wee hours of the morning, chances are the kookaburras will; there’s a blue-winged variety unique to this region. Just around from where we were staying was a flying fox colony, while a sea eagle welcomed us when our ferry from Townsville pulled into the jetty at Nelly Bay.

Magnetic Island holidayThe flora and fauna on land is rivalled only by that in the sea. Snorkelling off Magnetic Island, it’s easy to remember that you are not far from the Great Barrier Reef. We snorkelled at a few places, but by far the best was Arthur Bay, north of Alma Bay. Accessible only by 4WD down an unsealed track, Arthur Bay has shade, sand, fabulous rock formations, and — at the northern end — splendid coral reefs teeming with tropical fish. If you get the tide times right, you can walk out and snorkelling only centimetres from the coral. We spent several mornings at Arthur Bay, the highlight of which was swimming with a sea turtle in the coral garden.

Tropical Cyclone Yasi, which hit northern Queensland in January 2011, had taken it’s toll on sea turtles in the area — or at least the sea grass meadows they rely on for food. Injured and hungry turtles often end up on the nursery at the ReefHQ Aquarium in Townsville, which we visited on a day trip to the mainland. We timed our visit to catch the daily Predator Dive Show where, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, we got hear the diver chat as he swam with sharks and other animals in a tank full of predators. We got introduced to aquarium long-timers Leo and Leonie, a mating pair of leopard sharks, and sentimental favourite Cuddles the tawny nurse shark, resident since 1996, who spent his days snoozing, harvesting food from under rocks when he could be bothered. We learned that blacktip reef sharks never stop swimming, and the long blade-like nose of a sawfish is called a rostrum. The woman who interviewed the diver in the tank also handed around stuff for us to touch: a small shark jawbone and teeth, egg sacs and a sawfish rostrum. A great show.

Magnetic Island holidayOur visit coincided with the school holiday program at the aquarium. Indigenous project officer Russell Butler, whose background is the Bandjin people of Hinchinbrook, was demonstrating traditional skills, and there was a range of craft activities on offer linked to traditional Aboriginal stories from the region. Our favourite was ‘The two boys and the Dhui Dhui’ best, the story of how the Southern Cross got into the sky. As well as a model Dhui Dhui — shovel-nosed stingray — to cut out and colour, we got a print out of the story and a visual map, complete with legend to help us read the symbols.

The other highlight of our day-trip to Townsville was the Strand Water Park on the foreshore. Not much beats watching kids so excited, they can’t stop jumping for joy.

While it might not rival ReefHQ Aquarium, the Aquasearch Lab and Aquarium at 6-10 Elena St in Nelly Bay is worth a visit. Set up outside the home of Rick and Nell Braley, the quirky,  compact display includes tanks of colourful corals, anemones, tropical fish — crowd pleasers like clown fish, moon wrasse, damsel fish, blue tang — and a 25+ year old cultured Giant Clam, cultivated as part of Dr Rick’s PhD research.

Magnetic Island holidaySpeaking of culture, don’t miss the weekly Cane Toad races at the Arcadia Pub, held on Wednesdays though rescheduled to Friday during our visit on account of some rugby match. The races are hosted by ‘Island icon’ and colourful racing personality Verne Jack, who is also responsible for the wallaby feeding. Wearing shorts, a T-shirt and one white sock on the night we attended, Verne hoists the toads from a plastic garbage bin one at a time, each wearing a different coloured ribbon, and introduces them: orange is ‘The Flying Ductchman’, green is ‘Irish’, pink is the ‘Pink Pussycat’, etc. Verne auctions them off one at a time to the highest bidders — someone paid $80 for a toad the night we were there — then places them in an octagonal perspex pen at the centre of a large painted circle. When Verne lifts the box away, the cane toads — which look even uglier for wearing ribbons — ‘race’ to the edge of the circle. First one over the line wins…unless it doubles back, in which case the next one wins. The winner gets a cash prize, with profits going to junior lifesaving. Awesome.

Another island event worth mentioning is the open air food market at the RSL Hall, 31 Hayles Ave, Arcadia, with Thai and Indonesian foodstalls, a full bar inside the hall, and a fabulous range of home-cooked cakes and preserves. Open from 5-8pm on Fridays, come early to get a table or bring a picnic rug.


The Coral Sea area around Magnetic Island is an extraordinary, pristine marine environment. To add your voice to the campaign to keep it that way, go to the Protect Our Coral Sea website. It takes less than a minute to make a submission to the Federal Environment Minister, and while you’re there, you can check out the superb photos and videos.


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