Cruising to Keppel

You always know when the cruising season in Australia is well underway because a stream of purple symbols on Marine Traffic will show a constant procession of boats making their way to Great Keppel Island. Whether travelling north or south, Keppel is a rite of passage. A place for cruising yachts to drop anchor, rest and relax that has reached legendary proportions, and for good reason.

Stunning safe beaches, incredible walking trails, idyllic snorkelling spots and bays offering protection from all points of the compass are just some of the reasons why it’s a yachties paradise. Some cruisers spend months at GKI, and, as the breeze clocks around the island, so do the boats. Collectively, they perform the famous “Keppel Shuffle,” making new friends and exploring the island as they go.

Just 15km from the town of Yeppoon, Great Keppel Island (also known as Wop-pa, Woppaburra and Wappaburra) is one of the largest islands in the region. Home to Darunbal nations people for more than 5000 years, Wop-pa provided haven and abundant seafood for their mob until European settlers arriving in the 1800s changed it forever. Pastoral leases brought sheep to roam and graze before a gradual transition towards commercial tourism began in the wake of World War 2.


Like many Queensland Islands, resorts at Great Keppel have come and gone.

By the mid 1900’s an island resort boasted a pool, an air strip and accommodation for more than 350 visitors and 130 staff. Contiki managed a resort in the early 2000’s that captured the attention of backpackers around the world with its “I Got Wrecked On Great Keppel Island” marketing spin.

These days, the big resorts are long gone. Just a handful of small operators remain to cater for a compact tourism market and the odd visiting yacht.

The Southern Great Barrier Reef resort finally closed its doors in 2008. Not long after, a master plan approved in 2012 heralded construction of a marina, golf course and even a casino, but nothing eventuated. Plans to bring the island back to life (in a commercial resort sense) continue to emerge and disappear, including an expansion proposal from Gina Reinhardt’s Hancock Prospecting in 2021 that was shelved just a year later.

The topic of future island development is a divisive one with potential investors, traditional owners, government, the cruising community, and current business owners all failing to find consensus so far. The good news though, is that those of us who visit Wop-pa by private boat right now, are still free to explore and enjoy it.


There are many reasons why GKI commands such a special place in the heart of visiting yacht crews. Let’s take a whip around.
With its southerly aspect, Long Beach is the place to escape from northerlies and north westerlies. A stunning white beach offers good holding in sand and plenty of safe shore swimming. It’s quite deep in close so even if a large contingent is doing the shuffle, room to swing isn’t difficult to find. Be aware of tides though. Big tides can see deeper draft boats bumping the bottom. Long Beach is also suitable to dry out a catamaran for hull checks/maintenance.

If Long Beach is getting crowded or maybe you’re up for a change of scenery one afternoon, try ducking around the corner to Monkey Beach. If you’re lucky enough to nab one of the moorings close to the reef, you can even snorkel from the boat.

In the right conditions it’s possible to anchor and take advantage of the sandy bottom running between Monkey and the resort beaches at the western end of the island but be warned that it could get bumpy. Often, private and tourist boats that whip through this area don’t consider the wake they leave.

Catamarans can find anchorage close to the holiday village beaches in NE-ESE winds but, drawing 2.4m, we gave this area a miss. Keep an eye on the weather and move on if the breeze swings south as this end of the island can often be uncomfortable and rolly in a south easterly breeze.

When the trade winds blow, you’ll find the sailing pod spread throughout Svendsen’s and Leeke’s beach anchorages. Take the dinghy into the creeks at high tide and explore. If you’re travelling with children, keep an eye out above the beach for makeshift swings and play areas. A BBQ camp area midway along Svendsen’s is a favourite meeting place for sundowners. When dinghies begin to congregate late in the afternoon, follow them and join in. No invitation needed. 

Fair warning, this side of the island is renowned for the “Keppel Roll” when the south easterlies blow consistently strong. Some yachts carry and deploy “flopper stoppers” just for this reason. Watch the movements of other boats. If it begins to get uncomfortable and others begin to weigh anchor and move on, you might just choose to follow.

Above Svendsen’s and Leeke’s is Butterfish Bay. Ideal for shallow-draft vessels, this small bay affords another option to escape the crowds but give a wide berth to the reef patch to port.


Further around, Wreck Beach on the Eastern side can be another stop along the way for those doing the Keppel Shuffle. Some have found protection here from light SE winds but watch for swell; the shore break can sometimes challenge even the best dinghy skippers. 


You can swim all year round in crystal-clear water at Great Keppel Island, even in Winter. Snorkelling is excellent at Wreck Beach, while Monkey Beach, tucked just a short walk over the hill from Long Beach, is a favourite with visitors to both. The fish schools were massive, and we also saw turtles while snorkelling Monkey Bay reef (which unfortunately shows considerable storm damage).

Other great snorkelling spots include Clam Bay Reef, Secret Cove, and the old underwater observatory where large cod live and lurk. Diving spots include Halfway and Humpy islands.


While it’s possible to get a coffee or a burger on the island, don’t expect to provision here. Keppel Bay Marina at Rosslyn Bay is the nearest fuel point. A favourite with those who stay a while at GKI, the marina also has a restaurant, small chandlery, and direct transport connection to Yeppoon thanks to a bus stop right outside.

At time of writing in Winter 2022, friends were reporting that they have been able to organise collection of large supermarket deliveries. Small orders, however, may not be worth the effort once you factor in delivery and ferry charges. Keppel Konnections, operate daily ferry transfer services to GKI. While they have been delivering Coles orders recently to yachties, it’s always best to check with them directly to confirm that the service is still possible before ordering through Coles online. Deliveries can be left at the scuba desk or you can meet the ferry on arrival.


You could spend weeks walking the island tracks and find still more to explore. While it’s worth mentioning that dogs are allowed on the island (it isn’t National Park), that doesn’t mean they are free to roam. Protecting island wildlife is paramount, and dogs pose an ongoing danger to nesting shorebirds. Unfortunately, there are stories of irresponsible yacht crews not controlling their pets or cleaning up after them. The same rules apply here as in a city park. Don’t be that boat.

Hike inland to find the old homestead from Leeke’s beach and keep an eye out for quirky signs and whimsical rock poetry when exploring from Svendsen’s. I’ve been told that there are caves on the southern side of Clam Bay and a that a walk to Butterfly Gully in butterfly season is a must. One of the longer island walks involves a trek up to the lighthouse and you’ll also find great views from Mt Wyndham. Wreck Bay has some great walks inland from the beach. A great resource is the Visit Great Keppel map which you can DOWNLOAD HERE

Be aware that most trails are not maintained. Some will have you scrambling along paths of loose stones, so good walking shoes are a must. More than one hapless yachtie has regretted their decision to depart in thongs. Be wary of sand flies in September and October, if they are around, layer your clothing and carry a good repellent. Another tip is to leave early in the morning and always take water; a short walk on GKI can quickly turn into a long one! Don’t be fooled by cool breezes on the beaches, the heat can be intense when hiking through the middle of the island.

In the cruising community there are those who visit GKI every year and have done so for many decades. It’s the place where stunning sunsets, burgers at Tropical Vibes and Svendsen’s Beach sundowner sessions (all cruisers welcome) are legendary. Magical memories are quickly made, and friendships forged at Keppel often last a lifetime. As one fellow cruiser commented “You’d have to travel a lot of nautical miles north and south to find anything equal or better”


Traci Ayris

© 2022