Visiting the Frankland Islands, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
The pristine Frankland Islands are located 10km offshore, 45km south-east of Cairns. Surrounded by healthy coral that is teeming with sea life, a day trip to the Frankland Islands is one of the best and easiest ways to explore the Great Barrier Reef.
There are five islands comprising the Frankland Islands: Normanby, High, Russell, Round and Mabel. The islands are part of the World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
How to get to the Frankland Islands
There is only one way to visit to these uninhabited islands: booking through Frankland Islands Reef Cruises. The islands are uninhabited, which means no bathroom or running water. While camping is allowed on Russel Island, Frankland Islands Reef Cruises are the only company to hold a permit to visit Normanby Island.
The day trips depart from Deeral. You can self-drive like we did, or take the Frankland Islands Reef Cruises air conditioned coach that departs Cairns daily at around 7.45am. Transfers are also available from Mission Beach.
The drive takes about 45 minutes. It’s a gorgeous drive south, past fields of sugar cane and the iconic Gordonvale Pyramid.
The departure point also has no facilities so prepare to board the luxurious boat Turtle Islander straight away, where there are restrooms and drinkable water available. The boat has two levels, air conditioning, shade and plenty of comfortable seating inside the boat.
It’s a 30-minute calm water cruise along the Mulgrave River, which is lined with rainforest and mangroves, before a short 6-mile open water crossing to the Frankland Islands, which takes about 15 minutes. If you’re lucky like us, you’ll see crocodiles on the banks of the river.
Morning and afternoon tea is provided on board the boat – tea, coffee and some bikkies are very happily received.
If you’re like me and suffer from extreme seasickness but still want to see the reef, then this is the best option for you. The Frankland Islands day trip is the shortest open water crossing of any Cairns reef day tour (approx 15 minutes).
What’s included in the price
Included in the price is generous buffet lunch, which is served on the island. The menu includes a choice of several salads, chicken, ham, prawns, breads and an abundance of fresh tropical fruit. I received fresh vegetarian wraps.
Also included in the price are flotation devices, snorkeling gear (prescription masks are an extra $15), seasonal protection suits, free guide for certified divers. Wetsuits are available for an extra cost ($15).
When we visited in July the water was too cold for me to swim without a wetsuit.
Things to do on the Frankland Islands
Once you’ve arrived on the island, there are plenty of activity options and the day just flies by.
Snorkelling is easy to do right off the beach. Only a few metres out we saw parrot fish, clown fish, giant glams, sea cucumbers and more.
While it would be quite easy to spend the day just snorkelling, walking around the island and relaxing, there are optional extras that can be added on to make the day more adventurous.
I chose to do the Adventure Snorkel Safari ($10). The onboard marine biologist took took swimmers around to the other side of the island where the coral is in abundance and the sea life similarly so.
It was incredible to see the healthy coral teeming with fish, giant clams, and I even spotted a sleeping green sea turtle. Sea life that is found in this part of the reef also includes anemonefish, nudibranchs, sea stars, stingrays, feather stars, wrasse, butterflyfish, angelfish, parrotfish, damselfish and manta rays.
While I was doing the adventure snorkel, Alec and Cheese took a ride on the semi-submersible ($5). The tour went to the same reef that my snorkelling tour visited, but from the comfort of the enclosed boat. It’s a great option for kids who aren’t strong snorkellers. From their excellent position they saw the same stunning coral and fish life that I did on my snorkelling tour.
After lunch we did the Guided Island Walk ($5) with the cruise’s marine biologist. The walk was one of the highlights of the day for us. We took a very slow walk around the island, through the rock pools, rainforest and beaches, learning about the islands and their unique creatures.
One of the distinctive features of the Frankland Islands are their coral beaches, rather than soft sand. On the walk we learned that in the ocean coral only lasts around 10 years, after which it washes ashore and eventually forms the rock shelf.
We also learned that the islands were made into a National Park after a special star protozoa was found on Normandy Island, in one small spot on the shore. The protozoa (too small to photograph) is only found in one other place in the world, Okinawa, Japan, making is a special place in need of protecting.
Other optional activities: scuba diving (from $99), clear kayaks ($15), stand up paddle board ($15), sea-doo scooter ($70).
If you want to camp on Russell Island, you can also be transferred to the island for a fee. Permits apply.
Photography on the Frankland Islands
There is an underwater photographer onboard daily. Ours was excellent at getting lots of photos of us snorkelling and on the beach. He also brought his drone so we were able to get the fantastic shot of us on the beach from above. I thought his package to buy all of the photos at the end was very reasonable (I can’t remember how much it was however!).
You can hire an underwater camera ($35) from Frankland Island Reef Cruises. I used my GoPro underwater, however the water was a bit cloudy on the day we visited so I didn’t get amazing shots that do justice to how beautiful the reef was.
What you need to know about a Frankland Islands Day Trip
Check in at 8.15am for an 8.30am departure
The tour returns to Cairns around 5.15pm.
Bring shoes to walk around on the beach as it is coral, not sand. We took reef shoes but thongs/flip flops would also be fine.
We were hosted by Frankland Islands Reef Cruises. All opinions are my own. Additional images with thanks to Frankland Islands Reef Cruises.
Christine is the editor of Adventure, Baby!