It’s the Caribbean-style ‘astonishing’ Queensland wonder filled with 360 islands – five times as many as the Whitsundays. But it is largely ignored by the outside world. Now it is set to be unlocked as a new tourism drawcard.
IT’S the Sunshine State’s best-kept secret – southeast Queensland’s equivalent of the world-famous Whitsunday islands.
Moreton Bay stretches for 125 kilometres from the Gold Coast to Bribie Island.
At 1523 square kilometres, it is more than 27 times bigger than Sydney Harbour and is packed with marine life.
It features 360 islands – nearly five times as many as the Whitsundays. And it is largely ignored.
“The bay is the most astonishing asset we have,” Daniel Gschwind, chief executive of the Queensland Tourism Industry Council, said.
“I cannot imagine any major city in the world with such an amazing asset which is so overlooked.
“You can see dolphins and whales, you might see dugong, turtles – incredible wildlife experiences – as well as the islands themselves.
“But it’s the close secret of a minority of people. We really don’t make enough of it from a tourism point of view.”
But not for much longer.
“We are going to unlock the gem of Moreton Bay in the next five years,” Tourism Industry Development Minister Kate Jones told The Courier-Mail. “This is the top priority for the next five years.”
Ms Jones is bringing together the mayors of Brisbane, Moreton Bay, Redland and the Gold Coast to develop a joint strategy to exploit the potential of the bay as a tourist attraction. A Gold Coast Waterways Authority-type body to oversee the bay is a possible option, but unlikely.
“I don’t think we’ve understood how important Morton Bay is to growing tourism in Queensland,” she said.
South Gorge Beach, on North Stradbroke Island, is an example of the stunning beauty that could lure visitors from around the world to Moreton Bay. Picture: Liam Kidston.
A mere six per cent of international visitors who come through the Brisbane region make it to the bay, according to research for Brisbane Marketing’s Vision 2031 blueprint to boost tourist numbers and the length of time they stay. It sets a goal of generating $1 billion a year from future activities on and around the bay.
“It’s massive. It’s absolutely massive what you can do out there,” leading tourism entrepreneur John Sharpe said. “When you think about how people view the Great Barrier Reef and the Whitsundays, there’s no reason we shouldn’t look at Moreton Bay the same way.
“There’s great snorkelling and diving spots, amazing beaches, fantastic bush walks on the islands and the marine life out there is incredible – dolphins, turtles, whale watching. There are 500 dugong out there.”
Moreton Bay has more than 25,000 whales migrate through it every year. The bay is home to six of the world’s seven sea turtle species and understood to be one of very few locations where dugong herd.
Brisbane Whale Watching skipper captain Kerry Lopez said she had seen the annual migration of massive mammals grow from 500 to 25,000 in her 23 years of running tours in the bay.
“This is now becoming a nursing ground too,’’ she said.
Capt Lopez, who also operates dolphin-spotting trips and sunset tours, is excited about the bay’s potential. “We really have to let people know what we have here because it’s world-class,” she said.
She wants pontoons to facilitate day trips to Moreton Island and snorkelling and scuba tours to the Curtin artificial reef – as well as reintroducing a vehicle ferry which would travel between Scarborough, Bribie Island and Moreton Island.
Moreton Island and North Stradbroke Island are two of the four largest sand islands on the planet. One of the others, Bribie, marks the northern limit of the bay. The largest, Fraser Island, is also in Queensland.
Star Entertainment Group chief executive Matt Bekier says the company’s $3.6 million Queen’s Wharf resort precinct in Brisbane will play an important role in unlocking both the city’s river and Moreton Bay and encouraging tourists to enjoy them with boat trips, guided island tours and food and other experiences.
“There are a number of people who have come to us with their suggestions and ideas and we are looking at a range of them,” Mr Bekier said.
“That is one of the great under-utilised assets. Such a phenomenal stretch of water.
“My personal view is we need to have more places for people to spend money. If you go into a bay and go around an island, that’s terrific but it becomes a real destination if there is a restaurant or a bar or a cafe or places for you to get off the boat and do things. And that’s what we need more of.”
Further south, the Walker Corporation hopes to perform a similar role with its proposed $1.4 billion Toondah Harbour development at Cleveland.
The Tangalooma shipwrecks on Moreton Island are already a hot tourist destination.
The development, which still has to jump federal environmental assessment hurdles, would include a ferry terminal and marina facilities, swimming lagoon and waterfront retail and dining as well as housing.
Local Mayor Karen Williams says her aim is to make the Redlands Coast, with 330km of coastline and islands the “natural adventure playground of southeast Queensland”.
The Courier-Mail last weekend highlighted the raft of indigenous tourism enterprises being led by the traditional owners, Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation, on North Stradbroke Island (Minjerribah), including a cultural centre, whale interpretation centre, accommodation, and the launch of whale watching trips with indigenous guides from next month.
James Tuma, national director of leading urban design specialist Urbis, has created a concept plan of some of the myriad of possibilities across the bay and its surrounds.
It includes a river mouth maritime hub near the new Brisbane Cruise Ship Terminal, due to open next year, with a fleet of tourist boats to the bay, fast ferries into the city and fishing charter vessels.
The “middle bay” islands – Mud and Green – would be perfect birdwatching and eco-tourism locations while St Helena, with its rich history as a colonial prison, and Peel Island – a former leper colony – could expand their heritage appeal with food and beverage hubs.
There are seven artificial reefs in the bay already to provide recreational anglers with opportunities and Mr Tuma says more could be added – along with a floating resort, either for day-trippers or longer stays as well as scientific research bases.
Mr Tuma describes the southern bay islands as “like the Caribbean, with crystal clear water and boats bobbing about and houses on the hills”.
He said inhabited islands such as Russell, Macleay, Lamb and Coochiemudlo were ripe for opening up to more visitors, possibly with a tunnel or bridges. Likewise, villages on Moreton Island like Kooringal, Bulwer and Cowan Cowan could be made more accessible with boat access and world-class walking trails could be established.
He said the extra activity would reignite towns and suburbs along the coastline from Cleveland and Wellington Point in the south to the Redcliffe Peninsula and Sandstone Point, Bribie, in the north.
“With so many natural wonders, as well as an impressive oyster farming and aquaculture industry, Moreton Bay already has the makings of a fantastic destination,” Mr Tuma said.