The Whitsundays are a group of 74 islands off the sub-tropical central Queensland coast of Australia between approximately 20° and 21° south latitude. Among the world’s best cruising grounds, the islands offer an abundance of yacht anchorages each within easy sailing distance from the next. Most of the islands are unspoilt national parks; seven have resorts.

The brilliant turquoise of the waters surrounding the Whitsundays is caused by the scattering of light by particles of fine sediments that come mostly from the river systems of the adjacent mainland. Huge tides (typically 3–5 metres in rise and fall) that sweep this part of the coast keep these sediments stirred up and scatter the sunlight, in the same way that scattering of light gives the sky its blue colour.

The Whitsundays are a popular destination for holidaymakers of all kinds and for those who just enjoy being on or in the water. The unspoilt nature of the islands makes it possible to feel that one is making a discovery or setting foot where no one has gone before. However this is far from the case …

The Whitsundays and the neighbouring coastal fringe are the traditional home of the Ngaro Aboriginal people, who are also known as the “Canoe People”. Archaelogical research shows that the Ngaro inhabited the Whitsundays for at least the past 9000 years. Evidence of Ngaro occupation includes stone axes and cutting tools found in a stone quarry on South Molle Island, numerous fish traps (stone structures made for catching fish) throughout the Whitsundays, and cave paintings discovered at Nara Inlet on Hook Island. At Nara Inlet, middens (prehistoric heaps consisting mostly of discarded shells and bones) have enabled archaeologists to determine that people began using the cave there about 2500 years ago. Hundreds of other sites — many much older — have been found across the islands.

The islands were made known to Europeans by the English explorer, James Cook, in 1770, but Australian aborigines knew all about them at least 6000 years before that and probably for even longer, back to the days before they actually were islands. The Whitsundays are the tops of coastal mountains that became cut off from the mainland during the end of the last ice age. The sea attained its current level about 6000 years ago.

The islands are of the same geological composition as the adjacent mainland. They are cloaked in eucalypt and pine, with the occasional swathe of vivid green grassland or an occasional shadowy gully of rainforest. Patches of exposed granite betray the islands’ essentially rocky character. Being in subtropical waters where corals grow, they are surrounded by fringing coral reefs that give them a jewel-like appearance when viewed from above. These fringing reefs can provide hours of diversion for scuba divers, snorkellers and those who enjoy fishing.


European discoverer James Cook didn’t name the islands but rather ‘Whitsunday’s Passage’, which was the passage between Cape Conway (20° 22’S, 148° 55’E, the tip of the mainland on the west) and the islands lying to the east of this. That Sunday in June 1770 when he passed through was Whit Sunday, the celebration on the Christian calendar that takes place on the 49th day (7 weeks) after Easter Sunday. The term is derived from Old English meaning “White Sunday”, after the white robes of those newly baptised at Pentecost, the fiftieth day after the second day of the Passover. Cook named the surrounding islands ‘Cumberland Isles’, and on his sketch of the area, the label ‘Cumberland Isles’ extends well to the south of Cape Conway and the islands to the east. Cook actually named only one of the islands, Pentecost.

Successive naval surveyors in the 1800s gave names to most of the rest, many names coming from the old county of Cumberland in England (now Cumbria) because the landscape reminded the surveyors of that part of England. Today’s charts show a ‘Whitsunday Group’ (as well as other island groups), but there is no official definition of the ‘Whitsunday islands’. There are over 150 islands, islets and rocks in the Cumberlands, which the hydrographic office considers to be all those from Snare Peak Island in the south (21° 06′ S, 149° 56′ E) to Hayman Island in the north (20° 03 S, 148° 53’E). Someone somewhere along the line in an advertising brochure seized upon the number ’74’ as being the number of ‘Whitsunday islands’, a figure often touted in promotion of the area but which has no apparent basis.

The Whitsundays have a warm subtropical climate with mild winters and warm to very warm summers. Much of the annual rainfall occurs in the wet season, which is usually January-March, when a considerable portion of rain falls at night. The water is a swimmable temperature year round, and the Queensland sun creates shirt-sleeve weather most of the time.

The southern tropics have occasional cyclones, which can occur in the Whitsundays from November to May, but if they happen at all, are most likely to come in February and March. Queensland has an excellent cyclone warning system that provides plenty of advance notice of an impending cyclone.

Colfelt, David 2010, 100 Magic Miles of the Great Barrier Reef and Whitsunday Islands, 9th Ed. 
Department of Environmental and Resource Management. Queensland Government. 2010.

If you are planning on joining our Panorama Tour of Whitehaven Experience Flight we suggest you read the Department of Environment and Resource Management guide to Responsible Park Practices


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