Blog Post

5 Dreamy sand cays you must visit on the Great Barrier Reef

Francesca Beckett

TNQ Writer

We’ve all seen those gorgeous wisps of whiteness poking out from an azure sea on Great Barrier Reef. But what are they? More importantly, where are they? And how can we get a piece of sand cay action? I’m here to reveal all.

Sand cays

A sand cay is a low sandy island found on the surface of coral reefs. They’re created when sediment drifting on ocean currents descends on the same reef, piling atop one another to form an island. It’s a bit like a maritime flash mob.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: the Great Barrier Reef in Tropical North Queensland has a healthy dose of them.

After dedicating an extraordinary amount of time visiting these picture postcard perfect sand cays I’ve become something of an expert, making countless trips, camera in hand, lusting after that perfect shot. Here are my top five sand cays to visit. But be warned: once you’ve visited a sand cay you’ll be hooked.

1. Upolo Cay

Upolo Cay

This sand cay is a very shy cay indeed. When Cyclone Yasi tore through the area in 2011 this poor little stretch of sand had its top whipped clean off and now only emerges at low tide.

To visit this wallflower book yourself a trip out with Ocean Free Cruises on their boat Ocean Freedom. After a lovely morning snorkelling on Upolo Reef they’ll transfer you over to the cay to snorkel back to the boat. Check the tides to make sure you’ll get an afternoon low and grab your camera. The shallow waters around the cay make for some great snaps. You can expect to find waters teeming with marine life too.

Upolo was the first sand cay I visited so it’ll always feel a little special to me. On that day, years ago I took my first steps on the marvellous white sand and felt the first seeds of my addiction sown. I was standing on a beach in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef! It doesn’t get better than that.

2. Vlassoff Cay

Vlassoff Cay

This is the VIP of all the sand cays on the Great Barrier Reef. Want to visit? Then book yourself an exclusive sand cay flight with GBR Helicopters. You’ll be taken by private helicopter to your very own sandy oasis in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef for a few hours of picnic and snorkel time. It doesn’t get more exclusive than this!

It’s the perfect spot to tie the knot and I know why. The view behind the celebrant in your wedding photos would be pretty awesome. It’s also a great spot for proposals, so maybe just leave this page open where your partner will see it (hint hint).

3. Michaelmas Cay

Michaelmas Cay

Not only is Michaelmas Cay stunning, but it’s also an extremely important nesting habitat for migrating birds. With bucket loads of birdlife you’re likely to find the shore lined with egg shells and sea shells!

The waters around the cay are turtle heaven with turtles resting and foraging all over. I’m yet to meet someone who took a trip out and didn’t come back with a #turtleselfie.

A gazillion photos of paradise still won’t do Michaelmas Cay justice. I kept having to open and shut my eyes to make sure it wasn’t some hazy dream.

There are a few charter boat operators that visit the cay on daily basis, but for maximum beach time book yourself on with Ocean Spirit Cruises.  They dedicate the whole day to Michaelmas, which is always a plus in my book (you get a glass of bubbly on your way home – even better!).

4. Green Island

Green Island

This one might surprise you – but yes, Green Island is actually a sand cay! If you take a walk around the island there are several information points, and a few explain how the shape of the island has changed even in very recent years.

Of course this is the big daddy of sand cays and is therefore the most accessible with boats departing from Cairns several times a day. Green Island Resort is perfect when you just don’t want to leave. It’s also worth spending time at Marineland Melanesia where you will meet Cassius, the largest (a staggering 5.48 metres) saltwater crocodile in captivity.  Turtles are seen near the beach, along with sting rays and big schools of fish. You can’t beat a day trip to Green Island from Cairns.

If you’d like to beat the crowds there is always the option of a slightly more VIP trip to Green Island with Cairns Adventure Cruises. They arrive at the island over an hour before any of the other boats, so you can swim with the fish while pretending that you’re a castaway on your own private island paradise.

5. Sudbury Cay

Sudbury Cay

Sudbury Cay is so special that only one reef operator visits it on a daily occasion. Tucked nicely behind Fitzroy Island, Sudbury Cay is the centrepiece in one of the most beautiful reef systems near Cairns. Like most sand cays, snorkelling and diving is done in fairly shallow waters but the reef system here is home to marine life that you’d expect to see at much deeper sites.

With a maximum of only 50 guests per day, Cairns Dive Centre’s, Island Diver, waits just 200m from Sadbury Cay so floating to the cay over colourful clam gardens is easier than ever.