mackay cay ocean safari

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Dreamy sand cays you must visit on the Great Barrier Reef

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.

Vlasoff Cay

No drones required for this view

Enjoy a gourmet picnic on the sand cay

Arrive by helicopter

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 or Nautilus Aviation. 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).

Mackay Cay

Ocean Safari leaves right from Cape Tribulation

Experience Mackay Cay with carbon-neutral Sailaway

Mackay Cay is famous for its friendly turtles

25 mins off the coast of the famous Daintree & Cape Tribulation, you’ll find the small sandy jewel of Mackay Cay, renowned for spectacular coral gardens and abundant marine life – there’s a reason one of the snorkel sites is called “Turtles”.

Ocean Safari is unlike any other reef tour in the region, departing right from Myall Beach and offering spectacular views over the sea to the towering peaks of the Daintree rainforest. As a half-day experience, spend the rest of your day exploring the aforementioned Daintree rainforest – two World Heritage areas in one day is nothing to turn your nose up at!

For a full-day tour, jump aboard Sailaway’s Outer Reef Tour departing from Port Douglas visiting not only Mackay Cay, but nearby Undine Cay as well. Sailaway has the environment at the heart of their business, contributing $20 from every ticket sold to local sustainable reforestation and carbon offsetting making them completely carbon neutral. They also participate in the Coral Nurture Program, which involves planting corals to help promote growth and boost coverage in areas that have suffered a fall in coverage.

Green Island

Green Island is the only sand cay with rainforest on the Great Barrier Reef

Swim with turtles on the fringing reef

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.

Access to Green Island by jumping aboard with Big Cat Green Island Cruises or Great AdventuresGreen 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 stingrays and big schools of fish.

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!).

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.

Sudbury Cay

Sudbury Cay

Tucked nicely behind Fitzroy Island, Sudbury Cay is the centrepiece in one of the most beautiful reef systems near Cairns, home to marine life that you’d expect to see at much deeper sites.

Visit Sudbury Cay with Coral Expeditions as a part of a seven-day expedition visiting some of the most spectacular and iconic and remote sites of the Great Barrier Reef. On your final night, enjoy a sunset picnic on the sand cay to bid your trip adieu.

Dive in

Explore the amazing underwater universe, the Great Barrier Reef.

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