Frankland Islands Tour – Great Barrier Reef Cruise & Snorkel

When you are in Tropical North Queensland, the Frankland Islands isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you want to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef. But if you want to avoid the crowds on Green Island and Fitzroy Island from Cairns, a day trip to the Frankland Islands is a great reef cruise option.

There is only one boat that does a Frankland Islands tour – it lands at Normanby Island. The day includes a river cruise, guided snorkelling tours, reef viewing in a semi-submersible, guided island tour, lunch, special activities for kids and plenty of time to snorkel on your own with lots of fish, turtles and coral.

Featured Image: Frankland Islands Cruise © Tourism & Events Queensland

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Frankland Islands Snorkel

Where are the Frankland Islands?

The Frankland Islands are one of the closest island groups on the Great Barrier Reef to the mainland. They are just 10km off the coast near Deeral which is 45 minutes south of Cairns, 12 minutes north of Babinda and 45 minutes north of Etty Bay.

How do you get to the Frankland Islands?

If you are staying in the Cairns CBD, you can get picked up from you accommodation in a coach and driven to the Deeral Jetty. We were staying in Etty Bay, so for us it was a 45 drive to the jetty. If you are driving yourself to the jetty, make your way to the Ross Road Boat Ramp and drive on a little way.

The boat, the Turtle Explorer, is moored on the river. We would normally say you can’t miss it, but we did! The boat is well hidden behind the mangrove lined Musgrave River, but we did spot it through the trees on our second pass. The boat departs at 8.30am and check in is from 8.00am returning at 4.00pm

Frankland Island River Cruise
Frankland Island River Cruise
Frankland Islands Boat

Bonus Cruise down the Mulgrave River

One of the nice things about Frankland Islands tour is that there is always something going on. Even before you get to Normanby Island you get to enjoy a 30 minute cruise down the Mulgrave River. There are some great views, with the sun still low, it lights up the rainforest covered hills which include the second tallest mountain in Queensland, Mount Bellenden Ker.

At the other end of the day, if the tide is out, you can try to spot a croc. We had ideal conditions on the way back in and did see a big saltwater crocodile sunning itself amongst the mangroves. In the clear water you might also see turtles, we glimpsed an enormous stingray and there was lots of birdlife. Cruising along the river really felt like a bonus nature tour to start and finish the day.

Facilities on Normanby Island

If you want to get yourself to an undeveloped Great Barrier Reef Island, then this is the tour for you. The only facilities on Normanby Island are a shaded area with picnic tables where you have lunch and grab some water between activities. There are no toilets, shops or accommodation on the Frankland Islands, but there is a ‘toilet tour’ back to the boat during the day if you need to go. The lunch provided is big and yummy and should keep you going, there is plenty of cold water to re-fill your drink bottles and sunscreen if you need to re-apply between swims.

Frankland Islands Cruise

Planning your day on Normanby Island

Once you clear the mouth of the Musgrave River it is a 30 minute open water crossing out to the Frankland Islands Archipelago. This is when you can put your name down for the activities on the island which include the guided snorkel safari, the island nature walks and a trip in the semi-submersible.

If it is stinger season you can get your stinger suit sorted out and if you need snorkelling gear, you can get fitted for that too – it is all included in the cost of the day. There is no obligation to go on any of the organised tours. You can snorkel and explore the island on your own if you like, we describe each of the activities below to help you decide if you want to do them.

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Guided Snorkel Safari

If you have put your name down to do the guided snorkel safari, this activity gets going almost as soon as you are off the boat. The snorkel safari goes to the far side of the island where you are not allowed to snorkel on your own (because the crew cannot supervise you around here and for safety, they like keeping an eye on you).

You are dropped off in the water and drift with a couple of guides back towards base camp. Having the guides there to show you things and name the marine life was interesting and with lots of eyes in the water, if there is a turtle around, you’ll certainly hear about it – and we did spot a couple of turtles on the snorkel safari. The coral was lovely and there also lots of fish.

It was great to snorkel this side of the island, the water is 3 – 5m deep here and we found that hanging towards the back of the group was a good way to avoid the crowd that stuck very close to the guide. If you are a new or nervous snorkeler keep in mind that you are on the move for this snorkel and there is nowhere to stand up until you head back to shore. But less experienced snorkellers can still see this side of the island in the semi-submersible.

Frankland Islands Tour

Semi-Submersible Tour

Full disclosure, we didn’t do the 30 minute tour in the ‘semi-sub’ but spoke to several groups during the day who did – and they all loved it. The consistent thing they all said was that with young children or as novice snorkellers, it was great way to get amongst the coral reef and still learn a lot about the fish they were seeing. The other thing we heard a couple of times was how comfortable it was. With comfy seats and big windows to look through it literally was an immersive experience and not nearly as cramped as you might expect. As a free activity, it is a great option for getting up close to the reef.

Frankland Islands Tour
Golden Orb Spider

Island Nature Walk

After a big lunch of cold salads, meat and seafood we headed off on the guided walk of the island with a marine biologist. It was a 45-60 minute walk and took you around the other side of the island. Just walking around the idyllic island was fun enough but along the way we learnt about different types of corals, sea cucumbers and the amazing brittle star fish. In the bigger rock pool, we also spotted small rays and even a few baby black tip reef sharks.

The highlight was seeing an anemone and pair of clown fish (or Nemos as the animated movie has caused them to be re-branded) in about 30cm of water. The guide was fantastic and certainly helped us see more than we would have done walking on our own. That said, you can explore the island on your own and it is a beautiful place. Just a tip – you’ll want some footwear for looking around the rockpools and walking along  the coral sand beaches.

Frankland Islands Snorkelling

Frankland Islands Snorkelling

As well as the snorkelling safari, you can also snorkel on your own. The main snorkelling area is right off the beach in front of the shelter where you have lunch and the right along the beach. There is more coral the further you go up the beach. As the tide goes out it gets quite shallow so you get a great view of lots of colourful fish – you just have to watch you don’t knock the coral with your fins.

Right in front of the shelter is a great place to snorkel if you want to spot a turtle. There is less coral here but there is sea grass, so the turtles do hang around here – and we saw lots of them! We hadn’t been on the island 5 minutes and were getting a briefing when over the guide’s shoulder a turtle popped its head up just a few metres from shore.

Later in the day we went for a snorkel here and spotted two green sea turtles on the sandy bottom feeding. It is a bit of an exercise in patience, but if you wait long enough, they eventually surface for a couple of breaths which is a great time to see them a bit closer. One came up just metres away which was a real hoot – it’s so much fun seeing them swim around.

Frankland Islands Kayak

Kayak & stand up paddle boards

There is just so much to do on a day trip to the Frankland Islands! There are also a couple of kayaks and stand up paddle boards to have a play on. You need to stay in a certain area, but it is still nice getting a view of the island from back across the water. To be honest, as we sat in our kayak floating over coral bommies, fish visible in the crystal clear water, we didn’t last long on top of the water. We soon headed back into shore and got our snorkelling gear back on.

Kids Treasure Hunt

A great activity for the kids is an island treasure hunt. Not having young kids, we didn’t do this one, but there were children on our tour that did. They walked off with a guide, maps in hand, wearing pirate hats and returned with an armful of treasure and huge smiles on their face. It’s a great option if your children want a break from the water.

Frankland Islands Snorkel

Is Frankland Islands tour worth doing?

The Frankland Islands Tour is a great way to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef. The things we liked about it were:

  • There are coach transfers from your accommodation in Cairns (note – but not the Northern Beaches)
  • Only one medium sized boat goes to the island so it isn’t too crowded
  • There is a full day of activities included or you can explore the reef and island on your own
  • Lunch, Morning Tea and Afternoon Tea is included
  • The snorkelling is right off the beach, or you can go in the semi-sub to see the coral reef
  • There are lots of turtles
  • You get a bonus river cruise which is a great way to start and end the tour
  • There is no development on the island, so the island is largely unspoilt

Things to consider about the Frankland Islands Tour:

  • There are no facilities or walkways on the island
  • In the wet season, outflow from the Mulgrave River might affect visibility on the snorkels, visibility was good for our trip in mid-April.

If you enjoyed this story you might also like:

Cairns to Mission Beach Road TripCairns Day Trips | Things to do in Mission Beach

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Frankland Islands Tour
Frankland Islands Tour
Frankland Islands Tour
Frankland Islands Tour
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