Michaelmas Sand Cay Cairns - A Snorkelers Paradise

Michaelmas Cay National Park is located on the world famous Cairns Great Barrier Reef and is protected under the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area. Michaelmas Cay is located 40 kilometers North-East of Cairns. Daily access to Michaelmas Cay is by commercial reef tour companies or private boats and no overnight camping is permitted on the coral cay island at all.

Cairns reef tours depart daily from Cairns Marlin Marina in Spence Street and travel times out to the sand cay reef is around ninety minutes. Cairns reef tours can only access Michaelmas Cay via the northern channel. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park has kindly provided three public moorings for private use with each boat occupying these moorings for a limited time to allow others to visit and enjoy the access onto the sand cay and see the migrating flocks of birds.

Michaelmas Sand Cay Cairns - A Snorkelers Paradise

Access onto Michaelmas Sand Cay is only allowed on the exterior beaches of the roped-off area between 9.30 am and 3.00 pm.

These ropes are here to show the protected areas of the ground level shrubbery and the potential locations of birds and their nests in the middle of the sand cay. All access to the national park section of the cay is prohibited to protect nesting and migratory seabirds that are resting here after travelling for thousands of miles from other countries.

There is no wheelchair access to Michaelmas Sand Cay and there are no public facilities on the sand cay.

Michaelmas Cay features

Michaelmas Cay was formed entirely by plants and animals. Michaelmas Cay is a small low sand cay covered by low-lying vegetation—an ideal habitat for thousands of ground-nesting seabirds. Michaelmas Cay is one of the seven most important seabird breeding areas on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. All year round sea birds such as Sooty Terns, the Common Noddy and the Crested Tern can all be seen nesting on Michaelmas Cay. During the peak of the breeding season in summer up to 20,000 pairs of sea birds make Michaelmas Cay their home, making Michaelmas Cay a great place for bird watching and avid bird photographers and ornithologists.

Michaelmas Cay is the only place within the Cairns section of the Great Barrier Reef that provides an opportunity for visitors to experience a seabird rookery with high species diversity and large bird populations. Michaelmas Cay is also the only local bird rookery supporting breeding populations of Sooty Terns and Common Noddies and is the most significant local rookery for Crested Terns and lesser Crested Terns. It has been recorded that Michaelmas Cay is the southernmost limit of Sooty Tern breeding and the northernmost breeding limit of the Crested Tern. Nowhere else are these two species found breeding together in such vast numbers and in such an accessible location and therefore it is vital to ensure the protection and privacy of these migratory sea birds.

Natural Environment (Plants & Animals)

Michaelmas Cay is a sand cay, situated north-east to south-west, on the western tip of Michaelmas Reef. Michaelmas Cay was formed by the accumulation of broken coral and shells continually being washed over the reef by underwater currents. The coral has also been broken down by Parrot fish as they munch their way around the reef and excrete the coral as sand. Over time, salt resistant grasses and crawling vine seeds were deposited by visiting sea birds and the resulting vegetation and continued washing up of sand deposits eventually helped to stabilise the Michaelmas Sand Cay as a permanently visible island or sand cay for generations of migrating sea birds to set flight for as a known safe land mark in which they can rest and recover for their next leg of their epic migratory journey.

The vegetation on Michaelmas Cay is more typical of sand cays found on the Outer Barrier Reef. The vegetation on Michaelmas Cay is low-growing and is made up of beach spinifex, stalky grass, goat's foot, bulls head vine, sea purslane and tar vine. Nutrients from seabird droppings and carcasses assist in fertilising the vegetation. Occasionally seeds from trees and mangroves wash ashore and germinate but die due to a lack of suitable and stable ground formation. Michaelmas Cay is surrounded by a vast variety of wildlife with the majority being sea birds; at least 14 species of seabirds have been recorded on Michaelmas Cay with at least four species breeding regularly on Michaelmas Cay. Green Sea Turtles have also been recorded to occasionally nest on Michaelmas Cay. The nearby reefs off Michaelmas Cay also support rich mollusc fauna, including populations of giant clams and it is known as a great snorkeling destination on the northern side of the sand cay.

Culture & History

Michaelmas Cay has been formed entirely by animals and plants. Michaelmas Cay was formally named Oyster Cay in 1849 when the HMS Bramble anchored offshore. The cay was used by the beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) industry from 1870 to 1900 and then a guano (seabird droppings) mining lease operated for a short time from 1901. It was declared a fauna sanctuary in 1937. Michaelmas Cay was declared a single national park in 1975. Michaelmas Cay is also a special part of the sea country of the local Aboriginal people and is historically shared by the Gungandji, Mandingalbay-Yidinji and Yirriganydji people. Traditional use of the cay is recognised and still continues today in accordance with current legislation.

Michaelmas Cay is an extremely popular destination for boating, snorkeling and scuba diving. Snorkeling and scuba diving at Michaelmas Cay offer the chance to explore the hard and soft coral reef systems that surround the sand cay. The reef at Michaelmas Cay support many species of tropical reef fish and invertebrates and there is even a turtle here who goes by the name of Smash and he just loves lot's of attention by the guests on the tour boats and he has a habit of hanging around all day and interacting with the snorkelers and scuba divers hoping to have a morsel of easy food. Keep an eye out for the Hump Headed Maori Wrasse as they just love tourists as well and they are keen to get up close and personal and see what you have for them also but just keep in mind it is against regulations to feed the fish especially if it is not their natural food source like some chips or salad from your left over lunch. Prawn heads are okay though. Departing daily from Cairns Marlin Marina there are a number of tourist boats that visit Michaelmas Cay and you can enjoy your day snorkeling or diving at the stunning Michaelmas Cay.

When in Cairns make sure you visit the Great Barrier Reef more than once as every location is entirely different to the next. We highly recommend that if you have travelled to Australia and Cairns to visit the Great Barrier Reef then you owe it to yourself to see everything that it offers and see it like it is shown on the National Geographic television shows.

And if you are lucky enough to visit Cairns on several occassions then do yourself a favour and try out a new location on the reef and a new experience in the type of underwater activities that are on offer like scuba diving, helmut diving, scuba doo, swimming with whales, snorkel adventure tours and night diving. If you visit the Great Barrier Reef more than once then you will be hooked for life.

The perfect small boat for a Great Barrier Reef tour

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Small Group Great Barrier Reef Tour | Cairns | Queensland | Australia | POP
  • Departs From: Reef Fleet Terminal Cairns
  • Duration:

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Travel with us from Cairns to the Great Barrier Reef on a magnificent 25 meter custom designed sailing catamaran. We depart daily to beautiful Michaelmas Cay and Paradise Reef, giving you the choice of two destinations where you can soak up the sun, snorkel with the fish, scuba dive, glass bottom boat ride or simply enjoy sailing on a really special boat.

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Great Barrier Reef Cruises | Cairns | Sand Cay Experience | Michaelmas Cay
  • Departs From: Cairns Reef Fleet Terminal
  • Duration:

    8.5 hours experience with 4 hours on the Reef

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