The Keppel region

In a shallow, sheltered bay at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, a cluster of 19 islands and rocky outcrops rise sharply from the ocean.

Located northeast of the mouth of the mighty Fitzroy River, some 14 km offshore, the Keppel Islands are one of the most spectacular, accessible and relatively untouched continental island groups of the Great Barrier Reef.

In the shallow waters on the leeward sides of the islands, along the rocky shorelines and in sheltered sandy bays, wide expanses of branching corals grow.

In deeper waters, wherever the sunlight can still reach the sea floor, we find much less dense coral communities of a different type.

Acropora millepora abounds on the leeward (western) shores of many islands, such as this reef flat at Clam Bay, 2010. © Alison Jones.

On the shores of the islands in the inner bay, closer to the Fitzroy River mouth, and anywhere with muddy water or low light, many more soft corals and corals with large polyps grow.

A sea fan (gorgonian) coral at Haven Point on the mainland near Emu Park copes well with sediment, and filters plankton and organic matter from the sand passing through its net of tentacles. © D. Brighton.

With the river depositing tonnes of sediments and nutrients into Keppel Bay every year, the extraordinary nature of the Keppel reefs is not simply that they survive and, indeed, thrive—but that they exist at all.

Swirling sand, mud and sediment at the mouth of the Fitzroy River, 2015–2017. Image: Queensland Globe