Restoring Reef Island Habitats

Restoring critical island habitats to protect ecosystems and save vulnerable species.

Restoring Reef Island Habitats

#Refuges of the Reef

Islands and their connected reefs play a crucial role as habitat refuges for the thousands of species that live and thrive on the Great Barrier Reef.

Likened to climate change arks, Reef islands provide a safe home for wildlife to rest, feed, shelter and breed.

Hundreds of islands scatter the 2300-kilometre length of the Reef, many untouched by development and found in the remote, outer reaches of the Reef.

Business-as-usual monitoring and support of these critical habitats is a huge task, and as they face a growing combination of threats, the challenge to protect and restore these refuges from the impacts of climate change is immense.

Following the success of the Raine Island Recovery Project - restoring the world’s largest nesting site for the endangered green turtle - the Foundation set our sights on the next high-priority island habitats along the Reef, to take action and support its marine life for future generations.

The Project

#The Project

Pioneered by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, the Reef Islands Initiative was launched in 2018 as the largest reef habitat rehabilitation project of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere – bringing together Traditional Owners, scientists, local tourism leaders, governments and the community to protect and restore critical habitats.

Right now, in the early stages of the 10-year program, we’ve already seen critical turtle nesting habitat increased by 125% at Lady Elliot Island – the first location for the Initiative.
And we’re only just getting started.

With our partners, we are focused on making an impact for Reef islands, its marine life, and communities, through:

Building a knowledge base to guide our actions

Bringing together best available science, research and mapping together with Traditional Owner knowledge

Taking meaningful action on ground and in water, and measuring our impact

Basing our actions on the knowledge base and evaluating results through dedicated research programs

Supporting local Reef Stewards

Driving local community engagement, education, and stewardship in playing an active role in saving Reef islands

Sustainability and Carbon Reduction

Embedding sustainability and reducing carbon emissions through local action

#Project locations

Supported by $14 million in funding from Lendlease, the Australian Government’s Reef Trust, the Queensland Government and the Fitzgerald Family Foundation, there are currently three locations underway for the Reef Islands Initiative:

Lady Elliot Island

Lady Elliot Island

Restoring the Southern Great Barrier Reef’s haven for rare and vulnerable marine life.

The Whitsundays

The Whitsundays

Restoring the heart of the Great Barrier Reef.

Avoid Island

Avoid Island

Restoring a vital turtle nesting site and other threatened ecosystems

Lady Elliot Island

#Lady Elliot Island

Restoring the Southern Great Barrier Reef’s haven for rare and vulnerable marine life.

Right at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef and around 80 kilometres from the coast of Queensland, you’ll find Lady Elliot Island – a beautiful coral cay about the size of 50 football fields, nestled within a highly-protected Green Zone of the World Heritage Marine Park.

Lady Elliott Island is a sanctuary for over 1,200 species of marine life, including whales, manta rays, turtles, dolphins and corals. The Island also has the second highest diversity of breeding seabirds of any island on the Great Barrier Reef.

For decades, Lady Elliot Island was a degraded landscape of bare rock after guano mining destroyed the native vegetation. Past and present island custodians have worked tirelessly to restore the island back to its natural state by removing weeds and planting native coral cay species.


#Our Impact Right Now

Partnering with Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, the Initiative has so far:

  • Revegetated 7.5 hectares of the island, clearing weeds and planting more than 4,000 native coral cay trees, plants and grasses
  • Removed 475 highly invasive umbrella trees and 95% of dragon fruit, a tree climbing weed
  • Built a 2,000m2 nursery with stocking capacity in excess of 6000 plants and grasses – the only nursery on the Great Barrier Reef for native coral cay species
  • Reached 100% renewable energy for the island, through installing 729 solar panels and 256 batteries (in partnership with Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort and Queensland Government Rejuvenation Fund)
  • Sustainably managed revegetation on the island through composting resort food, cardboard and green waste to produce organic material for soil production
  • Significantly reduced water use through 6,000 automated and solar powered irrigation systems for the nursery and around the island.

We’ve seen a 125% increase in turtle habitat at the island’s main nesting beach since launching the Initiative at Lady Elliot Island, and continue to discover unique and vulnerable marine life thriving on the island.

An Oasis for Marine Life

#An Oasis for Marine Life

At just eight kilometres from the edge of the continental shelf, this very deep water brings an upwelling of nutrients to the surface, leading to the diverse range of marine life that call the island home. A manta with a bright fuchsia pink belly visits Lady Elliot Island every year. Nicknamed Inspector Clouseau of Pink Panther fame, as far as the researchers know, he is the only one of his kind in the world, seen only at Lady Elliot Island.

#Researching from Leaf to Reef

As part of the Initiative, an intensive research project led by University of Sunshine Coast is aiming to understand how best to safeguard the island from the impacts of climate change.

The team of researchers from USC, The University of Queensland and Southern Cross University will provide new insights into the ecosystems of world's largest coral reef system.

As the southernmost island in the Great Barrier Reef, Lady Elliot Island is predicted to be one of the last to experience the increasing effects of global climate change – an ideal location to measure change from local and global climate pressures on critical reef species and habitats including seabirds, humpback whales and sea turtles.

The research will also measure and validate the impacts to surrounding reefs as a result of the Initiative’s work undertaken on the island.

The Whitsundays

#The Whitsundays

Restoring the heart of the Great Barrier Reef.

The Whitsunday islands are a sanctuary for vulnerable species of the Great Barrier Reef to nest and feed.

Right in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef, the Whitsunday islands are dotted along a migration path and birthing ground for marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and dugongs.

With more than 70 islands that are largely isolated and undisturbed, this neighbourhood of climate change ‘arks’ are also critical for coastal bird species.

Home to the Ngaro people for millennia, with strong connections to mainland Juru and Gia peoples and those of neighbouring country, the Whitsunday islands have deeply significant cultural values and meaning.

Unparalleled in natural beauty, it’s not surprising that the Whitsunday islands are a global icon in their own right, attracting almost half of the annual tourism visitation to the Great Barrier Reef.

In the face of climate change, the islands, connected reefs, and supporting ecosystems need our help to recover from recurring major impacts like coral bleaching and severe cyclones.

Following the launch of the Reef Islands Initiative in the Whitsundays in early 2020, the Foundation has been working closely with the local Reef community, including Traditional Owners, Reef managers, and tourism operators, to co-design the project vision and priority local actions.

The Initiative's vision is for the Whitsundays to become a recognised hub for:

Reef restoration stewardship

by piloting new approaches to ridge-to-reef restoration that are driven and led by local tourism, community and Traditional Owner partners. The Initiative aims to ignite a local reef restoration movement that is grounded in science and evidence; that tests a suite of tools and techniques; and encourages edu-tourism and reef restoration upskilling across the local community.

Reef industry sustainability

investing in and showcasing climate-friendly Reef projects, technologies, and tourism activities that incentivises behaviour change towards a more sustainable Whitsundays. Through working closely with Whitsunday tourism leaders, the Initiative aims to support the local tourism industry to pave the way towards a carbon neutral Reef industry - in the Whitsundays, and beyond.

Avoid Island

#Avoid Island

Located 102 km southeast of Mackay, Avoid Island is one of 600 continental islands on the Great Barrier Reef. With an area of 100 hectares, it features steep rusty-red rugged cliffs, sandy beaches, rocky peaks and a truly remarkable mosaic of habitats including mangroves and samphire swamps, beach scrubs, Melaleuca forests, grasslands and dry sclerophyll forests.

A wildlife haven
Avoid Island is the second largest rookery (nesting site) in Eastern Australia for the vulnerable Flatback Turtle. One of the key threats to these turtles is coastal development, which increases light pollution and can disorient baby turtles from finding the ocean when they hatch. Protecting nesting habitats such as Avoid Island is crucial for the survival of this species.

Avoid Island’s extensive shallow mudflats support resident and migratory shorebirds that use these areas as feeding grounds. The island’s mangroves and tidal wetlands also create nursery habitat for reef and near-coastal marine species.

As the climate warms and cyclone intensity increases, the southern Great Barrier Reef will become an important refuge for species as they shift to cooler areas. With an 8m tidal range, Avoid Island is expected to persist in the face of climate change, acting as an important refuge for flatback turtles and other marine species.

With our partners Queensland Trust for Nature and Koinmerburra Aboriginal Corporation, we’re transforming the island into a hub of education and citizen science. We’re developing opportunities for visitors to assist in the protection of important ecosystems, helping save flatback turtles, more than 80 species of birds and a diverse range of marine life.

Key activities include:

Making connections

Connect citizen scientists, Traditional Custodians, volunteers and non-profit organistions to protect threatened species including migratory shorebirds, coastal vine-thicket and nesting habitat for the Flatback turtle.


Develop and pilot educational activities that showcase the unique natural assets of Avoid Island


Work towards developing a sustainable business model hinged on education and edutourism on Avoid Island


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#Project Gallery

#Project partners

Australian Government
Queensland Government
Fitzgerald Family Foundation

The Reef Islands Initiative, the largest reef habitat rehabilitation project of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, is a 10-year program pioneered by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. It is supported by funding from Lendlease, the Australian Government’s Reef Trust, the Queensland Government and the Fitzgerald Family Foundation.

#Site Partners

Lady Elliot Island
University of the Sunshine Coast
Reef Catchments