The History of The Whitsundays


Our Volcanic Beginnings

The Whitsunday Islands were originally formed by volcanic action, 110 million years ago. The land that was to become Australia was scattered with volcanoes, and movements of the earth’s crust were slowly but surely breaking up the super-continent Gondwana. Around 45 million years ago Australia broke off from Antarctica, finally splitting up the super-continent Gondwana and leaving Australia on its own. Today, Australia still moves North at a rate of about 3cm every year.

The Whitsundays then lay in a geologically active zone, where volcanic activity continued for 37 million years. Volcanic eruptions spat rock and ash into the air, which fell down on the surrounding land. Layers of this volcanic debris built up and created a solid bedrock, which can still be observed on Whitsunday Island and Hook Island. Hook Island also features Dykes, which are upright bands of darker rock, that was created by lava flowing through gaps in the bedrock.

The Creation Of Our Coastal Mountain Ranges

During this volcanic period, the earth’s tectonic plates moved apart and collided into other tectonic plates, which pushed the land upwards, creating mountain ranges around the Whitsunday coast.

The Rising Of The Sea & Creation Of The Whitsunday Islands

At the end of the last ice age (10,000 years ago) the glaciers melted which caused the sea to rise. The rising sea level drowned a mainland mountain range in the Whitsundays, leaving the higher coastal peaks as islands, which are now known as the 74 Whitsunday Islands.

Photo: Sarah Bristow – Queensland Uncovered.

The Traditional Custodians Of The Whitsundays

The Traditional Custodians of the Whitsundays are the Ngaro Aboriginal people. They are one of the earliest recorded indigenous groups in Australia, observed by Captain James Cook during his voyage through the Whitsunday Passage. The Ngaro people lived throughout the Whitsunday Islands and on the nearby mainland for around 9000 years. They left behind rock art and middens at Hook Island’s Nara Inlet (this cave was used 2500 years ago). There is also an ancient Ngaro stone quarry on South Molle Island, where stone axes and cutting tools were made.

The Naming Of The Whitsundays

On the 3rd of June 1770, Captain James Cook sailed the Endeavour through what is now known as the Whitsunday Passage. They sailed through on ‘Whit Sunday,’ marking the Sunday of the feast for the Christian festival Pentecost. Captain Cook was inspired enough to name the passage as Whitsunday Passage, and the location as the Whitsunday Group of Islands. At that time, the international date line had not been established, so the day that the Whitsundays was discovered was actually a Monday. So really they should be called the “Whitmonday” islands!

Hill Inlet, Whitsundays. Photo: wahi.com.

How Whitehaven Beach Was Formed

The fine sediment that is suspended in the Whitsunday’s waters scatters sunlight as it penetrates the water. This is what causes the turquoise shade of blue that makes the Whitsundays famous.

To compliment the turquoise waters is the white silica sand at Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island. Geologists don’t think that Whitehaven’s quartz-rich sand came from a local source, because rocks in the Whitsundays do not contain large quantities of quartz. They think that Whitehaven’s bright white sand, drifted north along the Queensland coast carried by prevailing sea currents, millions of years ago.

This travelling sand was then trapped by rocks and headlands to form sand dunes on what is now known as Whitsunday Island. Over the years the sea levels rose and fell around the dunes as ice ages came and went. Over time, impurities were drawn from the sand using fresh water, leaving behind the fine, white silica sand that you see today. At the end of the last ice age (10,000 years ago) when the sea rised to create the Whitsunday Islands, this brought the sea level to the foot of these dunes, creating Whitehaven Beach.

Hill Inlet, Whitsundays. Photo: reeffree.com.au.

How Our Island Fringing Reefs Were Formed

After the sea rised forming the islands, over time fringing reefs formed in clear waters around the Whitsunday Islands and occasionally along the mainland. These reefs were built by polyps, which are tiny animals that resemble small sea anemones. They have a sac-like body and mouth opening surrounded by tentacles. A single polyp establishes itself by attaching to a submerged rock around the edges of the islands. Then new polyps build from it, forming a coral colony which makes up a fringing reef. These reefs that surround our Whitsunday Islands are popular for snorkeling and diving and have become one of the Whitsunday’s most popular tourist attractions, containing approximately 400 species of corals.

Settlement In The Whitsundays

In the 1860s, European settlement began on the Whitsunday Islands, mainly harvesting hoop pine timber. These hoop pines can still be seen throughout the islands today. They harvested this timber to construct buildings in Bowen which is an hour north. This timber industry operated strongly for 40 years and finally finished up in the 1930s.

In 1883, grazing leases became available in the Whitsundays which caused sheep, cattle and tropical fruit to flourish. This farming meant that ships would visit the Whitsundays delivering supplies and loading wool, cattle and horses for the market.

One of the earliest European settlers to Airlie Beach was Thomas Abell with his wife and nine children, back in 1904. The Airlie Beach area was rainforest back then and has changed immensely over the last 100 years. The Abell Point Marina (renamed to Coral Sea Resort Marina in 2019) and Abell Road were named after the original Abell family.

Abell Point Marina (now named Coral Sea Resort Marina). Photo: Peninsula Resort.

The History Of The Whitsunday Island Resorts

By the 1930’s, the Whitsundays slowly changed from a pastoral lifestyle to a recreational lifestyle, when farmers started to build galvanised huts with palm thatched roofs and wash basins. They would then charge customers one pound per day, which included scones and fresh tropical fruit from South Molle Island. These customers soon became the very first day trippers from the mainland to Daydream Island, Long Island and South Molle Island.

This change caused the government to think about the future of the islands. As the grazing leases lapsed on the islands, the government changed the status of the islands to National Parks. This is why there are no grazing leases left on the islands today.

These farmers’ huts soon turned into resorts on the islands. Over the years these resorts were upgraded and changed hands multiple times, to become the Whitsunday resorts that we have today. Daydream Island, Hayman Island, Long Island and Hamilton Island are the only islands left in the Whitsundays with open resorts on them today. Lindeman Island is currently having a resort developed which should be completed by 2021.

Old Daydream Island photo.

The Whitsundays As We Know It Today

In 1918, they developed a road between Proserpine and Airlie Beach, the only way to Airlie Beach before this was on foot or by boat. Proserpine is located 20 minutes inland from Airlie Beach and today is home to the main airport in the Whitsundays. Proserpine was named after the goddess of fertility, Proserpinia. The township of Proserpine dates back to the 1870s when people from all over the world arrived to grow and harvest sugar cane in the naturally fertile basin. The township in Proserpine is built around the Sugar Mill, which still provides jobs to a lot of Proserpine locals today.

1920 photo of the Proserpine Sugar Mill. Photo: Queensland Places.

1924 photo of the Proserpine Main Street. Photo: Queensland Places.

1959 photo of the Proserpine Main Street. Photo: Queensland Places.

1970 photo of the Proserpine Main Street. Photo: Queensland Places.

Cannonvale was named by Commander George Nares, who completed a survey of the land and named the valley observed on the coastline after his assistant ship’s surgeon, Richard Cannon. The district was named Cannon Valley which was the farming land that spread from Airlie Beach to Proserpine. In 1913, a town of Cannonvale was gazetted and in 1916 a sale of land leases occurred. In 1930, a Post Office was built in Cannonvale and in 1938 a jetty was built so that people could travel via ferry from Cannonvale to the Whitsunday Islands. Over the years, three jetties were used in Cannonvale until cyclones destroyed them by 1958.

In 1935, Airlie Beach was named when the Queensland Lands Department put some of the land by the beach up for sale. It is believed that it was named Airlie Beach in reference to a parish in Scotland where Thomas Abell (one of our earliest European settlers) was originally from. In the 1950s, development truly began in Airlie Beach. Below is the earliest photos that we have of Airlie Beach.

This photo is taken from above the first round about on the Airlie Beach Main Street.

This photo was taken in 1995 from the other end of the Airlie Beach Main Street.

The old Airlie Beach Hotel.

In 1962, the islands became more accessible when they developed a road from Airlie Beach to Shute Harbour and they installed a jetty at Shute Harbour. Shute Harbour was the main jetty used to transport people to the islands via ferry up until 2014.

Old photo of Shute Harbour.

In 2013, the Port Of Airlie Marina was developed in Airlie Beach which took 30 years to be completed. This location was originally known as Muddy Bay, where locals would anchor their boats as shown below. On the land in the top left of this photo is where the Whitsunday Sailing Club is today.

The development of Port Of Airlie was a massive project and included covering Muddy Bay with soil to build the land up. They also dredged the area where the marina was going, to make it deep enough for large ferries.

Port Of Airlie under construction in 2011 when this project was almost finished. All of the vacant land in this photo was part of this project.

Port of Airlie today. Photo: Port Of Airlie.

In 2014, the local ferry company moved to the Port of Airlie Marina, where they still operate from today. In 2017, Cyclone Debbie tore through the town, which destroyed the original ferry jetty and terminals at Shute Harbour. Shute Harbour is still undergoing a $54 million restoration project.

Today, the Whitsunday region is home to approximately 35,500 permanent residents and that is expected to grow due to the strength of the economy. The Whitsunday region encompasses a total land area of 23,862 square kilometers which does not include the islands. There is not much vacant land left in Airlie Beach and Cannonvale to develop, which is why the township has expanded further inland to Cannon Valley. In the future the township will keep expanding inland towards Proserpine.

Source: Tourism Whitsundays, Whitsundays-Australia, QLD Government Parks & Forests, Live Science, Cumberland Charter Yachts, Nomads World & Whitsunday Regional Council.

The Great Barrie Reef located in the Whitsunday, Queensland, Australia

Why Our Guests Keep Coming Back

Day Dreaming at Mazlin House
Awesome place to stay at in Airlie beach. Everyone loved the place and how close it was to everything in town! Will be back!
June 22, 2022
Marina Views @ The Boathouse
Great location, short stroll to retail area. Clean, modern with lovely facilities overlooking the marina and very close to the port for cruising escapes
June 21, 2022
14 The Cove - Waterfront Whitsunday Home
Beautiful and spacious house with stunting views in a fantastic spot on airlie beach. Location provided convenient access to tours and trip to reef and easy walk to many good restaurants and Cafés. Communication with hosts was very efficient and they were very accomodating with our requests. Can't wait to come back!
June 21, 2022
23 The Cove - Whitsunday Waterfront Living
Such an amazing place to stay! Great views and great location!!!! Couldnt have asked for a better place to stay!
June 19, 2022
10 The Cove | Airlie Beach Waterfront Accommodation
Amazing house, really spacious with beautiful finishes… highly recommend a stay
June 18, 2022
Shutehaven Beach House
Lovely house and very homely and comfortable for a family to stay in. My only annoyance was having to chase up the host for check in instructions right up until a couple hours before check in which becomes a bit concerning when in transit.
June 17, 2022
Marina Views @ The Boathouse
We had a great time at Boathouse 103. Location was perfect, accommodation was excellent. The communication with Ali and the team was awesome Appreciated the tips on arrival. Would recommend to family and friends
June 16, 2022
15 Kara - Luxurious Home With Million Dollar Views
Great house. Stiff walk up the hill but a nice view. Fantastic having 4 showers, rules are fairly strict around noise but that was fine - the comms with the host was really seamless and positive.
June 16, 2022
Relax & Daydream @ 2 Elementa
What a wonderful holiday! having seen the photos of Elementa 2 we certainly were not disappointed upon arrival. The views from the property were spectacular and the residence itself is beautiful, tastefully decorated, spacious, with very comfortable bedding and very clean throughout. While Elementa is located on the hill the walk into town is easy and we had no problem catching cabs when returning home and the fares were not expensive. The staff at Whitsunday Vacations were a pleasure to liaise with and I would definitely recommend Elementa 2 to anyone wanting to stay in Airlie Beach.
June 16, 2022
Executive Whitsunday Penthouse @ 40 Reflections
Awesome accommodation. Incredible views. Very clean, spacious & well equipped & the hosts are really responsive.
June 14, 2022
Marina living with Whitsundays lifestyle @ the Boathouse
Perfect location, great view!
June 13, 2022
10 The Cove | Airlie Beach Waterfront Accommodation
Beautiful house, great aspect for winter sun on deck. super comfortable beds. Fantastic views. Great for group of friends or family.
June 13, 2022
Amazing Whitsundays Penthouse lifestyle at Reflections
Absolutely breathtaking 😍 ❤️
June 13, 2022
Marina Views @ The Boathouse
Great place, spacious, Perfect location & gorgeous pool/spa area.
June 11, 2022
Marina living with Whitsundays lifestyle @ the Boathouse
We were really happy with our stay at the Boathouse Apartments. The location was perfect - literally 150m from the Hamilton Island ferry drop off point. There are great cafes and restaurants on the ground level of the building, and it's less than a 5 minute walk into the heart of Airlie Beach town. The communication from the hosts was excellent throughout the entire stay, as well as before checking in and after checking out. Two small things worth flagging (which are no fault of the hosts/rental company): 1.) One of the bedrooms is on the back/street side of the apartment and it gets very loud from an early hour due to the traffic on the main road. Would suggest bringing some ear plugs. 2.) There are essentially three doors to get into the unit. The door downstairs that everyone in the building shares wasn't locking for the first 3 out of the 4 days we were there. The second door doesn't lock at all, which means people could get directly to the unit's front door if they wanted. Normally this wouldn't bother us as we locked the door each time we left the unit, but there are typical Queensland style windows next to the door which don't lock and can be opened from the outside. If someone wanted to they could flip the windows up, stick their hand inside and open the door from the inside. We didn't witness any suspicious activity whatsoever the entire time we were there, but we were a bit nervous about leaving for the entire day knowing it would be relatively easy to break in. With that said, there are safes for small valuables inside the apartment. Overall it was a really enjoyable stay and would definitely recommend.
June 6, 2022
Amazing Whitsundays Penthouse lifestyle at Reflections
The view is amazing. Close to town. Smooth check in and gave good advice on where to go and what to do.
June 6, 2022
Marina Views @ The Boathouse
my husband and I had the most wonderful week in Boathouse 103 Port Airlie. The view from our balcony was a treat to wake up to every morning and so peacefully quiet. we found the location was so convenient and was walking distance to everything we needed. Absolutely love Airlie Beach and can't wait to return.
June 6, 2022
Day Dreaming at Mazlin House
Incredible views of the boardwalk and lagoon so close to town!
June 1, 2022
The one and only - 7 The Cove! Waterfront living at its best.
Awesome place to stay, great view!!!
May 31, 2022
23 The Cove - Whitsunday Waterfront Living
Stunning house in a great location. The walk to Airlie Beach Main Street is flat, however, there is a lovely cafe and restaurants also close by. The outdoor area is fantastic and the house features high quality appliances and furnishings. Amazing place to stay, would definitely recommend
May 31, 2022

Stay Up To Date with Our Specials

Sign up to our newsletter to receive the latest deals and event news.

Please Enter Your Details

Thanks for subscribing!

We’re working on NEWs for you – why not try our HOL-SPECIAL code for a 10% discount for any of your future bookings.

Click here for the best rates

We will not spam, rent, or sell your information.

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.