Top Dive Island: Heron Island

Diving on Heron Island is pretty much like having the master key to Disneyland and the ability to lock the gate behind you. It’s true some folks come here to simply indulge in the guilty pleasures of a first-rate resort. But divers know Heron as the place to descend beneath calm waters of startling clarity, color and joyous biodiversity. (Heron’s waters are home to roughly 60 percent of the 1,500 species of fish that inhabit the Barrier Reef.) Statistics numb. Just know this: With an impressive array of bustling reefs to choose from, the University of Queensland operates its Research Station on Heron.

Heron Island Highlight

Time your visit between December and April — peak nesting season for green and loggerhead turtles — and witness the moving spectacle of new life scrambling into the sea. The Heron Island staff offers tours during the season.

Half of the island's 30-plus dive sites are less than 15 minutes from the beach (boats head out three times a day), and plenty of reef can be reached from the beach by a leisurely fin. You'll definitely want to visit the Heron Bommie, but don't neglect Walt's Bommie (home to green and loggerhead turtles and a plethora of nudibranchs), Libbie's Lair (a maze of swim-throughs), Coral Cascades (self-explanatory) and — proving the ocean never ceases to surprise — the pristine corals of recently discovered Fifth Point. In search of the big stuff? Manta rays and humpback whales are prevalent from May through October; should their appearances coincide, the languorous soar of mantas, backdropped by distant humpback song, is something not soon forgotten. While it's true that underwater humpback sightings are quite rare (though they have occurred off Heron), it's also true that during whale season wise divers adopt the Heron Island lifestyle, retiring to the island's pier at sunset, icy XXXX beer in hand (it's pronounced "Four X"), to look for humpback spouts as the whales move through the channel. Weep with envy, Walt Disney. — Ken McAlpine

Travel Tip: Grab a bike and head for the Booby Pond Nature Reserve. From the viewing stands, you can see one of the largest breeding colonies of red-footed booby birds in the Caribbean.

When to Go: Year-round, but the cooler winter waters bring out more life (our summer is winter Down Under).

Getting There: Regular flights are available from major Australian cities to Gladstone (GLT) with Qantas. From Gladstone, you can either take a boat (roughly two hours: Voyages provides a courtesy coach transfer from the airport to the Gladstone Marina) or a 30-minute ride from Gladstone Airport with Australian Helicopters (again, Voyages can make the arrangements).

Dive Conditions: Summer water temps range from 77°F to 80°F. Winter's waters range from 68°F to 70°F. Visibility ranges from 80 to 100 feet.

Operators/Accommodations: Voyages (www.heronisland.com).