Is it safe to swim in Far North Queensland?

Is it safe to swim in Far North Queensland
So, you’ve arrived at an idyllic beach-side location in Far North Queensland. The sand is white, the sun is shining, the palms are swaying in the gentle breeze. You just want to toss off those shoes and the heavy clothing and head straight into the water for a quick swim, right?


Palm Cove beach
Palm Cove beach

What you actually want to do is…you want to look around, find the nearest warning signs and check out the conditions and exactly what dangers may be lurking nearby.

The number one safety rule for swimming in any location is to look for information about your surroundings first – depth of water, tidal dangers, submerged hazards…and creatures.

Before we visited Palm Cove in Far North Queensland one of the burning questions I had was:

Is it safe to swim in Far North Queensland?

This was the sign that greeted us as we walked down to the beautiful Palm Cove beach.
Palm Cove signage

Between the months of October and May-ish, anywhere north of about Gladstone in Queensland, box jellyfish are prevalent close to the shore. So, if you are planning to swim in the ocean, it is important to swim inside specially designed stinger enclosures, which are located at some of the more popular beaches. Even with the enclosures, there will be times that the beaches are totally closed due to the conditions and sightings of jellyfish.

Box jellyfish can give you an incredibly painful sting, which can also leave lasting scars. A severe sting can be fatal. Box jellyfish are a pale blue, transparent colour with a ‘boxy’ body up to 30 cms in diameter and have up to 15 tentacles which can be 3 metres in length with thousands of stinging cells (nematocysts).

Irukandji jellyfish are much smaller than the box jellyfish (about 2 cms in diameter). They are found in tropical Queensland water mostly between November and May, but usually stay off the shore (but can be found around the reef and islands), unless there is a period of days with a north-easterly wind, which creates the current conditions to push them onto the beaches. They are transparent and very hard to spot in the water.

Apparently the actual sting from one of these is only mildly painful, but approximately 30 minutes after being stung, severe back and abdominal pain, limb or joint pain, nausea and vomiting, sweating and anxiety can develop. This is a condition which needs urgent medical attention, as it can be fatal. The stinger enclosures are no protection from Irukandji jellyfish as the holes in the nets are too large to prevent them passing through.

The recommended protection against all jellyfish is the wearing of a stinger suit – a full length lycra swimming suit which covers the arms and legs and therefore reduces exposure to the stingers.

For more details, check out the Surf Lifesaving Australia’s page on Tropical Stingers.

Crocodile warnings
Signage around Pullman Sea Temple Resort

It’s not just the jellyfish you need to worry about. As we checked into our hotel in Palm Cove, we were told not to walk back along the beach at night, due to the risk of crocodiles. And the signage around the hotel certainly reinforced that.

Crocodiles in the Adelaide River in the Northern Territory

I didn’t need to be told twice. I’ve seen saltwater crocodiles in the wild in the Northern Territory. The speed with which they can move is frightening, and they could have a limb off in an instant with those powerful jaws.

Recently, two large crocodiles were spotted swimming along popular swimming beaches at Port Douglas and Ellis Beach (both north of Cairns) and Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas was closed for a day earlier last month after a four metre croc was spotted there.

I love beaches, and I relish a dip in the ocean…but I just can’t relax and enjoy the experience in Far North Queensland even when it is not officially ‘stinger season’. My solution is to enjoy the beach by walking along it each day, or by sitting on the sand to watch the sunrise, but swim in the hotel or resort swimming pool. I don’t ever feel that I’m missing out in any way by doing so. It’s still the perfect tropical holiday.

While we were in Palm Cove, we also took advantage of the beautiful nearby Mossman Gorge (about one hours drive from Palm Cove) for a jellyfish-free paddle in a pristine waterhole.  But again, it is important to read all signage and check at the visitor centre before swimming there, as recent rains can make the currents dangerous.

So my advice for planning a holiday in FNQ is to check out the pool area and facilities of any hotel or resort you’re planning to stay at very carefully, as you may want to do most of your swimming there. If so, you want it to be a lovely inviting area, with enough sun for your liking and plenty of pool lounges. Have a look on Tripadvisor at actual travellers’ photos of the pool area to see whether it meets your needs.

Palm Cove swimming pool
The swimming pool at Pullman Sea Temple Resort

The good news is, FNQ has plenty of beautiful resort pools that I think fit the bill. The photo above is of the pool at the Pullman Sea Temple Resort in Palm Cove.

And, of course, my views on swimming are in the ocean are possibly on the ultra-conservative side. Many other people do, in fact, feel comfortable swimming at FNQ beaches during the lower-risk season or inside the nets. It’s a matter of being well-informed and making your own decision having taken all the risks into account.

If you do wish to swim in the sea in FNQ, some things to keep in mind are:

  • Read and obey warning signs on beaches, beach access points and at all other waterways (creeks, rivers etc).
  • Confirm all warnings and conditions with a local (preferably a lifeguard, or ask at your hotel front desk, check local authorities’ websites, read local media).
  • Swim between the red and yellow flags at a beach patrolled by lifeguards. The flags indicate the safest place to swim, and mark the area that is being patrolled.
  • If you are unsure what any warnings, signs or flags mean, ask a lifeguard.
  • Swim inside a stinger net enclosure during the higher risk months (approx November to May)
  • Wear protective clothing (e.g. wet suit or lycra body suit) to reduce exposure to potential stings.
  • Always swim with others.
  • Do not swim when beaches are closed.
  • Never swim at night.
  • Seek medical attention quickly for any stings. Often there will be a bottle of vinegar nearby on the beach which is the first aid treatment for stings. Flood the affected area. Follow up with urgent medical attention.
  • If you see a crocodile, walk away. Do not feed it. Do not take a photo to post to Instagram. Just hurry away in the opposite direction and report the crocodile sighting to local authorities.

The natural beauty and the gorgeous tropical warmth of Far North Queensland make it the perfect place to enjoy a fabulous holiday. Enjoy feeling the soft white sand between your toes, or sitting under a palm tree to watch the sunrise over the water.  Just take a few simple precautions to ensure your beach visit is as safe as possible.

And most definitely do your own advance research about the local conditions and warnings.

What creatures worry you most in the oceans of the world?


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