First established as a rough 'n' ready timber port, Mooloolaba offers modern boaters a taste of the good life with show-stopping beaches and harbours.
The tourist resort of Mooloolaba reclines at the mouth of the Mooloolah River on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, 100km north of Brisbane. It forms part of the Maroochydore urban centre, with a resident population of about 7730 that swells many-fold with visitors throughout the year. The town’s name derives from an Aboriginal word referring to the snapper that abound in the local waters.
The Mooloolah River descends from the eastern slopes of the Blackall Range and flows for about 20 kilometres east-northeast to a narrow mouth on the Coral Sea at Mooloolaba. Its catchment of 221 square kilometres embraces Addlington Creek, which was dammed by the Ewen Maddock Dam in 1973, and Mountain Creek that divides the Mooloolah and Maroochy watersheds. Although their combined volumes don’t often produce major inundations, a flood warning system was established in 2004 to provide the Sunshine Coast Regional Council with river height predictions from a network of rainfall and river gauges.
In its lower reaches, the river branches into
a number of channels that have been modified into canals and developed for the residential suburbs of Parrearra, Minyama and Buddina. This coastal lowland is bordered by the Coral Sea and a magnificent strand of uninterrupted beaches stretching from Point Cartwright, at the river mouth, south to Dicky Beach near Caloundra.
The northern arm of the Mooloolah River is bounded by a narrow spit of land edged on the seaward side by the beautiful Mooloolabah Beach, a long sandy stretch that is separated from Maroochydore Beach by the rocky Alexandra Headland. Bathed in sub-tropical sunshine, Mooloolaba Beach has featured in Tripadvisor’s Top 10 Australian Beaches two years running, and for good reason. Golden sand, clear waters and a gentle beachbreak make this stretch of coast one of the safest and most family-friendly surf beaches in Queensland.
The original inhabitants of this region were the Gubbi Gubbi (Kabi Kabi) Aboriginal people, whose tribal lands extended over 9600 square kilometres from what is now Childers in the north, along the coastal ranges to currentday Caboolture in the south. As colonial entrepreneurs pushed into their territory to establish pastoral stations, the Gubbi Gubbi joined with the Butchulla tribes in the Wide Bay-burnett area to set up a fierce resistance. From 1847 to 1853, 28 squatters and shepherds were killed, resulting in savage reprisals via mass poisoning and shooting.
In 1861, Lieutenant Heath surveyed and charted the Mooloolah River mouth and harbour. Three years later, William Pettigrew purchased land at Mooloolah Heads as a base for exploiting the timber resources in the hinterland, a trade he dominated in the Maroochy District for the next thirty years. He established a depot and, using a wharf operated by James Low, shipped his product via steamers to Brisbane sawmills. In partnership with Low, he also opened the first store in the district to serve the needs of the new settlers.
Timber felling upstream caused erosion and the river-borne silt collected at the river
mouth, occasionally obstructing the narrow channel and the offshore bar – a problem that persists today. Nevertheless, protected by Point Cartwright, Mooloolah Heads was preferred as a port by the steamers that plied the local rivers and was the principal gateway to the district for nearly twenty years. With the opening of the North Coast railway to Yandina, river transport declined and Pettigrew transferred his operations to Maroochydore, establishing a sawmill there in 1891.
Following the decline of Pettigrew’s depot at Mooloolah Heads, fishing and fruit growing expanded to fill the economic vacuum. During the early 1900s, the population increased and Mooloolah Heads was subdivided into allotments extending along the narrow spit and river frontage, initiating a fledgling seaside holiday destination.
At this time it was renamed Mooloolaba to distinguish it from the township of Mooloolah developing on the river’s inland headwaters.
“Golden sand, clear waters and a gentle beachbreak make this one of the most family-friendly surf beaches in Queensland.”
Boating and fishing were popular on the river and Mooloolaba Beach was so well patronised that a surf life-saving club was established in 1922 (making it Queensland's third oldest). For a time, development was held back by restricted access. Options were a boggy, sandy headland track along the coast or a complicated cane-train and river journey from an inland railway station.
Population growth and accommodation in Mooloolaba lagged behind Maroochydore during the 1940s and ‘50s, but the opening of the David Low coastal road in the early 1960s fostered local development activity and the merging of the two towns, geographically and as an economic unit.
Despite its popularity as a premier residential and holiday location, Mooloolaba and the nearby canal estates have not been overwhelmed by high-rise development, which has generally been confined to The Esplanade facing the beach. This is the town's beating heart, a bustling strand lined with Norfolk pines and packed with outdoor cafés, juice bars, alfresco restaurants, galleries and fashion boutiques.
At its southern end, the main drag bends past the Surf Club to Parkyn Parade, which connects with Mooloolaba's marine precinct extending along the spit between the beach and the river. Here are located the multi-award winning Sea Life Sunshine Coast Aquarium and Underwater World, The Wharf retail and marina complex, cruise-dive-fishing charters, the Volunteer Coast Guard base, Mooloolaba Marina and the yacht club. The Mooloolaba River Fisheries complex comprises the commercial fishing vessel marina (home to the largest fishing fleet on the eastern seaboard), seafood market and licensed café. At the end of the Parade is a compound housing the Water Police and the northern base for pilot vessels that control shipping through Moreton Bay and the Port of Brisbane.
Mooloolaba is 27 nautical miles north-west of Cape Moreton and 55 nautical miles south of the Wide Bay Bar. The approach to the river mouth is clear of offshore hazards, except for the Gneering Shoals five nautical miles north-east of the entrance which carry 6.7-metre LWS and are marked with a buoy. The mouth of the Mooloolah River faces north and is protected by Point Cartwright, so that the predominant swell and sea chop bypasses the mouth and, even in extreme weather conditions, navigating the entrance is fairly straightforward.
The Point offers excellent views over the coast and the boat harbour, as well as viewing of dolphins, whales and turtles that make their passage offshore. Atop the headland stands the elegant Point Cartwright Lighthouse, a 32-metre column of reinforced concrete, and a lantern with a range of 23 nautical miles. It was erected in 1978 to replace the ‘New Caloundra Light' (1967), which had become partly obscured by high-rise buildings. Point Cartwright marks the entrance to the North West Channel, a deep water channel into Moreton Bay and the Port
“The Esplanade facing the beach is the town’s beating heart.”
of Brisbane. A red sector, using a filter and a red Plexiglas screen, provides a low intensity red light to the northwest for vessels entering Mooloolaba Harbour.
The breakwater entrance under Point Cartwright has lit beacons and lateral marks showing the channel upstream. It is safe in all weather unless shifting sand and silt create obstructions shallower than 2.5 metres LWS, making dredging necessary. As recently as March 2019, the Department of Transport and Main Roads (Maritime Safety) notified mariners of a shoal patch, with a least depth of 1.5 metres extending from the end of the eastern breakwater in a westerly direction past the centreline of the channel, requiring dredging by the cutter suction dredge Navau. During such operations, the dredge exhibits day shapes and lights as required by the Collision Regulations, while the dredge master maintains a listening watch on VHF Channels 73, 12 and 16 to ensure safe transit by river traffic. About 500 metres past the breakwaters, after turning off the leading beacons, the channel bends to the west and rows of public pile berths are passed to starboard.
These are rarely available to transients, but it may be worth checking with the Port Office. A further kilometre beyond the pile berths, Minyama Island lies in the centre of the river opposite the Wharf Marina. Anchorage is permitted in a mid-channel area for about a kilometre upstream from Minyama Island and a clearway must be maintained around the anchorage area and down the western side of the channel past Mooloolah Island. Holding is excellent in mud for most of the area but there are a few indifferent patches along Mooloolah Island where there is also little room to swing on adequate scope. There is a ten day limit for casual anchorage. Along each side of all canals and around both islands are private berths off waterfront homes.
Although Mooloolaba is an all-weather harbour favoured by recreational sailors, it is not a clearance port. The closest are Rivergate Marina (lower Brisbane River) and Bundaberg to the north.
MOOLOOLAH RIVER FISHERIES
Mooloolah River Fisheries (MRF) is the largest wholesale supplier and retailer of seafood on the Sunshine Coast. Served by a resident fleet of up to 36 commercial fishing vessels, MRF Wholesale supplies Queensland Wild Caught product to seafood outlets across Australia and exports to New Zealand, Asia and Europe. MRF Distribution services the hospitality industry for the greater Sunshine Coast - Bribie Island, the Hinterland, Kilcoy, Caloundra, Maroochydore, Mooloolaba, Noosa, Cooroy, Coolum - with deliveries six days a week.
The product consists of a huge range of fish species and crustaceans, all harvested from the pristine Coral Sea off south-east Queensland. Mooloolabah is renowned for its succulent prawns and several varieties are available through MRF - Tiger, Banana, Red Spot King, Endeavour and the most popular, Eastern Ocean Mooloolaba King Prawn. The daily catch is unloaded from boats at the MRF wharf and immediately processed for distribution or sale through its on-site market. Fresh and cooked seafood is available at its Parkyn Parade hub, and patrons can enjoy delicious cooked seafood to take away or to savour on The Deck overlooking the Mooloolah River.
MARINAS AND SERVICES
It is a fair reflection of Mooloolaba's popularity as a boating destination that the harbour has three marinas for recreational boats and a plenitude of marine services.
After entering the river, Mooloolaba Marina is the first to be encountered to starboard. The self-proclaimed 'jewel in Queensland's crown,' this marina is the largest (with 265 berths) plus good facilities and handy access to a wide range of services. A 200 metre walk across the spit will get you to the pearly white sands of the beach, while Pier 33 restaurant and the fish market are right next door.
Opposite the Mooloolaba Marina, a canal runs south for about 1.6 kilometres to Kawana Waters Marina (KWM), also popular among boaters on the Sunshine Coast with 130 berths. Constructed as Lawrie's Marina in 1974 (reputedly Queensland's first), it was excavated to provide fill for the surrounding Kawana canal estate. The marina lies in a cul-de-sac basin with a regular flat bottom, a depth of 2 metres at mean sea level, and sufficient room to safely turn a 20-metre
vessel in normal weather conditions. It is also only 300 metres from Kawana Shopping World and within easy walking distance of restaurants and recreational facilities.
The KWM is conveniently located next to Lawrie’s Boat Services (LBS). Established by Keith Lawrie in 1982, LBS caters to recreational and commercial vessels of all types - monohulls, catamarans, trimarans, power boats and pleasure craft. Its facilities include a fully sealed hardstand, 44-tonne straddle carrier, mobile crane, individually enclosed bays (all with power and water), vessel cradles, covered re-fit sheds, sandblast bay, work dock, waterblasters and chandlery.
A wide variety of specialist tenants are co-located on site to provide a comprehensive range of services: scheduled surveys, repairs and maintenance, antifouling, marine painting, shipwrights, mechanical and electrical repairs, mast repairs, riggers, hydraulics, boat covers, marine upholstery, sail makers, yacht brokerage, marine insurance and chandlery.
Back on the river, the Wharf Marina sits on the northern bank at a bend near Minyama Island. Although the smallest of Mooloolaba’s marinas (with 47 berths), it is adjacent to The Wharf precinct, which includes retail outlets, a cocktail bar, a tourist booking office, cruisedive-and-fishing charters, cafés, restaurants, a tavern and bottle shop, a property agent and the Mooloolaba Yacht Club. It’s also close to the tourist hub on the Esplanade.
Mooloolah River Fisheries operates a marina for commercial fishing vessels, with berthing for 36 vessels up to 25 metres in length, all with oneand three-phase power. Moorings are available for day or monthly rates. An unloading Wharf can handle up to three vessels simultaneously and the diesel fuel facility has two bowsers allowing concurrent refuelling for two vessels. An ice-making plant can produce 25 tonnes of bulk or bagged ice per day and some general supplies (packaging materials, chemicals and oils) are available for fishing vessels.
BOAT LAUNCHING FACILITIES
There are three main boat ramps in or near Mooloolaba Harbour. On the south side of the river, upstream from Point Cartwright, a boat ramp is located at the intersection of Harbour Parade and Adaluma Avenue (Buddina), with a large carpark, three-lane ramp, floating pontoon and fish cleaning tables. On the northern side of
the river, the Mooloolaba Boat Ramp is located off Parkyn Parade between the Coast Guard base and Mooloolaba Marina.
The upstream section consists of two multilane ramps (separated by a pontoon) adjacent to a sandy beach. Another T-pontoon sits next to the beach, equidistant from the downstream section which has a single multi-lane ramp with landing pontoon. The large carpark has ample boat and trailer parking and is close to telephone, fuel outlet, toilets, picnic area, bait and shops.
The third ramp is upstream from Mooloolah Island and is accessed by taking the Mooloolaba off-ramp going north on Nicklen Way, then doubling back towards the river. This ramp is situated on the left and, although small, it is adequate and the best one to use for accessing the upper parts of the river.
There is also an excellent dinghy landing on the beach at Charles Clark Park, south-west of Wharf Marina, from which shops and restaurants are within easy walking distance. Water and toilets are available in the park.
If you don’t have your own boat (or even if you do), one of the best ways to enjoy the beautiful Mooloolah waterways is to jump on a cruise with one of the local charters.
Coastal Cruises Mooloolaba (CCM) operates the 35-foot Pacific Star, a comfortable allweather boat set up as a cruising restaurant with a fully licensed bar, booth seating with waterfront views and on-board amenities. In collaboration with the Mooloolah River Fisheries, CCM offers fresh local seafood lunches, with table service, and sunset/evening cruises.
The family-run Mooloolaba Canal Cruises (MCC) has been operating from The Wharf for over 27 years. Their MV Mudjimba, built in 1963 and lovingly restored, is a Mooloolaba icon and is the only wooden ex-brisbane river ferry still afloat.
A one-hour cruise takes in the Mooloolah River between the mouth and Mooloolah Island (boasting million-dollar mansions and celebrity homes) and through the Kawana canal system, where you can feed the pelicans.
MCC also offers seasonal sunset cruises and 2-hour private (BYO) charters that can accommodate up to 40 guests, with pre-booked pick-up and drop-off at private jetties (if you have access to one).
The Sunshine Coast has many excellent holiday destinations, and Mooloolaba is a stand-out in a stellar cast. It has all the ingredients for a fantastic family holiday, without all the glitz and glamour of its much vaunted rivals – an affordable range of accommodation, attractions to suit everyone in the family, a good selection of amenities, stunning beaches, sheltered waterways and boat loads of world-class seafood.
And if you’re an angler you can ply the rod along the length of a pristine river, around inshore islands and shoals or cast for the big ones off mid-ocean reefs. Whether you’re after a meal or a trophy, you’re certain to take home a creel full of happy memories.
LEFT Calm waters meet boaters as they navigate upstream through the Mooloolah River. BELOW Safe golden beaches just perfect for swimming? It must be Queensland!
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE The coast meets the city in characteristic relaxed Queensland fashion at Mooloolaba; A series of rockwalls protect vessels in the harbour; Fresh tuna being unloaded for market.
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE Industrious commercial fishos can be found hard at work on the docks; Three marinas offer a wide choice for recreational boaters; Visiting mariners will have no trouble accessing services or temporary berthing in this boat-mad region.
ABOVE Take a canal cruise, head offshore for a dive charter or dangle a rod off one of Mooloolaba's many jetties.