Orpheus Island is a continental island providing access to an unusually wide variety of Great Barrier Reef habitats. This granitic island of 1,300 hectares is largely undisturbed as it is a National Park surrounded by a Marine Park. The island is covered by sclerophyll and woodland communities dominated by eucalypts with patches of rainforest in the moister areas and some patches of grassland.
JCU maintains the Orpheus Island Research Station, a facility with very good accommodation, cooking, classroom, diving and boating facilities that are important in running effective field schools such as the Maritime Heritage Field school, as well as a base for researchers.
The topography of the island and resultant sediments are studied by students studying earth and environmental sciences. Off-shore habitats include, well-developed fringing reefs, mid-shelf reefs as well as sand and mud bottoms which separate the reefs. Marine biology undergraduate and graduate students regularly visit the island to study the diverse fauna particularly on the sand and rubble intertidal reef flat as well as fauna associated with the mangrove community.
The coral and amphipod flora is particularly rich on Orpheus Island. Its waters also provide a number of different types of submerged historic sites, from Indigenous sites to recent shipwrecks. In association with the traditional owners, field school participants can learn about the importance of this area to Australian Aboriginal people and record some of their material remains. The shipwrecks and other coastal landing facilities allow for effective training in search and survey techniques.