Heron Island was discovered on 12 January 1843 by the corvette HMS Fly. The ship was surveying the eastern edge of the Great Barrier Reef together with the cutter Bramble. The expedition was commanded by Captain Francis Black wood and the reason for the expedition was mainly to map out detailed plans for safe passages within the reef. The island was named by Lieutenant Charles Bamp field Yule RN of the Bramble.
The island did not become inhabited until the early 20th century when a turtle cannery was established. The aim was to profit from the seasonal influx of green turtles, but the venture soon found it difficult to keep the business afloat. Other attempts at establishing fisheries were abandoned.
In 1932 Captain Christian Poulsen, engaged in bringing fishing parties to the reef, realised the potential of the island as a tourist attraction. In 1936 he bought the lease of the island for £290. On 11 September 1943 the entire island was declared a National Park