Floodplain wetlands in the wet–dry tropics are under increasing pressure from water resource development, and there is a need for methods to assess the biophysical dynamics of these extensive and often remote ecosystems. This study assessed the capacity of optical remote sensing methods to monitor the seasonal dynamics of inundation, turbidity, and aquatic vegetation cover for a northern Australian savanna catchment. MODIS data were used to map seasonal flood inundation patterns, and Landsat 5 TM data were used to map dry-season waterbody dynamics. A network of water-depth loggers and temperature sensors provided ground observations of surface inundation dynamics, and was used to validate the inundation mapping. Post-flood waterbody surface area declined by 89% over the dry season, with 70% of the decline occurring for Palustrine (floodplain) waterbodies. All aquatic systems became increasingly disconnected as the dry season progressed. Statistical relationships were developed between seasonal measurements of turbidity, aquatic vegetation cover, and Landsat spectral data. Catchment wide predictions showed that turbidity increased and macrophyte cover decreased for the Palustrine and Lacustrine (lake) systems, while the Riverine systems became less turbid over the dry season. These results show that, for open savanna landscapes where cloud cover does not limit waterbody detection, optical remote sensing methods can be effectively applied to assess seasonal patterns of inundation and accompanying biophysical dynamics. This provides an effective tool to evaluate the impact of river flow regime changes from water resource use or climate change in these regions. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.