Stretching over 2000km along the eastern coast of Australia, the Great Barrier is a mind-blowing natural wonder. This marine wonderland and Unesco World Heritage Site harbours one of richest ecosystems on the planet. Over 2900 individual reefs compose this complicated living system, along with some 900 islands scattered from the Tropic of Capricorn to the fringes of Papua New Guinea.
There is a multitude of places to launch your reef adventure, and a range of ways to see the kaleidoscopic spectacle, from diving and exploring by sailboat to a scenic flight or leisurely wander along the coastline of a coral-fringed island.
Top ways to see the reef
Snorkelling & diving
Donning a mask and fins is the best way to get a close up view of dazzling corals, sea turtles, rays, sharks and tropical fish of every colour and size. Much of the diving and snorkelling on the reef is boat based, although there are also excellent reefs surrounding some of the islands.
Day trips leave from many places along the coast, as well as from island resorts, and typically stop at two or three different sites, allowing about three hours of underwater time. Full day excursions to the reef cost around $200, including lunch, snacks and snorkel gear, with scuba diving an optional extra.
If you’re eager to do as much diving as possible, a live-aboard boat is the best option. This allows reef-goers to dive up to four times a day, including night dives, and visit more remote parts of the Great Barrier Reef. Trip lengths vary from one to 12 nights, though three- and four-day trips are among the most common. Prices for a four-day/three-night trip start at around $800.
For a sea eagle's view over the reef, take a helicopter or seaplane tour. Popular spots to arrange trips are Airlie Beach, with excursions taking in the spectacular Whitsunday Islands, and Cairns, with flights over rainforest-covered Green Island. A 30-minute scenic flight costs around $270.
Many reefs in the southern part of the Great Barrier Reef are exposed at low tide, allowing visitors to walk on the reef top, on sandy tracks between living coral. This can be a great way to learn about marine life, especially if a naturalist guide accompanies you.
Where to base yourself
At over 2000km long, the reef is big and so it’s important to pick your entry point. A number of towns spread along the Queensland coast serve as gateways to the reef, plus there are a number of island resorts ranging from small and secluded to surprisingly large and well visited.
Cairns is undeniably the main launching pad for reef tours – there are a staggering number of operators here. You can do anything from relatively inexpensive day trips on large boats to intimate five-day luxury charters.
Just north of Cairns, Port Douglas is an upmarket resort town and a gateway to the Low Isles and Agincourt Reef, an outer ribbon reef featuring crystal clear water and particularly stunning corals.
The small town of Airlie Beach is famed for its multiday sailing trips out to the Whitsunday Islands, an archipelago with turquoise waters, coral gardens and palm-fringed beaches. Only seven of the Whitsunday's 74 islands offer lodging, and these range from simple campgrounds to five star resorts. Bustling Hamilton Island has the largest tourist infrastructure and its airport is the main arrival point to the Whitsundays.
Townsville is a renowned gateway among divers. Whether you’re learning or experienced, a four- or five-night on-board diving safari around the numerous islands and pockets of the reef is a great choice.
Australia's major carriers (Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Australia) connect Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne with airports in Cairns, Townsville, Airlie Beach (actually in Proserpine) and Hamilton Island. In addition to domestic flights, Cairns Airport receives a few international flights offered by Jetstar, Cathay Pacific and Air New Zealand. To reach Port Douglas, take a shuttle or taxi from Cairns airport.
When to go
The best time to visit the Great Barrier Reef is from June to November, when the weather is mild and visibility is generally good. Avoid visiting from December to March when northern Queensland has a distinct wet season, bringing oppressive heat and abundant rainfall.
What to see if you’ve only got five days
The Cairns area makes a good base for seeing a variety of attractions in a limited time. On day one take a day trip to the outer reef; the following day visit Green Island (or overnight at the high end resort there); the next day go snorkelling, bushwalking and beach-walking on Fitzroy Island. Take a break from the sea on day four and visit the rainforests, lakes and waterfalls of the Atherton Tableland, just inland from Cairns. On your last day, visit the coral-fringed Frankland Islands. All are easily arranged as day trips from Cairns.
Another fantastic choice is the Whitsunday Islands. From Airlie Beach book a three-day/three-night sailing trip, visiting coral reefs and pristine uninhabited islands. Afterwards spend two days snorkelling, beachcombing and relaxing amid the tropical beauty of one of the resorts in the Whitsundays.
Protecting the reef
The Great Barrier Reef is fragile and it’s worth taking some time to educate yourself on responsible practices while you’re there. Here are a few sustainable travel tips:
- Whether on an island or in a boat, take all litter with you – even biodegradable material like fruit peels – and dispose of it back on the mainland.
- Never rest or stand on coral, and don't harass marine life. Watch where your fins are – try not to stir up sediment or disturb coral.
- If you’re snorkelling, practice your technique away from coral until you’ve mastered control in the water.
- Hire a wetsuit rather than slathering on sunscreen, which can damage the reef.