World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Great Barrier Reef is a vast underwater realm of coral and marine life unrivalled on the planet. Stretching some 1200 miles through the Coral Sea from the Tropic of Capricorn in the south to beyond the tip of Australia off Cape York, this giant, living reef system is indeed great.
Naturally, scuba diving or snorkeling is the best way to see what lies beneath the surface. Don't fret if you're not a certified diver – at some shallow fringing reefs and boat anchors you need only dip your mask a few inches underunder the water to view the full Technicolor pantheon of coral, neon fish, turtles, rays, reef sharks and more. Getting out onto the reef is easy: just base yourself at one of the Queensland coastal towns like Cairns, Port Douglas, Mission Beach or Airlie Beach and a cruise boat or dive operator will whisk you out to the best spots.
Even without getting wet, you can savor the Great Barrier Reef from one of the dozens of accessible tropical islands, on a sailing trip through the gorgeous Whitsundays, beneath the reef in a submersible or above it on a scenic seaplane flight. However you do it, just do it!
A few of John's memories…
To get perspective on the vastness of the Great Barrier Reef means seeing it from the air. I had never before flown in a helicopter and what a brilliant place to experience for the first time the thrill of vertical lift-off! We flew 50 miles from the coast to a landing pad in the middle of the ocean (note in the video my enormous grin as we step out of the helicopter), then shuttled to a floating dive station and snorkeled the reef. Guides led us to clown fish hiding in anemones, past mountains of coral, with a rainbow of fish surrounding me everywhere I looked. From the macro to the micro, seeing the reef from above and below changed my perspective on the ocean, and by extension, on the entire planet.
While you're there
Lady Elliot Island
Come to this gorgeous coral cay to see protected sea turtles nesting, and stay to enjoy the stunning underwater landscape. Divers and snorkelers can walk straight off the beach to explore an ocean bed of shipwrecks, coral gardens, bommies (coral pinnacles or outcroppings) and blowholes, and abundant marine life including barracuda, giant manta rays and harmless leopard sharks.
Sailing the Whitsundays
The Whitsunday Islands is that sailing holiday you've always dreamed about: island-hopping through a stunning archipelago, swimming from white-sand beaches, balmy tropical nights and cocktails from the deck of your yacht. Whether it's a daytrip, skippered cruise or ‘bareboat' charter (you sail yourself), there's no better place in Australia for sailing.
The slick resort town of Port Douglas on the far north coast offers easy access to the outer and ribbon reefs aboard a flotilla of fast catamarans and yachts, but there's plenty to do on dry land. Flash hotel resorts with world-class golf courses, a long stretch of golden sand beach, wildlife parks, sublime restaurants and the nearby Daintree rainforest add up to a perfect tropical holiday.
Home to one of Australia's most remote and luxurious island resorts – but otherwise entirely national park – Lizard Island is the closest thing to paradise off the Queensland coast. Bushwalk to a lookout point once used by explorer Captain Cook before stepping off a perfect beach to a relatively untouched fringing reef. Experienced divers head straight to two of Australia's best-known dive sites – Cod Hole (meet the giant potato cod!) and Pixie Bommie.
Skydive at Mission Beach
Wanna see the reef from 14,000ft? When you jump from a plane at Mission Beach you'll not only see the reef and inner islands, but miles of golden coastline and rainforest – and with the help of your parachute and skydive instructor, it should be a soft landing on the beach.