Our guide to the best Great Barrier Reef experience
Covering roughly 344,000 square kilometres, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system.
A national symbol of Australia, this great natural wonder of the world offers vital habitat for an abundance of marine life. The Great Barrier Reef has become one of the world’s most sought after travel destinations. It is a living breathing ecosystem that offers an abundance of underwater recreation, some 900 idyllic islands, and extraordinary wildlife experiences.
Take a look at our helpful 2018 Great Barrier Reef Guide to start planning your own memorable Great Barrier Reef Experience. Pack your bathers and sunscreen, and dive into a truly unforgettable holiday. And don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you leave, you can get a quote and buy now on our website.
The Great Barrier Reef and why it’s so special
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Great Barrier Reef is Earth’s largest living structure.
Just offshore the Queensland Coast, running from Bundaberg to the tip of Cape York, the GBR is home to some of the world’s greatest underwater adventures.
Due to the reef’s easy accessibility, nearly 2 million people visit the GBR annually. Visitors flock to the reef to experience the vast array of marine life the reef supports as well as to relax in year-round beautiful weather.
Reefs protect coastlines from being severely altered from tropical storms and provide essential nutrients for the marine food chain to function. Due to the fact so many species of fish spawn and grown up in the reef, it is also vital to the local fishing industry.
The Great Barrier Reef is not a single reef, rather it is made up of thousands of smaller reefs. The islands and sandy cays within the reef provide some of the most spectacular maritime scenery in the world and create a complex natural ecosystem with a rich biodiversity.
These are just a few reasons why we need to protect the reef and we have yet to fully understand all the many benefits the reef has to offer.
Visiting the Great Barrier Reef
Experiencing the reef by air or sea is easy, with hundreds of tour operators at your service.
Most visitors looking to experience the reef will fly into Cairns but you can catch flights to other coastal cities offering reef access as well as direct flights to GBR islands such as Hamilton Island from Sydney, Melbourne, or Brisbane.
Enjoy easy access to the Whitsundays from Airlie Beach or take the ferry from Cairns to Fitzroy Island. Places like Mission Beach and Townsville offer great day trips to the reef as well as extended journeys. Visit Port Douglas to experience the incredible Daintree Rainforest in addition to the numerous Great Barrier Reef experiences offered.
How you decide to experience the reef is as varied as the destinations that act as bases for your explorations.
Snorkel and dive tours offer the best way to fully immerse yourself in the living reef, offering up close and personal experiences with its abundant marine life.
Those not comfortable diving beneath the surface can opt for a glass-bottomed boat tour. These tours allow visitors to travel over shallow reefs where they can spot all kinds of corals, fish, sea turtles, and giant 100+ year old clams without getting their feet wet.
Choose from several different boating options including lavish yachts, cruise ships, and romantic sailboats. In fact, liveaboard boat tours are great for venturing deep into the reef where you get to spend several days to weeks exploring numerous islands and dive sites. Enjoy your own private cabin, spacious decks, WiFi, catered meals, and knowledgeable guides.
Those prone to sea sickness can choose to take a scenic helicopter or seaplane flight over the reef, taking in the famous Heart Reef and Whitsunday Islands.
Flights over the reef usually include stopovers on a remote island or coral cay where you can enjoy lunch and explore the shoreline.
You can also find unique Seawalker experiences as well as submarine adventures.
Must see islands
While visiting every Great Barrier Reef island would take several visits, many of its most notable islands can be experienced during a single trip.
GBR islands offer a wide range of accommodation options including beachside bungalows, lavish 5-star resorts, and adventurous campsites. Here are some of our favourite must visit Great Barrier Reef islands.
- Fitzroy Island: A mountainous rainforest oasis, Fitzroy Island is a national park that is easily reached by a 45-minute ferry from Cairns. Teeming with wildlife both onshore and in the surrounding reef, Fitzroy offers many water-based adventures, great hikes, and the chance to visit the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre. The Fitzroy Island Resort offers accommodation options ranging from campsites to deluxe suites.
- Lizard Island: Australia’s northernmost island resort, Lizard Island is a pure tropical paradise with its two dozen white-sand beaches. Named by Captain James Cook for the numerous monitor lizards found on the island, Lizard Island is also home to a Great Barrier Reef research station and luxury resort. The resort offers trips to the world famous Cod Hole dive site.
- Green Island: This tropical cay is just a short trip from Cairns by way of ferry, charter boat, helicopter, or seaplane. This rainforest-covered cay is rather small, making it great for day tours. Experience a variety of birdlife, exotic plants, and great snorkelling sites.
- Heron Island: This small island in the southern GBR can be accessed from Gladstone on the mainland. You will find 10 dive sites within 15 minutes of the island, making this a great option for divers and snorkelers. The island is home to a resort that offers a rare chance to log-off from the real world as it offers no TVs, no mobile phone coverage, and limited internet.
- Hamilton Island: The only GBR island with a commercial airport, Hamilton Island can be reached by direct flights from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Cairns. Located in the heart of the beautiful Whitsundays, Hamilton Island is a year round holiday hotspot. If you’re looking for a single island the whole family can enjoy, then Hamilton is your type of island. The island offers a wealth of accommodation options and exciting activities to take part in. Take a day trip to the famous Whitehaven Beach, dine at award winning restaurants, paddleboard off Catseye Beach, book a fishing charter, play a round of golf, or simply relax in a world class spa.
Best wildlife experiences
The Great Barrier Reef is an underwater Serengeti which offers incredible marine safaris found nowhere else.
The reef is home to microscopic plankton all the way up to giant humpback whales which migrate from Antarctic waters to breed here. The calm waters provide critical habitat for endangered marine life such as dugongs and six species of sea turtle that come ashore throughout the reef to lay their eggs.
Feel what it’s like to be a marine biologist as you witness the world’s largest collection of corals and be captivated by tropical fish of every shape, size, and colour.
Play a version of “Where’s Wally” as you try to spot Nemo, the adorable clownfish, amongst more than 1,500 species of fish.
Swim with giant manta rays, with their 7 metre wide wing-like fins, off Lady Elliot Island and search for dozens of shark species. Most sharks in the reef are harmless and include the white tip and black tip reef sharks.
As you snorkel or scuba dive the reef, you are almost guaranteed to make new friends like the Maori wrasse and potato cod which are all too eager to follow you around out of curiosity.
Even above the water you can spot wildlife as you cruise alongside bottlenose and spinner dolphins in the Whitsundays or scan the horizon for migrating minke whales.
Come Oct-Dec, love may not be in the air but it will definitely be beneath the waters of the reef. Mass synchronised coral spawning takes place after sunset and offers up a magical underwater snowstorm which lasts up to a week.
Above water, hundreds of species of birds including sea eagles and frigatebirds visit or breed on the reef’s beautiful islands.
Take a guided tour to watch sea turtles lay eggs and even witness the baby turtles hatching at the Mon Repos Turtle Centre during the turtle nesting season.
In addition to the abundant Great Barrier Reef marine life you’ll spot, the Far North Queensland mainland offers the chance to spot giant flightless cassowaries, tree kangaroos, saltwater crocodiles, and vibrant tropical butterflies.
The future of the Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park protects a large area of the Great Barrier Reef from harmful activities.
Although tourism, fishing, and recreation are allowed in the park, all activities are strictly regulated so as to minimise harmful impacts.
Permanent anchorage points have been established along with boating speed limits to lessen the damage to the reef.
The Great Barrier Reef has suffered recently from coral bleaching brought on by climate change as well as cyclic outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish.
but fortunately, it was recently announced that the Great Barrier Reef Foundation would receive a $444 million grant to aid in reef recovery and protection efforts. Nearly 20 years running, the foundation has managed to raise $90 million for reef projects that go to the heart of saving coral reefs and the animals that depend on them.
They work closely with Australia’s leading scientists from organisations like CSIRO as well as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.
And although nearly 90% of the Great Barrier Reef shows evidence of bleaching, it remains better off than most other coral reef ecosystems around the world thanks to effective protection and management strategies.
Looking to the future, the Australian government is devoted to making the reef more resilient to climate change as well as decreasing catchment run-off and loss of coastal habitats from development.
Protecting the reef is essential to make sure future generations can enjoy the Great Barrier Reef experiences we have today. It is also vital for the local communities that depend on them.
By continuing to show support for the reef though donations and tourism, we can hopefully keep the reef alive and well preserved for generations to come.
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