The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef, located just off the Northeastern coast of Australia, is the largest living thing on Earth. The 1,430 mile-long ecosystem is home to thousands of reefs and islands which are made up of over 600 different types of kaleidoscopic hard and soft corals. The biodiversity present in such a monumental structure is mind-boggling; from the countless species of eccentrically patterned fish (Hey Nemo!) to the plethora of mollusks, starfish, turtles, dolphins and sharks, it’s not hard to understand why the reef is one of Australia’s (and the world’s) most treasured icons.
Named as one of the Seven Natural Wonders Of The World, it’s not hard to understand why it’s on so many people’s bucket lists. But with such a large area to cover and so many different ways to see it, planning a trip can become a little complicated. Check out our list of the best ways to see the reef, how to do it in style or on a budget, and a few little tips that will make sure you take back only fond memories. Don’t forget to store any top tips in your BUCKiTDREAM planner!
The Best Ways To Explore The Reef
Snorkeling Without a few days of training or a certified PADI licence if you want to get up close and personal with the magnificent marine life on the reef then slipping on a mask and fins is the best way to do it. Most of the snorkeling on the reef is boat-based, but you can still find some amazing corals off the coast of some of the islands as well.
Diving To truly be at one with the fishes, nothing quite beats scuba diving. Choosing this option will mean that you’re able to reach some of the more remote areas of the reef and as such will experience an even wider view of the incredible biodiversity of the region.
Reef Walking Low tides around the southern part of the reef allow visitors to walk upon the sandy tracks between the living coral. Take a naturalist guide with you and learn all there is to know about this beautiful and fragile ecosystem.
Boat Tours Full-day boat excursions leave from many places along the coast and usually stop at two or three different sites along the way, allowing for approximately three hours worth of diving time. Prices for a full day tour run from around $230 USD and usually include lunch, snacks and snorkeling gear with scuba-diving as an additional extra.
Scenic Flights Take in a bird’s-eye view of the reef in either a helicopter or on a seaplane tour. Fly over the beautiful Airlie Beach, Whitsunday Islands, Cairns and Green Island. A 30-minute scenic flight costs around $270 USD.
Live-aboards For those looking to get in as much diving as possible then the best option is to look at one of the many live-aboard boats that are available. This will allow for up to four hours of diving per day, including night dives and access to more remote parts of the reef. Prices for a three-day, two-night trip start from around $600 USD.
The Reef’s Biggest Hits
Green Island A beautiful coral cay located 17 miles offshore from Cairns is home to unique island rainforests, magnificent coral reefs and blindingly white sandy beaches.
Fitzroy Island Listed as a National Island Park, Fitzroy Island remains one of the most unspoiled on the Great Barrier Reef. Four distinct walking trails guide you through the islands mangroves, open woodlands, tropical rainforests and pristine coral beaches.
Atherton Tablelands Located near Cairns, this highland region of Northern Australia encompasses a wide variety of natural landscapes and is home to a rich mix of native flora and fauna. Explore the region’s rainforests, wetlands, savannas and waterfalls whilst testing out your nature photography skills trying to capture the colorful birds, bouncing tree kangaroos and cuddly wallabies that you’ll discover round each turn.
Frankland Islands A totally uninhabited group of five continental islands, located 28 miles south of Cairns. Covered in lush vegetation and surrounded by rich and diverse reefs that are home to an abundance of tropical fish, giant clams and, most notably, green sea turtles.
Whitsunday Islands 74 island wonders, the majority of which are uninhabited, national parks fringed by colourful coral reefs and crystal clear waters make up this slice of paradise on earth.
Where To Set Up Base
For Accessibility If you’re not staying on a private boat then Cairns is often the main launchpad for tourists visiting the reef. Here you can find a staggering number of operators offering anything from relatively inexpensive day trips to luxurious five-day charters.
For Unblemished Luxury The upmarket resort town of Port Douglas is located just north of Cairns and is the perfect place to base yourself whilst exploring the Low Isles and Agincourt Reef.
For Sailing The small town of Airlie Beach is renowned for its multi-day sailing trips out to the Whitsunday Islands. Four of the Whitsundays’ 74 islands offer lodging (including the famous Hamilton Island), which ranges from simple campgrounds to five-star luxury resorts.
For Diving Whether you’re just starting out or have years of experience under your belt, the popular diving hub of Townsville has plenty of four or five-night diving safaris to choose from that will suit everyone’s skill levels.
Getting There Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne airports all offer connecting flights to Cairns, Townsville, Airlie Beach and Hamilton Island. If you’re staying in Port Douglas then a shuttle or taxi from Cairns airport will be needed.
When to go June to November are the best times to visit the reef as the weather is mild and visibility is generally good. Avoid December to March as this is Northern Queensland’s wet season and no one likes diving in oppressive heat and simultaneous relentless rainfall.
Protect The Reef
Australia’s ecosystem is a fragile one, so everything that you bring in leaves with you. This includes biodegradable materials like fruit peels as well.
Coral reefs take thousands of years to develop and grow, so make sure that you’re not damaging any by touching them with greasy, sunblocked hands, standing on them for stability or knocking them with your flippers.
Sun protection is paramount in Australia’s unforgiving heat. However, the aggressive chemicals found in sunblocks can actually harm the reef. If you’re planning on spending an extended period of time exploring the reef then hire a full-length wetsuit to cover yourself from the harmful UV Rays instead.
For an unforgettable experience with unlimited bragging rights, try skydiving over the most picturesque drop zone in the world. A tandem jump with a qualified instructor will get your adrenaline levels racing before they pull the shoot and all you’ll have to do is sit back and take in the once-in-a-lifetime view.
On a slightly sadder note, due to climate change and the ever-increasing rise in global temperatures, the reef has never been in a more precarious state. Widespread bleaching is now not uncommon and the Australian government seems set to dredge a huge area of the reef to make way for a large coal mine. If you love the reef as much as we do then share it as one of your dream experiences on your BUCKiTDREAM app via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and raise awareness to protect this iconic Australian landmark.