The largest coral reef system on the planet is Australia’s top tourism treasure, the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef. The reef stretches over 2,300 kilometers from Queensland’s northern tip to Bundaberg’s coastal town, and it is one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems. It is the only living structure visible from space, so vast is this complex of reefs, islands, coral cays, seagrass beds, and mangroves.
A top Australian outdoor adventure is to experience the Great Barrier Reef. Some of the most popular things to do include SCUBA diving and snorkeling along the shimmering coral reefs, sailing around idyllic tropical islands, fishing in designated zones, peering from a glass-bottomed boat at the abundant marine life, and soaring on a scenic flight over this magnificent natural wonder.
You can access the Great Barrier Reef from various points along the Queensland coast, thanks to its vast size. The thriving tourist town of Cairns in Far North Queensland is one of the most popular launching points for reef adventures. Port Douglas, about an hour’s drive north of Cairns, is a smaller and more tranquil base for reef trips. It’s also the shortest distance from the Great Barrier Reef to the mainland.
Warming ocean temperatures are causing the large-scale coral die-off, especially along the reef’s far northern stretches, so try to see this magnificent spectacle as soon as possible. With the hope of preserving this important resource for future generations, the Australian Government has recently introduced a long-term sustainability plan to help combat the effects of climate change and pollution.
1. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which covers more than 344,000 square kilometers (half the size of Texas), was established in 1975 to protect the reef’s fragile ecosystems. There are over 2,900 coral reefs, 600 continental islands, 300 coral cays, seagrass beds, and numerous mangrove islands within its borders. An astonishing range of marine life is also protected by the park. More than 600 species of hard and soft corals range from brain coral bulbous spheres to craggy staghorn and graceful sea fans of gorgonians. Mollusks such as giant clams and more than 1,625 species of fish live in these thriving underwater jungles. You can spot sharks, rays, sea snakes, dugongs, turtles, dolphins, and whales in the surrounding waters.
The park is a protected area of mixed-use which allows sustainable fishing in designated areas, unlike some others in marine reserves. In consultation with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, whose heritage is closely linked with the region, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Authority administers the park. They work together to safeguard this diverse patchwork of fragile ecosystems and incredible biodiversity.
2. Whitsunday Islands
The Whitsunday Group’s 74 tropical islands, which are strung along the Great Barrier Reef, make excellent bases for discovering the reef’s wonders. Six national parks protect their fragile ecosystems, and eco retreats, campsites, and luxury resorts are home to several. You can sign up for a snorkeling or SCUBA diving trip, enjoy a cruise, or hop on board a sailboat to explore the reef from these sun-splashed shores.
Sight-seeing cruises frequently visit some of the top beaches in the world, like the sublime Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island, as well as the fish-rich snorkeling reefs. Heron Island has some of the best diving of all the Whitsunday Islands, while Hamilton Island has a wide range of accommodations, from mid-range Whitsunday Apartments to the opulent Qualia Resort, and is the only Whitsunday Island with a large jet airport. Luxury travelers flock to Hayman Island, which is home to One&Only, a five-star nature resort, while families flock to Daydream Island and Long Island. On the Whitsunday and Hook Islands, national park campsites are available if you plan on camping. The principal gateways for Whitsunday sightseeing are Airlie Beach and Shute Harbour. Ferries, luxury yachts, helicopters, and seaplanes can take you to your dream island from here.
3. Whitehaven Beach
Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island is often classified as one of the world’s top ten beaches and has a splendid seven-km stretch of white silica sand and vibrant blue sea. On day trips on a luxury yacht, ferries, motorboats, or sailboats you can visit the beach, and Tongue Bay is a favorite bareboat anchorage. Through the island, walking paths lead. A 10- to 15-minute walk from the beach to Hill Inlet is a popular destination for spectacular views over the white hills and turquoise waters. You can book a scenic flight and soar over the marbled seascape on an airplane if you don’t have time to walk on the soft sands. South of the beach camping is allowed.
4. SCUBA Diving & Snorkeling
One of the most desirable diving destinations in the world is the Great Barrier Reef. More than 2,900 reefs with kaleidoscopic walls, spectacular coral channels, swimming pinnacles are located in this wonderful underwater land. Gliding across 90-meter drop-offs off the edge of the continental shelf can feel like flying over an underwater jungle.
Other wildlife attractions include the North Horn Shark Food Frenzy; Cod Hole with its gigantic Potato Cod near Lizard Island; Osprey reef Drift Dives; Lighthouse Bommie Migrating Minke Wales; Agincourt Ribbon reefs, easily accessible from Cairns; and Flynn Reef Coral Gardens.
Heron Island provides some of the best dive experiences on all of its islands in the Whitsunday Islands, including a manta-ray cleaning station on the Heron Island.
Along the reef, wreck diving is also possible. The SS Yongala, a steel and timber steamship that sank in 1911 during a cyclone and killed 121 people, can be visited from Townsville or Magnetic Island.
Day tours are an excellent way to taste the reef while diving in water diving offers maximum time and opportunities to visit some of the most remote and less-visited reefs.
If you’re staying in Cairns, the Great Barrier Reef Diving and Snorkeling Cruise from Cairns is a great way to see the spectacular underwater scenery. This full-day trip involves comfortable boat transportation, barbecue lunch, snorkeling stops, and optional SCUBA diving and helicopter flight upgrades.
5. Reef Cruises and Sailing Adventures
Trips to the Great Barrier Reef are one of the best ways to explore the reefs’ top attractions. Full or half-day cruisings bring passengers out for easy access to water by well-equipped reef pontoons. Some of the facilities available here include freshwater showers, changing rooms, and underwater observatories.
You can take a reef crossing from Cairns that will take you by catamaran to a snorkeling pontoon, a glass-boat, and a semi-submersible tour. You can choose an upgrade, such as a Seawalker Helmet dive and SCUBA dive, and this whole day tour includes a buffet lunch.
The Port Douglas Low Islands Great Barrier Reef Sailing Cruit includes a full-day sailing catamaran cruise from Port Douglas to the Low Islands, where a sea biologist can take a snorkel right outside the white sand beach, to see the green sea turtles. A guided beach tour and a tropical buffet lunch are also included on the trip.
With Cairns coach transfer, Quicksilver is carrying out popular cruises on a high-speed catamaran in Port Douglas. Trips include typical presentations, diving or snorkeling, and coral vision in a semi-submersible environment by marine biologists. Other popular water-based options are multi-day luxury cruises and whale-watching trips.
You can charter a sailboat for a more intimate and tranquil experience. Glamorous Whitehaven Beach and Butterfly Bay are ideal mooring spots. Bareboat charters also come to the outer Great Barrier Reef, from Cairns or Airlie Beach, and are popular on the Whitsunday Islands. With a qualified instructor or charter vessels with a skilled crew, you can learn the ropes.
6. Scenic Flights
The amazing magnitude of this natural wonder can be appreciated on a spectacular flight. Over the mottled coral reef and palm-friendly islands, helicopter and seaplanes soar. Options range from flights of 15 minutes to full-day flying trips, including water sports and lunch. Heart Reef is one of the best characteristics to see from the air. This naturally formed coral reef is a favorite site for romantic flyover suggestions.
The Great Barrier Reef Scenic Helicopter Tour and Cruise is an excellent option if you want to see the reef from more than one angle. A 25-minute flight with informative comments and a chance to snorkel, swim and dive along the river coastline includes this full-day tour.
7. Day Trips to Fitzroy and Green Islands
You can travel one day to one of these nearby tropical islands if you are based in Cairns. Green Island, the most popular but also crowded of the two is about 45 minutes by high-speed catamaran from Cairns. Snorkeling, glass boat excursions, and the largest prison croc in the world at Marineland Crocodile Park are popular things to do. Here you can enjoy. The Green Island Resort can also stay overnight.
Fitzroy Island is a good choice if you want a more peaceful, low-key island escape with better snorkeling opportunities, beautiful hiking trails, and lovely white sand and crushed coral beaches.
The Green Island Day Trip from Cairns and the Fitzroy Island Day Trip from Cairns is a fun way to experience these islands. Both these trips include return transport to the islands, and other activities, such as snorkeling, snowboarding, and more, can be adapted to your route.
8. Magnetic Island
Magnetic Island is part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and it’s famous for the beautiful beaches, secluded coves, and resident koalas about a 20-minute ferry trip from Townsville on the Australian mainland. The National Park of Magnetic Island is more than half the island and protects these beautiful creatures and other species, including many nesting marine tortoises. The Maggie Island is a 20-minute ferry ride to Magnetic Island, affectionately known by locals as “Maggie Island” Or you can take a car from the car ferry through the island.
When you get there, you can walk around 24 km of walkways, discover the historical forts of the Second World War, take a kayak, snorkel, wreck and reef dive, go horseback riding, spa treatment and shopping on local markets. In the surrounding waters, big game fishing is also excellent, with an opportunity to catch famous species like marlin and sailfish, tuna and mahimahi.
9. Lizard Island
Lizard Island is the tropical escapist Fanta, with 24 secluded beaches and coral reefs just off the shore in a luminous, blue lagoon, on the far north of the Great Barrier Reef. The beaches are located about 250 Km north of Cairns. The National Park of Lizard Island protects the rich fauna of the island, including the abundant monitored namesake lizards and flying foxes and snakes, and varied birdlife. Seafarers, especially terns, are also popular in some of the other insulas in the national park.
The exclusive 40-villa Lizard Island Resort is a favorite haunt for lunatics and couples on the northwestern side of Lizard Island. This luxurious, all-inclusive retreat provides a five-star service, fine food, day trips to abandoned beaches, and top diving attractions, such as the famous nearby Cod Hole. Also on the northwest side of the Lizard Island in Watsons Bay, campsites are available. The island can be accessed from Cairns, Port Douglas, and Cooktown by private boats or commercial charter boats. Cairns and Cooktown flights are also available.
10. Orpheus Island
Orpheus Island is a quiet retreat within the marine park of the Great Barrier Reef, approximately 110 kilometers north of Townsville. Quiet bays and reefs provide nature enthusiasts with the perfect playground and a National Park protects local flora and fauna. Only about 12 km and 1 to 2.5 km wide are available on the island and no roads or official walking trails are provided. Only by charter or private boat can you access the island, keeping visitors to a minimum.
Camping is at Yanks Jetty, South Beach, and Pioneer Bay if you want to stay overnight. One of the only other accommodations on the island is the Orpheus Island Resort, an exclusive retreat from Townsville (30 minutes) and Cairns with a maximum of 28 guests (1.5 hours). Picnics on secluded beaches, fishing, snorkeling, diving, and spa treatments are all part of the city’s most popular activities. You can also take a dinghy and explore the magnificent bays of the island alone.