Has seeing the Great Barrier Reef always been a dream of yours? Or are you just passing through and want to add this natural wonder to your itinerary?
No matter your reason for visiting, you are bound to have one of the most memorable experiences of your life along this 2,600km stretch of coral teeming with life.
There is so much to see in sunny Australia, so why not combine your reef adventure with some of the best beaches in the country?
This guide will go through everything you need to know about visiting the Great Barrier Reef, including where to go from, the different ways to explore and some extra information to add to your toolkit. If budget is a concern for you, then read our guide on How Expensive is Australia to get an idea of how far you can stretch your pennies on this trip.
So without further ado, let’s begin your epic Great Barrier Reef adventure!
Table of Contents
- Important things to know
- Where to visit the Great Barrier Reef from?
- How to see the Great Barrier Reef
- Final Thoughts
Important things to know
What is the Great Barrier Reef?
The Great Barrier Reef is not only the world’s largest reef system, hosting almost 3,000 reefs, but it is also the world’s largest living structure!
That’s right, corals are alive! Many people view coral as simply a home for fish, but they are so much more than that. In fact, the colourful patterns you’ll see along the coast are the elaborate exoskeletons of polyps, small nocturnal creatures.
These amazing coral structures are given their brilliant colours from the algae that live with them. These algae absorb the light and decorate the coral, formed by polyps by attaching to rock and secreting calcium carbonate. The hard shell provides protection for algae and fish, who help the coral by sharing nutrients from the sun and eating seaweeds that may smother the coral.
The reef has been affected by humans massively over the years, from boats getting too close to large animals, to careless divers damaging the coral. Due to recent coral bleaching events (when the coral expels the algae because of high water temperatures), a lot of the reef is very delicate at the moment. It can recover itself from these events, but only if tourists and tour operators act responsibly.
The absolute best way to make your trip one that will benefit both you and the reef is to use the green travel guide to find companies that are certified by Ecotourism Australia. This will ensure that your operator will already have everything under control and you can visit the reef without even having to think about your potential impact, helping preserve the magical wonders for years to come.
When to visit?
If you are combining your Great Barrier Reef experience with a trip to other parts of the country then I highly recommend taking a look at this guide on When Is the Best Time to Visit Australia before looking at this section, otherwise read on!
Although the reef is famously active year-round and you will not be disappointed with your trip no matter what time of year you visit, there are a few things that you may want to consider. Most of the reef sits off the coast to the north of the country, in a tropical climate. This means that the temperatures will always be hot, but there will be a lot more rain from December – March.
Another thing to think about is jellyfish! The affectionately known ‘stinger season’ stretches from November to May and will likely mean that you will have to wear a stinger suit when heading into the water in these months.
Don’t want to get stung? Fancy clear blue skies and no rain? Want to swim with migrating mink whales? Head from June – October to really get the most out of your Australian Holiday. The weather will get cooler the more south you go, but it will still be pleasant along most of the country’s much-loved coast.
Where to visit the Great Barrier Reef from?
As the main tourism hub for Northern Queensland, the coast along which the reef shares most of its glory, Cairns is undeniably the most popular access point to the Great Barrier Reef. Not only is Cairns the closest city to the reef, making it the perfect choice for those with seasickness who want to keep their boat time to a minimum, but it is also a pretty cool city in its own right.
Cairns is packed full of accommodations to fit all budgets and has many tour operators from snorkelling to helicopter rides. The best part about starting your adventure in Cairns is that when you return home from exploring the reef, you have many attractions, bars and restaurants to choose from to fill your evenings and days.
This is definitely the best option for those only wanting to visit Australia for a short time, as from Cairns you can go diving on the reef one day, be seeing crocodiles the next and be wandering through the world’s oldest rainforest the day after.
Couple this with its vibing nightlife and interesting museums and you have the perfect one-stop-shop for those simply wanting to fly in and out of the same port without moving around too much.
Known to be one of the most beautiful collections of islands in the world, the Whitsundays is a travel destination that you’ll be daydreaming about for years after you leave! Think pure white sand, 74 separate islands and, of course, easy access to the Great Barrier Reef!
There are a few different options for varying budgets here, with Airlie beach providing quirky hostels all the way up to five-star hotels. This is also a great port of entry to the reef, with many companies offering flights, diving boats and unique adventures along the reef!
If you are looking for something a little more luxurious, then head to Hamilton Island, where you can stay in a private cabin and attend one of the relaxing spas before venturing out onto the reef.
Sitting just an hour from Cairns, Port Douglas is a great option for those wanting to enjoy some different activities but don’t want to be based in a city. This charming little town offers easy access to the Great Barrier Reef and is also close enough to Cairns that you can choose from the many companies that operate out of there, all whilst enjoying a bit more of a tropical-feeling holiday.
If you’re a nature lover then Port Douglas is definitely the place for you, besides, you can always nip into Cairns for a night if you fancy a bit of a boogie.
If you want to fully immerse yourself in the world of the reef, then Green Island is the place for you! Sitting comfortably close to both the mainland and the reef itself, Green Island is one of the few Gret Barrier Reef Islands that you can easily stay overnight. This means you can wake up and already be looking upon the beauty of the reef as you rise. For keen divers then this is the perfect option, meaning you have a chance to head out on a night dive with very little travel time!
Coupled with all this, Green Island is actually a coral cay island, and being the only one which also features a rainforest you are sure to get both a geological and natural fix by staying on this island. Not to mention the absolutely gorgeous white-sand beaches that sit all around the island’s shores.
How to see the Great Barrier Reef
No trip to the Great Barrier Reef would be complete without a dip below the surface, joining the fish, rays, sharks and coral in their natural habitat. Diving is an incredible experience in itself and is by far the best way to get up close and personal with the many tropical creatures that live along the reef. All of the locations mentioned above will offer diving opportunities for all abilities, including classes for complete beginners and even courses to become a qualified diver yourself!
If you are a diving pro then you can even bring your own gear and save a lot of money by hiring out a small boat and planning your own routes. Even if you have never dived before, I highly recommend giving it a go, it’s not nearly as scary as you may imagine when you’re down there, and it truly is one of the most life-changing experiences you’ll ever have!
And after all, saying that you’ve been diving on the Great Barrier Reef may just be one of the coolest sentences you can ever say!
For those not quite comfortable with diving, snorkelling is a great way to experience the Great Barrier Reef free from any anxieties of being completely submerged. The local tour operators will know the best spots where the coral is shallow so you can stay floating along the surface without missing out on getting up close to the marine life. Snorkelling trips are very common along the reef and are often cheaper than diving for those wanting to explore on a budget.
If you’re travelling in a group where some want to dive and some don’t, then this could be a perfect option for you as well! Many of the diving boats also offer snorkelling trips, meaning you can all head out on the same boat and explore the same reefs at the same time, some from above and some from below!
Spend the night on the reef
If you venture to the Whitsundays then you will have the incredible opportunity to join Reefsleep on one of their unique experiences. Alongside the usual activities of diving, snorkelling etc, you can spend the night in a cosy little tent under the stars aboard their comfortable boat.
Not only does this give you the opportunity to head out on a much sought-after night dive, but also you will get to see the world-famous Australian night sky, far away from any light pollution and people. This is truly a blissful experience for anyone really wanting to unwind, relax and become one with the reef itself.
Scenic flights (helicopter or plane)
The Australian coast is famous for crystal clear waters and high visibility. In addition to this, most of the colourful coral sits quite shallow in the water, meaning you can see the swirling patterns and active schools of fish from a plane or helicopter!
Often they will fly low over the water and you can get a unique birds-eye perspective on the life below! This is truly a sensational experience you will never forget, as this is the only way to really conceptualise just how magnificent and huge this stretch of reef is.
Wanting to see the reef up close but don’t want to get your feet wet? This could be the perfect option for you! These glass bottom boats offer a beautiful view of the reefs below that are always teeming with life. You can also dive or snorkel from some of these boats so this is a perfect option for groups of different comfort levels.
Quirky but fun options
Some other unique ways to explore the reef that warrant mention include sea walking, where you are attached to the surface by an air tube and walk along the sea bed, and underwater scooters. The underwater scooters are attached to a float and you are zooming below the surface inside an airtight dome helmet, truly a special way to enjoy the sights!
The Great Barrier Reef is something that everyone should experience at least once in their lives! It truly is an incredibly beautiful feat of nature and you will likely see things here that you can’t see anywhere else in the world!
Please be mindful of the living reef, and make sure to book an ethical tour to help preserve this wonder for years to come!