Stretching for 2,000km along Queensland’s coast, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, a scuba diver’s paradise and a must-see on any vacation to Australia.
By far the best way to experience Australia's Great Barrier Reef is by going snorkelling or scuba diving, especially on a liveaboard boat, but scenic flights can also be a spectacular travel experience. Scuba diving centres offering learn to dive courses can be found all along the coast, with the majority based in Cairns.
Starting down by Gladstone and Rockhampton on the Capricorn Coast, the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef travels all the way up Queensland past Australia to Papua New Guinea, making it bigger in size than the UK and the only living thing that can be seen from space.
Actually made up of 3,000 separate reefs, the Great Barrier Reef is home to about 1,500 species of fish, 400 species of coral and 200 species of birds, and is also visited by migrating humpback, pilot and minke whales.
Cairns, Port Douglas and Mission Beach
Most people will travel to the Great Barrier Reef from Australia’s unofficial scuba diving capital Cairns. The reef is closer to shore and much wider by Cairns, compared to further south, plus the huge number of tour operators and scuba diving companies competing in the area often make boat trips cheaper. The tours on offer vary from daytrips to multi-day luxury charters and liveaboard boats (with most trips being 3-5 days), but be wary that one day trips only tend to visit the far busier, more damaged, and so less impressive, inner reefs. Most boat trips leave from the Pier Marina and Reef Fleet Terminal.
Port Douglas, just north of Cairns, is slightly nearer to the reef, notably the famously vivid colours of Agincourt Reef. Dive trips and boat cruises tend to be more expensive in Port Douglas than Cairns, but will be less crowded and more upmarket. Scenic flights are available from both Cairns and Port Douglas.
Mission Beach is where the Great Barrier Reef is closest to shore. There are fewer dive companies offering trips, but the waters are quieter as a result. Dive trips can be booked through tour operators either at Mission Beach or at the resort on Dunk Island.
There are around 900 islands dotted along the Great Barrier Reef, but here are some of the highlights, working down from the far north.
If Lizard Island is your intended destination then it’s probably worth getting a hotel in Cooktown, which is the nearest mainland town. Don’t expect to get a tour from Cooktown between November and May, however, as tour operators shut down for the wet season. Lizard Island is a good place to watch minke whales in Australia (in June and July).
Just 45 minutes from Cairns, rainforest-clad coral cay Green Island is home to plentiful birdlife, an underwater observatory and spectacular diving. A resort on the island will tend to all your diving needs, or you can take a daytrip from Cairns. Nearby is mountainous Fitzroy Island, which also has excellent fringing reefs.
Very secluded and ideal for a romantic Australia vacation is Orpheus Island, off the coast from Ingham. It’s home to plentiful large coral bommies, such as around the Yank’s Jetty area, while the north-east of the island is particularly good for snorkelling. If you don’t fancy the water taxi, you can travel there by seaplane, from either Townsville or Cairns.
Magnetic Island, the Yongala Wreck and other Islands
The waters off Townsville offer particularly rich rewards for divers, making the area Australia’s second most famous scuba diving destination, after Cairns. Townsville is where you’ll find the excellent Reef HQ aquarium, while offshore is the Yongala shipwreck and Kelso Reef. Widely considered Australia’s best wreck dive, the Yongala sank a century ago and is now home to huge schools of fish, notably enormous gropers. Dive trips to the Yongala and the Outer Reef can also be organised from Magnetic Island. It’s easy to catch a flight to Townsville’s airport from any of Australia’s state capitals.
Travelling south you reach Australia’s most famous islands – the 74 submerged mountains that make up the Whitsundays group, off the coast from Airlie Beach. Very popular with sailing enthusiasts, much of the Whitsundays archipelago is about 30km from the Great Barrier Reef itself, making the coral easily-accessible. Indeed, after Cairns, the Whitsundays are where you might find some of Australia’s best deals for scuba diving courses or even just introductory dives. Hook Island, in the Outer Whitsundays, is one of the best options in Queensland for budget travellers hoping to do some Great Barrier Reef diving from an island. There’s relatively cheap accommodation and good connections from Airlie Beach. The developed resort island Hamilton Island is a good base for arranging boat tours to the reef, with plentiful facilities making it especially good for family holidays. Good Outer Reef dive sites include the Bait Reef Marine Park, Knuckle Reef, Hardy Lagoon and Hook, Line and Sinker Reefs.
Heron Island is off the coast from Gladstone. The shallow reef surrounding Heron Island is renowned for offering some of the best scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef, as well as opportunities to witness sea turtles nesting (November to February). There’s no daytrips to Heron Island, with divers having to stay at the island’s one resort. Helicopter flights are also available.
Most southerly is Lady Elliot Island on Queensland’s Capricorn Coast. Home to plentiful birdlife, Lady Elliot is one of the best places in Australia to see turtles hatching and is also famous for manta rays. The surrounding waters boast 19 scuba dive sites, including wreck dives, many of which are straight off the beach. You can travel (boat or flight) to Lady Elliot Island as a daytrip from Bundaberg or stay at the camping resort on the island. The nearby and uninhabited Lady Musgrave Island, also with great diving, is also accessible from Bundaberg or Town of 1770. Also from Town of 1770, you can travel to Fitzroy Reef Lagoon, one of the most pristine sections of the Great Barrier Reef.