Whitehaven Beach, Whitsundays Islands, QLD © Jason Hill, Tourism & Events Queensland
7 of the best day trips on the Great Barrier Reef
A visit to the Great Barrier Reef can be an emotional and unforgettable experience. Whether you fly over it, cruise on top of it or dive or snorkel one of its many famed sites, the size and beauty of this natural wonder will stay with you forever.
By Malcolm Chenu
Described by Sir David Attenborough as the most beautiful thing he has ever seen, the Great Barrier Reef is a marine miracle. The 2,300 kilometre (1,430 mile) living coral masterpiece runs down the north-east coast of Australia and is teeming with diverse marine life, including reef sharks, manta rays, sea turtles and countless colourful fish. There are many ways to experience this natural wonder, and tours depart from towns and cities all along the Great Barrier Reef coastline. Here are our favourite day trips.
Whitehaven Beach and Heart Reef
Where: tours depart from Whitsunday Airport, Airlie Beach, Queensland.
Whitehaven Beach is a seven-kilometre (4.3-mile) stretch of pure white silica sand, with Hill Inlet at one end. Tourists come from all over the world to marvel at its beauty. It's in the same area as the Great Barrier Reef's Heart Reef, a beautiful coral arrangement in the shape of a heart. You'll see them both on a half-day adventure with Air Whitsunday. You'll take off in a seaplane from Airlie Beach, soaring over the Whitsunday Islands and circling over Heart Reef for photos before landing on the water at a nearby coral lagoon. Here you will jump from the plane into the water and snorkel the Great Barrier Reef before taking off again and flying to picturesque Whitehaven Beach for a champagne lunch. After lunch you'll be returned to your accommodation.
Where: tours depart from Townsville, Magnetic Island or Alva Beach, Queensland.
Regarded as one the best dive sites in the world, the wreck of the SS Yongala sits on the sandy ocean floor 28 metres (92 feet) below the surface. It's in an area of the reef off the coast of Townsville, a tropical city south of Cairns. The 110-metre (360-foot) ship sank in 1911 and is now home to turtles, giant trevally, groupers, manta rays, sharks and thousands of tropical fish. You can take a day tour with Adrenalin Dive from Townsville or Magnetic Island, a popular local holiday destination just off the Townsville coast. Alternatively, Yongala Dive departs from Alva Beach, located a 15-minute drive from the town of Ayr.
Where: tours depart from Port Douglas, Queensland.
The Low Isles near the beachside town of Port Douglas is one of the most sheltered snorkelling destinations on the Great Barrier Reef. Boat tours depart for the Low Isles daily from Port Douglas (a lovely beach town about a one-hour drive north of Cairns) with several tour operators, including Calypso Reef Cruises, Sailaway Port Douglas and Wavedancer. You’ll receive a full safety briefing and all the equipment you need (including floatation devices) on the 75-minute journey to the islands. The snorkelling area is very safe and much of it is in shallow water. Look for sea turtles on or near seagrass. Lunch is provided and you can even hire an underwater camera.
Where: tours depart from Bundaberg, Southern Great Barrier Reef region, Queensland.
Each summer from November to January, nesting sea turtles, including endangered loggerhead turtles, come ashore at night to lay their eggs at Mon Repos beach in the city of Bundaberg (just over a four-hour drive or a one-hour flight north of Brisbane). Then, between January and March, the hatchlings leave their nests and race down to the sea. Both spectacles can be witnessed in intimate nighttime tours on the beach. Tours are accompanied by an environmental scientist who offers insights into the fascinating life cycle of these gentle creatures.
Dwarf minke whales
Where: tours depart from Cairns and Port Douglas, Queensland.
Dwarf minke whales visit the Great Barrier Reef every year, and you can swim with them in June and July on tours that operate from Port Douglas and Cairns. When the whales are spotted, you'll jump into the water, hold onto a surface rope and simply wait for them to approach. These friendly, curious creatures almost always do. Day trip operators include Mike Ball Dive Expeditions and Silverseries.
Lady Elliot Island
Where: flights depart from Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Bundaberg and Hervey Bay, Queensland.
Just off the coast of Bundaberg you'll find Lady Elliot Island, a 42-hectare (103-acre) coral cay that sits on the southern stretches of the Great Barrier Reef. This is the closest Great Barrier Reef island to Brisbane and can be reached via an 80-minute flight aboard Seair Pacific. Once you've arrived on the island, which is renowned for its high-visibility water, there are plenty of activities to keep you busy. You can snorkel right off its beach with huge manta rays that can have a "wing span" of up to seven metres (23 feet) or enrol in a diving course at the PADI Dive Shop. Stay overnight in the 41-room Eco Resort, tariffs include buffet dinner and breakfast in the beachfront dining room.
Where: tours depart from Cairns, Queensland.
Enjoy a deserted island on the Great Barrier Reef all to yourself when you take a day tour to Vlasoff Cay. Taking off from Cairns, your helicopter pilot will fly over the Great Barrier Reef before landing at the sandy islet with snorkels, flippers and a gourmet picnic for you to enjoy. The serene setting is yours for the next 90 minutes to wander, beachcomb, or dive in the warm water for a swim or a snorkel, before the return flight back over the reef to Cairns.