Guide to the Great Barrier Reef
The 2,300-kilometre (1,430-mile) Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef system in the world. You can swim, snorkel, dive and sail this living masterpiece.
By Jac Taylor
Home to diverse marine life of the most vivid colours, the Great Barrier Reef offers the opportunity for great adventure, both in luxury and on a budget. Whether you explore the stunning Whitsunday Islands, trek the ancient Daintree Rainforest or relax on luxurious tropical islands such as Hayman and Lizard, a day on the reef is all about the unforgettable nature that surrounds you. Adopt Australia's easygoing attitude when you island-hop, or stay in one of the many coastal getaways such as Cairns, Airlie Beach, Hervey Bay, Mission Beach and Port Douglas.
The Great Barrier Reef is one of those places you must visit, whether you love the water or just want to see one of the great wonders of the world.
- Sail through the 74 idyllic islands of the Whitsundays
- Stay in island resorts among the clear, warm waters of the Great Barrier Reef and the Coral Sea
- View and experience incredible marine life, from over and under the water
How to get there
International flights fly directly into Cairns Airport, while domestic flights fly onto Hamilton Island or into Proserpine (on the Whitsunday Coast) or Townsville airports on the mainland. The gateway town for many island resorts in the Whitsundays is Airlie Beach, a 25-minute shuttle bus from Proserpine Airport.
Things to do and top attractions on the Great Barrier Reef
Cruise Michaelmas Cay
Visit the Great Barrier Reef in style on board Ocean Spirit, a 32-metre (105-foot), high-performance catamaran. It sails daily from Cairns to Michaelmas Cay, a stunning reef sand island. You can dive and snorkel the reef among the turtles and colourful fish, lie on the deck and soak up the sun or enjoy a glass-bottomed boat tour. Michaelmas Cay is also home to more than 23 species of seabird and is one of the most significant bird sanctuaries on the Great Barrier Reef.
Seaplane over Heart Reef
Create the perfect romantic surprise for a loved one by flying over the world-famous natural wonder, Heart Reef. From above, you'll not only marvel at the pure turquoise waters, but also see the composition of coral that has naturally shaped itself into a heart. This scenic flight is just one of the tours offered by Air Whitsunday and GSL Aviation, with the white silica sand of Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island also on the menu.
Cruise the Agincourt Reef
Agincourt Reef is home to over 16 different dive sites, making it a popular destinations for divers and snorkellers. Quicksilver Cruises will take you on a journey to the renowned jewel-like ribbon reef on the very edge of the Great Barrier Reef. From the spacious activity platform you can snorkel, dive and helmet walk in an underwater world filled with a kaleidoscope of colour and brilliance.
Sail or skydive the Whitsundays
It's hard to beat the romance of sailing through the Whitsunday Islands. Think spectacular sunsets, clear moonlit nights, secluded beaches and pure air. You can sail, swim, snorkel and dive at sheltered anchorages such as Blue Pearl, Butterfly and Hook Island bays. Visit Whitsunday Island and walk the pure white, silica sands of Whitehaven Beach. Several cruise companies will provide you with all that you need, including Sailing Whitsundays and Prosail. If you'd rather up the adrenaline, sign up to skydive into one of the most picturesque drop zones in the world.
Trek the Thorsborne Trail
Along the eastern coast of Hinchinbrook Island, an untouched tropical paradise on the coast between Townsville and Cairns, is the four-day, 32-kilometre (20-mile) Thorsborne Trail traversing cloud-cloaked mountains, jungle-like rainforest and pristine beaches. See a panorama of wildlife, from butterflies and birds to crocodiles, turtles, dugongs and dolphins. Book a permit in advance – especially to stay in one of the seven camping areas accessed from the trail – then reach the island on a ferry or water taxi from the mainland towns of Cardwell or Lucinda.
Witness island wildlife
The islands of the Great Barrier Reef hold as much wildlife on land as they do in the sea. Just a 20-minute ferry ride off the coast from Townsville, Magnetic Island offers a large koala population. The cuddle creatures live peacefully in the wild throughout the island, up in the treetops both in park areas and more inhabited parts of the island. Take the Forts Walk to reach the best places to see them and enjoy the 360-degree views too. On Daydream Island, you'll find a man-made Living Reef, where you can hand-feed the friendly baby stingrays. The reef is also home to more than 140 species of marine fish and 83 species of coral. Visit the Southern Great Barrier Reef to see baby turtles hatch on the beach.
Relax in Airlie Beach
The coastal village of Airlie Beach is a vibrant town filled with palm-fringed beaches, waterfront parks and alfresco dining restaurants. You are sure to instantly warm to its bohemian charm and carefree ambience. Queensland's warm, tropical climate means winters at Airlie Beach are very mild and you can enjoy water activities all year round.
Sleep on the Reef
Pro Dive Cairns’ three-day liveaboard dive and snorkelling cruise is ideal for adventure seekers. The custom-designed dive vessels take guests to a choice of 16 exclusive dive sites and offer a vast array of marine environments for divers and snorkellers to explore. You can also take part in two night dives, offering a unique chance to see marine life that you would never see during the day.
Cruise to uninhabited islands
The Great Barrier Reef's Frankland Islands might be uninhabited, but that doesn't mean you can't appreciate the islands' rich coral reefs, diverse aquatic life and pristine stretches of sand. Hop on a day tour with Frankland Islands Reef Cruises, which begins and ends with a cruise along the rainforest-lined Mulgrave River. Snorkel straight from the beach and glide through the water with turtles, tropical fish and, if the season is right, manta rays. Dive deeper into the underwater world with a scuba dive session, or stay dry on the glass-bottom boat that allows you to see the flurry of life below. The day tour also includes a tropical buffet lunch and knowledgeable crew to teach you about the local ecosystems.