Nine great places to swim, snorkel and splash with Australia’s majestic marine life.
By Paul Robinson
Ever wanted to swim with wild dolphins, or come face to fin with a whale? You’ve come to the right place. The waters surrounding Australia are some of the cleanest and clearest on earth, home to a vast array of marine life – and marine life experiences. From cruising with turtles to diving with sharks, this is just a handful of our favourite underwater adventures. Which will you choose?
Swimming with underwater wildlife
Swim with dwarf minke whales
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef offers many wonders, but there’s no way you should pass up the opportunity to see and swim with pods of dwarf minke whales. Famous for being highly inquisitive, minke’s have been known to spend hours swimming with humans, even bringing their calves with them for an introduction. The Great Barrier Reef is the only place on earth they’re known to congregate and feed.
What you need to know: Dwarf minke whales appear on the Great Barrier Reef between May and August each year. You can meet them on a day trip or overnight expedition departing from Cairns or Port Douglas.
Play with sea puppies
Sea lions are naturally friendly and playful and will quite possibly swim right up to you before putting on an aquarobics show – they’re so well known for their antics they’ve earned the nickname, “puppies of the sea”. One of the best places to go swimming with these super-cute critters is in the clear waters of South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula. Here, they’ll duck, dive and frolic about, even posing for photos before slipping off on their next playdate. Book your tour and be sure to pack an underwater camera.
What you need to know: Tours depart year-round from the town of Port Lincoln, which is a seven hour drive or a one hour flight from Adelaide.
Dance with dolphins
Australia’s dolphins are wild animals, but in many areas they will willingly approach friendly visitors. At Port Stephens, north of Sydney, you can actually swim alongside these charismatic creatures – strap into a harness and you’ll be towed alongside a boat. On the other side of Australia, Western Australia’s Monkey Mia beach is famous for its population of bottlenose dolphins; these wild – and wildly friendly – animals have been swimming into the shallows to be fed by the rangers for more than 40 years. You can also jump into the water with dolphins at Western Australia’s Rockingham, a beautiful bay near Perth where some 200 bottlenose dolphins like to interact with human visitors. Meanwhile, in the city of Adelaide, you can swim with both common and bottlenose dolphins at Glenelg. Simply hang on to a flotation line and wait for the creatures to swim up to you and play – thousands of dolphins live in the waters here, and they love to say hello.
What you need to know: There are many destinations in Australia where you can swim with wild dolphins year-round. This 10 day itinerary along Western Australia's Coral Coast will give you plenty of opportunities.
Glide with manta rays
With a wingspan of up to seven metres (22 feet), the manta ray is the world’s largest ray. Despite their impressive size, these majestic creatures are safe to swim, snorkel or dive with as they don’t have the sharp barb of other rays. The giant rays can be found feeding throughout the year at Lady Elliot Island in the Southern Great Barrier Reef or at Coral Bay on the famous Ningaloo Reef. Watch closely and you may see the acrobatic skills of the males on display as they compete for female attention.
What you need to know: Swimming with the manta rays is possible year-round, but the best time to see them is during May-June when they arrive in larger groups and water visibility is at its best.
Cruise with turtles
Lady Elliot Island might be manta heaven, but it’s also a great place to swim with giant sea turtles. Hawksbill, green, and loggerhead turtles are frequent visitors to the isle, the latter two species also nesting there. Slip on your snorkel and watch these placid reptiles drifting unhurriedly through the protected waters of the marine park, unfussed by human presence. Further north, the Low Isles are one of the most sheltered snorkelling destinations on the Great Barrier Reef and another haven for turtles as they browse around the seagrass beds.
What you need to know: Lady Elliot Island is a 25 minute scenic flight from Bundaberg. The Low Isles are accessible via boat tours departing from Port Douglas. Sea turtles are visible at these destinations year-round.
Dive with great white sharks
Great white sharks can grow up to seven metres (23 feet) and weigh more than 3000 kilograms – and Port Lincoln in South Australia is the only place you can cage dive with them in Australia. Calypso Star Charters, Adventure Bay Charters and Rodney Fox Expeditions will put you right in the face of these giant marine animals – but don’t worry, you’ll be protected in a cage purpose-built for diver safety. If you don’t feel like jumping into the water, you can also watch from the safety of the boat – the clear waters in this area afford incredible views of these enormous creatures.
What you need to know: Shark cage dive tours, which range from one day to multi-day excursions, depart year-round from Port Lincoln on the Eyre Peninsula.
Say hello to humpbacks
It’s all about the whales on Queensland’s beautiful Sunshine Coast – this area is part of the ‘Humpback Highway’, which whales swim each year on their way north to breeding grounds, before returning south to the cooler waters of Antarctica. Jump on a boat tour and you’ll trail a pod for about 20 minutes, letting the creatures become familiar with the vessel. Hop into the water about 100 metres (60 yards) from the animals, and they’ll usually swim right past you with mutual curiosity. There’s really nothing quite like coming eye to eye with a whale; many people describe it as an emotional experience.
What you need to know: Humpback whales migrate along the coast of Queensland between July and November. Half-day tours with Sunreef depart from Mooloolaba - just a 15 minute drive from Sunshine Coast Airport.
Swim with whale sharks
Every year, large numbers of enormous whale sharks congregate in the coastal waters of Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef. The world’s largest species of fish, growing up to 18 metres (59 feet) long, these gentle giants are breathtaking to behold – swimming alongside them really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Ningaloo Reef is also home to over 500 species of tropical fish, as well as manta rays, dugongs, dolphins, turtles and humpback whales.
What you need to know: Whale sharks appear at Ningaloo Reef every year between March and August. Tours depart from the town of Exmouth, which is a 2 hour fight from Perth.
Snorkel with a platypus
In Queensland’s Mackay region – a tropical area known for its waterfalls, rainforests and ancient volcanic soils – you’ll find a very rare, very special experience indeed. The native Australian platypus (famous for its duck-like bill and webbed feet) is notoriously shy, but in a remote rainforest you can snorkel with them. Dives take place at dawn and dusk, when these beautiful animals are most active. Slip underwater and look out for turtles, fish and other fascinating marine life, too.
What you need to know: Rainforest Scuba is located near the small town of Finch Hatton, about an hour drive from the city of Mackay.
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