Guide to Diving in Queensland
From Cairns in the north to the Gold Coast in the south, and many islands in between, Queensland is a diver's paradise.
By Stephanie Williams
Whether you're an experienced diver or have never taken an underwater breath, you'll love the underwater world of Queensland. It's a kaleidoscope of reefs, shoals, coral cays and shipwrecks teeming with tropical marine life. Queensland is fringed by the Great Barrier Reef, which extends along its coastline for more than 2000 kilometres (1200 miles). This World Heritage wonder is the largest expanse of living coral on the planet. You can dive all year round here and accommodation options on the Queensland coast range from backpacking and camping to ultra-luxury resorts and private island escapes or you could charter a boat.
- Learn how to dive on an open water dive course
- Dive the Great Barrier Reef, the largest reef system in the world
- Experience the wreck of the SS Yongala, a dive worthy of your bucket list
How to get there
Queensland's capital, Brisbane, is serviced by a domestic and international airport, with flights to all major Australian cities as well as some destinations in Asia and North America. The diving hotspots of Cairns, Townsville, the Whitsunday Islands (accessed via Proserpine or Hamilton Island airports) and Mackay all have domestic airports with links to Brisbane. A sealed highway from Brisbane runs all the way north to Cairns. Road-tripping the Queensland coastline is another great way to see the state, and there are plenty of short distance trips (such as the Great Barrier Reef Drive) that don't require enormous lengths of time.
Top places to dive in Queensland
Cairns and the Northern Great Barrier Reef
The city of Cairns is the most popular gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. Located towards the reef's northern tip, it is a good place to start if you’re a beginner. It's also the departure point for many day and liveaboard tours. Snorkel or dive on the edge of the continental shelf at Agincourt Reef, feed giant cod at the Cod Hole or explore the waters surrounding a secluded coral cay. If you'd like to change your base, hop on a liveaboard dive boat or head to beautiful islands such as Green, Fitzroy, Lizard, Dunk, Orpheus or Bedarra. Alternatively, venture one hour north on the mainland to Port Douglas, where you can dive the Great Barrier Reef and see the World-Heritage Daintree Rainforest on the same day.
Townsville and the SS Yongala
When it's time to move south, consider setting out for coastal city Townsville and beautiful Magnetic Island (about four hours south of Cairns). From here you can explore the wreck of the SS Yongala, which sank in 1911 and is Australia's largest and most intact historic wreck. This section of the Great Barrier Reef offers sensational wall dives as well as underwater canyons, caves and gullies. Enjoy the sunshine of Townsville (the city has more than 300 sunny days a year) from one of the beachfront cafés or walking trails, or while uncovering the area's interesting military history.
The Whitsunday Islands
The Whitsundays are 74 palm-fringed, mostly uninhabited, tropical islands, about 600 kilometres (370 miles) south of Cairns (a seven-hour drive or one-hour flight). You can also fly here from other Queensland cities, such as the Gold Coast and Brisbane, in the same amount of time; the island's mainland hub, Airlie Beach, is about 1000 kilometres (620 miles) north of Brisbane. Join diving trips and day cruises from Airlie Beach as well as from Daydream, Hamilton and Hayman islands to pristine reef locations such as Elizabeth, Black, Fairy, Net, Knuckle and Oublier reefs. While you're here, you can also visit Whitehaven Beach, a postcard-perfect stretch of white silica sand surrounded by clear, turquoise water, and take a scenic flight over Heart Reef.
The Central Great Barrier Reef
The Central Great Barrier Reef sits slightly under the radar in tourist terms, so it's a great spot for some independent exploration in its shallow coral gardens, pinnacles, deep channels, gutters and caves. The area's main hub is the city of Mackay, where you’ll find a range of day and extended trips for snorkelling and diving at places such as uninhabited Scawfell Island, with its pristine coral gardens and historic Llewellyn shipwreck (discovered 80 years after it had sunk). You might want to take your underwater camera – there are swarming olive sea snakes, endangered and vulnerable loggerhead, hawksbill and green turtles, moray eels, sharks and manta rays.
The Southern Great Barrier Reef
In the Southern Great Barrier Reef region, explore Capricorn and Bunker reefs with dive operators from the mainland port of Gladstone, or as a guest on Heron Island. Heron is a great place to spot nesting turtles, rare birds and passing whales, as well as to enjoy snorkelling from the shore, or at one of 20 dive sites around the island. Nearby, you can swim past big fish and vivid coral canyons near Lady Elliot and Lady Musgrave islands and don't miss the marine turtles that nest and hatch every evening between November and May at Mon Repos Conservation Park.
Southern Queensland has a dive landscape of wreck-based artificial reefs, giant pelagic fish and rock shelf havens stretching from the Fraser Coast (home to Fraser Island, the world's largest sand island), south to the Gold Coast. See surfing dolphins, grazing dugong, loggerhead turtles, colourful reef fish and corals, and even the rare grey nurse shark. Off the coast of Mooloolaba you can swim through large coral formations and caves on Flinders Reef or see the marine life that has set up home in the scuttled former HMAS Brisbane. Or visit Moreton Island, off the coast of Brisbane, and snorkel next to the world's second-largest sand island.