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10 unforgettable Great Barrier Reef experiences

When you think of visiting the Great Barrier Reef you no doubt think of diving and snorkelling, but there are so many other ways to experience this World Heritage beauty.

By Paul Chai

Whether you're picnicking on a tropical island that disappears with the high tide, walking along the sea bed in a modern-day diving helmet, or spending the night sleeping on a pontoon under a sea of stars, there is more to the Great Barrier Reef than just donning a snorkel or diving gear.

Sleep on the reef

Reefsleep Experience, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

Taking part in the Reefsleep Experience is one of the best ways to get the reef all to yourself, without chartering your own boat. Cruise Whitsundays takes small groups of visitors to its Reefworld platform moored on the edge of Hardy Reef for a full day of snorkelling, diving, boat and helicopter rides. But unlike the other day trippers, who head home at about 3pm, Reefsleepers get to stay on. In the afternoon they can submerge themselves in the reef again. Come evening it is time for a barbecue, and possibly a night dive, before spending the night in a swag (a low tent with an in-built mattress, designed for the Australian Outback) under the star-filled sky. Reefsleep departs from Airlie Beach, Daydream Island or Hamilton Island. 

Travel underwater in a mini-submarine

Great Barrier Reef Submarines, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

Great Barrier Reef Submarines lets visitors explore the beauty of the reef in a three-man mini-submarine, just 45 minutes on a fast catamaran from Cairns. Taking a mini-sub ride is less hassle than suiting up for a snorkel or dive. Two guests just jump in the mini-sub with the guide and then launch straight from the beach. In minutes you are submerged among the coral, tropical fish and sea turtles of the Great Barrier Reef.


Walk along the sea bed

Seawalker, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

Green Island, a coral cay about half an hour offshore from Cairns, is home to the Seawalker experience, in which visitors can walk along the sea floor wearing a diving helmet. The helmet is shaped like an old-school metal diving helmet, fully enclosing your head in a bubble, and connected to the surface through an air hose. But unlike the old metal helmets, the Seawalker helmets are almost completely clear, offering unrestricted views of the amazing sea life of the reef. This is a great way for non-swimmers to experience the underwater wonders, and for those who wear glasses, because they can be left on inside the helmet.

Ride an underwater scooter

Scubadoo, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

Taking the helmet walk one step further is this novel way to explore the reef, aboard the Scubadoo, a small yellow motorised scooter with a large viewing dome that acts like a diving helmet and is supported by a float from the surface. Just climb on the scooter at the pontoon, just off the coast at Cairns, put your head in the dome and off you go. The scooters are easily manoeuvred and a guide dives alongside you for the whole journey.

Have a private island picnic

Vlasoff Cay, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

Vlasoff Cay is a small streak of sand in an ocean of blue. This tiny sand island appears only at low tide and is the perfect setting for a castaway picnic. You can be dropped off at your own stretch of Great Barrier Reef sand by helicopter or chartered boat and left alone with a picnic hamper and a bottle of champagne. This is the ultimate in reef romanticism, with not even a building or tree to spoil your 360-degree view of this natural wonder of the world. You can swim, snorkel or just relax on your own private, and temporary, island. Helicopters depart from Cairns. 

Sail aboard a private yacht 

Aquarius, Low Isles, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

Bareboating – sailing a small chartered yacht yourself – is a great experience. But there is something indulgent about chartering a slightly larger boat with a group of friends and having your own private yacht, as well as crew to help you out. Low Isles is a spectacular island teeming with bird and marine life just off the coast of Port Douglas. You can cruise around it with Aquarius aboard a luxury sailing vessel with a huge upper deck on which you will enjoy a seafood buffet. Then just jump off the side for some of the best snorkelling on the reef.

Take a scenic flight

Air Whitsunday Seaplanes, Heart Reef, Queensland

Seeing the giant living wonder that is the Great Barrier Reef from the air gives you an understanding of just how immense the reef is. The different shades of ocean blue, the secluded islands and the patterns of the beds of coral are laid out before you as you fly over this natural playground. You can see more of the reef from the air than you can ever hope to cover at sea level. For more information visit operators such as Air Whitsunday

Swim with Minke Whales

Minke whale, Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, Cairns, Queensland

Witness the unique phenomenon of the dwarf minke whale migration that takes place between June and August. They travel to Queensland’s seas during the cooler months to calve and swim in the tropical water. This incredible wildlife encounter is available through three tour operators including Mike Ball ExpeditionsEye to Eye Marine Encounters, Deep Sea Divers Den, and Spirit of Freedom are among a limited number of permitted tours that offer snorkelling and diving trips out to the reef where minkes are found. The curious creatures are known to approach swimmers and frolic around, providing an unforgettable nautical experience. 

Witness sea turtles hatching

Turtles, Mon Repos Conservation Park, Mon Repos, Queensland

Sea turtles, including the endangered loggerhead turtles, nestle ashore Mon Repos Beach in Bundaberg (about a four hour drive, or one hour flight north of Brisbane). They lay their eggs between November and January, then from January to March, the hatchlings leave the nest and scuttle into the ocean. You can witness the spectacle with Mon Repos Turtle Encounters, who operate nighttime tours seven days a week, led by an environmental scientist who will teach you about the conservation programs and lifecycle of the majestic sea turtles. 

Skydive over the reef

Skydiving at Cairns, QLD

If you are an adrenaline junkie and want to have a spectacular birds-eye view of the Great Barrier Reef, then sky's the limit – literally. Skydiving at Mission Beach is a unique opportunity to witness the spectacular reef and the surrounding picturesque beaches and rainforest as you fly from 4570 metres (15,000 feet) above. The exhilarating freefall experience is available with Skydive Mission Beach who have expert sky masters ready to give you the ultimate adventure. Mission Beach is roughly two hours from Cairns, so you can self-drive or book a shuttle bus through Skydive Mission Beach. 

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