Spending time visiting the world's most famous reef could also help preserve its beauty for generations to come.
By Dilvin Yasa for Australian Traveller
Spanning a stagging 1430 miles along Queensland's world-famous shoreline, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed marvel that is the Great Barrier Reef is home to 2900 individual reefs, 300 coral cays and 600 continental islands, all of which provide a home for some 1625 species of fish and over 600 types of coral. In fact, it is the largest living thing on Earth, and covering 134,634 square miles, it's roughly half the size of Texas.
As natural wonders go, they don't come much more impressive. But its sheer size and scope can leave visitors scratching their heads when it comes to determining where to go and what to see.
Don't make the mistake of thinking the islands and reefs that make up this stunning constellation are interchangeable; the Great Barrier Reef offers travelers five different regions to explore, and myriad options to enjoy them. Following, some essential reef reconnaissance to help you decide what will work best for you.
Far North Queensland
The wild north around Cape York in Far North Queensland (basically the pointy bit at the top of Australia) is blissfully unspoiled, making it the perfect holiday destination for intrepid marine adventurers in particular. Base yourself in the charmingly laid-back coastal town of Cooktown and venture out on to the reef to snorkel and dive, or you can keep your feet dry by opting for a glass-bottom boat tour. There is a range of accommodation options in the region, especially in and around Cooktown, or you can opt for serious luxury on Lizard Island, Australias' northernmost island resort.
Cairns and Port Douglas
Further south, Cairns and Port Douglas (just over two hours' flying time from Brisbane) offer up myriad reef experiences - from snorkeling and dive courses to overnight cruises and glass-bottom boat and semi-submersible submarine tours - with the added bonus of being able to explore the lush tropical Daintree Rainforest, the oldest rainforest in the world and another UNESCO World Heritage site, while you are there. It takes roughly 35 minutes to reach the reef itself from both locations, which are well equipped with fabulous food and stylish accommodation choices.
Boasting up to 300 days of sunshine a year, Townsville is located roughly in the middle of the reef and presents a standout vacation option thanks largely to its lovely historic buildings, its dive-worthy shipwrecks, as well as its tropical pace of life. Along with snorkeling and diving, there's ample opportunity for fishing expeditions and even horseback riding along wide beaches. There are also some great islands to visit along this stretch of the reef, including Magnetic Island, home to a thriving population of koalas, so sightings are all but guaranteed, and the exclusive Orpheus Island, which boasts luxuriously appointed rooms at Orpheus Island Lodge as well as a marine research station.
The Whitsundays are home to some of the reef's most scenic (and well-known) islands, including holiday hot spots like Hamilton Island, Hayman Island and Daydream Island. Cruising around this patch of paradise, which has some 74 islands, is easy thanks to plentiful charter companies (opt for a crewed service so everything is taken care of for you) and day tour options, set forth from either Hamilton Island or the town of Airlie Beach on the mainland. Most tours take in Whitehaven Beach; its impossibly white sands have earned it a reputation as one of the best beaches in the world.
The Southern Great Barrier Reef
Head to the Southern Great Barrier Reef for stunning island and laid-back coastal towns like Bundaberg (a one-hour flight from Brisbane) and Agnes Waters, and a staggering population of marine turtles. On Lady Musgrave Island, a coral cay with some 1200 hectares of living reef, you can watch green turtle hatchlings scurrying down teh beach from January to May, and Lady Elliot Island is known for its world-class snorkeling and diving experiences.
Citizen Science on the Reef
Enhance your experience, and make a real difference to the reef's future, by signing up to one of these eco-friendly, citizen science projects.
Do your share
Monitor marine life
Take part in a reef monitoring program such as Eye on the Reef or Reef Check and help researchers collect valuable information about reef health, marine animals and incidents. All you have to do is swim, snorkel or dive and download an app which allows you to submit GPS-tagged photographs of wildlife, pollution, coral bleaching and pests to the appropriate authorities.
Snap a manta
Snap phtos of any manta rays you come across as you enjoy the reef and share them with Project Manta so researchers can better understand the rays' movements, distrubution and growth rates. If you identify a new manta ray, you'll also score naming rights.
Track the turtles
Spend a little time volunteering at Bundaberg's Mon Repos Turtle Centre, home to six of the world's seven species of marine turtles, or help look after sick or injured marine turtles at Fitzroy Island's Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation. Not only is it a great experience, but you'll come away from your trip feeling like you've made a positive difference in the world.