No doubt you’re familiar with the Great Barrier Reef, but did you know that Australia’s incredible coastline is also peppered with other reef systems waiting to be discovered?
Millions of visitors make the pilgrimage to see the Great Barrier Reef every year. Snorkelling and diving among the colourful fish and coral; spotting turtles, sharks and whales; or even experiencing the wonders of the reef while staying dry in a glass-bottom boat, helicopter or seaplane.
There are so many unique ways to experience the reef, and it’s a bucket-list item that every traveller should tick off. Yet while the Great Barrier Reef often takes centre stage, it’s not the only incredible reef system you can find in Australia. The country’s northern, western and south eastern coastlines are also underwater playgrounds with their own unique ecosystems waiting to be explored.
Discover each of Australia’s unique and diverse reef systems for yourself.
The Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef may be Australia’s most well-known natural asset, and it’s no wonder this natural wonder of the world is a huge bucket list item for travellers of every age. It’s simply spectacular.
At 2,300 kilometres (1,430 miles) the Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef system in the world. It’s home to over 1,600 species of fish, 411 species of hard coral and 150 species of soft coral, more than 30 species of whales and dolphins and six of the world’s seven species of marine turtles.
Whether you snorkel, scuba or view this underwater playground from a glass-bottom boat, be sure to keep track of your progress as you attempt to catalogue the reef’s “Great Eight” - manta rays, whales, turtles, clownfish, potato cod, giant clams, maori wrasse and sharks. You can also experience sailing and fishing charters as well as helicopter and seaplane adventures that showcase the reef from above. A scenic flight above Heart Reef is a romantic excursion that every couple will cherish.
As the reef spans two thirds of the north eastern coastline of Australia, you’ll find many jumping off points for accessing the incredible adventures that await you here. Cairns in the tropical north and Airlie Beach in the Whitsundays region are perhaps the two best known gateways towns. Explore the stunning tropical surrounds and luxury resorts of Hamilton, Hayman and Daydream Islands. Or opt for a secluded getaway on Orpheus, Lizard or Bedarra Island. Visit the koala population on Magnetic Island or take a scenic flight and spend an afternoon on a temporary island. Vlasoff Cay will be your private playground for a few hours at low tide where you can swim, sunbathe and picnic in total serenity.
The Southern Great Barrier Reef
While technically part of the massive Great Barrier Reef system, the southern end of the reef offers unique experiences that differentiate it from the areas found in the tropical north. Starting in the coastal city of Bundaberg (about a 4.5-hour drive north of Brisbane) and stretching up the Capricorn Coast, the Southern Great Barrier Reef is home to colourful coral cays, authentically Aussie seaside towns and island jewels waiting to be discovered.
The idyllic islands that dot the Southern Great Barrier Reef offer eco escapes, extraordinary snorkelling and easily accessible diving opportunities. From Heron Island you can snorkel right off the beach, or take a boat just 15 minutes to reach 21 different dive sites. Lady Musgrave is the perfect day trip for experienced and first-time snorkellers alike, while Lady Elliot ranks in as one of the world’s top five places to dive with giant manta rays. At Great Keppel Island you can choose to relax and disconnect or find adventure by walking into the water and snorkelling the fringing reef from one of 17 quiet beaches that circle the island.
The Southern Great Barrier Reef is also the perfect place to witness all the stages of a turtle’s life cycle for yourself. From watching turtles nest on Heron Island to witnessing hatchlings scamper to the sea on Mon Repos Beach, it’s a unique opportunity to get up close to this incredible phenomenon.
Start your journey in the hub town of Exmouth (if you plan to drive, there are plenty of worthy stops along the way, otherwise you can fly to Exmouth from Perth) where you’ll be introduced to the crystalline waters that harbour the world’s largest fringing reef. At 260 kilometres (162 miles) long, Ningaloo Reef’s coral system is swarming with turtles, tropical fish, manta rays, humpback whales and the elusive whale shark.
Whale shark season (every year from April to July) is one of the most exciting times here, as there is no other place on Earth where these gentle giants reliably congregate in such large numbers so close to land. Swimming with one of these beautiful creatures is one of life’s most breathtaking experiences. Strict protections are in place to care for threatened species and all charter boats collect data for scientists and conservationists to ensure Ningaloo’s aquatic visitors stay safe. Join a tour in Exmouth or Coral Bay and pick a boat with its own spotter plane for best results. The Exmouth Visitor Centre can provide you with the many tour options available.
More than 500 species of fish also live in these waters, so grab a snorkel and see how many you can spot at popular snorkel spots such as Bills Bay and Purdy Point at Coral Bay, or Oyster Stacks and the Turquoise Bay Drift in Cape Range National Park. Look for elegant angel fish and Moorish idols, vibrantly coloured parrot fish and butterfly fish, and tiny damselfish. Divers can get up close with even more varieties of fish at sites such as Exmouth's Navy Pier, where big schools of snapper and massive grouper fish are frequent visitors.
There are also three species of turtle found on Ningaloo Reef – the green, loggerhead and hawksbill turtles. At the Jurabi Turtle Centre, outside the town of Exmouth, you can learn more about these extraordinary animals, and even take part in a guided turtle viewing experience. From December to March you can watch turtles laying their eggs. Or come six weeks later to see the hatching process, when the tiny turtles dig their way out of the sand and race towards the ocean, trying to escape waiting predators including ghost crabs and spangled emperor fish.
Montgomery Reef, in the Lalang-garram/Camden Sound Marine Park on the Kimberley Coast, is one of the most spectacular places in the Kimberley. Covering nearly 300 square kilometres (116 square miles) across the Indian Ocean, the tidal movements here vary by up to 10 metres (33 feet) causing the reef to emerge from the sea at low tide. The result is a cascading waterfall from the top of the reef as an abundance of marine life comes into view. Navigable channels through the reef allow boats to tour the area and view the spectacle.
While cruising Montgomery Reef you’ll be sure to spot a variety of marine life, including six species of turtle, Australian snubfin and Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins, dugongs, saltwater crocodiles and several species of sawfish as well as humpback whales, minke whales and false killer whales.
The marine park is also the most important humpback whale nursery in the Southern Hemisphere. From June to November each year up to 20,000 humpback whales migrate from their Antarctic feeding grounds to their breeding grounds on the Kimberley Coast.