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Visiting the Great Barrier Reef: 11 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do

Australia's top tourism treasure, the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef system on the planet. The reef stretches for more than 2,300 kilometers, from the northern tip of Queensland south to the coastal town of Bundaberg, and comprises one of the world's richest ecosystems. So vast is this complex of reefs, islands, coral cays, sea grass beds, and mangroves, it is the only living structure visible from space.

Experiencing the Great Barrier Reef is a top Australian outdoor adventure. Some of the most popular things to do include SCUBA diving and snorkeling along the shimmering coral reefs, sailing around idyllic tropical islands, fishing in designated zones, peering at the abundant marine life from a glass-bottomed boat, and soaring over this magnificent natural wonder on a scenic flight.

Thanks to its vast size, you can access the Great Barrier Reef from various points along the Queensland coast. One of the most popular launching points for reef adventures is the thriving tourist town of Cairns in Far North Queensland. About an hour's drive north of Cairns, picturesque Port Douglas, is a smaller and more peaceful base for reef trips. It's also the closest mainland port to the Great Barrier Reef.

Try to see this magnificent spectacle sooner rather than later, as warming ocean temperatures are causing large-scale coral die-off, especially along the reef's far northern stretches. The Australian Government recently introduced a long-term sustainability plan to help combat the effects of climate change and pollution with the hope of conserving this important resource for future generations.

1 Great Barrier Reef Marine Park

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
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Covering more than 344,000 square kilometers (half the size of Texas), the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was established in 1975 to protect the reef's fragile ecosystems. Within its borders lie more than 2,900 coral reefs, 600 continental islands, 300 coral cays, seagrass beds, and many mangrove islands. The park also protects an astonishing variety of marine life. More than 600 species of hard and soft corals range from bulbous spheres of brain coral to craggy staghorn and graceful gorgonian sea fans. These thriving underwater jungles are also home to mollusks such as giant clams and more than 1,625 species of fish. In the surrounding waters, you can spot sharks, rays, sea snakes, dugongs, turtles, dolphins, and whales.

Unlike some other marine reserves, the park operates as a mixed use protected area and allows sustainable fishing in designated zones. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Authority administers the park in consultation with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, whose heritage is closely linked with the region. Together, they work to protect this rich patchwork of fragile ecosystems and astounding biodiversity.

2 Whitsunday Islands

Colorful reef fish
Colorful reef fish
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Strung along the Great Barrier Reef, the 74 tropical islands of the Whitsunday Group are great bases for exploring the wonders of the reef. Six national parks protect their fragile ecosystems, and several are home to eco retreats, campsites, and luxury resorts. To explore the reef from these sun-splashed shores, you can sign up for a snorkel or SCUBA diving trip, enjoy a cruise, or hop aboard a sailboat.

Sightseeing cruises often visit top sites such as sublime Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, as well as fish-rich reefs for snorkeling excursions. Of all the Whitsunday Islands, Heron boasts some of the best diving, while Hamilton Island offers plenty of accommodation, from the mid-range Whitsunday Apartments to the exclusive Qualia Resort, and is the only Whitsunday Island with an airport catering to large jets. Luxury-seekers head to Hayman Island, home to an exclusive five-star nature resort, One&Only, and families love Daydream Island and Long Island. If you plan on camping, national park campsites are available on Whitsunday and Hook Islands. Airlie Beach and Shute Harbour are the main gateways for Whitsunday sightseeing. From here, ferries, luxury yachts, helicopters, and seaplanes can transport you to the island of your dreams.

3 Whitehaven Beach

Whitehaven Beach
Whitehaven Beach
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Frequently ranked as one of the world's top ten beaches, Whitehaven Beach, on Whitsunday Island, is a stunning seven-kilometer stretch of dazzling white silica sand and vivid blue sea. You can visit the beach on day trips aboard luxury yachts, ferries, powerboats, or sailboats, and Tongue Bay is a favorite anchorage for bareboats. Walking trails thread through the island. One of the most popular is the 10- to 15-minute hike from the beach up to Hill Inlet lookout for spectacular views of the swirling white sands, turquoise water, and lushly-cloaked hills. If you don't have time to step foot on the soft sands, you can book a scenic flight and soar over the marbled seascape on a plane. Camping is allowed on the southern end of the beach.

4 SCUBA Diving & Snorkeling

Diver admiring a gorgonian sea fan
Diver admiring a gorgonian sea fan
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The Great Barrier Reef is one of the world's most desirable dive destinations. This underwater wonderland is home to more than 2,900 separate reefs featuring kaleidoscopic walls, spectacular coral canyons, swim-throughs, and pinnacles. Gliding off the edge of the continental shelf over 90-meter drop-offs can feel like flying over an underwater jungle.

Other diving highlights include the shark-feeding frenzy of North Horn; the Cod Hole, near Lizard Island, with its giant potato cod; the drift dives of Osprey Reef; the chance to spot migrating minke whales at Lighthouse Bommie; the Agincourt Ribbon Reefs, easily accessible from Cairns; and the coral gardens at Flynn Reef.

In the Whitsunday Islands, Heron Island offers some of the best diving of all the islands, including a manta ray cleaning station at Heron Island bommie.

Wreck diving is also possible along the reef. From Townsville or Magnetic Island, visitors can explore the SS Yongala, a steel and timber steamship that met its fate during a cyclone in 1911 and claimed 121 lives.

Day trips are a great way to experience a taste of the reef, while liveaboard dive trips maximize underwater time and offer a chance to see some of the more remote and less-visited reefs.

If you are staying in Cairns, an easy way to experience the spectacular underwater scenery is on the Great Barrier Reef Diving and Snorkeling Cruise from Cairns. This full-day trip includes transportation on a comfortable boat, barbecue lunch, snorkeling stops, and optional upgrades for SCUBA diving and helicopter flights.

5 Reef Cruises and Sailing Adventures

Great Barrier Reef pontoon
Great Barrier Reef pontoon
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Great Barrier Reef cruises and sailing trips are one of the best ways to explore the top attractions of the reef. Full- or half-day cruises zip passengers out to well-equipped reef pontoons for easy access to the water. Freshwater showers, change rooms, and underwater observatories are some of the facilities available here.

From Cairns, you can join a Great Barrier Reef Cruise, which whisks you out by catamaran to a pontoon for snorkeling as well as glass-bottom boat and semi-submersible tours. This full-day tour includes a buffet lunch, and you can choose an upgrade such as a Seawalker Helmet dive and SCUBA dive.

If you prefer to experience the reef on a sailing adventure, the Low Isles Great Barrier Reef Sailing Cruise from Port Douglas includes a full-day sailing catamaran cruise to Low Isles, where you can snorkel straight off the white sand beach guided by a marine biologist with the chance to see green sea turtles. The trip also includes a glass-bottom boat coral viewing, a guided beach walk, and a tropical buffet lunch.

Quicksilver operates popular cruises aboard high-speed catamarans from Port Douglas with coach transfers from Cairns. Trips typically include presentations by marine biologists, dive or snorkel experiences, and coral viewing in a semi submersible. Multi-day luxury cruises and whale-watching trips are other popular water-based options.

For a more intimate and peaceful experience, you can charter a sailboat. Idyllic mooring spots include dazzling Whitehaven Beach and Butterfly Bay. Bareboat charters are also available from Cairns or Airlie Beach to the outer Great Barrier Reef and are especially popular around the Whitsunday Islands. You can learn the ropes with a qualified instructor or charter vessels with an experienced crew.

6 Scenic Flights

Heart Reef
Heart Reef
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A scenic flight is a great way to appreciate the awe-inspiring magnitude of this natural wonder. Helicopter and seaplanes soar over the mottled expanses of coral reefs and palm-fringed islands. Options range from 15-minute flights to full-day flying trips, with water sports and lunch included. One of the best features to see from the air is Heart Reef. This naturally formed heart-shaped coral reef is a favorite venue for romantic flyover proposals.

If you want to see the reef from more than one perspective, the Great Barrier Reef Scenic Helicopter Tour and Cruise from Cairns is an excellent option. This full-day tour includes a 25-minute flight with informative commentary and a chance to snorkel, swim, or dive along the reef.

7 Day Trips to Fitzroy and Green Islands

Hamilton Island
Hamilton Island
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If you're based in Cairns, you can take a day trip to one of these nearby tropical islands. Green Island, about a 45-minute cruise by high-speed catamaran from Cairns, is the most popular but also the most crowded of the two. Popular things to do here include snorkeling, glass-bottomed boat tours, and seeing the world's largest captive croc at Marineland Crocodile Park. You can also stay overnight at the Green Island Resort.

If you prefer a more peaceful, low-key island escape, Fitzroy Island is a great choice, with better snorkeling opportunities, scenic hiking trails, and lovely white-sand and crushed-coral beaches.

A fun way to experience these islands is on the Green Island Day Trip from Cairns and the Fitzroy Island Day Trip from Cairns. Both these trips include return transport to the islands, and you can tailor your itinerary to include other activities such as snorkeling, glass-bottom boat tours, and more.

8 Magnetic Island

Magnetic Island
Magnetic Island
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About a 20-minute ferry ride from Townsville on the Australian mainland, Magnetic Island is part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and is famous for its beautiful beaches, secluded bays, and resident koalas. Magnetic Island National Park covers more than half of the island and protects these loveable creatures as well as the other species that make their home here, including many nesting sea turtles. You can access the island, affectionately known as "Maggie Island" by the locals, via the 20-minute Magnetic Island Round-Trip Ferry From Townsville, or you can take your own vehicle across on the car ferry.

Once you arrive, popular things to do include hiking along the 24 kilometers of walking tracks, exploring historic World War II forts, kayaking, snorkeling, wreck and reef diving, horseback riding, spa treatments, and shopping at local markets and galleries. Big-game fishing is also excellent in the surrounding waters, with the chance to catch coveted species such as marlin, sailfish, tuna, and mahimahi. Accommodations on the island range from campsites and the mid-range Island Leisure Resort to the upscale Peppers Blue On Blue Resort.

9 Lizard Island

Lizard Island's beautiful blue lagoon
Lizard Island's beautiful blue lagoon
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In the far north of the Great Barrier Reef, about 250 kilometers northeast of Cairns, Lizard Island is a tropical escapist's fantasy, with 24 secluded beaches and coral reefs just offshore in a luminous blue lagoon. Lizard Island National Park protects the rich wildlife here, which includes the island's abundant namesake monitor lizards, as well as flying foxes, snakes, and prolific birdlife. Some of the other islands in the national park are popular nesting sites for seabirds - particularly terns.

On Lizard Island's northwestern side, the exclusive 40-villa Lizard Island Resort is a favorite haunt of honeymooners and couples. This luxury all-inclusive retreat offers five-star service, gourmet meals, day trips to deserted beaches and top dive sites such as the famous nearby Cod Hole, and snorkeling in the flourishing fringing reefs right off the beach. Campsites are also available on the northwest side of Lizard Island at Watsons Bay. You can access the island on a private boat or commercial charter boats from Cairns, Port Douglas, and Cooktown. Flights also depart from Cairns and Cooktown.

10 Orpheus Island

Aerial view of Orpheus Island
Aerial view of Orpheus Island
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About 110 kilometers north of Townsville, Orpheus Island is a peaceful island retreat within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Tranquil bays and fringing reefs provide the perfect playground for nature lovers, and a national park protects the local flora and fauna. The island is only about 12 kilometers long and one to 2.5 kilometers wide and lacks roads or formal hiking trails. The only way to access the island is by charter or private boat, keeping visitors to a minimum.

If you want to stay overnight, camping is available at Yanks Jetty, South Beach, and Pioneer Bay. The only other accommodation on the island is the beautiful Orpheus Island Resort, an exclusive retreat with a maximum of only 28 guests at a time who arrive by helicopter from Townsville (30 minutes) or Cairns (1.5 hours). Popular things to do at the resort include picnics on secluded beaches, fishing, snorkeling, dive trips, and spa treatments. You can also borrow a dinghy and explore the island's beautiful bays on your own.

11 Day Trips to Lady Musgrave, Lady Elliot, and Hinchinbrook Islands

Lady Elliot Island
Lady Elliot Island
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You can explore the Great Barrier Reef's southernmost islands on day trips. Protected by national parks, these three islands are all popular destinations for nature lovers, with the chance to see turtles, manta rays, and whales in typically crystal-clear waters with excellent visibility.

About eight kilometers from the town of Cardwell, Hinchinbrook Island is Australia's largest island national park and is known for its dramatic topography, with craggy headlands, rainforests, waterfalls, pristine beaches, and mangrove-fringed estuaries. You can access the island, by private vessel or commercial ferries from Cardwell.

About 80 kilometers from Bundaberg, Lady Elliot Island sits in a Green Zone, the reef's highest protection zone, with superb diving and snorkel opportunities. Turtles, manta rays, dolphins, sharks, and whales are among the abundant marine life in these waters, and the island is also home to a popular, no-frills eco-resort. You can access the island on a scenic flight from Bundaberg, Hervey Bay, Brisbane, or the Gold Coast.

Lady Musgrave Island is also a top spot for wilderness lovers. Camping is a popular pastime here, thanks to the island's beautiful lagoon, sheltered anchorage, and regular ferry service. Green and leatherback turtles, rays, and seabirds are among the rich wildlife found on the island and in its reef-dappled waters. The island is best accessed by passenger ferry from the town of 1770, five hours north of Brisbane, and you can also hop aboard a sightseeing cruise from the Bundaberg port in Burnett Heads. An organized tour such as the 3-Day Southern Great Barrier Reef Tour Including Lady Musgrave Island is also a great way to experience this island and the surrounding reefs. It includes eco-friendly beachside accommodation and round-trip transportation from the the Gold Coast, Brisbane, or the Sunshine Coast.

Tips and Tactics: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to the Great Barrier Reef

  • The best time of year to visit the Great Barrier Reef is the dry season, between May and October, when humidity is low and the visibility is better. From October through May, marine stingers inhabit the waters. For protection, swimmers should wear stinger suits during this time, especially when swimming off mainland beaches.

  • Due to large tidal shifts, reef access and many activities depend on tide times and heights. Water visibility for snorkeling and diving also depends on the weather.
  • Camping permits for the islands along the reef must be obtained in advance. All campers should bring their own water supplies for drinking and cooking.
  • Don't touch any coral or marine creatures. Not only is some of the marine life dangerous, touching the coral can compromise its health.
  • The Aussie sun can be strong. When heading outside, sightseers should wear sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses to protect their eyes.

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