Travel Guides

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world, visible from space and is one of the most complex natural ecosystems in the world.

Corals are marine invertebrates, a group of animals that also includes jelly fish and sea anemones. They come in a variety of colours, shapes and sizes, and have a simple stomach with a single mouth opening surrounded by stinging tentacles. Each individual coral animal is called a polyp. A colony is the result of hundreds of thousands of identical polyps (they basically grow copies of themselves) living together.

Coral is either hard coral  or soft coral. There are about 800 hundred species of hard coral (Scientific name Scleractinia), also known as “reef building” coral. Soft corals, (Scientific name -  Alcyonacea or Octocorlilla),  resemble coloured plants, have eight tenticles and usually thrive further from the surface than the hard corals.

Great Barrier Reef

This great piece of nature is located along the East Coast of Australia, in the Coral Sea, starting in the south near Bundaberg and goes north to Cape York Peninsula. That is a total distance of  over 2,300 kilometres! It varies in width from 60 to 200 kilometres wide.  

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is 344,440 square kilometres containing 14 coastal ecosystems, 3000 coral reefs and 600 continental islands.

It is Australia’s greatest natural wonder, and one that is shared with the world. Two million visitors, on average, visit the Great Barrier Reef each year, cementing its place as one of the seven wonders of the natural world.

It is such a romantic place to visit, everyone who visits the reef is touched in more ways than one. So many visitors are not satisfied with just one visit so they return!

Underwater view of coral with a large pink coral in the foreground

Fast FactsGreat Barrier Reef Island

  • Similar in size to Italy or Japan
  • Equal in size to 70 million football fields
  • Contains 10% of all the coral reefs in the world
  • Reportedly able to be seen from outer space and also the Moon
  • World Heritage Listed in 1981
  • It is been a Marine Park since 1975
  • Hard corals can grow up to 1.5 centimetres per year
  • One of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World
  • The Great Barrier Reef is intimately linked, by the ocean, waters and currents, to all other reef systems in the Indian and Pacific Oceans
  • Polyps can reproduce asexually by a method called budding

The Living ReefLarge spotted Maori Wrasse

  • Over 400 species of hard coral & over 150 species of soft corals
  • More than 1,600 species of fish
  • 30 species of whales & dolphins have been recorded
  • Around 120 species of sharks & rays call the reef home
  • 6 of the 7 world’s species of marine turtles come to the reef to breed
  • Giant clams have a life span of over 100 years
  • The reef is home to 3,000 species of molluscs
  • There are more than 100 species of jellyfish
  • Over 630 species of Starfish & Sea Urchins
  • Millions of seabirds live on the cays and islands of the Great Barrier Reef
  • 500 different species of worms (yes worms) live in the marine park.

 

Wonderful creatures of the seaschoo; of reef fish swimming in the sea

  • Clownfish live in and around Sea Anemones and were made famous in the film Finding Nemo
  • Dugong are the only marine herbivorous mammals
  • Giant Clams once they attach themselves to the reef they stay there for life
  • Maori Wrasse or Humphead Wrasse, can grow up to 2m
  • Parrot Fish are magnificently coloured, and make quite a sound when they grind the coral
  • Manta Rays and Stingrays fly through the water with wing like movements
  • Potato Cod can grow up to 110 kgs and over 2m in length
  • Sharks - Most commonly seen are White Tip Reef Sharks or Black tip Sharks, don't worry they are "harmless"!
  • Turtles may live on the reef but go ashore to lay eggs
  • Whales, migrate to the reef in winter to breed and give birth

Aerial view of Heart Reef

Best Places to visit the Great Barrier Reef

The main towns and cities where you can visit the reef from, starting in the south are:
Bundaberg

Visiting the Great Barrier Reef from Bundaberg gives you two choices, a day trip to either Lady Elliot Island or to Lady Musgrave. If you choose Lady Elliot, a beautiful coral cay, you have a scenic flight to get there and then you can go on a guided snorkel to learn all about the reef. Of course you will see Manta Rays, the island is famous for them.

If you chose to go to Lady Musgrave, another beautiful coral cay, you have choices to make, whether you snorkel, ride in a glass bottom boat, a semi-submarine or explore the reef from an underwater viewing chamber!

Lady Elliot

Lady Elliot Island is a 40-hectare coral cay located off Bundaberg and is the southern most island in the south of the Great Barrier Reef. From your accommodation on the island it is no more than 100 metres and you will be snorkelling on the reef.

There is amazing life to see on this island. It is where you will see manta rays in large numbers, it is not call “manta heaven” for nothing. It has 1200 species of marine life, you will see turtles, dolphins, parrot fish, giant clams and for the lucky ones you may even see a epaulette shark, they use their fins as feet and walk on land! In whale season you will also see these beautiful creatures.

The resort has no distractions, a great place to go for both adults and kids to get back to nature. This island is a coral cay so come prepared with protective footwear.

Heron Island

Heron Island is on the Great Barrier Reef, a coral cay just 89 kilometres off the coast from Gladstone. The reef along with her 900 fish species (72% of all found on the reef) and her colourful coral garden is right there on your doorstep. You also have 20 different dive sites to choose from. The resort has been operating for 80 years. It is a wonderful low key place to holiday where nature is the star. The university of Queensland has a research station located on Herron Island and guests are able to tour the facility.

Heron Island is the home to Green & Loggerhead Turtles, they lay their eggs from November to March and you can witness the hatchlings making their way to the sea from January to June.

There are no day trips to Heron Island, so book a accommodation package to suit your needs and just relax.

http://www.heronisland.com/Take-a-Virtual-Dive.aspx

Gladstone

From Gladstone you can visit the reef around Heron Island, a coral cay (made from sand and coral fragments) and see first hand why the reef is so special. Heron Island is surrounded by 24 square kilometres of reef. Whether it is diving or snorkeling you want to do, Heron Island is the place. There is also a coral submarine for viewing life in the sea without getting your feet wet.

Airlie Beach (Whitsunday Islands)

Airlie Beach and The Whitsundays is another fantastic place to visit the Great Barrier Reef.  There is only one boat that goes to the reef from Airlie Beach, the reef is actually 90 nautical miles from Airlie and is a 2.5 hours trip each way. The time passes quickly as you are mesmerized by the beautiful scenery you pass through. The reef you visit is called Hardy Reef. For a once in a lifetime experience try an Overnight Reef Sleep, spending the night at the Hardy Reef pontoon.

For the other days you are visiting you will be spoilt for choice for great things to do. There are numerous day trips out from Airlie Beach, you can sail, chose a faster motor boat, jet ski, take a raft or take a plane! A scenic flight over Heart Reef will be a memory for life. One of the most popular things to do is to swim and snorkel at Whitehaven Beach (yes it is the one in all the photos!) and learn about the reef life. Of course another option is to stay on one of the 7 fabulous resorts scattered in The Whitsundays.

The Whitsundays is such a magical place, it will be on your list of your most favorite holidays ever!

Cairns

Cairns has many advantages as your holiday destination to see the reef from. Firstly the reef is close  to mainland and there are options as to whether you do a day trip or stay on one of the islands. There are numerous operators which offer choices in boat sizes, duration of stay on the reef (full & half day), activities on the reef (glass bottom boats, semi submersibles, snorkelling, diving) and more. There are also tours where you can go out to the reef on a boat and fly back to Cairns in a helicopter or vice versa. This is a remarkable tour.

Port Douglas

If you are staying at Port Douglas you have chosen a beautiful part of the world to holiday. There are numerous tours to the reef starting from here, choose whether you want to snorkel or dive in the wonderful coral gardens. From Port Douglas you can travel to see the reef at Low Isles, Opal Reef or Agincourt Reef or a combination of these.

Cape York

The Great Barrier Reef extends north into the Torres Strait between Australia and New Guinea. Lizard Island is most northern island most travelers venture to although there are other lesser know, more secluded resorts dotted along the islands towards Cape York. These resorts are more suited to the independent traveler.

Lots more places

There are so many islands and resorts stretching along the 2,300 kilometres of the Great Barrier Reef that it is not possible to go into detail on all of them here. Below is a list for you to explore. I am sure to have missed some, let me know!

Beddara, Daydream, Brampton, Dunk, Great Keppel, Green, Haggerstone, Hamilton, Hayman, Hinchinbrook, Lindeman, Lizard, Long, and  South Mole are all the major resorts but then you have other ones that no one really knows about, Pumpkin, Humpty, Double Island, Lady Musgrave, Facing, Keswick,  Magnetic, and Thursday Island.

Travel Guides

If you are looking for more information on some of these destinations the check out our Travel Guides.

Go to the travel guides page

 

When is the best time to visit the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef is 2,300 kilometres long so the climate and weather conditions will vary greatly between the northern and south areas of the reef. The Great Barrier Reef is one of those places where anytime is the right time to visit. Most of the reef is in Tropical waters so even in winter the water temperature is still comfortable. At different times of the year, different events are occurring on the reef, be it whale migration in winter or coral spawning late in the year.

Also, don't be put off by the wet season, quite often it may be raining on the coast yet out on the reef the sun is shining.

As the Great Barrier Reef is in the southern hemisphere it gets warmer the further north you travel!

When to go:

April – May

This is the start of the dry season and weather can be brilliant, warm days and cooler nights. There will be less visitors to the reef and even some operators offering special. At this time of the year many juvenile fish and sharks are visible for the first time.

June – October

Temperature is cooler (evenings are cool) and this is the tourist high season. The winds reduce and sea conditions become calmer. At different points on the reef you can watch the whale migration. The most popular time to visit the reef.

Coral Spawning

October, November and December is when the coral spawning takes place. The event happens at the inshore reefs normally within a week of the first full moon in October whereas for the outer reefs it can occur as late as December. The event happens at night and is one of the most spectacular events to see occur.

November –March

The water temperature starts to rise as the wet season begins. Tourist numbers do drop off and in some areas marine stingers (Jellyfish) can be present so be sure to follow the warnings. This is also the time the Manta Rays become more active in some areas, and early in the year the turtles begin nesting and hatching.

School Holidays

The Great Barrier Reef is a popular destination with families meaning that during Australian School holidays there will be more reef visitors than at other times. To see Australian School holiday periods click this link.

2 people riding a Scubadoo underwater

Best way to see & do the Great Barrier Reef

The most common way to experience the reef is by boat. Whether it is one of the modern fast catamaran services to give you maximum diving and snorkeling time, or a relaxed trip on a sailboat so you can enjoy the journey.

For people short on time, or prone to motion sickness there are still options to allow you to enjoy the reef. There are transfers to and / or from the outer reef pontoons or for the romantics a picnic lunch on a remote coral cay for two.

Once you are on the great Barrier reef there are so many options to explore the reef.

  • Dive (coral relies on sunlight for growth, some of the best snorkelling and diving can be done in shallow areas around the reef top).
  • Live Aboard (stay out and dive from the boat for 24 hours +)
  • Snorkel the closer to the surface the corals are the more vibrant colours that are visible.
  • Glass bottom boat, submarine and semi submersibles allow non swimmers to see the reef close up.People snorkelling amongst the coral
  • Scenic flights for a birds eye view of this amazing ecosystem
  • Seawalking and scubadooing are other ways to see the reef without having to dive or snorkel.

Orange clownfish swimming in coral

Help Preserve The Great Barrier Reef

This amazing natural wonder needs our help and support. even as a visitor there are steps you can take to ensure future generations can enjoy the reef as much as we have.

  • Do not leave any rubbish behind, plastic bags and bottles are a mjor threat to some reef animals.
  • Do not feed the fish, commercial operators must follow strict guidelines to maintain the health of fish they feed.
  • Educate yourself about the delicate ecosystem that is The Great Barrier Reef
  • Support conservation organisations and marine parks
  • Your trip to the reef will include an Environmental Management Charge, this is used to help manage the reef
  • Abide by the diving & snorkelling instructions of your guides, it is for your and the reef's safety.
  • Don't collect coral from the reef

Some problems facing the Great Barrier Reef

Generally the Great Barrier Reef is one of the world's best managed marine areas, although there are a number of threats facing the reef.

  • Climate Change
  • Nutrient run off
  • Coastal development
  • Shipping
  • Crown of Thorns Starfish
  • Illegal fishing.

Our Staff Great Barrier Reef Picks

Aerial view of the reef and boat

Michaelmas Cay & Hastings Reef Day Cruise

A quick trip to Michaelmas Cay, ahead of the other tourists, enjoy 2.5 hours diving or snorkeling and then just as it is getting busy you head off to Hastings Reef and have another 2.5 hours of enjoyment exploring the reef.

  • Dive or snorkel from boat or beach
  • 5+ hours at 2 reefs
  • Guides snorkeling tours
  • Glass Bottom Boat Tour

Fish swimming around the reef

Fitzroy Island & Two Activities

In just 45 minutes from Cairns you will be at Fitzroy Island. For the day you can take advantage of all the facilities the island has to offer. There are so many choices, snorkel, swim, kayak, SUP or just go for a bush walk!

  • Fitzroy Island is yours for the day
  • Choose 2 great activities to enjoy
  • 7 hours to play
  • transfers included

Image of Whitehaven Beach and the raft boat

Whitehaven Beach & Hill Inlet

This tour has it all, you get to swim at the world famous Whitehaven Beach, and visit an exclusive part of Hill Inlet. This tour includes two separate snorkelling sites for those who want enjoy the reef up close and first hand.

  • Personalised Snorkeling instructions
  • Guided talks & walks
  • 2 snorkeling sites
  • Beach landings

Orange fish swimming in coral

Full Day Reef Adventure

This cruise will take you out to the reef to Reefworld Pontoon. Just imagine the wonderful diving, snorkeling and swimming that you will get to do.  You will learn about the reef from one of the marine experts. There is also a underwater observatory.

  • Cruise through the Whitsundays National Park
  • Subsea adventure
  • Underwater observatory viewing
  • Helicopter flight to view Heart Reef (optional)