The Great Barrier Reef, Australia is a must-see

Visiting the Great Barrier Reef: 11 of the most popular sights and things to do

Australia’s top tourist treasure, the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef system on the planet. The reef stretches more than 2,300 kilometers, from the northern tip of southern Queensland to the coastal town of Bandaberg, and includes one of the richest ecosystems in the world. So vast is this complex of reefs, islands, coral islands, sea reeds and mangroves, it is the only living structure visible from space.

Experiencing the Great Barrier Reef is Australia’s best outdoor adventure. Some of the most popular things to do include snorkeling and scuba diving on shimmering coral reefs, sailing around idyllic tropical islands, fishing in certain areas, closely observing the abundance of marine life with a glass boat and soaring above this magnificent natural wonder on a scenic flight.

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

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

1 Great Barrier Reef Marine Park

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park

Covering more than 344,000 square kilometers (half the size of the state of Texas), the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was established in 1975 to protect fragile reef ecosystems. Within its boundaries are more than 2,900 coral reefs, 600 continental islands, 300 coral islands, seaweed beds, and many mangrove islands. The park also protects an amazing diversity of marine life. Over 600 species of hard and soft corals range from bulbous spheres of brain coral to rocky staghorn and graceful gorgonian sea fans. This thriving underwater jungle is also home to clams such as giant clams and more than 1,625 species of fish. Sharks, rays, sea snakes, dugongs, turtles, dolphins and whales can be found in the surrounding waters.

Unlike some other marine reserves, the park operates as a mixed-use protected area and allows sustainable fishing in certain areas. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Authority manages the park in consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, whose heritage is closely tied to the region. Together they work to protect this rich patchwork of fragile ecosystems and striking biodiversity.

2 Whitsunday Islands.

On the sidewalk along the Great Barrier Reef, the Whitsunday Group’s 74 tropical islands are excellent grounds for exploring the wonders of the reef. Six national parks protect their fragile ecosystems, and some are home to eco-retreats, campgrounds and luxury resorts. To explore the reef from these sun-drenched shores, you can sign up for a snorkeling or diving trip at SCUBA, enjoy a cruise or jump aboard a sailboat.

Attractions cruises often visit places like the sublime Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, as well as fish-rich reefs for snorkeling. Of all the Whitsunday Islands, Heron boasts some of the best diving, and Hamilton Island offers many amenities, from the mid-sized Whitsunday Apartments to the exclusive Qualia Resort, and is the only Whitsunday Island with an airport that serves large planes. Luxury seekers Haiman Island, home to the exclusive five-star nature resort One & Only, and families love Daidlix Island and Long Island. If you’re planning a camping trip, national park campgrounds are available on Whitsundays and Hook Islands. Airlie Beach as well as Shute Harbor are the main gateway for Whitsundays sightseeing. From here, ferries, luxury yachts, helicopters and seaplanes can take you to the island of your dreams.

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3 Whitehaven Beach.

Often considered one of the best beaches in the world, Whitehaven Beach, on Trinity Island, is a stunning seven-kilometer stretch of dazzling white quartz sand and bright blue sea. You can visit the beach on day trips on luxury yachts, ferries, motorboats or sailboats and Tongue Bay is a favorite anchor for shoreboats. Trail rides pass through the island. One of the most popular is a 10- to 15-minute hike from the beach to Lookout Hill for spectacular views of swirling white sands, turquoise water and rolling hills. If you don’t have time to set foot on the soft sands, you can book a scenic flight and soar over the marbled seascape in an airplane. Camping is allowed at the south end of the beach.

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4 Scuba diving and snorkeling

Diver admiring the gorgonian sea fan.

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most attractive diving spots in the world. This underwater wonderland is home to more than 2,900 individual reefs with kaleidoscopic walls, spectacular coral canyons, swims and peaks. Gliding from the edge of the continental shelf over 90-meter drop-offs can feel like flying over an underwater jungle.

Other underwater attractions include the North Horn Shark Temptation ; Cod Hole, near Lizard Island, with its giant potato cod; Osprey Reef drift dives ; the chance to spot migrating whales Bommie Lighthouse ; Asincourt Reef, easily accessible from Cairns; and the coral gardens at Flynn Reef .

In the Trinity Islands, Heron Island offers some of the best diving in all the islands, including a manta sweep station on Boston Island.

Scuba diving is also possible along the river. From Townsville or Magnetic Island, visitors can explore the SS Yongala , a steel and wooden steamer that matched her fate during the 1911 cyclone and claimed 121 lives.

Day trips are a great way to get a taste of the reef, while dive trips maximize underwater time and give you a chance to see some of the more remote and less visited reefs.

If you’re staying in Cairns, an easy way to experience spectacular underwater scenery is at the Great Barrier Reef Dive and Snorkel from Cairns. This full-day trip includes transportation on a comfortable boat, barbecue lunch, snorkeling stops and optional SCUBA snorkeling and helicopter flight upgrades.

5 Reef Cruises and Sailing Adventures

Big Barrier Reef Pontoon

Great Barrier Reef Cruises and Sailing Trips are one of the best ways to explore the best sights on the reef. Full- or half-day cruises send passengers to well-equipped reef pontoons for easy access to the water. Freshwater showers, changing rooms and underwater observatories are some of the facilities available here.

From Cairns, you can join a large barrier reef cruise that takes you out on a catamaran to a snorkeling pontoon as well as side-glass boat and semi-submersible tours. This full-body tour includes a buffet lunch, and you can choose upgrades such as Seawalker Helmet diving and SCUBA diving.

If you prefer to reef in a sailing adventure, a low island kayak cruise from Port Douglas includes a full catamaran sailing cruise to the Low Islands, where you can go straight down the white sand beach led by a marine biologist with a chance to see green sea turtles. The trip also includes a coral boating tour, a beach walk and a tropical breakfast buffet.

Quicksilver operates popular cruises aboard high-speed catamarans from Port Douglas with transfers from Cairns. Usually the trips include presentations by marine biologists, diving or snorkeling, and coral viewing in semi-submersible mode. Multi-day luxury cruises and whale-watching trips are other popular water-based options.

For a more intimate and peaceful vacation, you can rent a sailboat. Idyllic moorings include dazzling Whitehaven Beach as well as Butterfly Cove , 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 explore the ropes with a qualified instructor or charter boats with an experienced crew.

6 Scenic Flights

A scenic flight is a great way to appreciate the impressive magnitude of this natural wonder. Helicopter and seaplane flights soar over spotted expanses of coral reefs and palm-fringed islands. Options range from 15-minute flights to full flights, including water sports and lunch. One of the best features to see from the air is the Heart Reef , This naturally heart-shaped coral reef is a favorite spot for romantic flyover proposals.

If you want to see the reef from more than one vantage point, the magnificent Vertical Helicopter Reef and Cruise from Cairns is a great option. This full-day tour includes a 25-minute flight with informative commentary and the opportunity to swim, snorkel or dive along the reef.

7 Day Trips to Fitzroy and the Green Islands

If you’re in Cairns, you can take a day trip to one of these nearby tropical islands. Green Island, about a 45-minute speedboat cruise from Cairns, is the most popular but also the most crowded of the two. Here you can do snorkeling, glass boat rides, and see the world’s largest Marineland Crocodile Park , you can also stay at the Green Island Resort.

If you prefer a more relaxed, low-key island getaway, Fitzroy Island is a great choice, with the best snorkeling opportunities, scenic hiking trails, and beautiful white sand and crushed coral beaches.

An interesting way to experience these islands is a Green Islands Day trip from Cairns and a trip to Fitzroy Island from Cairns. Both of these trips include returning transportation to the islands, and you can tailor your itinerary to include other activities such as snorkeling, glass boat tours and more.

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8 Magnetic Island.

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 known for its beautiful beaches, secluded coves and resident koalas. Magnetic Island National Park covers more than half the island and protects these attractive creatures as well as the other species that make them here, including many nesting sea turtles. You can access the island, affectionately known as “Maggie’s Island” by locals, via the 20-minute Magnetic Island Ferry from Townsville, or you can take your own car on the car ferry.

Once you arrive, you can hike the 24-kilometer trails, explore historic World War II forts, kayak, snorkel, wreck and reef, horseback riding, spa treatments and shopping at local markets and galleries. Big game fishing is also excellent in the surrounding waters, with opportunities to catch coveted species such as marlin, sailfish, tuna and mahimahi. Overnight accommodations on the island range from campsites and Island Leisure to the upscale Peppers Blue On Blue resort.

9 Lizard Island.

The beautiful blue lagoon of Lizard Island

In the far north of the Great Barrier Reef, about 250 kilometers northeast of Cairns, Lizard Island is a tropical escapist fantasy, with 24 secluded beaches and coral reefs near the shoreline in a luminous blue lagoon. Lizard Island National Park protects the abundant wildlife here, which includes the island’s abundant observer lizards as well as flying foxes, snakes and frugivorous birds. Some of the other islands in the national park are popular nesting grounds for seabirds – especially terns.

On the northwest side of Lizard Island, the exclusive 40-villa Lizard Island Resort is a favorite for honeymooners and couples. This luxurious, all-inclusive retreat offers five-star service, gourmet meals, day trips to deserted beaches and dive sites like the famous nearby Cod Hole , and snorkeling in the blooming ravine reefs right off the beach. Campgrounds are also available on the northwest side of Lizard Island in Watson’s Bay. You can access the island by private boat or commercial charter boats from Cairns, Port Douglas and Cooktown. Flights also depart from Cairns and Cooktown.

10 Orpheus Island.

Aerial photography of Orpheus Island

About 110 kilometers north of Townsville, Orpheus Island is a quiet island retreat in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Tranquil coves and ravine reefs provide an ideal setting for nature lovers, and the national park protects the local flora and fauna. The island is about 12 kilometers long and one to 2.5 kilometers wide, and there are roads or formal hiking trails. The only way to access the island is by charter or private boat, which leads to a minimum of visitors.

If you want to stay overnight, camping is available at Yanks Jetty, South Beach and Pioneer Bay. The only other place on the island is the beautiful Orpheus Island Resort Hotel, 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 attractions at the resort include picnics on secluded beaches, fishing, snorkeling, diving tours and spa treatments. You can also take a boat and explore the island’s beautiful coves on your own.

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

Lady Elliot Island.

You can explore the southernmost islands of the Great Barrier Reef on day trips. These three islands, protected by national parks, are popular destinations for nature lovers, with opportunities to see turtles, manta rays and whales in typically crystal-clear waters with excellent visibility.

About eight kilometers from Cardwell, Hinchinbrook Island is Australia’s largest island national park and is known for its dramatic topography, with rocky headlands, rainforests, waterfalls, pristine beaches and mangrove-lined moustache. You can access the island by private boat or commercial ferry from Cardwell.

About 80 kilometers from Bundaberg, Lady Elliot Island is located in the Green Zone, the highest protective zone of the reef, with excellent diving and snorkeling 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 eco-friendly resort. You can access the island by scenic flight from Bandaberg, Hervey Bay, Brisbane or the Gold Coast.

Lady Musgrave Island is also a top spot for wildlife lovers. Camping is a popular pastime here, thanks to the island’s beautiful lagoon, sheltered parking and regular ferry service. Green and leatherback turtles, rays and seabirds are among the abundant wildlife found on the island and in its reef-covered waters. The island is best reached by ferry from 1770, a five-hour drive north of Brisbane, or you can take a sightseeing cruise from Bundaberg Harbor to Burnett Heads. An organized tour, such as a 3-day Southern Great Barrier Reef tour, including Lady Musgrave Island, is also a great way to explore this island and the surrounding reefs. It includes eco-friendly beach accommodations and round trips from the Gold Coast, Brisbane or the Sunshine Coast.

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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, from May to October, when humidity is low and visibility is better. From October to May, sea stings inhabit the sea waters. Swimmers should wear sting suits during this time for protection, especially when swimming from mainland beaches.

Is a trip to the Great Barrier Reef worth the money and effort?

Going to Australia to look at coral and consider how much it costs in terms of both money and experience.

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef on our planet. It is located in the northeastern part of Australia, its length is about two and a half thousand kilometers. The reef is the largest formation on Earth that was created by living organisms. It can be seen both from a plane and from space. Tens of thousands of Australians are employed thanks to nature’s unique creation.

Why travelers go to the Great Barrier Reef

The main activity on the reef is scuba diving and snorkeling. Large sections of the reef are no deeper than five meters, so snorkeling is just as popular. Here, followers of Jacques-Yves Cousteau enjoy the underwater world to the fullest. Cruises are also common in this part of the Pacific. The size of the Great Barrier Reef allows you to admire the aesthetics of the coral kingdom for a long time. While traveling in Australia and New Zealand, it is impossible not to swim to the biggest reef. It is one of the top 10 wonders of nature, so a separate category of tourists go here to get the invisible mark of a visit.

You can dive with your equipment and with rented equipment on the ship. Almost all operators provide an opportunity to take a diving course with diving equipment and at the end get a certificate of international standard. If you have a one-time desire to dive with an oxygen cylinder at your back, a personal instructor and equipment will be at your service.

There is no season on the Great Barrier Reef – it’s always warm

It is always warm in this place, so the diving season lasts all year round. Summer in the southern hemisphere begins in December. In spring and summer, large sea turtles come closer to the shore, making for a high tourist season. Air temperatures reach plus 35 and water temperatures reach plus 28. In the list of sunscreen must be a cream with SPF protection from 50 or higher.

Australia is the world’s first country in the number of deadly animal species. From November to May is a period of proliferation of poisonous jellyfish. To avoid having to call a helicopter rescue, the crew on the ship will offer a protective wetsuit. We have to agree. My visit to the reef was in November (the last month of spring). Two dives of 30 minutes each went like steaming milk, not a single jellyfish was detected.

How to get to and navigate the Great Barrier Reef

To begin with, if you’re not an avid diver, flying to Australia just for the reef doesn’t make sense: the costs won’t be justified. A single flight (minimum one change of plane) will cost 50-60 thousand rubles. Let’s agree that you are already in Australia, let’s say you rented a motor home, drove from Sydney to Melbourne and back, as I did. And so the question became: to fly to the Great Barrier Reef or not? Let’s calculate the budget.

Option 1: Universal.

The most convenient way to get to the reef is to sail from two cities: Brisbane and Cairns. Brisbane is much closer to Sydney and Melbourne. The flight will be half the price. But the important thing is that tourists say that there are dead reefs concentrated off the coast of Brisbane. Given this factor and the time available, I chose Cairns, a city in the very north of the east coast. The climate here is subtropical and the air is very humid. You can save on an inland flight if you keep an eye out for sales and get your tickets a few months in advance.

I decided on the flight at the last minute, there were no problems with seats, but it cost me 15 thousand rubles – roundtrip from Sydney to Cairns. That’s taking into account the fact that there are “ticket for a dollar” deals! The hostel in Cairns (as well as in Brisbane) costs about a thousand rubles a day, there are also cheaper. Lodgers change daily. Having eaten at a communal dining table today, tomorrow you may not see a familiar face. Hotels and hostels are concentrated along the coastline, near the main pier. The town is small, everything is within walking distance.

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You should understand that even if you booked a private plane, it landed right on the beach and here you run out to the water barefoot, you will not see anything. You still have to swim to the reef. Cairns, Brisbane and others are the cities closest to the reef. The Great Barrier Reef is about 30 kilometers offshore. From there, yachts, ships and boats at local piers come into play. The choice of carriers is wide, for all tastes.

Surely you know the feeling when you, for example, are walking down the Las Vegas Strip, the main street of Las Vegas, in the general flow, here and there you are stepped on the heels, you are systematically checking to see if your purse is there. Stopping in such a stream is an unprecedented luxury that will result in a collision. Or the moment when you want to hold in the palm of your hand the Eiffel Tower or the Egyptian pyramid, but are forced to stand in a 20-minute line, because such an opportunity may no longer exist. And then it turns out that that Chinese guy with the selfie stick got in the frame after all. Out of these considerations, I opted for a secluded Pacific voyage. A small boat with 20 tourists and four crew members, the Reefday Flipper .

I was pleased with the friendly atmosphere, the feeling of pristine sailing. The booking was confirmed after the application on the website, the payment was made on boarding. The cost of such a voyage was A$149. For each Australian dollar I pay about 50 rubles, which equals about 7,000 rubles in the Russian currency. This is the average price of a day trip to the reef. The ship sails from the pier about 07:00, returns at 17:00.

Option 2: by car from Sydney to Brisbane

If you’re interested in Australia itself, you’re sure to visit Sydney, a metropolis that has been repeatedly recognized as one of the most comfortable places to live. The distance from Sydney to Brisbane is about the same as from Moscow to St. Petersburg. In principle, you can rent a car and get there in a day. On the way I recommend swimming and surfing on the beaches of the Gold Coast, the paradise part of the east coast. You can drop the car off in Brisbane and get back by water or air.

Option 3: Fly over the reef in a helicopter or plane

A helicopter or small plane ride over the reef is of particular interest. Reach the towns near the reef by one of the methods described above. Then there are several ways to get over the reef. The first is to fly directly out of the city:

From Cairns with Reef Free : cost starts at $219, there are several different options and locations

From Brisbane with Reef Free : cost starts from $929, but there are several options too.

Study the reef map carefully , make sure you are not taken to the ones closest to shore. They are less scenic.

The second option is to fly from the water or an island near the reef. This option is usually cheaper. You sail a yacht or boat to the reef, near which there is a floating helicopter station. These are usually points where several different liners come in, and here you also have the opportunity to scuba dive or just snorkel, look at the reefs without getting your feet wet, from the glass transparent bottom of the floating platform and, of course, take pictures. One such operator in Cairns is The Tour Specialists.

Floating helicopter stations are not common in Brisbane. The first time I flew a helicopter under Ryazan and the second over the Grand Canyon. We’ll put the first one down, but the second, in contrast, is like a movie. These are the sensations that last for a long time. I am sure that flying over the Great Barrier Reef is no less exciting and little comparable adventure. The length of the reef plays the first role here, the uniqueness of flora and fauna completes the picture. Personally I would fly to Australia again just for such a flight. The understanding comes on your return.

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Option 4: Cruise

In this case it is not necessary to get to the cities close to the coral wonder. Rather, on the contrary, it is better to come from afar. Cruise ships mostly set sail from Sydney. The average duration of a voyage is seven days, but there are also two- or three-day cruises. Some of the itineraries go from the coasts of New Zealand and Asia. If you’re traveling alone, this is a suitable opportunity to spend time in the company of new acquaintances. Here are some Russian-language sites where you can book a cruise: Metropolis Cruises and Dreamliners .

Plus, there are several Australian resources. Ordering from local sites will come out a lot cheaper, since middlemen and commission are excluded. If you’re not afraid of the English language, here are a couple of interesting suggestions: Cruise Away and Carnival.

If you have the time and finances, you can stay in one of the luxury hotels on the coral islands. For example, Heron Island is considered one of the most picturesque for diving.

You’ve probably already heard that the reef is dying out. According to various estimates, about two-thirds of the corals are now extinct. Visually, this is reflected in the color of the coral: it is losing some of its richness and brilliance. This extinction is occurring because of global warming caused by human activities. Biologists are not coping, and the prognosis is disappointing.

Another option for close contact with nature is volunteering. The topic of health improvement on the eastern coast of Ozzie country does not lose its relevance. Every now and then you see headlines like “School kids raise clownfish to save Great Barrier Reef” on the front page of local newspapers. Another way to get up close and personal with the reef is to volunteer to save the World Heritage Site.

There is a registration fee for long sessions – you have to pay to participate in the environmental program. The fee depends on the length of the program. The average cost for two weeks is 700 Australian dollars (35,000 roubles). You will have to get to the volunteer camp somehow, then food and accommodation will be provided. There will be two days off per week and free time after 5pm. Conservation Volunteers Australia’s one stop site for volunteers .

The trip to the Great Barrier Reef cost me about as much as one week’s room rental in Sydney. I stayed with friends, so I was able to fly to the reef with the money I had freed up. That’s about 25 thousand rubles. Accordingly, if you do not have good acquaintances in Australia, then seriously consider couchsurfing, it’s free.

If you’re still that avid diver, the math is simple. It’s optimal to fly straight to Brisbane airport, since it’s international. The flight from Moscow will cost 50-60 thousand rubles round trip. You’d better book your ticket in advance, i.e. four to six months in advance. Visa to Australia is worth special attention (Vinsky forum provides comprehensive information). Hostel is inexpensive: 2-3 thousand rubles for a couple of nights. A one-day swim to the reef and back is about 7 thousand rubles. Total budget for transportation and accommodation will be about 70 thousand rubles.

Great Barrier Reef will gladly receive tourists with different needs. There is a unique variety of nature. Sharks, rays, turtles, rich flora and fauna in one photo. How does it feel? And that’s without deep diving.

Is it worth going to Australia for the Great Barrier Reef? If that’s how you put the question, the answer is unequivocally yes. If you are an experienced diver, you do not need my advice, you all crystal clear. Divers who have seen the world say that the reef is superior to the Maldives, Seychelles, Galapagos and Hawaii. For those who have never seen the big reefs, it will be an exhaustive experience that is not embarrassing to talk about in the company of seasoned adventurers.

If you’re looking for something new and not much interested in diving, there are a number of great places that will give a lot of good emotions without visiting far away Australia. One of them is the Red Sea. In most rankings it is one of the top three places to dive. I checked it out on my own experience. The Museum of Underwater Art in Cancun, shipwreck graveyards, a number of European underwater hotels and more.

Postcards from Australia take about three weeks to arrive, they are very nice to receive! If you still have questions about the reef, you can contact the author Andrei Kolesnikov at [email protected], read his website and subscribe to instagram @zikky_pikky.

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