10 Essential Tips for Visiting the Great Barrier Reef

Diving, kayaking and snorkeling are just a handful of the activities you should try while visiting the Great Barrier Reef.

October 28, 2019
By: Joe Sills

Photo By: Tourism and Events Queensland

Photo By: Tourism and Events Queensland

Photo By: Tourism and Events Queensland

Photo By: Tourism and Events Queensland

Photo By: Tourism and Events Queensland

Photo By: Nigel Marsh

Photo By: Tourism and Events Queensland

Photo By: byrneck

Photo By: Tourism and Events Queensland

Photo By: Tourism and Events Queensland

Photo By: Tourism and Events Queensland

Planning Your Trip to the Reef

Located off the coast of Queensland, Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef system in the world. From the air, the arms of the enormous Great Barrier Reef stretch towards the horizon until they vanish with the curve of the Earth. Though the Great Barrier Reef likely has a home on almost every traveler's bucket list, its size and remote location can make planning a visit there confusing. Here, we've made it easy for you. These are the best ways to experience the sites and sounds of this astounding natural wonder.

Pick a Port

The majority of Great Barrier Reef visitors enter and exit tropical north Queensland via the city of Cairns. The city of 150,000 is home to a fleet of dive boats that depart daily from its harbor. However, Cairns is not the only city serving up access to the Great Barrier Reef. The reef stretches for some 1,400 miles along the Australian coast, and cities like Port Douglas, Cape Tribulation and Townsville are all home to dive boats that offer access to alternative dive sites.

Scuba Dive the Reef

The best way to explore the Great Barrier Reef is in the water. Fortunately, you don't need to be an experienced scuba diver to take the plunge. In fact, you don't need any diving exprience at all. Most dive charters offer an introductory, Discover SCUBA experience that allows anyone to learn the basics of diving before descending below the waves. Discover scuba instructors literally and figuratively hold your hand, guiding you on a tour of the world below the waves.

Keep Calm Around Coral

More than 400 species of coral call the Great Barrier Reef home. Together, they form the Earth's largest living organism. It's your responsibility to protect that coral while you're in the water by being careful not to touch any living colonies. Dive masters at Ocean Freedom in Cairns tell us that the number one mistake people make while diving is to breathe too quickly. Calming down and slowing your breathing can help you stay cool and collected underwater and help to avoid damaging coral.

Overnight Onboard

Liveaboard cruises are a favorite among experienced divers. These multi-day expeditions range from one night to more than a week, allowing time to explore the most remote reaches of the Great Barrier Reef. Trips from Cairns typically travel 60 to 150 miles away from the harbor to the outer reefs — well beyond the reach of most day trips and right in the heart of some of the Great Barrier Reef's most lively dive sites.

Get to Know Native Wildlife

The Great Barrier Reef is home to more than 1,600 species of animals — from tiny plankton to whales weighing over 100 tons. Odds are that you will see several dozen of those species on any given dive. The sheer variety of wildlife under the water's surface can be mind boggling for new divers, but knowing more about the creatures that call the Great Barrier Reef home before you enter their world can not only help you appreciate them more, but can also make your water activities safer. Try getting familiar with reef animals at the Reef Aquarium in Townsville before seeing them out in the wild.

Save Time for Snorkeling

Most dive charters limit patrons to three dives per day. That leaves plenty of downtime onboard, and tour operators typically fill a large portion of that with snorkeling. Thankfully, due to an abundance of shallow reef habitat and sea life, snorkeling outings on the Great Barrier Reef can be just as fulfilling as many dives. As a bonus, no certification is required to snorkel, and even non-swimmers can enjoy the sport with a life vest.

Take a Walk on Whitehaven Beach

The Whitsunday Islands rise above the Great Barrier Reef about 140 miles southeast of Townsville. In the 250 years since Captain Cook marked their beaches on his charts, the small chain of islands has developed into one of the world's most well-known destinations for yachting and opulent relaxation. The ivory sands of Whitehaven Beach lie near the top of the Whitsunday's bucket list. Whitehaven Beach tours start at around $150—no yacht required.

Mountain Bike the Bump Track

The remnants of an Aboriginal trail still meander through the mountains above Port Douglas. Adopted by miners in the 1800s, this trail has come to be known as the Bump Track, and it's the perfect place to snag a bird's eye view of the Great Barrier Reef on the horizon below. Local tour operators take beginner and experienced mountain bikers on Bump Track tours that begin high in the hills and end at the Coral Sea. A half day ride including everything you need costs about $90.

Delve Into Daintree

The borders of Daintree National Park collide with the Great Barrier Reef just north of Port Douglas. Here, two UNESCO World Heritage sites stand side-by-side, forming one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. The Daintree Rainforest is home to more than 3,000 species of plants as well as the southern cassowary, the large flightless black birds that are said to be closer relatives to the dinosaur than any other bird. In addition, Daintree is flush with unique accomodations like lodges and jungle treehouses that allow you to fully immerse yourself in the life of the forest.

Master Magnetic Island

This small, 20 square mile island off the coast of Townsville is a perfect base camp for snorkeling and exploring the Great Barrier Reef by kayak. The island is a popular pit stop for backpackers, and it's easy to see why. More than half of the island is reserved for wildlife—including a population of more than 500 koalas — sunset sea kayak tours start at under $50, and campsites can be reserved there for about $10.

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