As the largest living structure on the planet, it’s no surprise that the Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Spanning more than 2300 kilometres and encompassing 980 islands, the reef is among Australia’s best-known and awe-inspiring destinations. If you’re planning a trip north, we’ve created the ultimate “read before you leave” guide to visiting the Great Barrier Reef.
How to get to the Great Barrier Reef
First things first, the Great Barrier Reef covers a large swathe of Queensland’s northern coast, stretching from Bundaberg, 4.5 hours drive north of Brisbane, to Cape York and beyond.
There are several ways to get to the Great Barrier Reef but none is better than another. Choosing how to get there will depend on which islands and reefs you’d like to explore. These are some of the most popular places to fly into when visiting the Great Barrier Reef…
How to get there: Fly direct to Cairns
Best for: Those who want a central base from which to explore the islands and attractions on the mainland.
Highlights: 10 magical things to do in and around cairns
With the Great Barrier Reef on one side and the Daintree Rainforest on the other, Cairns is a popular starting point for exploring the reef. Stay at one of the city’s luxurious resorts to relax in style between snorkelling the natural wonder and exploring the world’s oldest rainforest.
How to get there: Fly to Cairns and drive.
Best for: Those who want to explore the incredible Daintree Rainforest too.
Highlights: All the unmissable things to do in Port Douglas
Just an hour north of Cairns via a beautiful scenic drive, Port Douglas offers easy access to both the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef, with the added bonus of more beaches than its southern sister city. It’s also the closest departure point for Agincourt Reef, which features more than 16 dive sites and is regarded as one of the best places to snorkel.
How to get there: Fly directly to Hamilton Island
Best for: Enjoying the best of island life and exploring the magical Whitsundays.
Highlights: 14 incredible things to do on Hamilton Island
Nestled in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef, Hamilton island is the jumping off point for Hayman, Daydream and Long islands, along with the rest of the Whitsundays. With crystal-clear waters and long stretches of white sand, Hamilton is a hub of laid-back resorts, has a thriving restaurant and bar scene and is surrounded by the beauty of the reef. To access the Whitsundays from the mainland, fly direct from Brisbane into Proserpine near Airlie Beach.
How to get there: Fly direct to Townsville
Best for: Those who want easy access to the reef and the comforts that come with a city.
Highlights: 6 Different Ways to Spend a Weekend in Townsville
Townsville is the largest city north of the Sunshine Coast and the official headquarters of the Great Barrier Reef. Thanks to its prime location in the middle of Queensland’s coast, Townsville is ideally placed to give you simple access to the central section of the reef, including Camp, Magnetic, Orpheus and Palm islands. While you’re in town, the epic Museum of Underwater Art on John Brewer Reef is a must-visit.
How to get around the Great Barrier Reef
Depending on where you’re going and which activities you have on your list, you’ll need to take a combination of planes, cars, boats and maybe even a helicopter. On land, fly into the nearest airport then hire a car to get around.
For the best experience exploring the Great Barrier Reef’s many islands, you can’t avoid getting out on the water. From glass-bottomed boats that let you see the reef without getting wet to cruises that take you to the best dive spots, many of these tours can be arranged with your hotel concierge.
To access more distant islands and dive sites, you may need to take a seaplane or a helicopter but flying also gives you the opportunity to soak up the dazzling patterns and colours of the reef from a new perspective. Once again, these flights can be arranged by your tour operator or hotel concierge.
Which Great Barrier Reef island should I visit?
With hundreds of islands and more than 348,000 square kilometres of reef to explore, where should you begin? Each island of the Great Barrier Reef offers special activities and experiences.
- For snorkelling, visit Lady Musgrave Island.
- For getting up close to manta rays, visit Lady Elliott Island.
- For a family getaway, visit Hamilton Island.
- For a romantic escape, visit Hayman Island.
- For exceptional diving, visit Heron Island.
Want to know more about the best islands in the Great Barrier Reef and what you can do there? Here’s your ultimate guide.
What’s the weather like?
Seasons in Tropical North Queensland can be roughly divided into the Wet season, which runs from November to March and is as rainy as the name suggests, and the Dry season, from April to October.
The Great Barrier Reef’s climate is on the warmer side all year round. In summer, expect highs of 31°C and lows of 23°C, while in winter, average temperatures range from a low of 17°C to a high of 26°C.
When is the best time to visit the Great Barrier Reef?
The Dry season is the most popular time to visit the Great Barrier Reef. Less frequent rainfall results in clearer water to swim, snorkel and dive in, while cooler nights are a refreshing contrast to the warm days.
The Wet season sees plenty of tropical downpours, which can cause the water to become cloudy and reduce visibility – not ideal if you’re planning on snorkelling or scuba diving. The Wet is also marine-stinger season, when the reef becomes home to the highly venomous box jellyfish, and wearing a protective lycra swimsuit is a must when swimming.
I want to go swimming...
The Great Barrier Reef’s kilometres of coastline boast crystalline waters and soft white sand. Some of the most popular beaches to take a dip at include Airlie, Palm Cove and Whitehaven.
For less confident swimmers, there are a number of spots like Green Island Beach that are patrolled by lifeguards and have the signature red-and-yellow flags to indicate where it’s safe to go in.
It’s also highly recommended that you swim in a full-coverage lycra suit during the summer months to protect from marine stingers.
I want to go snorkelling…
The beaches are a great place to start your snorkelling adventure but to see the real wonders of this marine wonderland, enlist the help of a local tour operator.
Not only do most all-in-one tours take you to the best snorkel and dive sites but they organise your gear and help you hone your technique.
Experienced tour guides will know exactly where to go to encounter marine life, ensuring you catch sight of turtles, a rainbow of fish species and more during your snorkelling adventure.
Some of the most diverse snorkelling spots include Heron Island, Lady Elliot Island, Moreton Island, Agincourt Reef and Townsville’s Museum of Underwater Art.
I want to go scuba diving...
Scuba diving is a fully immersive way to experience the Great Barrier Reef that requires extra effort but it’ll give you major rewards.
Newcomers to scuba diving will need to contact an operator who can teach them the skills required for scuba certification; these courses generally run over a few days. You’ll learn the basics in a pool before being tested – safely – on the reef.
Some of the best spots for scuba diving include Agincourt Reef, Cod Hole on the Ribbon Reefs, Stanley Reef and Milln Reef.
I want to see wildlife...
The Great Barrier Reef is home to more than 1600 species of fish, 133 varieties of sharks and rays and 215 different kinds of birds. So you’re sure to come across the local wildlife almost anywhere you go.
To see marine animals, take to the water – whether that’s diving into the ocean and swimming alongside turtles and manta rays or catching a whale-watching cruise to admire minke whales as they migrate along the coast.