How To Visit The Great Barrier Reef & Best Places To See It From

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Come explore one of the world’s most beautiful natural wonders, the Great Barrier Reef. This bucket list experience is one that everyone should have at least once in their lifetime! This is the ultimate guide on how to visit the Great Barrier Reef, the best places to see the Great Barrier Reef from and the unique ways to explore it.

There is no doubt that seeing the Great Barrier Reef is by far one of the best experiences in Queensland!

underwater photo of coral and fish in great barrier reef

Top Travel Tips To Keep In Mind When Exploring The Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is one of the most beautiful and iconic destinations in all of Australia. This particular natural wonder of the world has millions of visitors every year and is an absolute must-see for anyone travelling in or around Australia.

Making the most of your time when visiting the Great Barrier Reef is crucial if you want to truly experience the best that this beautiful sight has to offer. 

So how do you go about visiting the Great Barrier Reef and the wider Coral Sea during your time down under?

There are many unique and simple ways to ensure you have the best experience when visiting the reef. For the top travel tips to keep in mind when exploring the Great Barrier Reef, use this simple guide.

Where Is The Great Barrier Reef?

The Great Barrier Reef is a massive collection of beautiful coral reefs that stretches for more than 2,300 kilometres along Australia’s east coast, from north of Bundaberg up to the northern tip of Queensland.

Best Time To Visit The Great Barrier Reef

The best time to visit the Great Barrier Reef is typically during the dry season between the months of June and October. During this time, there is less rainfall compared to the wet season of summer, therefore water visibility tends to be much better! The water temperatures are still pleasant for swimming, snorkelling and diving.

The rainy season and warmer months also tend to coincide with the jellyfish season. While this won’t prevent you from enjoying the experiences on the reef, a stinger suit is essential for safety!

Best Place To See The Great Barrier Reef

Although the Great Barrier Reef technically spans over 2000 km, there are still select sections of the reef that are sure to offer a more enriching experience for first-time visitors. And some of the coastline alongside the reef are the best places to visit in Queensland.

So where should you stay when looking to explore the reef?

Hamilton Island

view of beach and reef off Hamilton Island

The best tip is to get yourself Hamilton Island accommodation. Hamilton Island is a picturesque part of the Whitsunday Islands and has some of the best Great Barrier Reef snorkelling and scuba experiences on offer in Queensland.

Not only will you get an incredible experience on the reef, but you’ll also be staying in one of the best holiday destinations in Australia. 

Hamilton Island is home to many amazing experiences, ranging from hikes through lush island rainforests, swims at secluded beaches, and of course, unique snorkelling and diving spots in the Coral Sea. Simply put, there is no better place to stay if you’re looking to see the Great Barrier Reef than Hamilton Island. 

Keep in mind that school holidays will drive the demand for most tropical destinations in Queensland, including the Gold Coast, so be sure to book ahead to secure your stay on Hamilton Island without having to bear a huge hike in price as the school holidays draw nearer.

Cairns

view of green island from jetty
Green Island near Cairns

The other popular destination for visiting the Great Barrier Reef is to stay in Cairns. Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef tend to go hand in hand, as it is an excellent base for a multitude of reef trips.

The Great Barrier Reef can seem so vast and overwhelming that it would be virtually impossible to take in all its beauty, however, Cairns provides you with the perfect opportunity for day trips from Cairns or overnight tours out to the reef – meaning you’ll be able to explore multiple parts of the reef in one trip.

Whether you’re taking a boat tour or an aerial tour, Cairns is easily one of the best points of entry for anyone looking to see the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef in its entirety. Plus, with all the other attractions that Cairns has on offer, you won’t struggle to fill your time on land either!

Other Places To Base Yourself

Thankfully with the Great Barrier Reef stretching so far along Queensland’s east coast, this gives you quite a few options for where to stay, aside from Hamilton Island or Cairns.

A few other great options include Airlie Beach, Port Douglas and Heron Island or Bundaberg – all of which are great bases for exploring the reef.

Green Island and Fitzroy Island near Cairns in Far North Queensland are also fantastic options where you can take a day trip or visit overnight, staying right in the inner ocean of the reef region.

How To Visit The The Great Barrier Reef

huge fish on diving platform in outer Great Barrier Reef
Huge fish on diving platform in outer reef

There are a variety of ways to see the reef, all of which will depend on how much time you have, your budget and how adventurous you’re feeling.

There are several Great Barrier Reef tours that incorporate a combination of these different activities into a one day trip or overnight tour. This is the best way to visit the Great Barrier Reef and experience some of what is on offer.

Best Great Barrier Reef Tours

By far our personal favourite Great Barrier Reef tour has been an outer reef boat tour from Cairns to Moore Reef. These tours incorporate all the best activities and a variety of ways to experience the reef, along with lunch and onboard facilities.

There is also the option to add on optional extras such as scuba dive. The Sunlover Outer Reef Pontoon even has a waterslide into the ocean for the kids!

Our other favourite that we have done twice is the Green Island day trip from Cairns where you get to spend half or a full day via high-speed catamaran enjoying Green Island.

There are plenty of things to do on Green Island, including snorkelling off the beach or near the jetty.

Plus there’s a crocodile park, restaurants and day trip guests can use the resort pool. You can also extend your stay at the resort, of course!

Other popular Great Barrier Reef tours include:

The Best Great Barrier Reef Activities

Here are some of the most popular Great Barrier Reef activities that you can do, offering different views of the reef, from underwater and above and activities to suit non-swimmers and families with young children too:

Snorkelling

woman snorkelling in the great barrier reef off moore reef

Snorkelling is the most popular way to experience the reef, and you can easily hire snorkel equipment from a variety of different places on the coast. It is also included in most reef day tours.

For beginners, Green Island is a fantastic snorkelling option as you can snorkel right off the beach with a lifeguard on duty. This makes it a good option for the kids compared to the outer reefs snorkelling experience.

Scuba Diving

Scuba diving is probably the best way to get up close and personal with the reef, although it does require obtaining an open-water diving certificate. This means you will need more time to learn the basics and get your certification after an introductory dive if you are a beginner.

Glass Bottom Boat Tour

view of fish swimming under glass bottom boat
Fish swimming beneath glass bottom boat off Green Island

Glass Bottom Boat tours are a great option if you’re not keen on getting in the water, or even if you’re just looking for more of an awe-inspiring experience.

A glass-bottom boat tour allow you to explore the reef from the comfort of your seat and learn about the beauty beneath – This is perfect for families with younger kids who aren’t confident swimmers so they don’t miss out on seeing some of the cool things below!

Scenic Flight

A scenic flight is a great way to take in the sheer scale of the Great Barrier Reef, providing you with an experience like no other. Flying over the reef can be quite an awe-inspiring experience and this is definitely something we recommend doing at least once!

The Great Barrier Reef can in fact be seen from space, which just goes to show how impressive it is to see it from above! Of course, your scenic flight via helicopter or seaplane is going to be a much closer view than space!

Underwater Observatory

There are a few places within the reef where you can experience an underwater observatory. This is great for those who don’t want to get in the water but still want a close encounter with some of the colourful reef life.

The Living Reef on Daydream Island in the Whitsundays is one option for doing this. Lady Musgrave HQ has an observatory and reef glamping tents on their 3-level pontoon. Some of the outer reef cruise ships also have their own permanent underwater observatories too.

Semi-Submersible Boat Tour

semi-submersible boat in the outer great barrier reef alongside a pontoon
Great Adventures Semi-submersible boat

Take the glass bottom boat experience to the next level in a semi-submersible boat tour. We did this experience as part of our Moore Reef day cruise from Cairns and it was pretty cool!

It’s essentially a partially submerged ‘submarine’ so you go a lot deeper than a glass-bottom boat and see some of the marine life that lives further down under the water’s surface. You might even spot some reef sharks or sea turtles swimming by, giant clams or find Nemo!

These boats also provide commentary so you can learn about the reef and its inhabitants while viewing them in their natural environment.

Tips To Visit The Great Barrier Reef

Make the most of your visit to the Great Barrier Reef with these travel tips that will ensure you have the best experience:

Book Ahead For Tours

Great Adventures pontoon in great barrier reef

Speaking of booking ahead, getting to see the reef isn’t as simple as jumping in the water and looking down.

Alongside finalising your accommodation, you’ll also need to book a charter to take you out to the reef itself. Thousands of tourists visit the reef during the region’s travel peak, which means it can be hard to actually head out on the water if you don’t book ahead. 

It’s also recommended that you conduct a little research in order to find the right charter or tour service for you and your fellow travel party.

Some holidaymakers may want to snorkel and get a surface-level view of the reef. Other travellers who are experienced scuba divers may want to go a little deeper and really get amongst the reef and its inhabitants.

Local scuba diving schools may offer some amazing reef exploration packages. And for those who want to stay closer to the water’s surface, snorkelling tours or even glass-bottomed boat trips can be just as enriching. 

Whichever option you choose, be sure to consult with your wider travel party to make sure that everyone’s on the same page and knows just what to expect from your reef exploration game plan.

Travel Insurance: Make sure you don’t leave home without travel insurance. Trust us, it’s one of those things you don’t want to skip, especially when travelling with kids. Check out our travel insurance comparison guide.

Leave The Reef Just As You Found It

underwater coral photo in great barrier reef

The Great Barrier Reef is a national and global wonder and as such it’s incredibly important to leave nothing behind or take anything with you, no matter how tempting that may be.

When you travel on the reef don’t bring anything you can’t take with you when you leave. Things like rubbish that might fall overboard or other pieces of waste can be detrimental to the health of the reef, as marine life may unknowingly ingest waste materials like plastics. 

If you go diving, it’s also incredibly important not to disturb the habitat unnecessarily. This means keeping loud and disruptive motors to a minimum, and ensuring that your activities and behaviours do not pose any immediate threat to the reef or its wildlife. 

Each and every marine animal that calls the reef home plays a vital role in maintaining the complexity of its ecosystem. Disturbing animals, feeding them or trying to take anything from their environment can be very damaging to local populations in more ways than you may imagine.

This is precisely why local tour guides and reef advocates all assert that visitors have a responsibility to leave the reef just as they found it, without even taking so much as a hunk of coral back home with them. 

Bring An Underwater Camera

Man snorkelling in great barrier reef holding a gopro camera

One of the many challenging aspects of holidaying in an oceanic natural wonder is capturing memories.

Of the top tips for experiencing the Great Barrier Reef is to ensure you get photos and videos. Thankfully, technology has come a long way, with waterproof cameras and waterproof phone cases.

Get yourself a waterproof solution in order to capture plenty of photos, both under the waves and under the cascading waterfalls that can be found across the Whitsundays Islands. 

Insider Tip: Many boat tours offer underwater camera hire if you don’t have your own.

Capturing the incredible underwater activity and bustling life you’ll get to experience at the reef can help keep all your memories of this breathtaking adventure alive within you, even well after you’ve arrived back home.

Wear The Right Gear

Woman dressed in wetsuit and lifejacket preparing to snorkel
Holly preparing to snorkel in the from Moore Reef pontoon

If you plan to go snorkelling or swimming in the Great Barrier Reef, remember that the Queensland sun has a lot of strength! Far North Queensland means a high sunburn risk, no matter what time of year you are visiting. Don’t forget your sunscreen and sun-safe clothing.

Depending on the time of year, there is a risk of stingers (jellyfish) in the water. This means a wetsuit or stinger suit is essential! Most tour operators will provide this for you.

It also helps prevent sunburn on the back of your arms and legs if you are swimming on top of the water. We learnt this the hard way on Green Island! Ouch.

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most beautiful sights that Australia has to offer. This incredible UNESCO World Heritage Site has some of the most beautiful scenery, wildlife and experiences to offer holidaymakers from across the globe. If you’re looking to travel to the Great Barrier Reef and want to make sure you have the best experience, be sure to use these top tips to have the holiday of a lifetime. 

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