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It's the only living thing on earth visible from the moon; at 348,700 sq. km (135,993 sq. miles), it's bigger than the United Kingdom and more than 2,000km (1,240 miles) long, stretching from Lady Elliot Island off Bundaberg to Papua New Guinea; it's home to 1,500 kinds of fish, 400 species of corals, 4,000 kinds of clams and snails, and who knows how many sponges, starfish, and sea urchins; the Great Barrier Reef region is listed as a World Heritage Site and contains the biggest marine park in the world.

There are three kinds of reef on the Great Barrier Reef -- fringing, ribbon, and platform. Fringing reef is the stuff you see just off the shore of islands and along the mainland. Ribbon reefs create "streamers" of long, thin reef along the outer edge of the continental shelf and are only found north of Cairns. Platform or patch reefs can be up to 16 sq. km (10 sq. miles) of coral emerging off the continental shelf all the way along the Reef's length. Platform reefs, the most common kind, are what most people think of when they refer to the Great Barrier Reef. Island resorts in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park are either "continental," meaning part of the Australian landmass, or "cays," crushed dead coral and sand amassed on the reef tops over time by water action.

Apart from the impressive fish life around the corals, the Reef is home to large numbers of green and loggerhead turtles, one of the biggest dugong (relative of the manatee) populations in the world, sharks, giant manta rays, and sea snakes. In winter (June-Aug), humpback whales gather in the warm waters south of the Reef around Hervey Bay, and as far north as Cairns to give birth to calves.

To see the Reef, you can snorkel, dive, ride a semisubmersible, walk on it, or fly over it. For most people, the Great Barrier Reef means the Outer Reef, the network of reefs that are an average of 65km (40 miles) off the coast (about 60-90 min. by boat from the mainland).

Learning about the Reef before you get there will enhance your visit. Reef Teach (tel. 07/4031 7794; http://reefteach.wordpress.com) is an evening multimedia presentation by a team of experienced marine biologists, conservationists, and researchers. The presentation takes place throughout the year upstairs in the Mainstreet Arcade, 85 Lake St., Cairns, Tuesday through Saturday from 6:30 to 8:30pm, and costs A$15 adults and A$8 children under 14. Bookings are not necessary; just turn up and pay at the door.

Townsville is the headquarters of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and a visit to its showcase, Reef HQ, is a superb introduction. The star attraction at the aquarium is a re-created living-reef ecosystem in a massive viewing tank. Find out more about the Reef from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (tel. 07/4750 0700; fax 07/4772 6093; www.gbrmpa.gov.au or www.reefhq.com.au).

Discovering the Reef

The rich colors of the coral can be seen best with lots of light, so the nearer the surface, the brighter and richer the marine life. That means snorkelers are in a prime position to see it at its best. Snorkeling the Reef can be a wondrous experience. Green and purple clams, pink sponges, red starfish, purple sea urchins, and fish from electric blue to neon yellow to lime are truly magical sights.

If your Reef cruise offers a guided snorkel tour or "snorkel safari," take it. Some include it as part of the price, but even if you pay an extra A$30 or so, it is worth it. Most safaris are suitable for beginners and advanced snorkelers, and are led by guides trained by marine biologists. Snorkeling is easy to master, and crews on cruise boats are always happy to tutor you.

A day trip to the Reef also offers a great opportunity to go scuba diving -- even if you have never dived before. Every major cruise boat listed in "Day Trips to the Reef" and many dedicated dive boats listed in "Diving the Reef" (later in this chapter) offer introductory dives ("resort dives") that allow you to dive without certification to a depth of 6m (20 ft.) with an instructor. You will need to complete a medical questionnaire and undergo a 30-minute briefing on the boat.

Day Trips to the Reef

The most common way to get to the Reef is on one of the motorized catamarans that carry up to 300 passengers each from Cairns, Port Douglas, Townsville, Mission Beach, the Whitsunday mainland and islands, and Yeppoon, near Rockhampton. The boats are air-conditioned and have a bar, videos, and educational material, as well as a marine biologist who gives a talk on the Reef's ecology en route. The boats tie up at their own private permanent pontoons anchored to a platform reef. The pontoons have glass-bottom boats for passengers who don't want to get wet, dry underwater viewing chambers, sun decks, shaded seats, and often showers.

An alternative is to go on one of the many smaller boats. These typically visit two or three Reef sites rather than just one. There are usually no more than 20 passengers, so you get more personal attention. Another advantage is that you will have the coral pretty much all to yourself. The drawbacks of a small boat are that you have only the cramped deck to sit on when you get out of the water, and your traveling time to the Reef may be longer. If you're a nervous snorkeler, you may feel safer on a boat where you will be swimming with 300 other people.

Most day-trip fares include snorkel gear -- fins, mask, and snorkel (plus wet suits in winter, although you rarely need them) -- free use of the underwater viewing chambers and glass-bottom-boat rides, a plentiful buffet or barbecue lunch, and morning and afternoon refreshments. Diving is an optional activity for which you pay extra. The big boats post snorkeling scouts to keep a lookout for anyone in trouble and to count heads periodically. If you wear glasses, ask whether your boat offers prescription masks -- this could make a big difference to the quality of your experience! Don't forget, you can travel as a snorkel-only passenger on most dive boats, too.

The major launching points for day trips to the Reef are Port Douglas, Cairns, Mission Beach, Townsville, and the Whitsundays.

Outback Queensland

Spread over 3,000km (1,875 miles), the Outback is a heart-stopping land of clear blue skies, burnished sunsets, rolling plains, rugged ranges, and endless vistas. Populated with colorful characters that could have walked off a movie set, the Outback is the heart and soul of Queensland. History comes alive when you get to places like the Burke River at Boulia, where explorers Burke and Wills filled their water bags and modern-day travelers are invited to do the same, or at Lark Quarry, where dinosaurs once roamed.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.