First, a few facts. 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 2,000 km (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.
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.
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. This is what you’ve come to see!
You can snorkel the Reef, dive, ride a semisubmersible, or fly over it. For most people, the Great Barrier Reef means the Outer Reef, the network of reefs that are an average of 65 km (40 miles) off the coast (about 60–90 min. by boat from the mainland).
The Reef Tax
Every passenger over 4 years old must pay a A$3.50 daily Environmental Management Charge (EMC), commonly called the “reef tax,”every time they visit the Great Barrier Reef. This money goes toward the management and conservation of the Reef. Your tour operator will collect it from you when you pay for your trip (or it may be included in the tour price).
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 this book and many dedicated dive boats offer introductory dives (“resort dives”) that allow you to dive without certification to a depth of 6 m (20 ft.) with an instructor. You will need to complete a medical questionnaire and undergo a 30-minute briefing on the boat.
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).
Reef Health & Safety Warnings
Coral is very sharp, and coral cuts get infected quickly and badly. If you cut yourself, ask the staff on your cruise boat for immediate first aid as soon as you come out of the water.
The sun and reflected sunlight off the water can burn you fast. Remember to put sunscreen on your back and the back of your legs, especially around your knees and the back of your neck, and even behind your ears—all places that rarely get exposed to the sun but will be exposed as you swim facedown. Apply more when you leave the water.
Don’t forget your “C”certification card. Bringing along your dive log is also a good idea. Remember not to fly for 24 hours after diving.
Choosing a Gateway to the Reef
Cairns and Port Douglas are good places from which to visit the Reef—but the quality of the coral is just as good off any town along the coast between Bundaberg and Cairns. The Reef is about 90 minutes away by high-speed catamaran. From Townsville, it is farther, about 2 1/2 hours away.
Think carefully about where to base yourself. The main gateways, north to south, are Port Douglas, Cairns, Townsville, the Whitsunday Islands, Gladstone (for Heron Island), and Bundaberg (for Lady Elliot Island). The Whitsundays have the added attractions of dazzling islands to sail among; beautiful island resorts offering a wealth of watersports and other activities; and a large array of diving, fishing, and day cruises. You can snorkel every day off your island or join a sailing or cruise day trip to a number of magnificent fringing or inner shelf reefs much nearer than the main Outer Reef. Many people stay in Cairns simply because of its easy international airport access.
All of the northern beaches have small, netted enclosures for safe swimming from October through May, when deadly stingers (box jellyfish) render all mainland beaches in north Queensland off-limits.
If you are a non-swimmer, choose a Reef cruise that visits a coral cay, because a cay slopes gradually into shallow water and the surrounding coral. The Low Isles at Port Douglas; Green Island, Michaelmas Cay, or Upolu Cay off Cairns; and Heron Island, off Gladstone, are all good locations. Swimmer supports are available so non-swimmers can snorkel, too.
The major launching points for day trips to the Reef are Port Douglas, Cairns, Townsville, and the Whitsundays. Day-trip options for each are outlined in their dedicated sections of this chapter.
Diving the reef
Divers have a big choice: dive boats that make one-day runs to the Outer Reef, overnight stays on some boats, live-aboard dive boats making excursions that last up to a week, or staying on an island. As a general rule, on a typical 5-hour day trip to the Reef, you will fit in about two dives. The companies listed in this book give you an idea of the kinds of trips available and how much they cost. Prices quoted include full gear rental; knock off about A$20 if you have your own gear. It is recommended that you dive only with members of Dive Queensland. The website, www.dive-queensland.com.au, has a full list of member companies.
Many dive companies in Queensland offer instruction, from initial open-water certification all the way to dive-master, rescue-diver, and instructor level. To take a course, you will need to have a medical exam done by a Queensland doctor. (Your dive school will arrange it; it usually costs between A$45 and A$70). You can find out more about dive medicals on www.divemedicals.com.au. You will also need two passport photos for your certificate, and you must be able to swim! Courses usually begin every day or every week. Some courses take as little as 3 days, but 5 days is regarded as the best. Open-water certification usually requires 2 days of theory in a pool, followed by 2 or 3 days on the Reef, where you make four to nine dives. Prices vary but are generally around A$600 for a 4-day open-water certification course, or A$700 for the same course as a live-aboard.
Deep Sea Divers Den ( tel. 07/4046 7333; www.diversden.com.au) has been in operation since 1974 and claims to have certified more than 55,000 divers. Courses range from 4-day open-water courses from A$640 per person, to 5-day courses on a live-aboard boat, which costs from A$855 per person, including all meals on the boat, all your gear, a wetsuit, and transfers from your city hotel. All prices include reef tax, port and administration charges, and fuel levy. New courses begin every day of the week.
Virtually every Great Barrier Reef dive operator offers dive courses. Most island resorts offer them, too. You will find dive schools in Cairns, Port Douglas, Townsville, and the Whitsundays
Approximately 20 reefs lie within a 1 1/2- to 2-hour boat ride from Cairns. These are the reefs most commonly visited by snorkelers and divers on day trips, because they are so close and so pretty. Some reefs are small coral "bommies," or outcrops, that you can swim completely around in a matter of minutes, whereas others are miles wide. Some reefs have more than one good dive site; Norman Reef, for example, has at least four. Three of the most popular reefs with snorkelers and divers are Hastings, Saxon, and Norman, which are all within a short boat ride of one another. Each has a wonderful array of coral, big colorful reef fish, schools of pretty rainbow-hued small reef fish, and the odd giant clam. Green sea turtles and white-tip reef sharks are common, especially at Saxon. Divers may see a moray eel and grouper, barracuda, reef sharks, eagle and blue-spotted rays, and octopus. Norman is an especially lovely reef. South Norman has lovely sloping coral shelves. If you are an experienced diver and like swim-throughs, the Caves at Norman is a good spot; all have boulder and plate corals.
Some of the best diving anywhere on the Great Barrier Reef is on the Ribbon Reefs on the outer Reef edge, which fringes the continental shelf northward off Cairns and Port Douglas. Glorious coral walls, abundant fish, and pinnacles make these a rich, colorful dive area with lots of variety. The currents can be strong here, because the reefs force the tidal water flow into narrow channels into the open sea, so drift dives on a rising tide are a possibility. The Ribbon Reefs are beyond the reach of day boats, but are commonly visited by live-aboard boats. For divers, experts recommend Steve's Bommie and Dynamite Pass. Steve's Bommie is a coral outcrop in 30m (98 ft.) of water, often topped with barracudas, and covered in colorful coral and small marine life. You can swim through a tunnel here amid crowds of fish. Dynamite Pass is a channel where barracuda, trevally, grouper, mackerel, and tuna often gather to feed in the current. Black coral trees and sea whips grow on the walls, patrolled by eagle rays and reef sharks.
Cairns's most famous dive site is Cod Hole, where your guide may hand-feed giant potato cod as big as you are. The site also has Maori wrasse, moray eels, and coral trout. Cod Hole is about 20km (13 miles) off Lizard Island and 240km (149 miles) north of Cairns, so it is not a day trip unless you are staying at exclusive Lizard Island. However, it is a popular stop with just about every live-aboard vessel, often combined in a trip to the Ribbon Reefs, lasting about 4 days, or in a trip to the Coral Sea , lasting between 4 and 7 days. Either itinerary makes an excellent dive vacation.
Keen divers looking for adventure in far-flung latitudes can visit the Far Northern region of the Great Barrier Reef, much farther north than most dive boats venture. Visibility is always clear. Silvertip City on Mantis Reef has sharks, pelagics, potato cod, and lionfish that patrol a wall up to 46m (150 ft.) deep. Another goodie is the Magic Cave swim-through adorned with lots of colorful fans, soft corals, and small reef fish. Sleeping turtles are often spotted in caves on the reefs off Raine Island, the world's biggest green turtle rookery. Visibility averages 24m (80 ft.) at Rainbow Wall, a colorful wall that makes a nice gentle drift dive with the incoming tide.
More than 100 to 200km (63-126 miles) east of the coast, out in the Coral Sea, isolated mountains covered in reefs rise more than a kilometer (half-mile) from the ocean floor to make excellent diving. Although not within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the Coral Sea is often combined into an extended live-aboard trip that also takes in Cod Hole and the Ribbon Reefs. The entire trip usually takes 4 to 7 days. In addition to showing you huge schools of pelagic and reef fish big and small, a wide range of corals, and gorgonian fans, the area is a prime place to spot sharks. The most popular site is Osprey Reef, a 100-sq.-km (39-sq.-mile) reef with 1,000m (3,300-ft.) drop-offs, renowned for its year-round visibility of up to 70m (230 ft.). White-tip reef sharks are common, but the area is also home to gray reef sharks, silvertips, and hammerheads. Green turtles, tuna, barracuda, potato cod, mantas, and grouper are also common.
Closer to shore, Cairns has several coral cays and reef-fringed islands within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Less than an hour from the city wharf, Green Island is a 15-hectare (37-acre) coral cay with snorkeling equal to that of most other places on the Great Barrier Reef. It is also a popular diving spot. You can visit it in half a day if time is short. Fitzroy Island is a rainforest-covered national park, just 45 minutes by launch from Cairns, with a coral beach and great snorkeling right off the shore.
The Frankland Islands are a pristine group of uninhabited rainforest isles, edged with sandy beaches, reefs, and fish, 45km (28 miles) south of Cairns. The islands are a rookery for green sea turtles. In February and March, you may even be lucky enough to see dozens of baby turtles hatching in the sand. Michaelmas Cay and Upolu Cay are two pretty coral sand blips in the ocean, 30km (19 miles) and 25km (16 miles) off Cairns, surrounded by reefs. Michaelmas is vegetated and is home to 27,000 seabirds; you may spot dugongs (cousins of manatees) off Upolu. Michaelmas and Upolu are great for snorkelers and introductory divers.
From Port Douglas
The waters off Port Douglas boast just as many wonderful reefs and marine life forms as the waters around Cairns; the reefs are equally close to shore and equally colorful and varied. Some of the most visited reefs are Tongue, Opal, and St. Crispin reefs. The Agincourt complex of reefs also has many excellent dive sites; experts recommend the double-figure-eight swim-through at the Three Sisters, where baby gray whaler sharks gather, and the wonderful coral walls of Castle Rock, where stingrays often hide in the sand. Nursery Bommie is a 24m (79-ft.) pinnacle that is a popular haunt with such big fish as barracuda, rays, sharks, and moray eels; under the big plate corals of Light Reef, giant grouper hide out. Other popular sites are the staghorn coral garden at the Playground; one of the region's biggest swim-throughs at the Maze, where parrot fish and an enormous Maori wrasse hang out; the Stepping Stones, home of the exquisitely pretty clownfish (like Nemo!); Turtle Bommie, where hawksbill turtles are frequently sighted; and Harry's Bommie, where divers may see a manta ray. Among the 15-plus dive sites visited by Poseidon are Turtle Bay, where you may meet a friendly Maori wrasse; the Cathedrals, a collection of coral pinnacles and swim-throughs; and Barracuda Pass, home to coral gardens, giant clams, and schooling barracuda.
The closest Reef site off Port Douglas, the Low Isles, is only 15km (9 miles) northeast. Coral sand and 22 hectares (55 acres) of coral surround these two coral cays; the smaller is a sand cay covered in rich vegetation and the larger is a shingle/rubble cay covered in mangroves and home to thousands of nesting Torresian Imperial pigeons. The coral is not quite as dazzling as the outer Reef's -- head to the outer Reef if you have only 1 day to spend on the Great Barrier Reef -- but the fish life here is rich, and you may spot sea turtles. Because you can wade out to the coral right from the beach, the Low Isles are a good choice for nervous snorkelers. A half-day or day trip to the Low Isles makes for a more relaxing day than a visit to outer Reef sites, because in addition to exploring the coral, you can walk or sunbathe on the sand or laze under palm-thatched beach umbrellas. Note: If you visit the Low Isles, wear old shoes, because the coral sand can be rough underfoot.
From Mission Beach
Mission Beach is the closest point on the mainland to the Reef, 1 hour by boat. The main site visited is Beaver Cay, a sandy coral cay surrounded by marine life. The waters are shallow, making the cay ideal for snorkelers eager to see the coral's vibrant colors and novice divers still getting a feel for the sport. It's a perfect spot for an introductory dive.
Townsville's waters boast hundreds of large patch reefs, some miles long, and many rarely visited by humans. Here you can find excellent coral and fish life, including mantas, rays, turtles, and sharks, and sometimes canyons and swim-throughs in generally good visibility. One of the best reef complexes is Flinders Reef, which is actually in the Coral Sea, beyond the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park boundaries. At 240km (149 miles) offshore, it has 30m (100-ft.) visibility, plenty of coral, and big walls and pinnacles with big fish to match, such as whaler shark and barracuda.
What draws most divers to Townsville, though, is one of Australia's best wreck dives, the SS Yongala. Still largely intact, the sunken remains of this steamer lie 90km (56 miles) from Townsville, 16km (10 miles) off the coast, in 15 to 30m (50-98 ft.) of water, with visibility of 9 to 18m (approximately 30-60 ft.). A cyclone sent the Yongala and its 49 passengers and 72-member crew to the bottom of the sea in 1911. Today it's surrounded by a mass of coral and marine life, including barracuda, enormous grouper, rays, sea snakes, turtles, moray eels, shark, cod, and reef fish. You cannot enter the ship, but swimming along its length allows you to see an amazing array of marine life.
The Yongala is not for beginners -- the boat is deep, and there is often a strong current. Most dive companies require their customers to have advanced certification or to have logged a minimum of 15 dives with open-water certification. The boat is usually visited on a live-aboard trip of at least 2 days, but some companies run day trips. There are also open-water certification dive courses that finish with a dive on the Yongala, but freshly certified scuba hounds might be wise to skip this advanced dive.
From the Whitsundays
Visitors to the Whitsundays get to have their cake and eat it too; they can visit the outer Reef and enjoy some good dive and snorkel sites in and around the islands. Many islands have rarely visited fringing reefs, which you can explore in a rented dinghy. The reef here is just as good as off Cairns, with many drop-offs and drift dives, a dazzling range of corals, and a rich array of marine life, including whales, mantas, shark, reef fish, morays, turtles, and pelagics. Visibility is usually around 15 to 23m (49-75 ft.).
The Stepping Stones, on 800-hectare (1,976-acre) Bait Reef, is one of the most popular sites on the outer Reef. It is made up of a series of pinnacles that abound with fish life and offer caverns, swim-throughs, and channels. A family of grouper often greets divers at Groupers Grotto on Net Reef, and a pod of dolphins hang around Net Reef's southeast wall. Oublier Reef has plate corals over 2m (7 ft.) wide in its coral gardens.
Most folks' favorite is Blue Pearl Bay off Hayman Island, whether they're snorkeling or diving. It has loads of corals and some gorgonian fans in its gullies, and heaps of reef fish, including Maori wrasse and sometimes even manta rays. It's a good place to make an introductory dive, walking right in off the beach. Mantaray Bay on Hook Island is renowned for its range of marine life, from small reef fish and nudibranchs to bigger pelagics farther out. Mantas hang around here in November. Other good snorkel and dive spots are on Black and Knuckle Reefs. A little island commonly called Bali Hai Island, between Hayman and Hook islands, is a great place to be left to your own devices. You'll see soft-shelf and wall coral, tame Maori wrasse, octopus, turtles, reef shark, various kinds of rays including mantas, eagles and cow-tails, plus loads of fish.
The southern reefs of the Great Barrier Reef are just as prolific, varied, and colorful as the reefs farther north off Cairns. However, because this part of the coast is less accessible by visitors and the reefs farther offshore, fewer snorkel and dive boats visit them. Many are the virgin reefs in these parts that have never seen a diver.
The only reef visited by snorkelers and divers on a daily basis from Bundaberg is pretty Lady Musgrave Island, a vegetated 14-hectare (35-acre) national-park coral cay, 52 nautical miles off the coast. It is surrounded by a lagoon 8km (5 miles) in circumference, filled with hundreds of corals and some 1,200 of the 1,500 species of fish and other marine creatures found on the Great Barrier Reef.
Lady Musgrave Island is one of the Bunker Group, which are approximately 80km (50 miles) due north of Bundaberg. They are due east of Gladstone and closer to that town, but only live-aboard boats visit them from there. Farther south of Bunker Group is Lady Elliot Island, which is accessed by air. Bundaberg's Woongarra Marine Park lies outside the borders of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and is a popular destination for divers visiting the Reef. This small park hugs the town's coastline in an area known as Bargara and has loads of soft and hard corals, nudibranchs, wobbegongs, epaulette sharks, sea snakes, some 60 fish species, and frequent sightings of green and loggerhead turtles. Most of this is in water less than 9m (30 ft.) deep -- you can walk right in off the beach.
Beyond Woongarra, 2.5 nautical miles (4.6km) offshore, is Cochrane artificial reef, where a few Mohawk and Beechcraft aircraft have been dumped to make a home for fish. Other sites off Bunbaberg, in about 23m (75 ft.) of water, include the manta "cleaning station" at Evan's Patch, a World War II Beaufort bomber with lots of marine life.
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.