Are you planning a visit to the Great Barrier Reef? Are you wondering about the best way to explore the Reef? Unsure about where to base yourself or how to get to the Great Barrier Reef? Read on to find answers to these questions and more so you can choose the activity and location that best matches your needs and to truly enjoy the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef.



Great Barrier Reef Activities – 5 Ways to Explore the Great Barrier Reef

Most people who visit the Great Barrier Reef either explore the coral reefs on a diving or snorkelling trip. However, if you can’t swim or are afraid of the sea, there are other ways to see this natural wonder. Below is a brief introduction to the many ways you can explore the Great Barrier Reef.


1. Great Barrier Reef Diving

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Scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef is one of the best ways to explore the beauty of the reefs and personally my favourite activity here. There is no better way to get up close and personal with the marine animals, inspect the coral reef and be one with the sea. Being surrounded by water in all directions, coming face-to-face with white tip sharks and watching little ‘Nemo’ fishes play among the anemones are experiences you can only enjoy on a diving trip. You only need one dive in the Great Barrier Reef to be hooked for life.

For more information on diving the Great Barrier Reef including information on the best dive sites, tour operators and more, visit our page Great Barrier Reef Diving.


2. Great Barrier Reef Snorkeling

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While diving is one of the best ways to explore the Great Barrier Reef, it’s also a costly and time-consuming activity. Most people prefer to take a snorkeling trip to the Great Barrier Reef as it’s cost effective and can be completed in a short amount of time.

Almost all diving and snorkeling on the Reef is boat-based, although there are a few good reefs surrounding some of the islands. One option is to base yourself on one of the Great Barrier Reef islands which have some good snorkeling sites so you can go snorkeling straight from the beach. Most resorts provide guests with snorkeling equipment which is an added bonus. To find out more about snorkeling from the Great Barrier Reef islands, visit our page Great Barrier Reef Islands.

Boat-based snorkeling trips are very popular as they take you to the outer reefs of the Great Barrier Reef. The outer reefs are some of the most spectacular in the area and the depth of coral and variety of marine life is stunning here. Most of these boat trips provide everything you need for a snorkeling trip including wetsuits, snorkeling gear, lunch and refreshments. Some even have their own mooring pontoons giving you exclusive access to a particular coral reef.

While snorkelling trips run from many locations in Queensland, including Cairns, Hamilton Island and Airlie Beach, the best place to take a snorkeling trip from is Port Douglas. There are several tour companies based in Port Douglas as the outer reef is not far from here. The most popular tour companies are Aristocrat Reef Cruises, Calypso Reef Charters and Quicksilver Connections.

Cairns is the other popular location with several tour operators providing snorkeling trips from here. Popular tour operators include Captain Cook Cruises, Coral Princess Cruises, Seastar Cruises and Sunlover Cruises.


3. Semi-submersible or Glass-Bottomed Boat at Great Barrier Reef

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If you don’t want to get wet, there are other options to explore the Great Barrier Reef and still remain in your comfort zone. This is a great option for families with kids who can’t swim or are afraid of the water.

A semi-submersible or glass-bottomed boat provides a window to the underwater world circling below. The boat will take you over the shallow reefs so you can see the myriad colours of the coral and the marine life that live among the coral. It’s a safe and easy way to get close to the coral reefs without getting wet.

The best glass-bottomed boat provider is Quicksilver Cruises who have spacious reef platforms at Agincourt Reef to allow visitors to view the spectacular coral formations from their semi-submersible coral viewing vessel.


4. Underwater Observatory at Great Barrier Reef

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If you don’t want to get wet but still want to go below the ocean’s surface, there’s an option to do just that. An underwater observatory is built with this idea in mind. It’s a tunnel built under water that passes through a coral reef and allows people to walk through a reef and glimpse at life around it. It feels like you’re underwater but you’re protected by the strong, thick glass that provides a barrier between the ocean and you.

Quicksilver Cruises have the best underwater observatory on the Great Barrier Reef where you can see the coral and watch the fish feeding from their unique viewing platform and underwater observatory located directly in front of the platform.


5. Scenic Flights to Great Barrier Reef

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Seeing the Great Barrier Reef on a scenic flight is an experience like no other. While not quite the same as seeing the Great Barrier Reef from space, you can get an idea of what it would look like from up there. A bird’s eye view of the Great Barrier Reef allows you to see the Great Barrier Reef in its entirety. Its sheer size and beauty can really be admired on a scenic flight as you breeze over it.

With any scenic flight, the cost of taking one can be truly expensive. However, there are some destinations in the world where it’s worthwhile to take a scenic flight to really appreciate the beauty of the wonder, and the Great Barrier Reef sits on top of that list. If you have the money to spend, a scenic flight comes highly recommended.



How to get to the Great Barrier Reef?

The Great Barrier Reef stretches from north to south along the coast of Far North Queensland. This means that you can get to different areas of the Great Barrier Reef from different locations in Queensland. While some are more popular than others due to its proximity to the outer reefs, it is possible to get to the Reef from more than five different locations in Queensland, of which Cairns and Port Douglas are the most popular destinations.


Cairns to Great Barrier Reef

Along with Port Douglas, Cairns is a popular destination for those wanting to explore the Great Barrier Reef. The diving and snorkeling options from Cairns is impressive as several diving and snorkeling tour operators are based here. Trips from Cairns access the Coral Sea, far northern reefs and from Port Douglas to Lizard Island.

For more information on tour operators from Cairns to Great Barrier Reef, visit our Cairns Great Barrier Reef page.


Port Douglas Great Barrier Reef

Port Douglas is a very popular destination for many reasons but mainly due to its close proximity to the Great Barrier Reef. Day trips from Port Douglas to the Reef can be made on large wave-piercing catamarans, smaller 10-30 person vessels and helicopters. Several extended stay and charter boats operate to the Ribbon Reefs, Coral Sea and Far Northern Reefs from here as well.

For more information on accessing the Great Barrier Reef from Port Douglas, visit our Port Douglas page.


Townsville Great Barrier Reef

The third largest city in Queensland, Townsville is another great place from which to visit the Great Barrier Reef. Although not as popular as Port Douglas or Cairns, it has it advantages. The main reason to visit the Great Barrier Reef from Townsville is to dive the wreck of SS Yongala which is one of the top dives sites in the world and the best wreck dive site in the world.

For more information on accessing the Great Barrier Reef from Townsville, visit our Townsville page.


Brisbane to Great Barrier Reef

Brisbane is situated 1,432 km from the Great Barrier Reef making day trips to the Reef not advisable. The best option is to fly to Cairns from where you have access to several tour operators for diving and snorkelling trips to the outer Reef.

If you are short on time, there are a few tours to the Great Barrier Reef that operate from Brisbane. One popular three-day tour includes a guided tour to the town of 1770, Lady Musgrave Island and the Great Barrier Reef. Alternatively, there are tours that fly you to Lady Elliot Island with a side trip to the Great Barrier Reef.


Gold Coast to Great Barrier Reef

The Gold Coast is located 1,504 km from the Great Barrier Reef so you’ll need to fly to either Brisbane or Cairns to access the Great Barrier Reef. Taking the train is not an advisable option as it costs almost the same as a flight but takes a lot longer to get there.

Having said that, there are tours that operate from the Gold Coast to Great Barrier Reef. See below for tour options.

Lady Elliot Island has a full day tour which includes a scenic flight from the Gold Coast to Lady Elliot Island followed by a snorkelling tour of the Reef. For more information visit Lady Elliot Island.

Alternatively, you can do a 3-day tour from Gold Coast to Great Barrier Reef including a visit to Lady Musgrave Island. For more information visit Experience Oz.


Melbourne to Great Barrier Reef

The best way to get from Melbourne to Great Barrier Reef is to take a flight from Melbourne to Cairns. For more snorkelling and diving options, head to Cairns or Port Douglas which also have other things to do and see including easy access to the rainforest, beaches and islands.


Sydney to Great Barrier Reef

To get from Sydney to Great Barrier Reef, take a short flight to Cairns from where you can take a tour to the Great Barrier Reef. From Cairns, you can fly to Port Douglas or rent a car and drive there. Both Cairns and Port Douglas have several different tour operators that service the Great Barrier Reef either on a snorkeling or diving tour.



Best Time to Visit the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef can be visited at any time of the year but to have the best experience you should visit the Reef during the winter months from June to November. During these months, the weather is calm and the visibility is generally good. Also, during the winter months, the water is colder with more plankton which attracts the pelagics such as whales, sharks and manta rays.

Try to avoid visiting the Reef during the summer months from December to March when northern Queensland has its wet season as well as its jellyfish season.



Great Barrier Reef Location

The Great Barrier Reef is located off the north-eastern coast of Australia. It is situated in the Coral Sea (which in turn is part of the Pacific Ocean).


Great Barrier Reef Map

Below is a map of the Great Barrier Reef. It shows the extent of the reef from Lady Elliot Island in the south, almost to Papua New Guinea in the north.


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Tell us what you think. What is your favourite way to see the Great Barrier Reef? Do you prefer Cairns or Port Douglas as a base for visiting the Reef?   

We love to hear from you so please leave your comments below.  


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