As one of the seven natural wonders of the world and a World Heritage Area, the Great Barrier Reef off Australia's east coast is a tourist attraction like no other. The tropical weather of the region can have a big impact on the experience of travelers visiting the reef, from the water temperature to the chance to see the humpback whale migration.
For most people, the best time to visit the Great Barrier Reef is between June and October to avoid the wet season and the dangerous box jellyfish. Whether you plan to take a day trip, a scenic flight, or stay at a resort on one of the more than 900 islands, this guide will help you decide when to visit the Great Barrier Reef.
Far North Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef have two main seasons, the wet (or green) season from November to April and the dry season from May to October. The wet season is hot and humid, with rain generally restricted to the afternoons and evenings.
The frequent rain can impair visibility for snorkeling on the reef, but the warm water temperatures are pleasant for swimming. In March and April, there is also a slightly higher chance of a cyclone. If you plan to drive between cities along the coast, be aware that the wet season can bring flooding that closes some roads.
While most travelers choose to visit during the dry season, the wet season can be a chance to take advantage of bargain prices and fewer crowds if you're willing to put up with an occasional downpour and be flexible with your plans.
Box and Irukandji jellyfish (also known as stingers) have extremely dangerous venom that can be fatal to humans. The stings can cause intense pain, headaches, vomiting, respiratory distress, and even cardiac arrest, depending on the number of stings and the age of the victim.
For this reason, you will see nets at beaches along the Far North Queensland coast from around November to May. During this time, you should only swim at beaches where you are protected by a net or a stinger suit and obey all advice from local authorities.
Stingers generally inhabit river mouths and shallow waters, meaning the risk is much lower out on the Great Barrier Reef; however, most tour operators will have full-body stinger suits available to ensure your safety.
Peak Season at the Great Barrier Reef
The winter school vacation period runs between June and July in Australia, making these the busiest months in Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef. Domestic flights are much more expensive during this time, and accommodations and tours can fill up quickly.
If you are able to visit at the beginning or end of the dry season (e.g. May or September/October), you will catch the best weather combined with the fewest fellow travelers.
Popular Events in and Around Cairns
Cairns is a small city with a population of around 150,000 people. It is a hub for tourism in the region, with most visitors using it as a base to explore the rainforest and the reef. There are a couple of events of interest to tourists, including:
- Australia Day: Australia Day is celebrated on January 26 in Cairns with food and live music on the Esplanade.
- Cairns Festival: An arts and culture festival with a Grand Parade and fireworks, through the end of August and start of September.
- Annual coral bloom: This impressive event usually occurs sometime in November and lasts for a couple of days to a week. The spawning only happens at night but can be seen on dedicated tours.
Summer at the Great Barrier Reef
Australian summer (December, January, and February) is the peak of the wet season in Far North Queensland. The weather is hot and humid, with rain most days. Crowd levels are low, apart from a slight increase in domestic travelers around the Christmas and New Year period.
Out on the reef, clear mornings and warm water will give you a chance to snorkel, before sheltering from the downpour in the late afternoon. Rain does not generally affect divers, unless you encounter a cyclone-level downpour. Many tropical fish breed at this time of year, and turtles will also be hatching. Summer is stinger season, so make sure to use a full-body suit when in the water.
Fall at the Great Barrier Reef
The wet weather continues throughout fall (March, April, and May), although you can get lucky with some sunshine towards the end of the season. Temperatures fall slightly, making for more pleasant weather outside of the water.
Stingers are still present in the coastal waters of Far North Queensland until the end of May. Easter is a popular time to travel for Australian families, but the rest of the season you are unlikely to encounter crowds or high prices.
Winter at the Great Barrier Reef
Book ahead for tours and accommodation during this time of year as it is peak season in Cairns. Water temperatures are cooler but the sunshine and lack of rain are perfect for sightseeing and enjoying a tropical vacation. Winter is the most windy time of year on the Great Barrier Reef, and some visitors may need to take sea sickness medication before jumping aboard.
Dwarf minke whales can be spotted on the reef during June and July, and manta rays also make an appearance. In August, the humpback whale migration begins to pass through the reef and will continue until September.
Spring at the Great Barrier Reef
Spring (September, October, and November) is dry and sunny around Cairns, with water temperatures starting to warm back up and low winds allowing for excellent snorkeling and diving. The synchronized coral spawning takes place sometime around the November full moon.
Seabirds breed during this season, and turtles mate and nest on the islands dotted throughout the reef. Stingers usually return to the coast in November, but visitors will need to check with local authorities for up-to-date advice.
Healthline. "Box Jellyfish Sting: Emergency First Aid, Side Effects." Retrieved March 8, 2021.