Complete Guide to the Great Barrier Reef

Front view of a green sea turtle swimming towards the camera as it glides underwater over the great barrier reef.
Diane Keough / Getty Images

The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral system, stretching for 1500 miles along Australia's northeast coast. It's a bucket list destination for snorkeling and scuba diving, dotted with more than 900 white-sand islands where you'll find the country's best beach resorts.

Due to the tropical climate in Far North Queensland, it is essential to consider the weather when planning your visit to the Great Barrier Reef. Most travelers incorporate the Reef into a larger itinerary across Queensland and New South Wales, flying in and out of Sydney, Brisbane or Cairns.

In this guide, we break down everything you need to know for your trip to the Great Barrier Reef.

About the Great Barrier Reef

More than 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups have traditional connections to the Great Barrier Reef. The Yidinji clan, for example, believe that the reef was created by Bhiral, the Creator, throwing lava and hot rocks down from sky. Many of the islands hold special significance for different First Nations groups.

The Great Barrier Reef is considered to be one of the seven wonders of the natural world and received UNESCO World Heritage status in 1981. This incredible environment is home to more than 1,500 species of fish, as well as sharks, rays, turtles, and marine mammals. Unfortunately, the warming of the ocean caused by climate change has resulted in severe bleaching of the coral reef over the past five years.

There are still plenty of beautiful spots where you can see colorful coral and a thriving marine ecosystem. To help preserve the reef for future generations, visitors should minimize their impact on the reef by following all advice from local authorities.

Best Time to Visit

The Great Barrier Reef (and the rest of Far North Queensland) experiences two seasons, the wet season from November to April and the dry season from May to October. Stinger season, when dangerous box jellyfish can be found along the coast, runs from around November to May.

For most people, the best time to visit the Great Barrier Reef is between June and October to avoid both the wet season and the box jellyfish. During the wet season, rain can impair underwater visibility on the reef, but the warm water temperatures are great for swimming. However, you may also see cheaper tour, flight, and accommodation prices during the wet season.

For more information, check out our full guide to the best time to visit the Great Barrier Reef.

Getting There

The Great Barrier Reef is a three-hour flight (or a 26-hour drive) north of Sydney and can be visited from a couple of different departure points. Cairns has an international airport, while Hamilton Island, Proserpine (near Airlie Beach), and Townsville can be reached via domestic flights.

For both day trips and longer tours, you'll find regular departures from Cairns, Cape Tribulation, Port Douglas, and Townsville. There are ferry services between Cairns and Green Island and Fitzroy Island. If you're headed out to the Whitsundays, there are shuttles and transfers available from Proserpine Airport and Airlie Beach.

What To Do

The Great Barrier Reef is all about the snorkeling and scuba diving, though there are options for those who'd rather keep dry too. Michaelmas Cay, just 90 minutes by boat from Cairns, is a popular spot for keen snorkelers, while Agincourt Reef off Port Douglas is an interesting and accessible dive site.

For budget travelers, a day trip may be the best option. Take the 45-minute ferry to Green Island for the best of sand and sea, with beaches for swimming and snorkeling just offshore and a crocodile park on the island.

Other things to do on the reef:

Multi-day tours are also available, visiting multiple dive and snorkel sites and offering accommodation onboard. For the ultimate luxury, charter a yacht to sail the Whitsundays, take a scenic flight over Heart Reef, or book in at a beachfront resort.

Where to Stay

When visiting the Great Barrier Reef, there are three main places to stay: the mainland, the Whitsundays, and the more isolated islands on the reef.

Cairns is the mainland tourist hub for the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, where you'll find everything from hostels to apartments, Airbnbs and well-known hotel chains like the Hilton. Read our full guide to hotels in Cairns for more options.

Port Douglas, Mission Beach, and Airlie Beach are smaller towns that still have everything you will need, with a more relaxed atmosphere. Further south, you can also reach the Reef from the city of Townsville.

The Whitsundays, off the coast of Airlie Beach, are a group of 74 islands that offer a true resort experience. Accommodation here is spread over four main islands (Hamilton, Hayman, Long and Daydream Island) and is generally more upmarket than the mainland.

Further afield, islands like Bedarra (near Mission Beach), Lizard (north of Cooktown), Haggerstone (in the far north), Orpheus (north of Townsville) offer secluded escapes.

Travel Tips

The Great Barrier Reef is a unique destination, so there are a couple of things to keep in mind to ensure you make the most of your trip without damaging this precious natural resource.

  • Book accommodation at least a month in advance if you're traveling during peak season (June to October).
  • Plan to spend at least a couple of days exploring the reef, or up to a week to cover all the highlights.
  • Some people experience seasickness during boat tours on the Great Barrier Reef. If you know you're prone to motion sickness, you can buy medication over the counter at any pharmacy in Australia.
  • Choose reef-safe (mineral-based) sunscreen, or use a physical barrier like a hat and a rash guard or swim shirt to prevent sunburn.
  • If you visit between November and May, wear a stinger suit or swim at patrolled beaches protected by nets.
  • Never touch the reef to avoid breaking or damaging the coral.
  • Avoid heatstroke by drinking lots of water, especially when you are spending time in the sun.
  • Pack a waterproof bag or case for you phone or camera to make sure you can capture the magical underwater world that is the Great Barrier Reef.
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