Numbers nor photos can fathom the sheer scale and importance of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia’s most remarkable natural treasure and the most significant reef system on the planet. The total World Heritage area off the coast of Queensland measures over 344,000 square kilometres, which is almost as large as Germany. Under the surface, 1625 species of fish live here, more than 600 species of coral bloom, plus 6 out of 7 known sea turtle species reside in this area.
Are you thrilled to explore this captivating paradise? With this guide, we help you to figure out how to travel to the Great Barrier Reef, how to discover it and to see the most beautiful locations.
How to get to the Great Barrier Reef?
Townsville and Cairns are popular starting spots and there are several ways to get there. Cairns in particular is the most popular gateway to the magical Great Barrier Reef. Airlie Beach is another popular spot where you’ll have access to the stunning Whitsunday Islands.
Cairns has an airport that handles flights from large Australian cities, including Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth, Sydney and Gold Coast. If you’re travelling internationally, it’s best to transfer flights in Melbourne, Sydney, or Brisbane. The airport in Townsville receives direct flights from Cairns, Sydney, and Brisbane.
For the Whitsunday Islands fly to Whitsunday Coast Airport.
Cairns, the city from where many Great Barrier Reef expeditions start, is far up north in the state Queensland. From both Brisbane and Gold Coast, you’ll have to travel about 1700 kilometres over the road. But if you have time, the car is an excellent option to see some stunning land- and seascapes along the way. Townsville is located 350 kilometres south of Cairns. See rental options through RentalCars.com.
A daily train called the Spirit of Queensland departs from Brisbane in the afternoon and arrives in Cairns 25 hours later. If you want to see Queensland in a relaxing manner, the train is the perfect type of transportation for this journey. This train also stops in Townsville, a journey that takes almost 18 hours from Brisbane.
Greyhound offers long-distance bus services from Brisbane, but this requires patience and a strong back. The trips to Cairns take nearly 30 hours, and tickets are generally at least as expensive as train tickets, so we recommend other types of transportation. Are you venturing for Townsville? The travel time from Brisbane by bus is 24 hours.
Where to stay?
Cairns and Townsville have a very decent selection of accommodations, from budget backpacker hostels to ritzy resorts. Most of the snorkelling and diving trips depart from a pier in central Cairns, so it’s convenient to arrange a stay in the heart of the city. Booking.com has a long list of hotels and resorts for you to choose from. If you book a multi-day liveaboard, you’ll be accommodated on the boats, as very few islands of the Great Barrier Reef have lodging. Fortunately, you can expect comfortable beds and cabins on most vessels.
In case you’re travelling by campervan, both Cairns and Townsville have numerous campsites. A useful app for camping in Australia is Campermate (Android | IOS), which gives an overview based on categories such as paid campsites, free campsite, powered or non-powered spots, plus a list of facilities for each of the sites.
See places to stay in:
Or start searching via this map
Tours to see the Great Barrier Reef
From both Cairns and Townsville, you’ll be able to explore the reefs in various ways. If you’re into diving, a multi-day liveaboard to several reefs is the most recommended option. But a full-day sailing cruise, snorkelling trip, or scenic flight over the massive reef complex are popular approaches for non-divers and those on a tight travel schedule.
Some of the most compelling trips around the Great Barrier Reef include:
1-day snorkelling tour
A favoured trip for those who want to get up-close with the abundance of colourful creatures and reefs underwater. The most-visited stops during an excursion from Cairns are Milln Reef, Sudbury Reef, Thetford Reef, and Elford Reef, but generally, you’ll visit just two of these during a one-day trip. These outer reefs are some of the most biodiverse and nutrient-rich in the entire reef system, and even with a snorkel and mask, you’ll see an astonishing array of fish, hard and soft corals, and fascinating sea turtles floating around.
A morning tea and barbecue lunch are included when you book these fantastic tours.
3-day liveaboard tour
If you literally want to dive deeper into the wonders of the underwater world, a multi-day dive or snorkelling tour will linger in your memory for a long time. Make the most out of your time in this natural wonder of the world, and go down for 11 dives at 4 of the most striking reefs: the Flynn, Thetford, Milln, and Pellowe Reefs. Prepare yourself for interactions with species like moray eels, turtles, sharks, and rays, plus an incredible display of vivid corals. If you’re an advanced diver, you can also opt for night dives and other technical dives during this expedition.
Fitzroy Island day tour
Fitzroy Island is the largest island that’s part of the reef area near Cairns, and an amazing location for a tour and leisure day. Covered with tropical rainforests and beaches, this isle is the perfect place for sunbathing, swimming, snorkelling, and hiking. Other than snorkelling gear, sea kayaks are generally provided to discover the island from a different angle.
The Whitsunday Islands are very close to the reef and you’ll find various tours to see the islands and nearby fringing reefs. The tours can include snorkelling, relaxing on the beaches, guided walks, and plenty of photo opportunities.
Scenic flight by plane or helicopter
If your budget allows and you have less time to spend at the magnificent reefs, a scenic flight can be a life-changing endeavour. The tour options range from brief 10-minute flights over the azure ocean to 3-day expeditions that combine scenic flights and cruises around the northeastern part of Queensland.
The famous heart-shaped reef seen below can be seen through tours from Airlie which is also near the Whitsunday Islands.
You can find more tour options via our partner GetYourGuide.
Best dive spots in the Great Barrier Reef
Although non-divers will undoubtedly enjoy the striking beauty of the most extensive coral reef system in the world, it’s almost a shame not to go diving if you’ve already made it to this part of Australia. These are some of the finest dive sites in this unique ecosystem.
- SS Yongala – A cruise ship sank as a result of a cyclone in 1911, and now a vast marine community has made this wreck their home. Expect to see manta rays, sea snakes, turtles, and vivid coral on this ship, which is located 15 to 30 metres below the surface. As a result of currents and the depth of this site, access is limited to advanced divers only. The SS Yongala is best accessible with dive operators in Townsville, as it is in very close proximity.
- Milln Reef – This sensational reef is within easy reach from Cairns, and most snorkelling and diving trips stop by it. Great coral walls provide a decor for beginners as well as experienced divers, and some of the highlights include heaps of turtles, white tip sharks, but also smaller critters like nudibranchs and colourful reef fish.
- Thetford Reef – The Thetford Reef draws divers with its inconceivable corals, from massive plate coral to lively soft coral that provides a shelter for petite reef fish. Thetford Reef is an attractive location for macro photographers, as the corals here come in all shapes, shades and sizes.
- Flynn Reef – Just like the Thetford Reef, the Flynn Reef has spectacular coral gardens at very shallow depths. The accessibility and lack of current make this reef an astonishing site for diving dummies, but advanced divers will also appreciate the vast array of small species. Parrotfish, barracudas, Hawksbill sea turtles, lionfish and octopus also show up regularly.
- Norman Reef – Home to large species, the Norman Reef is the fantasy of many diving enthusiasts. Sea turtles, enormous wrasse, and manta rays often appear at the reef, and giant clams are permanent residents. In the winter months, you might even catch a glimpse of migrating minke whales.
- Lodestone Reef – With its towering rocks covered with hard coral formations, Lodestone Reef is one of the popular dive sites near Townsville. Although small reef fish are present, this site mainly emphasises the enormous variety of coral the Great Barrier Reef is known for. Some coral gardens are relatively shallow and excellent for snorkellers.
What to bring?
To prepare yourself for a visit to the Great Barrier Reef in the best way possible, it’s handy to bring the following items with you. Bear in mind that North Queensland has a tropical climate.
- Reef-safe sunblock
- Underwater housing for your camera
- Light clothes, i.e. shorts and t-shirts
- Waterproof bag
- Reusable water bottle
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the 7 natural wonders of the world, and people from all over the globe come here to admire the grandeur of this rich ecosystem. Diving is perhaps the most memorable way of exploring the atolls, but even for non-divers, there are plenty of spellbinding excursions. Regardless of your preferred activities, the Great Barrier Reef offers a once-in-a-lifetime travel adventure.
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