A guide to experiencing Australia’s Great Barrier Reef
Stretching 2,300km along Australia’s sunny east coast and comprised of more than 3,000 individual reefs, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest and most impressive reef system, making it one of the absolute best places to visit on a trip Down Under. In addition to thousands of marine species who call the Great Barrier Reef home, many of which are only found here, this area is renowned for its incredible biodiversity and ecological complexity. For lovers of snorkelling or scuba diving, there are few places in the world that compare.
Sadly, Australian biologists have identified concerning declines in the health of the Great Barrier Reef, mostly due to coral bleaching caused by warmer sea temps and a starfish species that is literally eating away at the coral. If swimming among the sharks, turtles, and whales tops your bucket list (and it absolutely should), there really is no time like the present! Here’s everything you need to know about planning a trip to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, including what city to base yourself in, what activities you can do to experience the Reef, whether you should do a 1-day or multi-day liveaboard trip, what conditions to expect, and what to pack for the Great Barrier Reef.
What's in this travel guide
How to get there & where to stay
Given the incredible sprawl of the Great Barrier Reef, there are a number of different cities from which you can access coral reefs and vibrant marine life:
This is the most popular place to stay for a trip out to the Great Barrier Reef, so there are heaps of tours and accomodation options available in Cairns to suit any budget. It’s also really easy to get here, as Cairns has its own major airport and is in close proximity to other popular Australian destinations, like the Daintree Rainforest.
Expect huge crowds of young, party-obsessed backpackers and a main beach that is too croc-infested for swimming. If you’re just looking for the best access point to the Reef, though, you can’t go wrong with Cairns.
How to get here: Most Australian cities have direct or one-stop flights into Queensland’s Cairns Airport. To get into Cairns after your flight, you can catch a $6 Airport Connect bus or split an inexpensive taxi with your travel companions (the airport is less than 10km from town).
Recommended tour: Without a doubt, the best company in Cairns is ProDive, a popular, widely-renowned company that certifies more divers than any other company in the world. I went on a 3-day liveaboard dive trip through ProDive that was out-of-this-world amazing, super reasonably priced (about $700 in July 2015), and probably one of the highlights of my life. My stepbrother also got dive-certified on the trip for an extra $150.
Recommended accommodation: Mad Monkey hostel offers inexpensive dorm beds ($30/night), comfy lounge areas, and a large communal kitchen. It is absolutely nothing fancy, but it’s right near the Esplanade and conveniently within walking distance to the supermarket.
A nicer option than touristy, backpacker-filled Cairns is the charming, palm-filled town of Port Douglas. There are still a variety of companies operating tours out to the Reef, but the vibe is much more relaxed (think afternoons spent reading in a hammock) and the town itself is much prettier. Plus, I especially like diving from Port Douglas because most tours will visit the Agincourt Reef, an amazing spot on the Outer GBR that is really popular with Minke whales. One swam up to our boat when I was in the water and I got so excited that I cried.
How to get here: Fly into the Cairns airport and either hire a car or take an inexpensive shuttle ($36AUD) 1hr north to Port Douglas.
Recommended tour: When I went diving from Port Douglas, I went with on a full day tour diving tour with Poseidon Cruises and had an incredible time. Expect to pay upwards of $300 for two dives.
Recommended accommodation: Tropical Nites has beautiful little self-contained townhouses (about $150/night) with access to a nice pool and within walking distance of everything in town.
The Whitsundays are widely regarded as one of the most beautiful places in all of Australia, so it’s an added bonus that you can also access the Great Barrier Reef from these powder-white shores. Hamilton Island is one of the larger Whitsunday Islands (and the only one with a commercial airport), which makes it a great place to base yourself while you explore the reef and other secluded beaches in the region, but it’s also a more upscale destination than either Port Douglas or Cairns. Expect to pay a lot more here, for accomodation, tours to the Reef, and even flights.
Recommended tour: Explore the Great Barrier Reef from Hamilton on either a snorkelling or diving tour.
Recommended accommodation: Whitsunday Apartments have wonderful, fully-equipped apartments with stunning views over Hamilton Island (photo below). Save money by cooking breakfasts and lunches in your apartment, but be sure to check out some of the great restaurants on the island, too!
How to experience the Great Barrier Reef
I would go so far as to say that you can’t really get the full experience of the Great Barrier Reef without diving. Never scuba’d before? It doesn’t matter, you can actually dive without certification and that’s what I did on my first trip to the Reef in 2013. They class it as “introductory diving”, which means that they’ll run you through all the equipment and you’ll dive as a group with an instructor who watches you pretty closely. Some certified divers still dove with a group on my 2015 trip, but us Advanced Certified divers were turned loose into the ocean with a compass and a dive buddy. Dive virgin or expert, it doesn’t matter— everyone can dive the Great Barrier Reef!
If you are interested in diving the Reef, you’ll have to choose between a day trip and a multi-day trip. Most day trips (like this one I did through Poseidon in Port Douglas) will offer 1, 2, or 3 dives, and you’ll snorkel for any of the times you aren’t diving (i.e. buy 1 dive, snorkel twice; buy 3 dives, don’t snorkel at all), but it takes 2 hours to get to the Outer Reef, so there isn’t time for much more. This might be plenty for you.
If you want more dive opportunities, though, you should really go on a live-aboard trip. I would recommend a 3-day trip like this one I did through ProDive in Cairns. You get to do 11 dives, including 2 night dives, and that is more than enough for 3 days (you’ll feel like a water-logged raisin by the 11th dive, but in a good way). You get fed awesome food, get to visit way more dive sites, and it’s surprisingly not that expensive. I paid around $700 for a double room and my stepbrother paid $900 for a single AND a full dive certification course while we were on the boat. Considering that it’s 2 nights of accommodation, 3 days of food, and 11 dives (and I paid almost $300 for 2 dives and lunch on a 1-day trip), it’s a real steal and the best way to pack in maximum diving around the Great Barrier Reef.
Snorkelling is still an awesome way to see the Great Barrier Reef, and much cheaper than diving, but you’ll definitely have limited visibility of the coral at deeper sites. Most dive tours will take both divers and snorkelers and travel to 2-3 different sites on the Outer Reef. This is great if you want to dive and your partner wants to snorkel, but it also means that you might be at a top dive site that’s only a mediocre snorkel spot. If you only want to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, just be sure to ask tour companies about the sites they visit and if they’re optimal for both snorkellers and divers.
I don’t personally believe that staying on a boat all day is a way to experience the Great Barrier Reef (because the reef is underwater), but it’s an option if you’ve already done your diving or snorkelling. There are some really nice companies that will take you on boat trips around the Great Barrier Reef and out to beaches in the Whitsundays (I’d highly recommend Whitehaven Beach). There are even glass-bottom boats, but it’s pretty gimmicky and, if you really want to see under the water, you should physically get into the water!
What to bring for your trip
This is not a comprehensive packing list, but here are some essentials that you should throw into your backpack before heading out to the Great Barrier Reef:
- Swimsuit, obviously. Most companies will provide wetsuits for you.
- Mask: not necessary, because they will give you masks, but some people have a hard time fitting their face to a mask and it means you’ll spend 90% of your time underwater trying to clear your mask so you can see. I have this issue, so I took advantage of the 15% discount most companies offer their tour groups on their dive shop and bought my own mask before my liveaboard trip. Expect to pay $100-$150 for a good one, but if you dive or snorkel often, it’s so worth it.
- Sea sickness medication: I don’t care if you think you never get seasick, you will get seasick on this trip. It’s upwards of 2 hours to the Outer Reef and it’s pretty bumpy. If that’s not enough to get you, everyone else is vomiting on the deck and the smell will do it. I didn’t take anything for my first trip and was miserable for 2 hours, not an ideal way to start my dive, so I brought meds on the second trip and was so, so much happier. Just get something from any chemist on land before you leave.
- Towel: Don’t forget this, because you will be freezing when you come out of the water. It’s hot in northern QLD, but the water isn’t any warmer than usual.
- Sunscreen: The sun is harsher in Australia, so you get burned heaps faster here. And so much more aggressively. If you have the backs of your pasty little thighs on the surface of the water while you’re snorkelling, they will be maroon after an hour.
- Underwater camera: I didn’t have a GoPro when I went on my first dive trip and I ended up swimming next to a giant whale— I will eternally regret my lack of photos. Don’t share in my regret.
- Notebook/Log Book: Even if this is your first ever time diving, you should log all of your dives. You can see on the PADI website what information to include.