Stretching from the Queensland town of Bundaberg to the tip of Cape York, the Great Barrier Reef consists of thousands of coral cays housing thousands of marine species. This guide is filled with Great Barrier Reef facts and answers the most important questions, from the best Great Barrier Reef location for snorkeling to the best place to visit, how long to stay and when to go. Here are our tips for visiting the Great Barrier Reef.
1. When is the best time to visit the Great Barrier Reef?
While you can visit the Great Barrier Reef year-round, it is important to remember some times are better than others. The best time to visit the reef is May to November. This avoids cyclone season, stinger season and also Queensland’s hottest weather which can be uncomfortable. Perhaps surprisingly, the biggest natural factor that could impact your enjoyment of the reef is wind, not rain or cloudy skies. It can be the most spectacular sunny day but if there are medium to strong winds, these will make the sea choppy and stir up sediment which reduces visibility on the reef. It can also make for an unpleasant boat journey as the average trip to the Great Barrier Reef from popular jumping off points such as Airlie Beach is about 2 hours.
2. How long should I allow for visiting the Great Barrier Reef?
Whenever you decide to visit, don’t give yourself just one day to see the Great Barrier Reef. If you are planning on visiting the reef on a day trip, try to allow at least two days to visit the Great Barrier Reef. This will give you some flexibility if the day you planned to visit the reef is forecast to be windy. Also, you may want to think twice about visiting the Great Barrier Reef on a cruise ship. On a recent cruise up the Queensland coast, our ship hit high winds and was unable to call at several destinations as planned. With only one port stop that included day trips to the Great Barrier Reef on the itinerary, many international guests were disappointed. While a cruise up the Queensland coast is a great idea, it’s not the most reliable way to see the reef as you often only have one shot at it.
3. Great Barrier Reef tours
There is no shortage of good tourism operators offering day trips to the Great Barrier Reef, from large organisations like Cruise Whitsundays to bespoke companies offering a day out on a private yacht. One thing to consider when it comes to smaller operators is they can sometimes drop anchor at lesser visited parts of the reef so you won’t be sharing that beautiful coral and marine life with so many people. However, these boutique tours can be much more expensive and may not go every day. Larger operators have regular departures with more availability. They also tend to offer more ways to see the reef when you arrive. For example, the Cruise Whitsundays pontoon at Hardy Reef offers learn to dive lessons with PADI accredited multilingual instructors.
4. What to bring to the Great Barrier Reef
It is very easy to get sunburnt on a Great Barrier Reef daytrip, especially if you choose to sit on the top deck to enjoy the beautiful view. Bring plenty of sunscreen – and remember to apply it regularly – as the Australian sun is hot, hot, hot. You will also need a pair of sunglasses, a hat and a shirt with sleeves to protect the skin on your upper arms as it may not have seen much sun. If you are visiting the Great Barrier Reef during stinger season, you will need to wear a stinger suit. Some operators supply stinger suits for free. If not, you can buy or hire one for a nominal charge either on the boat or at your destination. If you are prone to sea sickness, take some medication before you sail so you can fully enjoy your time on the reef.
5. Which Great Barrier Reef location
There are three islands located right on the Great Barrier Reef which offer accommodation, with prices ranging from around $250 to $2,000 per night. The cheapest island to stay on is Lady Elliot Island followed by Heron Island and Lizard Island, which has a boutique all-inclusive luxury resort. If you don’t have the money to splurge on a stay at Lizard Island Resort, camping is available on Lizard Island at Watsons Bay. However, you will need to be self-sufficient when it comes to food, water, shelter, pots and pans and first-aid equipment.
No supplies are available for purchase on the island which is very isolated. Camping permits are required and the maximum stay is 10 days. All of these resorts offer snorkelling directly off the beach and for-a-fee snorkelling trips to multiple reefs, most of which are just a short boat trip away, plus other nature focussed activities such as reef interpretation walks and presentations. For something truly unique, you can camp overnight on the Great Barrier Reef with Reefsleep, a camping sleepover that is offered by Cruise Whitsundays on one of the tourist pontoons moored on the reef.
6. Consider a Great Barrier Reef expedition cruise
One of the most enjoyable and reliable ways to experience the best of the Great Barrier Reef is on an expedition cruise. Coral Expeditions operate a custom-built ship catering to only 44 people, with exclusive mooring rights at some spectacular ribbon reefs. Itineraries range from four to seven nights and include all meals and snorkelling equipment plus glass bottom boat tours and other excursions such as nature walks and sunset cocktail hours on the beach. If the weather isn’t the best, the captain can make changes to the itinerary to increase the chances of a great snorkel experience. On these cruises you also get to snorkel at Lizard Island without paying to stay at the expensive resort or roughing it at the camp ground.
7. Don’t arrive scared at the Great Barrier Reef
If you’re a concerned about getting eaten by a hungry shark, there is absolutely no need. The only sharks you are likely to see are reef sharks which cannot physically open their mouth wide enough to bite you. They are also extremely timid and tend to flee when they see a human being. In fact, it can be pretty special seeing a reef shark in the distance when you are snorkelling as they are notoriously shy.
8. Ask for help at the Great Barrier Reef if you need it
If you’re not a confident swimmer or have never snorkelled before, most day trip operators provide flotation devices such as buoyancy vests or pool noodles. Another thing to think about is fitness as snorkelling can be physical challenging if you aren’t used to exercise. If you get tired easily during physical activities or need a little extra help to stay afloat, using a pool noodle is a good idea. Some companies offer guided snorkelling trips where an instructor leads you (or can even tow you) around the reef, pointing out interesting things while making sure you are feeling safe and physically comfortable in the water. If you have a health issue such as a heart condition, consider taking a guided snorkel or ask the staff ‘spotters’ on deck to keep an extra special eye on you in the water for added peace of mind.
Disclosure: The writer lives in Queensland and loves visiting the Great Barrier Reef.
If would like to know more about visiting the Great Barrier Reef, we also have tips for visiting Heron Island, Orpheus Island, the Whitsundays, and Cairns which is one of the popular jumping off points for the Great Barrier Reef.