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Great Barrier Reef Travel Guide: 15 Best Things to See & Do

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Some things in this world are so awe-inspiring that they take your breath away, such as the Grand Canyon, the Taj Mahal, and the aurora borealis. And, of course, the Great Barrier Reef.

Located in the Coral Sea off the Queensland coast of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most incredible natural wonders and the largest coral reef system. It’s home to some of the most diverse aquatic life in the world, including more than 1,500 species of fish, 4,000 species of coral, and 400 species of seaweed.

A living structure that has become synonymous with the word coral, the Great Barrier Reef has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981. As a visitor to the reef, you will experience things you never thought possible and further understand how important it is to the life and health of the entire planet.

If you plan on spending a lot of time visiting the reefs, it’s highly recommended you get some travel insurance. Insurance like SafetyWing can protect you and your trip with both health insurance and more traditional travel insurance.

The barrier reef is located off the eastern coast of Australia and stretches for 1,429 miles. It is both the world’s largest and fastest disappearing living structure. But what makes this natural habitat so breathtaking, and what can you hope to see and experience on your visit?

Man snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef, Snorkeling
ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock

TL;DR

  • Most significant landmark – Lady Musgrave Island
  • Best park – The Daintree Rainforest
  • Free activity – Snorkeling
  • Activity for kids – Cairns Aquarium
  • Activity for adults – Stay on Hamilton Island
  • For marine life Green Island
  • Place to stay – Reef View Hotel

Things to See & Do Around the Great Barrier Reef

1. Explore Lady Musgrave Island

The water leading up to Lady Musgrave Island
Daniel W. Xavier / Shutterstock

The Great Barrier Reef is so long that it runs along many islands around Australia. One of the southernmost islands is Lady Musgrave Island near the Bundaberg coast. Here, visitors can swim among lots of animals like sea turtles and fish along with the colorful reefs in one of the reef’s many coral cays.

Out of the water visitors can explore the island itself to see lots of wild birds and other island-dwelling critters. Guided tours are offered to teach guests more about the vast ecosystems on the island and beyond. Between the animals and the plant life on the island, you will walk away with a much greater sense of the biodiversity of the Great Barrier Reef region.

The waters around Lady Musgrave Island come even more alive from July to November when Southern Humpback Whales make their way back from Antarctica. During their migration season, you can witness these majestic creatures in action from the land and the sea — maybe you’ll hear them during a snorkel.

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2. Wander the Daintree Rainforest

A woman walking on the wooden boardwalk in Daintree Rainforest
AustralianCamera / Shutterstock

Address: 2333 Cape Tribulation Rd, Cape Tribulation QLD 4873, Australia

Australia is not only home to the wonder that is the Great Barrier Reef and the Whitsunday Islands, but it’s also home to the Daintree Rainforest. Though Daintree is not considered one of the natural wonders of the world, it should be. It’s the oldest tropical rainforest by a whopping ten million years and is a lesson in the Earth’s magnificence at every turn.

Considered a coastal forest, the Daintree Rainforest is as much a gem as its neighbor the Great Barrier Reef. Walk among the tree canopies along the Daintree Discovery Centre’s aerial walkway, go look for crocodiles or learn more about the Kuku Yalanji aboriginal people. However you explore the rainforest, you are bound to leave with a deep appreciation for our ancient ties to the world around us.

If you can’t part with the rainforest views, you can even stay nearby. At hotels like the Silky Oaks Lodge, you can rest in luxury while surrounded by the wilds of the Daintree.

3. Snorkeling the Reefs

Underwater shot of a colorful fish with coral behind it
Steve Evans / Flickr

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s most incredible natural wonders and a visit is sure to be a highlight of any trip to Australia. Many tour companies offer snorkeling trips around the various areas of the reefs, though you can go snorkeling on your own if you have gear. Incredible snorkeling spots can be found all along the Great Barrier Reef.

If you do go snorkeling on your own, be sure not to touch or stand on the coral – it’s very delicate. Even the slightest human interaction can cause irreparable damage to the living ecosystem. It’s crucial to also respect the reef wildlife. Many of the animals that call the reefs home are quite shy, so it’s best to keep your distance and enjoy them from afar.

Many beach area hotels will have snorkeling equipment you can borrow or a shop where you can buy your own if you prefer. If you’d like, you can also bring your own snorkeling items from home, but that does mean you’ll have more to pack.

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4. See Magnificent Creatures at Cairns Aquarium

Two children looking at the fish at Cairns Aquarium
Ian Hitchcock / Shutterstock

Address: 5 Florence Street, Cairns City Cairns, Queensland 4870, Australia

There are over 3,000 different reefs located within the Great Barrier Reef, and each one is home to a diverse group of animal life seen nowhere else in the world. You’re unlikely to see all of the wildlife these magnificent ecosystems contain. That’s where the Cairns Aquarium comes in.

The Cairns Aquarium is dedicated to teaching the public about Australia’s Wet Tropics. So the creatures you’ll see here are native to the area whether they’re plants, animals, or the natural habitats that protect both. Cairns Aquarium is home to over 16,000 animals that represent nine distinct ecosystems.

Also found at the aquarium is the Turtle Rehabilitation Center. Visitors can tour the center to learn about how the center protects Australian Sea Turtles. All of the profits go toward animal care, medicine, and other animal-related costs.

5. Admire Marine Life at Green Island

Aerial view of Green Island and the reefs in Australia
ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock

Beyond and within the Great Barrier Reef, you’ll find an astounding variety of marine life. Huge schools of brightly-colored fish swim among the coral, while dolphins, sea turtles, and even reef sharks often put on a show for divers. This abundance of life is especially true at Green Island.

The Coral Sea beauty along this island is one of the reasons why it has been a major tourist hub for decades. There is a resort, Green Island Resort, on the island as well, but the majority of the land is still a natural habitat. Green Island is a national park with over 125 plant species, tons of native birds, and (of course) coral.

While the section of the Great Barrier Reef around the island is small, its impact on the oceanic ecosystem is not. There are nearly 300 different kinds of soft and hard corals living around the island. Because of this and the vast seagrasses, lots of animals call the island area home. That includes adorable sea turtles and dugongs (a relative of the manatee) who love to snack on the grasses.

Taking a day trip, especially from Cairns, is easy enough. Tourists love taking a ferry or helicopter to the island to enjoy the gemstone-blue waters, take a boat tour or explore the dense patches of rainforest on the island.

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6. Stay in Luxury on Hamilton Island

Hotels along the beach at Hamilton Island
superjoseph / Shutterstock

Along the Great Barrier Reef, the standard of luxury is Hamilton Island. Here is where celebs like Oprah Winfrey, Taylor Swift, and Orlando Bloom flock for some much-needed vitamin sea. Also referred to as Hamo, this is the largest of the Whitsunday Islands.

The Whitsundays are an archipelago of 74 islands. Some of the most popular islands among them are Hamo, Daydream Island, and Whitsunday Island. These stunning islands may have attractions or resorts, but they are still largely natural.

When it comes to hosting celebrities, qualia is where many of them stay when visiting Hamilton Island. Other spots to stay include the chic Reef View Hotel and the aptly named Beach Club. No matter where you stay on this island, you are surrounded by so much stunning nature you’ll never want to go home.

From Hamilton Island, you can venture out to find the Heart Reef, a group of coral reefs that resemble a heart, or spend time at one of Australia’s most gorgeous beaches at Whitehaven. Going out to Heart Reef is a favorite day trip option, especially for couples. Plus if you visit during August, you can experience Hamilton Island Race Week. The race is the country’s biggest offshore keelboat regatta.

7. Get Away From the Kiddos at Elysian Retreat

Aerial view of the beach and Elysian Retreat villas
Elysianretreat / Elysianretreat

Address: Long Island, Whitsundays QLD 4802, Australia

An adults-only, mini boutique hotel getaway off of Paradise Bay on Long Island, Elysian Retreat is part of the Mr. & Mrs. Smith hotel chain. This ultra-boutique hotel only has ten waterfront villas for the ultimate secluded getaway. With so few fellow guests, you may even feel like you’ve found your own private island.

It is the first solar-powered resort along the Great Barrier Reef and this stunning locale invites guests to embrace the nature around them. With all-inclusive rates, Elysian is a welcoming place for couples or anyone searching for a luxe, eco-friendly vacation.

There is also an Ayurveda spa on the property as well as a magnesium mineral pool. And the onsite hotel’s ocean and Asian-inspired menu will connect you back to the water in a whole new way. Plus, dinner is a delectable three-course adventure with a rotating daily menu.

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8. Give Scuba Diving a Try

Giant clam
Steve Evans / Flickr

While you can see a lot of the Great Barrier Reef from the shallows of snorkeling, the more adventurous may want to try going a little deeper. Scuba diving near the reefs gives you a whole new view of the life beneath the waves. You will experience a whole underwater world that is hidden away under the protective ocean waves.

You do have to be certified to do a proper scuba diving excursion, though you can do an introduction tour to learn the ropes if you’re interested in learning more. These introductory tours can’t get you certified, but they can show you whether or not scuba diving is something you want to do.

If you’re planning on going scuba diving, especially if it’s your first time, consider getting SafetyWing insurance beforehand. It can protect you if something were to happen and you needed medical care. Plus it takes the stress off of taking exciting risks.

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most popular scuba diving destinations in the world. That should be no surprise as the multicolored reefs with their multitudes of vibrant fish offer divers a chance to explore some of the most diverse and beautiful marine life on Earth.

There are many different dive sites to choose from, each with its own unique features. Whether you’re looking for coral gardens, shipwrecks, or sea turtles, the Great Barrier Reef has something for everyone.

9. Explore the Area on a Watercraft

Group Kayaking in Clear Waters

Another great way to explore the reef is by small watercraft like a kayak. This allows you to go at your own pace, stay above water and take in all the sights. Gliding over the crystal-clear water, surrounded by brightly-colored coral and fish, is an amazing way to explore this truly remarkable place.

You can paddle around corals, into caves, and under arches and get up close with wildlife. It’s an amazing way to experience the beauty and diversity of this natural wonder. Plus you can take all the time you want without having to worry about coming up for air or getting water out of your snorkel mid-swim.

If you aren’t interested in being on your own with a watercraft, you can always take a glass-bottom boat or sailing tour instead. You still get those incredible ocean views, especially with a glass-bottom boat ride, without the work of staying on course.

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10. See Reefs from Down Deep via Submarine

Dark underwater cave with a beam of light coming into it
Source: divedog / Shutterstock

If you aren’t certified or up for a scuba dive, submarine or semi-sub tours are a great way to see the reef up close, courtesy of these underwater observatories. One of these tours is sure to be the most unique day trip you take in Australia. From this underwater accommodation, you can enjoy the lower barrier reef and its residents.

The submarines are equipped with large windows so that you can get a good view of everything. Whatever kind of sub-tour you choose will determine how many members of your party can attend. A semi-sub, for example, is much more spacious than a traditional submarine which can only hold a few passengers. These crafts feature underwater observatories for lots of folks to see the view at once.

Submarine tours are not very numerous along the Great Barrier Reef. There are only a handful of tour companies that host traditional reef tours in a submarine. Because it is in a small submarine, only a few passengers can take part in each tour, so making plans ahead is important.

11. Check Out Whitsunday Island

Aerial view of Airlie Beach on Whitsunday Island
autau / Shutterstock

Whitsunday Island is one of the many islands located in the Great Barrier Reef. It is the largest of the 74 islands and is covered in thick forest. Although it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations, especially among the Whitsunday Islands, the island is largely undeveloped.

Still, the coral cays make this one of the most iconic snorkeling and scuba diving destinations on Earth. One of the beautiful places on the island to enjoy the waters is Airlie Beach. From here you can see the coral reefs to your heart’s content with lush white sand to relax on in between explorations.

Whitehaven Beach is also one of the best places to go if you’re looking for some downtime. From these sandy shores, you can also easily get to the Heart Reef too! All types of reef visitors are only a few steps away from lovely sights anywhere along the beach. This island is home to lots of wildlife, white sand beaches, and the surrounding waters are teeming with natural beauty.

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12. Embrace Nature on Fitzroy Island

Ocean and Mountain View of Fitzroy Island

Another of the Whitsunday Islands, Fitzroy Island is one of the many that make up the Great Barrier Reef region. From here you can take a wide range of Great Barrier Reef tours to enjoy the sights. It’s closest to the mainland city of Cairns and is a popular tourist destination thanks to its beautiful beaches and pristine corals.

Much like Green Island, Fitzroy Island is home to a wide variety of plant and animal life. It also holds a national park designation and is largely unspoiled by human interference. The island is covered in forests with trails to see as much of the island as you’d like. Day trips to enjoy the island’s coral reefs are popular, though you can also stay on the island too.

The Fitzroy Island Resort has multiple kinds of accommodations for visitors who want to make the semi-remote island their vacation spot. From the four-bedroom penthouse to the beach cabin or butterfly bungalows, there are accommodations for all kinds of travelers at this resort.

13. Enjoy the Greenery on Lizard Island

Landscape and Ocean View from Lizard Island

Lizard Island is one of the most popular tourist destinations along the Great Barrier Reef. Like the other islands mentioned so far, Lizard Island is well known for its dive sites, secluded beaches, coral reefs, and crystal-clear waters.

The island is also home to Australia’s northernmost island resort named, rightly, Lizard Island Resort. Although it isn’t strictly adult-only, the resort accommodates guests aged ten and over. Plus the on-site spa will nourish your spirit as the island nourishes your body.

Lizard Island’s surrounding reefs are full of the colorful fish you’d imagine with the kinds of beautiful beaches you’d expect from one of Australia’s numerous island sanctuaries. From here you can see the vastness of the Great Barrier Reef up close or from afar.

A day tour from Cairns to explore the island or a spectacular sailing adventure from Port Douglas, Lizard Island can be a short or long-term vacation spot. It’s impressive how a short boat ride to one of these many islands can deliver unparalleled natural wonder.

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14. Bushwalk to Passage Peak

View from Passage Peak on Hamilton Island
poohnap4el / Shutterstock

The highest point on Hamilton Island, Passage Peak is one of the most popular hikes on the island. Hiking in Australia is also known as “bushwalking,” and lots of visitors love this particular bushwalk. It isn’t terribly difficult until the end when the hike becomes much steeper.

A roughly one-hour-long hike in each direction, the way up to Passage Peak is a moderate-level hike. Each way is a little over a mile and a half. Once you get to the top, however, you can see the surrounding forests and ocean vistas.

You can find the start of the walking trail behind the Reef View Hotel. It is important for the safety of the hikers and the nature around them for hikers to stay on marked trails. There are also no proper toilets along the path, so plan accordingly.

15. Experience the Opal Reef

Aerial view of the Opal Reef
rweisswald / Shutterstock

A crescent-shaped reef that looks like a banana, the Opal Reef is a short ride away from Port Douglas. Snorkeling here is incredible because of the clear waters around this section of the Outer Great Barrier Reef. Since so many kinds of coral live here, the plants and animals living here are also plentiful.

There are sections throughout the Opal Reef that represent different kinds of ecosystems. Rayban, for example, is near the middle of the reef and is where Nemo from Disney’s Finding Nemo is believed to have lived. Suffice it to say that clownfish can be found in this area of the reef. Elsewhere in Opal Reef, you can find giant clams, reef sharks, starfish, and many other kinds of creatures.

Opal Reef is considered a low-impact tourism zone so large tourist boats are not allowed in the area. These zones are created to minimize the damage to the reefs and other ecosystems while still giving visitors access to experience them.

FAQ

How long until the Great Barrier Reef is destroyed?

Because of climate change and other human factors, the Great Barrier Reef is quickly dying away. Even the best-case scenarios expect at least half of the living coral to be lost by 2050. We can reduce harm to the coral in the Great Barrier Reef and other reefs worldwide by wearing reef-safe sunscreens and advancing eco-friendly ways of living.

What is the best month to visit the Great Barrier Reef?

Visiting the Great Barrier Reef is best between May and October. This is because the rainfall is low, water visibility is high, and the water temperatures are ideal. Because of the weather in Australia, however, you can visit the reefs all year.

When should you avoid the Great Barrier Reef?

November through May is considered the Great Barrier Reef tourist off-season. This is largely because of migrating animal species that pose a danger to humans.

Namely the potentially deadly jellyfish that migrate through the Great Barrier Reef during the hottest months. If you plan on visiting during these months, it is pivotal to get SafetyWing insurance.

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  1. Kate @ Babaganosh.org says:

    I cant imagine how beautiful and breathtaking it must be to actually dive in the great barrier reef! So jealous of people who (1) have the opportunity to go there and (2) are not scared of scuba diving and all the creatures who live in the ocean haha!