The Great Barrier Reef is a place built for superlatives. It’s the world’s largest coral reef system and its largest living organism. It’s been called one of the seven wonders of the natural world and was named a World Heritage Site in 1981. It can be seen from outer space.
The numbers are equally impressive. The system is composed of over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands. It stretches for over 2,300 kilometres (1,400 mi) over an area of approximately 344,400 square kilometres (133,000 sq mi). The ecosystem supports a colossal array of life forms, including 5,000 species of mollusks, six species of turtles, 17 species of sea snakes, 215 species of birds, more than 1,500 species of fish, and 30 species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises.
The Great Barrier Reef is immense, ancient, and awe-inspiring – a destination that graces countless bucket lists around the world and leaves millions of visitors enchanted each year. If you’re planning a pilgrimage, Great Barrier Reef tours are in ample supply to please all types of traveller.
As for our favourite ways to experience the reef – even if you can’t stand swimming – you’ll find a few of them below.
We’ll start with the obvious: the Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s most magical places to snorkel or scuba dive. Most diving and snorkeling on the reef is boat-based, though some of the islands also boast excellent reefs. Professional tours typically include the use of equipment to maximise accessibility. Cape Tribulation, Port Douglas, Cairns, Townsville, and Airlie Beach are popular starting points for reef explorations.
If you’re just looking to get your toes wet (so to speak), a day trip will suffice. For a more immersive experience, many operators offer multi-day liveaboards that include accommodations and meals on a boat.
Though nothing rivals the up-close experience of diving, the sheer enormity of the Great Barrier Reef makes it worth experiencing from any angle. A boat tour may or may not include snorkeling time, depending on your preference, but is guaranteed to offer an impeccable view of Queensland’s coastline. Spring for a multi-day cruise if you want a longer experience, or an excursion in a glass bottom boat if you want a view without getting wet.
It’s not quite Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, but a semi-submersible should satisfy some of your submarine fantasies. These underwater vessels offer a diver’s view with no special skills needed. Book a guided tour to glide by coral gardens, colourful fish, reef sharks, sea turtles and more, all while listening to expert commentary and keeping your clothes dry.
If you’re feeling more adventurous, try a Seawalker experience or explore aboard a Scuba-Doo.
Instagram is rife with envy-inducing photos of scenic flights over the reef and the Whitsunday Islands. Though you won’t come home with any fish selfies, Great Barrier Reef tours by air are a memorable way to get acquainted with the area (and a staggering reminder of just how vast it really is). Tours are available via helicopter or seaplane, and may also include an island beach picnic or a flight over the Daintree Rainforest.
A spot of island hopping, anyone? The Whitsunday archipelago’s 74 jungle-clad islands range from ritzy to uninhabited, with opportunities for both day-trippers and visitors booking longer stays. Whitehaven Beach is a must-see for anyone who loves surf and sand. Farther north, Magnetic Island and Hinchinbrook Island are worthy visits for fans of national parks. Even farther north, try Fitzroy Island, a 45-minute catamaran ride from Cairns.