Great Barrier Reef scenic flight – A complete guide with everything you need to know about taking a Great Barrier Reef scenic flight.
About the Great Barrier Reef
Situated in the Coral Sea, the Great Barrier Reef starts at the tip of the Cape York Peninsula, stretching more than 2300km along Queensland’s coast right down to Bundaberg in the states south. It’s the worlds largest reef system, boasting around 3000 individual reefs and 900 islands. The Great Barrier Reef is roughly the same size as Italy, so large that it can be seen from outer space! It’s home to a diverse range of wildlife including more than 1500 species of fish, six of the world’s seven species of turtle and thirty species of whale, dolphin and porpoise, just to name a few. In 1981, the Great Barrier Reef was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our Great Barrier Reef scenic flight experience
A Great Barrier Reef scenic flight had been on my bucket list for such a long time. Growing up in rural Australia, the Great Barrier Reef seemed like a mystical place I’d only really heard about. It wasn’t until I was 19, that I actually spent some time living in and around the Whitsundays. Back then, I dreamt of doing a scenic reef flight, but at the time, it was just too expensive.
Fast forward a number of years and I, along with Chris, finally took the plunge and did a Great Barrier Reef scenic flight. And wow, I couldn’t believe just how amazing this experience was. It was literally one of those jaw dropping moments which really does live up to its expectation. Well, it certainly did for us!
Flying over the Whitsunday Islands
We took a 8am flight departing from Shute Harbour. After meeting our pilot and completing a short safety briefing, we were on our way. Our flight first headed out across the Whitsunday Islands, flying over Shute Harbour, Daydream Island, Hamilton Island and Whitsunday Island. To be honest, this part of the flight was pretty spectacular. Our pilot pointed out different islands and gave us plenty of information about the area. The Whitsundays are made up of 74 islands and just a handful of them are island resorts. Having just spent 3 nights on Daydream Island, it was interesting to see this tiny island from the air.
Check out our blog – Things to do on Daydream Island
But our absolute favourite views here were of the famous Hill Inlet and the beautiful white silica sand of Whitehaven beach, both part of Whitsunday Island. Seeing all of this from above is totally different to a land based experience and it’s a total WOW moment. We were a little surprised at just how beautiful these two spots look from the air. Sadly, this part of the flight goes super fast, so you have to be camera ready to get some great snaps! Don’t panic too much though. Our pilot gave us the heads up of when the perfect photo opportunity was about to pop up. Our camera was on rapid fire and we now have so many beautiful photos of this epic view!
Flying over Hardy Reef
After taking in the views from the Whitsunday Islands, we flew over several small islands and Hook Reef, spotting Humpback Whales along the way. Humpback Whales migrate from Antarctic waters to the Whitsundays to give birth in the warmer tropical waters. Historically, the whales arrive between late July-September. But as their migration patterns are changing, there’s a good chance of spotting them outside of these months too. It’s a nice bonus if you happen to see some, although they are quite a long way away!
It took around 30mins to reach the outer reefs and this was where the magic really happened! The most well known reef in this area is Hardy Reef, an idyllic cluster of individual reefs sitting amongst pristine turquoise water. This was the moment we had been waiting for and we can honestly say hand on heart, it did not disappoint. In fact, this part of our Great Barrier Reef scenic flight exceeded our expectations.
Flying over Heart Reef
The highlight was flying over the world famous Heart Reef, aptly named for its perfect heart shape. We expected Heart Reef to be big and obvious to see, however is was actually quite small and difficult to spot. But its location was made a little more obvious by the floating pontoon constructed nearby. Again, we had our trusty pilot on hand to point it out as we circled around the reef twice. The reef is protected, so snorkelling in the area is prohibited. But the pontoon serves as a romantic picnic/proposal spot for those who are a little more cashed up than us!!
Just like our time around Whitsunday Island, this part of the flight literally flew by (pun intended). And before we knew it, we were flying over Hayman Island and Airlie Beach, heading for the airstrip.
Choosing & booking a Great Barrier Reef scenic flight operator
Booking a Great Barrier Reef scenic flight is a spectacular way of experiencing the reef. There are a few areas along that Great Barrier Reef that you can book a scenic flights from, but the most popular place is from Airlie Beach. Flights from here pass over the Whitsunday islands and to the outer reefs, lasting 60-70 minutes. There are a few companies offering scenic flights from Airlie Beach. We flew with Fly Australia and couldn’t recommend them enough.
You can either book directly, through a tour desk or through an online booking website like Book Me. Depending on the time of year and availability, you can get some great online deals. By booking online and last minute, we saved about 50% on our flight. Although this was still a lot of money to outlay, the saving was vast. We also got lucky and had the plane all to ourselves!
Top tips for booking a Great Barrier Reef Scenic Flight
- Great Barrier Reef scenic flights operate all year round, weather dependant. Usually if the weather isn’t suitable for flying, you will be offered a new flight or a full refund. **But double check the operators T&C’s before you book!
- The best time to take a Great Barrier Reef scenic flight is during low tide. At these times, the lower water levels improves the visibility of the reef.
- Due to the position of the sun, early morning flights can often result in glare through the planes window. This can make it particularly difficult to capture great photos with no glare or window reflections.
- Flights departing during the middle of the day can offer less glare, as the sun is often above the plane for the duration of the flight.
- Our flight was at 8am which was also low tide. We got a lot of glare through the windows, so had to work hard on angling our camera to get good shots. A good polarising filter may help reduce the glare and harsh sunlight.
- Keep an eye on booking websites for reduced prices.
- If you’re flying solo, you may be able to get a really great last minute deal if there’s only one seat left for sale.
- Our flight offered guaranteed window seats. Check to see if the flight you are interested in offers this, or you may end up in a middle seat with restricted views.
- Great Barrier Reef scenic flights can be booked in either a plane or chopper. From what we understand, choppers fly closer to the reef, but are also more expensive.
We often don’t often pay to do activities like this while we travel, as we generally prefer to invest our money on travelling to and seeing more places. BUT, this was one activity that we just couldn’t resist doing. We can honestly say it was hands down one of the best experiences we have had in Australia. And if we could, we would do it all over again!
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