Visiting the Great Barrier Reef – Australia. A complete guide with everything you need to know about visiting Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

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.

Map from Reddit

Visiting the Great Barrier Reef

It’s safe to say that the Great Barrier Reef is one of Australia’s great icons. Tourists flock from near and far to witness one of the seven wonders of the natural world. And so they should. A visit to the Great Barrier Reef is an unforgettable experience. As everyone is different, it is worth considering what kind of experience you want to have and then researching an option that will help meet your expectation. We know people who have visited the Great Barrier Reef and walked away disappointed. To be honest, we can understand why this happens. There are places along the reef that are great for fish life, others which are great for colourful corals and then there are sites which are better for spotting larger marine life like turtle and sharks.

Unfortunately, the Great Barrier Reef isn’t completely full of vibrant colourful corals like you see in travel brochures. Although these picture perfect scenes do exist, you won’t find them everywhere. So before you go ahead and book a trip to the reef, consider how much time you can spend on the reef, ask what you can expect to see and try to work out if this may satisfy your expectations. It may also be worth considering visiting different sections of the Great Barrier Reef, as they are all different!

Popular places to visit the Great Barrier Reef from

There are so many options available when planning a visit to the Great Barrier Reef. Gateways to some of the reefs most popular areas are located in prime tourist locations along Queensland’s coastline, making a reef visit easily accessible. Some of these spots include:

  • Cape Tribulation – Gateway to reef day trips
  • Cairns – Gateway to reef day/multi day boat trips and islands visits
  • Port Douglas – Gateway to reef day/multi day boat trips
  • Townsville – Gateway to reef day/multi day boat trips and island visits
  • Airlie Beach – Gateway to reef day/multi day boat trips, Whitsunday Islands visits & scenic flights
  • Hervey Bay – Gateway to reef day trips and island visits
  • Bundaberg – Gateway to reef day trips and island visits
Visiting the Great Barrier Reef from Airlie Beach
Airlie Beach

Best ways of visiting the Great Barrier Reef

There are several ways of visiting the Great Barrier Reef and there is for sure, an option for everyone:

1. Day trip by boat

Jumping on board a day trip is probably the most popular way of visiting the great Barrier Reef. Both dive and snorkel trips depart from destinations such as Cairns, Port Douglas, Airlie Beach and Townsville and are a great way to experience the reef. Tour operators frequent many different sites along the reef, with options to snorkel, dive or stay on board. There are multiple operators to choose from and itineraries vary as do prices. We recently booked a day trip from Cairns with Passions of Paradise and had a great day scuba diving out on the reef. A full day trip usually includes lunch, tea/coffee, fins/snorkel, stinger suit (during stinger season Nov-May) and full dive gear hire (if you’ve booked to dive).

Visiting the Great Barrier Reef from Hamilton Island
Hamilton Island

2. Overnight sailing trip

If you have a little more time, booking an overnight or multi night sailing trip is an even better way of visiting the Great Barrier Reef. You’ll stop at more sites, have more opportunities to swim, snorkel or dive and more time to soak it all up! The most popular place to book a sailing trip is from Airlie Beach. We indulged in a 2d/2nt sailing trip with Oz Sail back in August 2021. Despite blue skies on our departure morning, the weather gods turned on us, making the snorkelling and sailing conditions pretty average (and cold!) Some of the nicer parts of the reef were around Hook Island. But the tides and conditions often dictate each boats itinerary. Overall, there are some lovely parts of the reef to explore in this area and an overnight sailing trip is a great way of doing that!

Visiting the Great Barrier Reef on a multi day sailing trip

3. Live-aboard boat trip

Attention all Scuba Divers! By far the best way of visiting the Great Barrier Reef as an avid scuba diver is by joining a live-aboard. There are a few operators out of Cairns offering multi day trips, a spectacular way of immersing yourself in this underwater haven. We recently booked a 5 night Coral Sea & Cod Hole expedition with Mike Ball and all we can say is WOW. Exploring both the Osprey and Ribbon Reefs, we were treated to some of the Great Barrier Reefs premier dive sites, which were in pristine condition. The diversity of marine life living in these parts of the reef were incredible. With no other boats around, we had these sites all to ourselves, making our experience even more memorable. These trips aren’t cheap, but the experience was incredible and totally worth the money in our opinion.

Grey Shark on Osprey Reef, on the Great Barrier Reef
Grey Reef Shark at Osprey Reef

4. Visiting one of the Great Barrier Reefs many islands

Another great way of visiting the Great Barrier Reef is by heading out to one of the reefs many islands. It’s possible to do day trips to some of these islands, but for a more relaxed experience, we would recommend staying for a night or two. From some of the islands it’s possible to snorkel, dive, paddle board, swim or take a glass bottom boat tour. You may even be able to book a dive or snorkel trip during the day as well. To make life easy, below is a list of some of the islands resort where you can stay:

Southern Great Barrier ReefCentral Great Barrier ReefNorthern Great Barrier Reef
Lady Elliot IslandDaydream IslandGreen Island
Lady Musgrove IslandHamilton IslandFitzroy Island
Great Keppel IslandHayman IslandBederra Island
Heron IslandLong IslandLizard Island
Wilson IslandOrpheus IslandHaggerstone Island
Magnetic Island
Snorkelling on Daydream Island whilst visiting the Great Barrier Reef
Snorkelling at Daydream Island

Don’t miss our blog post – Things to do on Daydream Island

5. Take a Great Barrier Reef Scenic Flight

Most people visiting the Great Barrier Reef do so from the water. But there is one other way to see the reef which will totally blow your mind! Taking a scenic flight and seeing the reef from a birds eye view gives a totally new perspective of this UNESCO World Heritage site. Fly Australia operates amazing 70 minute flights over the Whitsundays and the Great Barrier Reef. It’s difficult to describe just how beautiful it is seeing the reef from above, so we highly recommend taking a flight to witness it for yourself. The flight circles around the famous Heart Reef a couple of times, allowing plenty of opportunity to get some snaps. We booked our fights through Book Me and were able to get a heavily reduced rate.

Tip – The optimal time to take a GBR scenic flight is during low tide as the reef is more visible when the water levels are lower.

Ariel view of Heart Reef whilst visiting the Great Barrier Reef
Heart Reef

The best time to visit the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is situated within Queensland’s tropics and visiting is possible year round. The region generally has a wet season – November to March and dry season – April to October. The best time to visit is during the dry season with the best months (weather wise) being June-October. During these months, the temperatures are cooler and there’s less chance of rain. This creates ideal conditions and water visibility for snorkelling and scuba diving. The dry season is also the peak season (school holidays June/July), bringing more tourists to the reef and higher prices. April/May and November can often produce good conditions to visit the reef and are generally less busy.

Rainfall during the wet season can be high with February/March typically being the wettest months. The wet season is also cyclone season! Storms and strong winds occur more frequently which can result in water conditions and visibility being compromised. The temperatures are higher durning theses months and the humidity for some can be unbearable, particularly in the northern areas!

Weather aside, there are optimal times of visiting the Great Barrier Reef for certain Marine life experiences:

Southern-Northern Great Barrier ReefJune-SeptemberHumpback Whale migration
Southern-Northern Great Barrier ReefNovember-DecemberCoral spawning once a year after a full moon!
Outer Great Barrier Reef – From CairnsJune-JulyDwarf Minke Whale season
Southern GBR islands, Green & Fitzroy islandsNovember-FebruaryTurtle nesting season
Southern GBR islands, Green & Fitzroy islandsJanuary-AprilTurtle hatching season
Lady Elliot IslandMay-AugustPeak Manta Ray Season
Lady Elliot IslandSeptember-AprilSea bird season

In Summary

Visiting the Great Barrier Reef is a must when visiting Australia! There are so many wonderful areas of the reef to explore and a plethora of marine life to see. So whether it be chilling on a sun lounger and sipping a cocktail on a tropical island, snorkelling in the Whitsundays or diving on the Ribbon Reefs, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has something for everyone.

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Planning a trip to Queensland? Check out our blogs to help you plan the perfect trip!

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Walks & wildlife of Carnarvon Gorge

Best things to do on Fraser Island

Things to do on Daydream Island


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