Being discovered at the end of 18th century the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) still remains one of the seven natural wonders of the world. If you have not yet visited it, most likely it is present in your Diving Destinations Wish List. Great choice of marine inhabitants; great diving conditions; a great number of diving spots …these entire features make this Reef simply the Great.
The GBR occupies more than 2300 km (1429mi) in the Coral Sea to the north-east from the Australian state of Queensland. It consists of 900 islands and 2900 reefs.
Depending on your final destination you can choose different routes and transportation types to get to the GBR. If you wish to arrive in its northern part, then it might be better to consider a flight to Cairns. If you are targeting central or southern part, try to consider the possibility to arrive via Whitsunday Coast Airport. Usually, both of these destinations are serviced by such companies as Qantas, Virgin Australia, and Jetstar. They can be reached from Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane providing the bilateral flights as well.
Another option is to fly straight to the GBR using Hamilton Island Airport. It is situated on Hamilton Island Reef and the longest will be a 3-hour flight from Melbourne. In order to proceed further to the smaller islands and reefs, you need to use a ferry, a boat, a helicopter or a seaplane.
If you are leaving from the mainland by the sea, you will be using one of the ports: Cairns, Port Douglas, Airlie Beach, Cooktown, Yeppoon or Townsville. The farthest diving spots can be reached only on a liveaboard.
Environmental management charge is imposed on all visitors of the GBR Marine Park. Between January and March the fee for the full-day visit is 6 Australian Dollars (~4.6 USD) and between April and December, it is 6.50 Australian Dollars (~5 USD). Usually, diving or travel operators collect the fee.
The GBR is a huge unique marine ecosystem. In order to protect and preserve this fantastic area noticeable even from cosmos, it was divided into 8 zones under the GBR Marine Park. Zones include Marine National Park (Green); Conservation Park (Yellow); General Use (Light Blue); Habitat Protection (Dark Blue); Scientific Research (Orange); Buffer (Olive Green); Preservation (Pink); and Commonwealth Islands. They were arranged in order to control fishing and tourism as well as to protect the most diversified underwater flora and fauna. Currently, the only zone where diving prohibited is Pink. Detailed information about each of the zones can be found on the website of GBR Marine Park Authority.
If you wish to discover all of the marine inhabitants of the GBR then you might need to spend as much time under the water as Captain Nemo from Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea”.
It is incredible how many species live next to 600 types of hard and soft corals of the world’s biggest reef: reef fish, shells, mollusk, large pelagic and predators. The GBR hosts such descendants of the prehistoric creatures as Turtles, Sharks, Rays, and even Crocodiles. Other big inhabitants are represented by Dugong, Whales, and Dolphins.
Divers can also enjoy about 30 wreck dive sites including the Yongala Wreck which is considered among the best in the world. Some of them have seen the battles during World War II.
Best Dive Sites Overview
It is possible to find the best diving destinations all over the GBR depending on your diving experience, time availability, and budget. You can reach the nearest diving spots from the mainland’s Cairns and Port Douglas which offer a great variety of daily diving trips. The Whitsunday Islands are the best for beginners. Some islands offer only local boat trips, while others, like Ribbon Reefs, can be visited only on a liveaboard.
It is also possible to find special trips concentrating on specific marine creatures, for example, Minke Whale and Manta Ray. Some diving operators offer wildlife expeditions to experienced divers. Such trips usually include the farthest itineraries, like Osprey Reef on the edge of the GBR and the Coral Sea which is famous for its sharks. It can also be a southern route covering Heron Island and Lady Elliot Island.
At least two of the dive sites located on the territory of the GBR are usually included into ratings of World’s Best Diving Destinations. These are Cod Hole and Steve’s Bommie.
Osprey Reef is one of the best destinations to travel to on a liveaboard. Though it is part of the Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve, it’s location on the border with the GBR allow many people to dive it from the latter. It is situated within 350km (mi) from Cairns. The nearest destination serviced by the seaplanes is Lizard Island.
The reef has an oval shape with a lagoon in the center 30m (98ft.) deep. As the Reef is isolated from other destinations and it is surrounded by the abyss going down to 2km (1.2mi) it attracts the ultimate number of pelagic and predators. The deep waters hide huge-sized soft and hard corals as well as relict fauna discovered not long ago. There is a chance to see Nautilus, Manta, Eagle Ray, Turtle, Marlin, Whale Shark, Sperm Whale, and Beaked Whale. There are different diving spots around the Island, and it can be either a deep or a drift dive along the wall depending on the current. This Island also hosts the world-famous North Horn dive site.
This is the Shark Kingdom featuring almost all existing types of Sharks. North Horn is famous for its shark feeding opportunities. The spectacle is controlled by the Queensland Government in order to avoid any risk of divers as well as damage to the environment. Divers can stay at the depth of 10-15m (32-49ft) in the area reminding the coral amphitheatre while enjoying the feeding show. You can expect to see Grey Reef Shark, Whitetip Reef Shark, Silky Shark, Silvertip Shark, Hammerhead Shark, and Tiger Shark.
If sharks are not the only ones attracting your attention here, then you might spot Manta, Eagle Ray, Barracuda, Rainbow Runners, Giant Trevally, Tunas, and Big Potato Cod around the area.
Ribbon Reefs are located 50-100km (31-62mi) to the north of Queensland. A transfer on the liveaboard can take several days from Cairns or Port Douglas. If you are travelling from Lizard Island, it will take you about 1 day to get here.
There are 10 reefs which are famous for their largest marine biodiversity. Though they are located quite far away, the dive sites are not deep here. The reef usually starts at about 5m (16ft.) below the surface and stretches to 25-30m (82-98ft.). Here you will often see bommies, this is an Australian term for pinnacles. Ribbon Reefs are very popular among underwater photographers. Besides the widest variety of fish and corals, you have a chance to encounter Minke Whale in June-July.
This is one of the world’s best-rated dive sites. It can be found near the Ribbon Reef No.10. The name was given due to the Potato Cod (Grouper) which reside on this territory. The depth here ranges between 5-25m (16-82ft.), so any level of diver can enjoy communication with these friendly creatures. Napoleons, Whitetip Reef Shark, a large variety of reef fish, crustaceans, and small creatures like Pygmy Seahorse usually complement to the underwater composition here.
This is the other world’s best-rated site of GBR which is located near the Ribbon Reef No.3. The pinnacle stretches between 5-25m (16-82ft.). There are different versions about the person who has given his name to the Reef; however, there is a small plate to commemorate him at the depth of 25m (82ft.). This is a beautiful dive site for macro life amateurs and photographers. Circling schools of Barracuda, Snappers, Trevally, and Batfish are usually seen in June-August. Those who have a quick eye might notice Leaf Scorpionfish, Stonefish, and beautiful Wobbegong Shark trying to look like a carpet on the reef.
The central part of the GBR often called the Outer Barrier Reef is usually reached by the daily diving boats and some liveaboards from Cairns. Among the most popular dive sites, there are Milln Reef, Flynn Reff, Pellowe Reef, and Thetford Reef. The dives sites typically include reef and wall diving. The average depth of dives here ranges between 5-20m (16-65ft.).
The area is famous for the large variety of soft coral including Black Corals and Anemones sheltering an endemic Clownfish. Hard corals are represented by Sea Fan, Staghorn Coral, Brain Coral, Mushroom Coral, Fire Coral, and Table Coral.
On some of the dive sites in this area, you will encounter the giant Clam. It can reach the size of 2m (6ft.) which usually take about 100 years. It is possible to see schools of Squids, Turtles, Whitetip Reef Sharks, Napoleon, Nudibranchs, Painted Lobster, and Stingrays. The latter gained notoriety after the deadly incident with the world’s famous Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin. By some tragic coincidence, a Stingray attacked him at the Batt Reef not far from Port Douglas.
This is one of the Islands on the southern edge of the GBR. You can arrive here by a ferry boat, a seaplane or a helicopter. There is a Resort on the Island and only the guests of the resort have a chance to discover the underwater paradise around Heron Island. This area is particularly famous its population of Turtles which is estimated around 4000. Green Sea Turtle and Loggerhead Sea Turtle nest and breed here between October and March. It is usual to meet at least 1 Turtle each time you dive here.
The Island provides about 20 dive sites. All of them are located quite shallow, between 5-18m (16-59ft.). The place is covered with soft and hard corals, some fields of Staghorn Coral look like underwater plantations. The dive sites Heron Bommie and North Bommie are used by many marine creatures as cleaning stations. They usually attract Manta Ray, Eagle Ray, and Turtle for cleanings. It is common to see Wobbegong Shark, Whitetip Reef Shark, Grey Reef Shark, Stingray, Barracuda, Lionfish, and Batfish around this area. You can also find different types of Nudibranch and crustaceans here.
Best Dive Season
You can dive at the GBR at any time of the year. Depending on the area you are targeting at or some specific marine creature the best season might slightly differ. Usually, the local dive clubs recommend arriving between June and November when there is little chance of rain, the sea is calm and the visibility tends to be the best. This is a dry season while a period between December and May is a wet season.
If you are coming to watch Minke Whale, then you’d better plan to arrive between May and August. Humpback Whale can also be spotted during June-August.
October and November are the months for the incredible coral spawning spectacle. This event can be witnessed during 4-5 days after the full moon in October or November; sometimes it is also spotted in December.
Turtles nesting and breeding season takes place in October -March. Their hatchlings attract predators, especially sharks.
The water temperature at the GBR ranges between 22-24ºC (71-75ºF) in June-August being the winter months for Australia. During the summer months of December-February, the water temperature rises to 28-30ºC (82-86ºF).
The visibility depends on the currents, tides, and surge. In average it stays between 15-25m (49-82ft.) for the destinations close to the mainland while the reefs in deeper areas feature 30-60m (98-196ft.) visibility. The best visibility at Osprey Reef is usually seen between June-September while at the Ribbon Reefs it is best in September-November.
The currents are usually gentle and mild closer to the shore. Though you might face some strong currents the further you go from the mainland.
Marine life of the GBR consists of one of the most complex and fragile ecosystems of the world. The smallest creatures of the Reef include 1300 species of crustaceans and 3000 molluscs. Molluscs are represented by Nudibranch, Snail, Chiton, Clam, Squid, Cuttlefish, Octopus, and amazing Nautilus. There are not many places in the world where you have a chance to see this real living fossil. Nautilus is a pelagic marine mollusc which has not changed during millions of years. It still continues to come from the deep waters and amaze us by its jet-propelled motions. If you want to see the Giant Clam, then Lizard Island and its Watsons Bay is the best place for this.
There are 14 types of Sea Snakes and a Saltwater Crocodile which can also be found at the Reef. The latter can be seen in the coastal waters.
Marine mammals are represented by more than 30 species. You have a chance to see Minke Whale, Humpback Whale, Bottlenose Dolphin, and such rare creatures as Dugong and Bryde’s Whale.
The GBR hosts 6 species of Turtles: Green Sea Turtle, Hawksbill Turtle, Loggerhead Sea Turtle, Leatherback Sea Turtle, Olive Ridley, and Flatback Turtle. It was discovered that the temperature of the sand around the turtle’s nest determines the sex of a hatchling: if it is cold it will become a male while warm sand producers females.
The GBR has been always famous for its Sharks and Rays which are now estimated at more than 130 species. The most commonly seen types are Whitetip and Blacktip Reef Shark, Grey Reef Shark, Wobbegong Shark, Hammerhead Shark, and Tiger Shark. Whale Shark is not a regular guest of the GBR; however, there were cases of spotting them between November and January.
There are more than 1600 species of fish which can be found at the Reef. Napoleon and Giant Potato Cod are the ones to attract the main attention due to their large size. Both of these species can reach the size of 2m (6ft.) or even more. Ribbon Reefs are famous for their dive sites hosting these favorite models of photographers.
Among the other marine inhabitants of the GBR, it is important to mention Jellyfish. Two species should be handled with care: Box Jellyfish and Irukandji Jellyfish. These are the most poisonous ones which can be encountered during the warm water season in November-May. Divers and snorkelers are recommended to wear Lycra or wetsuits to protect themselves from possible stings.
Though the GBR has always been famous for its fantastic soft and hard corals, as of April 2016 the reefs are suffering the worst ever coral bleaching. The Reef has overcome the similar events in 1998 and 2002. However, the global sea warming and El Niño at the end of 2015 have resulted in the latest bleaching. The most damaged areas are the far northern reefs where the level of bleaching is identified as severe. The detailed information about the impact and areas of bleaching can be found in official statements of the GBR Marine Park Authority.
If you are considering staying off the coast of Queensland, then there are several beautiful islands offering resort accommodation and daily diving trips to the nearby areas. However, you can find a wide choice of diving accommodation on the mainland as well.
Heron Island Resort
This Resort is located in the southern part of the GBR and it belongs to the chain of Delaware North Parks & Resorts. It is famous for its location next to Green and Loggerhead Turtle breeding area. The Resort offers different types of rooms for the guests including Turtle Rooms, Reef Rooms, Suites, and a freestanding Beach House. All rooms are equipped with en-suite bathroom, a balcony or a terrace, a refrigerator, ironing facilities, tea and coffee facilities. There is a restaurant, Spa, and water sports center on site. The guests are offered free snorkeling lessons and free guided reef tours aside from 20 dive spots around the Island. Diving services are provided by the Heron Island Dive Shop.
Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort
This Resort can be located in the southern part of the GBR. It operates according to the rules of an eco-resort which include solar power stations, water desalination, and many other environment-friendly measures. The guests can choose to stay in Island Suite, Reef or Garden Unit, and Eco Cabin. There is a restaurant, a bar, Children’s playground, and beach volleyball court. The diving services are provided by the Lady Elliot Island Dive Shop arranging daily trips to 20 dive spots around the Island.
Lizard Island Resort
This Resort is located in the northern part of the GBR within 1-hour flight from Cairns. There are 40 Rooms, Suites, and Villas to choose from as well as a luxury private The Pavilion and The Villa. The facilities of the Resort consist of a restaurant, a bar, Spa, a library, a pool, and a tennis court. Catamarans, paddles skis, stand-up paddle boards, snorkeling lessons and gear are provided for free for the guests of the Resort.
Thala Beach Nature Reserve
This is the only deluxe eco-resort located between Port Douglas and Cairns. The Resort owns 2km (1.2mi) of private coastline and rainforest. You can choose to stay in Eucalypt Bungalows, Coral Sea Bungalows, Jungle Walk Bungalows, and The Sandpiper Suite. The latter is considered to be the premium accommodation at Thala. All rooms are equipped with en-suite bathroom, a balcony, A/C, tea and coffee facilities. There is a restaurant on site providing a panoramic view over the GBR. The guests of the Resort are provided with free Nature & Garden walks, Coconut Odyssey Tour, and guided Bird and Butterfly Watching Tours.
East Bedarra Island Retreat
This is a private luxury Villa located on Bedarra Island in the heart of the GBR. The Villa offers 1 King Suite with a private saltwater pool and 1 Queen Suite. The Villa features a fully equipped kitchen, a 3D moonlight cinema; BBQ facilities; a covered deck of 120 m² (1291ft²) with a special paneling protected from UV to enjoy the view of the sun and the starry sky. The guests of the Villa can enjoy a kayak, snorkeling equipment, and fishing equipment which is included in the accommodation package.
Brampton Island Resort
The Resort is situated on the Brampton Island being part of Whitsunday Islands. It provides 106 rooms with either Ocean or Palm View. Each room has a private bathroom, a verandah or a patio. The accommodation package usually comes with the meals on the full board basis. The Resort regularly host beach barbecues for its guests. There are a Sea Spa and all types of water sports located on site.
Coconut Grove Port Douglas
Coconut Grove is a 5-star resort featuring 33 exclusive luxury apartments situated in Port Douglas within a short walk from Four-Mile Beach. Apartments are located between the 3 levels: level 1 with terraces, level 2 with balconies, and level 3 is devoted for the penthouses. Each of the rooms has 3 bedrooms, BBQ facilities, and fully equipped kitchen. Terrace apartments feature a terrace pool while the guests of the Penthouse can enjoy the rooftop terrace with magnificent views.
Bay Villas Resort
This resort has a central location in Port Douglas within a walking distance from the downtown. The 4-star resort offers accommodation in a studio or 2-3 bedroom apartments. Each room has a courtyard or a balcony, fully equipped kitchen, and a dishwasher. The facilities at the Resort feature a BBQ area, 2 pools, and free WiFi in all the rooms.
Joining liveaboard is the most convenient way to explore the GBR, especially its remote areas. The liveaboard high season takes place between July and November. Most of the itineraries include 2, 3, 4 or 7-nights stay. The price includes accommodation, all meals, pick-ups and transfers to the airport, weight, tanks, and underwater guide services.
This 30m (98ft.) long liveaboard was custom built at the request of Mike Ball Dive Expeditions and it is the most awarded vessel in Australia. There are 14 Cabins which are divided into Queen, Double and Twin-share Cabins to accommodate up to 28 guests. There is a spacious dive deck, sundeck, and lounge deck aboard. The boat is proud of its meals and she is ready to service any dietary requirements. Mike Ball specifically mentions that all their itineraries are located at least 160km (100mi) off Cairns.
Spirit of Freedom
This is another liveaboard which got the award in Australia. She is 37m (121ft.) long vessel which is ready to accommodate up to 26 divers. The guests can choose either one of the 9 cabins on the lower deck or 1 Standard and 1 Deluxe Cabin on the upper deck with ocean view. All Cabins feature A/C, a private bathroom, and a wardrobe. The boat has a wine cellar and guests are serviced with a complimentary wine during their meals.
This is a catamaran-type 36m (118ft.) long vessel. You can accommodate in one of the 23 cabins with en-suite bathrooms, A/C, and TV. Usually, you can reach it from Cairns by a speedboat transfer. There are 3 decks, a bar, and a library aboard. Itinerary often covers the Outer GBR dive sites. The vessel offers special equipment for night dives which include custom-designed mask filters and torches to enjoy fluorescent light under the water.
The Fleet consists of 3 similar 25m (82ft.) long liveaboards named Scubapro I, II and III. Each of the boats can accommodate up to 32 divers offering itinerary around the Outer GBR. The vessel features a spacious dive deck, a sun deck, and a saloon. WiFi is available aboard and it is provided free of charge.
MV Kangaroo Explorer
This is a 4-star 26m (85ft.) long liveaboard. 36 guests can be accommodated in 6 Twin Cabins, 3 Quad Cabins, and 6 Double Cabins. All of them feature en-suite bathrooms and A/C. Guests can enjoy a salon, a library, a sun deck, and a dive deck. The meals are served on the buffet basis. The route usually covers locations not far from Cairns.
Other Activities For Non-Divers
The GBR offers fantastic snorkeling opportunities. You can enjoy snorkeling around the islands or you can take a daily cruise on one of the boats. Among the most popular snorkeling places, there are Whitsunday Islands, Lizard and Heron Islands. You can also visit a floating Agincourt Reef Platform serviced by Quicksilver. Please note that snorkelers as other visitors of the GBP need to pay an Environmental management charge. As of 2016, it is 6.50AUD (5USD) for the full day visit and 3.25AUD (2.5USD) for the half day visit during the highest season between April and December. During January-March, it is 6AUD (4.6USD) and 3AUD (2.3USD) accordingly. Some additional charges like fuel and port fees might also be applied by the snorkeling trip operator. A Lycra suit or a 3mm wetsuit is recommended for snorkeling especially during the Jellyfish season in November-May.
Whale Watching Tours
Each year Minke Whales and Humpback Whales migrate from Antarctica to the GBR for mating and giving birth to their calves. This annual event gives a fantastic opportunity to watch these giants during specially organized tours. The best time to watch Humpback Whales is between July and September.
Minke Whales are usually seen between May and August especially in the northern part of Ribbon Reefs. Not all of the boats have permission for visitors to swim with these mammals. Thus, if you are interested in swimming with them you’d better check about this with your tour operator.
Excursions and Other Activities
There are many other ways to discover the beauty of the GBR like glass-bottomed boats, underwater observatories, OceanWalker submersions, and underwater jet skies.
If you prefer to get a birds’-eye view over the GBR, you can try sight-seeing flights on helicopters or even a hot-air Balloon. It is also possible to Sky Dive from over 3048m (10000ft.) enjoying a fantastic perspective over GBR, Cairns, and Rainforest.
To take a closer look at the jungle, waterfalls, and rainforests you can take trekking tours over one of the parks located not far from the coastline: Daintree National Park, Barron Gorge National Park, and Wooroonooran National Park.