Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest and longest coral reef system, stretching for 2,300km from the tip of Cape York in the north to Bundaberg in the south. Comprising 3,000 separate reefs and some 900 continental islands and coral cays, it’s one of the world’s great natural wonders. Home to over 1,500 species of fish, abundant marine life and over 200 types of birds, it’s also one of Australia’s greatest conservation successes. A World Heritage Area since 1981 (the world’s first reef ecosystem to be recognised by UNESCO), it is highly protected and one of the best-managed marine areas on Earth.

Facts and information

The Great Barrier Reef is breathtaking to behold – and so is its size and scope. A vast interplay of ecosystems and their inhabitants, the reef is home to around 600 types of hard and soft corals. Hard corals form the ‘backbone’ of the reef, providing a living home for a huge range of marine animals, from fish and molluscs to plankton and algae. The annual coral spawning is an incredible sight: think of it as an underwater snowstorm, when millions of coral release eggs and sperm into the sea to reproduce, ensuring the survival of the reef.

Islands on the Great Barrier Reef

The reef’s islands range from tiny rocky outcrops, to sprawling national parks of untouched rainforest, to exclusive private resorts fringed with powder-white beaches. In the centre, the Whitsundays – an archipelago of 74 islands – can accessed by flying directly to Hamilton Island (the islands’ main hub), or by ferry from Airlie Beach, the closest hub on the mainland. Stay on popular Whitsunday holiday locations like Hamilton Island and Long Island’s Palm Bay Resort. On the Southern Great Barrier Reef, Heron Island is an eco-haven, with turtle nesting sites and an on-site research station. At the northern end of the reef, Lizard Island – 240km north of Cairns – is home to an ultra-luxe retreat with just 40 rooms.

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Looking after the reef

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is home to a complex yet fragile ecosystem that, with almost three million visitors each year, requires ¬careful management and conservation strategies. Sustainability is key and tourism operators play a crucial role in protecting and advocating that coral and marine life are preserved. Visitors, too can play an important role: look for and book with a high standard operator  (those who have EcoTourism Australia or EarthCheck certification) to make a direct contribution to the conservation of the reef. 

High standard operators include an environmental management charge (EMC) of $6.50 as part of their ticket price. You can also get involved with a number of organisations, including Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, Reef Check Australia, Reef Teach and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, many of which offer voluntourism opportunities to help clean up the reef, monitor wildlife and collect invaluable data. Many tourism operators also encourage guests to act as ‘citizen scientists’, report observations and wildlife sightings via on the Eye on the Reef app.

Marine life

The Great Barrier Reef’s extraordinary biodiversity of species and habitats make it one of the most complex natural systems on Earth. It’s home to an incredible array of marine animals, including six of the world’s seven marine turtle species, important dugong populations and Australia’s underwater answer to Africa’s Big Five game animals, The Great Eight (giant clams, manta rays, sharks, turtles, whales (both humpbacks and minkes), potato cod, Maori wrasse and clown fish).

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Burnett Heads

Burnett Heads, Bundaberg Area
Burnett Heads is nestled along the Coral Coast and is most readily identifiable by the two historic lighthouses that dot its coastline. Oaks Beach is a 200 metre long stretch of beach safe for surfing and swimming with many choosing to fish off the rocks and groyne at The Oaks which are the best places to reach deep water.

The Blowhole

Lady Elliot Island, Bundaberg Area
Lady Elliot Island has many wonderful dive sites, but the most dramatic dive site off this coral cay would have to be The Blowhole. Located off the eastern side of the island, this spectacular L-shaped cave opens on the reef top and exits on the reef wall.

Musgrave Dropoff

Lady Musgrave Island, Gladstone Area
On the southern side of Lady Musgrave Island the reef edge drops from 10 metres to 25 metres and forms an amazing wall of coral. Often simply called Musgrave Dropoff, this extensive wall is rarely dived, but you can jump in anywhere along its length and have a great dive.

Mon Repos

Mon Repos, Bundaberg Area
If you didn't know what the fuss was about, you would think Mon Repos is just another beautiful beach in the Bundaberg region, but nestled in the dunes this beach marks a very special, ancient ritual for the oceans most wise mariners.

Second Reef Dive Site

Lady Elliot Island, Bundaberg Area
Free Entry
Located off the western side of Lady Elliot Island, Second Reef is a long ridge of coral that varies in depth from 2 to 12 metres. Lovely hard corals feature on this reef, but with many ledges and caves to explore it is always a fascinating dive.

Three Pyramids

Lady Elliot Island, Bundaberg Area
The Three Pyramids is a collection of three coral bommies on the sheltered western side of Lady Elliot Island. Rising from the sand in depths from 20m, these coral heads attract a great variety of marine life, with each one home to a good population of reef fish and invertebrates.

Mon Repos Turtle Centre, Mon Repos Conservation Park

Bundaberg, Bundaberg Area
Free Entry
No visit to Mon Repos is complete without a stop at the turtle centre. Here you’ll learn heaps about marine turtles, and the conservation and research programs that are protecting them. You'll also find out how a colourful history and ancient connections have shaped the Mon Repos you see today.

Severance Shipwreck Dive Site

Lady Elliot Island, Bundaberg Area
Free Entry
Quite a few ships have come to grief on the fringing reef around Lady Elliot Island, but only one of these can be dived, that is the Severance. This fully intact yacht sank in 1998 and still has much of its rigging in place that is now covered in glorious soft corals.

Lady Musgrave Island

Lady Musgrave Island, Gladstone Area
An underwater oasis is waiting to be discovered as you pop on your snorkel and mask to reveal one of the Great Barrier Reef's biggest swimming pools at Lady Musgrave Island. The protected lagoon is truly unique on this coral cay island, where you can play castaway on a bare-bones camping adventure or hop aboard a luxury vessel and visit in star worthy style.

Moore Park

Moore Park Beach, Bundaberg Area
Characterised by the 14 kilometre long stretch of beach front Moore Park Beach is a popular holiday seaside town as well as strong community of locals, located 21 kilometres north of Bundaberg city. There is a wide range of accommodation available from beach huts, villas, motel or holiday park for camping and caravans.
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Tours and things to do on the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is a living adventure playground. The most important question: what to do first?

Diving and snorkelling

There are thousands of snorkel and dive sites to explore along the Great Barrier Reef, from fringing reefs – accessible straight from the beach, at various islands – to centuries-old shipwrecks and remote bommies on the outer reef.

Sailing

In the heart of the Great Barrier Reef you’ll find Australia’s best sailing destination, the Whitsunday Islands. Yachts of all sizes are available for charter, either with a full crew or captain your own bareboat and charter your own course. Hop between bustling marinas at Hamilton Island and Airlie Beach or drop anchor alongside deserted beaches.

Scenic flights

The reef is breathtaking from above and offers a unique perspective of its sheer size. Take a scenic flight from Port Douglas or Cairns to Mackay or Vlassoff cays for snorkelling, or from Airlie Beach or Hamilton Island, fly over famous Heart Reef and land at Whitehaven Beach for a gourmet picnic.

Day tours

You can easily experience the reef on a day-trip (or even a half-day). These depart from Cairns, Port Douglas, Townsville, Airlie Beach, Town of 1770, Bundaberg and many other points along the coastline.

Sleep on the reef

For something really special, spend a night on the reef. Cruise to an offshore pontoon and sleep under the stars with just a handful of other people. Or be lulled to sleep by the gentle waves with a night on a private yacht.

Islands

There are 900 islands and coral cays throughout the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, offering luxurious resorts, beach campsites, eco-experiences and wildlife encounters. Discover quiet beaches and untouched national parks in the Southern Great Barrier Reef, vibrant resorts in the Whitsundays and rugged remote outposts in the Northern Great Barrier Reef.

Great Barrier Reef for families

Accessible resorts, snorkelling and diving adventures, animal encounters and eco experiences make the reef perfect for families. The reef is the ideal place to learn to snorkel, while hands-on “meet the reef” experiences will give kids the chance to learn about marine wildlife and the ecosystem. Glass-bottom boat tours are a great way to see the reef, while on dry land, Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef in Townsville and the Cairns Aquarium are educational and fun.

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How to get there


Depending on where you are, most of the reef sits between 15km and 150km offshore – with some reef areas accessible from beaches on Australia’s mainland coastline. If you’re short of time, try Horseshoe Bay in the town of Bowen. Here’s how to access it from along the Queensland coast.

Cairns, Port Douglas, Cape Tribulation and the Torres Strait

The northernmost part of the Great Barrier Reef sits offshore from Tropical North Queensland. Day-trips to the inner and outer reefs, and Green and Fitzroy islands, depart from Cairns and Port Douglas. 

You can also fly to some of the reef’s northern islands, such as Lizard Island and Haggerstone Island, from Cairns.

Townsville

Magnetic Island is the gateway to the reef from Townsville. Located 25 minutes from the city, and easily accessible by ferry, the island offers a selection of day trips to snorkel sites around the island’s eastern shores. From Townsville, it’s also a mere 30-minute scenic flight to the private luxury resort, Orpheus Island. Day trips to SS Yongala – one of the best wreck dives in the world – are also accessible from Townsville, Orpheus Island and Magnetic Island.

The Whitsundays

All of the Whitsunday Islands are surrounded by fringing reef teaming with soft or hard corals and fish life. Hamilton is the only island with an airport and flights arrive from many Australian centres. Airlie Beach is the mainland port for the islands, with regular ferry transfers to Hamilton and private tours or transfers to many others. To get between the islands, consider chartering a yacht or hire your own bareboat.

Southern Great Barrier Reef

The Southern Great Barrier Reef runs from the Capricorn Coast near Rockhampton down to Bundaberg. Lady Elliot Island is the southernmost island on the reef and has an airstrip, with regular private flights from the Gold Coast, Brisbane, Hervey Bay and Bundaberg. Heron Island, a natural coral cay known for its turtles, is a 2.5-hour ferry ride from Gladstone. Take a day-trip to Lady Musgrave Island from Bundaberg or the Town of 1770. Make your way to one of Great Keppel Island’s 17 white sand beaches or private Pumpkin Island on a ferry from Yeppoon.

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