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.
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.
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.
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 the Eye on the Reef app.
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).
The Great Barrier Reef is a living adventure playground. The most important question: what to do first?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.