The best eco-friendly experiences on the Great Barrier Reef
An Australian icon and living global treasure, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most biodiverse places on earth, perfect for an eco-friendly adventure both above and below the waterline.
To make your next visit extra friendly, we’ve rounded up the best ecotourism options on the Great Barrier Reef that give you unparalleled access to this incredible World Heritage Area.
Get up close with turtles on Fitzroy Island
Just off the coast of Cairns is Fitzroy Island; an eco-friendly haven that’s home to some of the best sand and sea experiences on the Great Barrier Reef—and one of the largest turtle rehabilitation centres in Queensland (which you can tour).
As well as being able to get up close with these incredible creatures, you can learn how the centre, its scientists and volunteers provide much-needed medical care and rehabilitation to hundreds of injured turtles found in the region.
Getting there: Fitzroy Island lies 29kms south-east of Cairns, taking approximately 45 minutes by ferry from the Cairns Marlin Marina.
Hit up a state-of-the-art research station on Heron Island
This world-famous island located on the Southern Great Barrier Reef is a dream destination for any would-be adventurer. Protected by the calm waters of its surrounding reef, Heron Island offers first-class snorkelling – as well as the opportunity to develop your understanding of the important work being carried out on the reef.
Boasting the largest island-based research station in the southern hemisphere, this tropical haven is punching well above its weight when it comes to producing leading research to help protect the Great Barrier Reef.
Book a tour to go behind the scenes of crucial research projects currently in the works as well as hands on time in the touch tank with creatures found on the reef.
Getting there: Located 72kms off the coast of Queensland, Heron Island can be accessed from Gladstone by boat, seaplane or private helicopter.
Explore a less-visited island
The Frankland Islands are the hidden gems of the Great Barrier Reef. This cluster of four National Park islands off the coast of Cairns—Normanby, Round, Mabel and Russel—have been virtually untouched and are home to some of the most vibrant coral reefs and marine life. From whales to dugongs to mantas, the waters are brimming with life (so keep your eyes on that big blue).
For the ultimate off-the-beaten-track adventure, book a day trip with Frankland Islands Reef Cruises. Working closely with the Great Barrier Marine Park, they’re the only operator with a licence to take visitors to the Frankland Islands, in order to minimise the tourist footprint.
Getting there: The Frankland Islands are just 10km offshore, south-east of Cairns and can be reached by boat, courtesy of Frankland Islands Reef Cruises.
Spend the night at an eco-resort
Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort takes eco-friendly practices to new heights. From their own hybrid solar power station to basic low-impact accommodation, the team leads the way in project investment and research to help the reef recover from the ongoing effects of climate change.
The island is also the first of five climate change refuges announced as part of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation’s commitment to protecting the reef.
Staying here is not only an incredible way to experience life on the Great Barrier Reef, but gives you the chance to participate in their citizen science projects, Reef Check and REEFSearch – so you can put your time snorkelling to good use as you assist in documenting the surrounding reef.
Need more convincing? Here’s another eight reasons to visit.
Getting there: Lady Elliot Island is only accessible by air from Bundaberg, Hervey Bay, Redcliffe (Brisbane) and the Gold Coast. Given its remote location on the Great Barrier Reef, Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort manage flight transfers as part of their holiday packages. Day trips are also available.
Sustainability meets splendour
Eco-conscious travelling doesn’t always mean going off-the-grid and back to basics. The Great Barrier Reef can be experienced with a little eco-luxury (okay, a LOT of luxury) at Lizard Island and Orpheus Island Lodge. Here, it’s not just the thread count and chef’s hat level dining, but the on-site research stations that are making waves.
Over 100 projects are conducted annually on Lizard Island which is at the forefront of global reef science. The research centre is open to the island resort’s guests twice a week, giving access to current research projects and reef education.
Nestled within the glassy waters of Pioneer Bay on 1,000 hectares of National Park, secluded Orpheus Island Lodge offers all-inclusive glamour – as well as tours of their eco centre, which is visited by renowned marine scientists throughout the year to conduct research on the effects of climate change on the reef.
Getting there: To access Lizard Island, hop on the one-hour charter flight direct from Cairns, available for guests only. Get to Orpheus Island via private helicopter, taking 30-minutes from Townsville.
Sail away on the outer reef
No trip to Tropical North Queensland is complete without heading out to the reef, but hopping on a catamaran for a day of ocean exploration with the eco-certified crew of Passions of Paradise will leave a lasting memory—minus your carbon emissions.
Widely recognised as one of the most eco-conscious tour operators in the country, Passions of Paradise boasts a laundry list of awards, research initiatives, reef survey participation, and a partnership with the Australian Rainforest Foundation (planting 1,200 trees annually) to offset their carbon emissions, all contributing to the ongoing protection of the Great Barrier Reef.
Dive the reef with an eco-certified hall of famer
The ecotourism veteran, Quicksilver Cruises was the first Great Barrier Reef tourism company to earn the highest eco certification in Australia. If there was ever a way to enjoy the jaw-dropping spoils of the reef and know your money was serving for good, this is it.
Departing from Port Douglas and taking you to Agincourt Reef on the edge of the Australian Continental Shelf, spend the day on one of the Great Barrier Reef’s most spectacular coral reefs. While Agincourt is famous for its flourishing corals and host of majestic creatures (this is perfect Great Eight territory), it is also the location of Quicksilver’s reef restoration research site – which aims to preserve and maintain this ecologically important site for years to come.
Go to reef school
If you want to know your clownfish from your coral trout, or learn more about the mind-boggling diversity on the Great Barrier Reef, sign yourself up for an evening at leading reef education centre, Reef Teach.
Located in the heart of Cairns, this is a chance to learn more about the Great Barrier Reef, its inhabitants, and how we can help protect it. Evening presentations are for the whole family and hosted by leading marine biologists in the field. Brush up on your coral knowledge, learn how to enjoy the reef sustainably, and get to know this Aussie icon.
Ace Your Base: Destination Daintree
The rainforest meets the reef at the Daintree. And for the ultimate luxury, rest your head at the Daintree Ecolodge; a boutique lodging of 15 secluded tree houses surrounded by the oldest living tropical rainforest on earth.
With access to the Great Barrier Reef, you’re well placed to tick off not one, but two natural wonders in one seriously envy-inducing trip. In keeping with the green theme, a percentage of your stay is donated to Reef Keepers, where funds drive projects that work to protect the Great Barrier Reef. Work has also begun for the Port Douglas Daintree area to become Australia’s first eco-certified region. Not a bad place to base yourself in the Tropical North if you ask us.
Getting there: Hiring a car from Cairns, the Daintree Ecolodge is a 90-minute drive.
Meet The Great Eight On A Guided Snorkel Safari
Tick off some of Australia’s most iconic sea creatures on your day trip from Cairns with Reef Magic Cruises, one of Australia’s most innovative eco-certified tour operators.
Taking day-trippers out to their dedicated Marine World site, join a leading marine biologist along one of the most impressive outer reef walls for a once-in-a-lifetime snorkel safari on the Great Barrier Reef.
Beginners might want to sit this one out on their state-of-the-art pontoon, in the underwater observatory or in a glass bottom boat to see the reef without getting wet.
Other Ways You Can Travel Sustainably
Tourism is a vital way to help fund the ongoing research and restoration of the Great Barrier Reef. The industry is highly regulated throughout the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Area, providing ongoing funding to the projects that protect the reef from the effects of climate change. By choosing to holiday and experience the reef, you’re investing in its protection and its future.
Here are a few more ways you can enjoy an eco-friendly trip:
Choose your tour operator wisely
Whether you’re booking a day trip to the reef, and diving course, accommodation, look for operators with EcoTourism Australia or EarthCheck certification. Choosing a tour operator with a Master Reef Guide onboard also means you’re tapping into the finest minds and storytellers on your journey.
Bonus: part of every tour fee goes straight back to marine park management, helping provide the vital funds needed to help support the ongoing work protecting the reef.
Be the eyes and ears for the Reef
Before your trip to the Great Barrier Reef, consider downloading the Eye On The Reef app. Giving everyone the opportunity to upload images and record information on the reef, this citizen-based program encourages every visitor and research professional to actively engage in reef health and preservation.
Brush up on your knowledge
If you can see it from space, it’s probably worth getting to know this whopping great environment before dipping in your toe. Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef is a social movement designed to unite people from around the world to learn and care about the reef.