Which Great Barrier Reef precinct is for you?
2,300km long, comprising 3,000 separate reefs, and 900 continental islands and coral cays – the Great Barrier Reef is immense. So where should you go?
Winding along the Queensland coastline from Bundaberg to beyond the tip of the mainland, the Great Barrier Reef can be divided into five precincts, each with the differing experiences, highlights and the richness of biodiversity you’d expect from an eco-system the size of a medium-sized country.
The Wild North
You may have visited the Great Barrier Reef before – maybe even more than once. But there’s a good chance you haven’t explored the coral bommies in the wild north.
Rugged, remote and real – this area is the definition of untouched.
Where: Stretching north from Port Douglas, the Wild North encompasses parts of the Daintree Rainforest, Cape Tribulation, Cooktown, Cape York and the Torres Strait Islands.
How to get here: Pack your sense of adventure. For most sections, a flight to Cairns paired with a hire car for the drive north is the easiest and most common. If visiting the Torres Strait, daily flights depart Cairns to Horn Island, services such as McDonald Charter Boats will then ferry you across to Thursday Island.
When to visit: Northern Queensland has two seasons: wet and dry. The ideal time to visit is in the dry season from May to September – clearer days, less humidity and no stingers.
The must-do experiences
2. Witness one of the most exclusive wildlife encounters in the world during the short Minke Whale season from June-July. Little is know about these elusive creatures, but what we do know is they are highly curious and seem to enjoy human interactions.
3. Explore rugged beaches and ancient Indigenous rock art on the seven islands of Flinders Group National Park.
4. Dive with the world’s largest green turtle population on the reefs around Raine Island with Mike Ball Dive Expeditions.
5. Camp at one of Australia’s most northern glamping sites at Cape Tribulation and wake to the Great Barrier Reef on your doorstep and the Daintree Rainforest in your backyard.
6. Fly to Horn Island in the Torres Strait to get acquainted with the islands’ pearl farming, WWII and cultural history.
7. Splurge on a helicopter fishing expedition from Horn Island or Weipa.
9. If you’re after an unforgettable holiday, visit Haggerstone Island, or if you want the reef all to yourself – you can rent the entire island.
Cairns and Port Douglas
This is the Great Barrier Reef you picture in your dreams – the ancestral home that has allured visitors for decades.
More than just the Reef, Cairns and Port Douglas combines the World’s oldest living rainforest and adventure for all tastes, along with unmissable underwater experiences.
Where: The heart of the region is Cairns. It stretches a little to the south and 90 minutes’ drive north to Port Douglas.
How to get here: The international airport in Cairns is your answer. With so much to explore around the region, a hire car is also recommended for your stay.
When to visit: The region can be visited year-round, but the winter months offer greater visibility underwater and more pleasant temperatures on land. It’s the perfect way to replace 5 degree winter days in the south of Australia with very pleasant mid-20s.
The must-do experiences
1. Enjoy quality underwater time by visiting Agincourt Reef with the heavyweights of eco-conscious reef tours, Quicksilver Cruises.
2. The Great Barrier Reef’s sheer size and scale really comes to life with a birds-eye view. See it in style with Nautilus Aviation, enjoying 40 minutes of airtime before touching down on Vlassoff Cay – your own private picnic location in the middle of the Reef.
3. Take your pick from the equally stunning historic railway, cable car or scenic drive and make your way to the mountainous village of Kuranda for a day exploring sections of the World Heritage Listed Wet Tropics Rainforest.
4. Visit the turtle rehabilitation centre on Fitzroy Island. While you’re here, you might as well stay a few nights and enjoy one of Australia’s best beaches – Nudie Beach.
5. Escape to the privacy of Bedarra Island off the coast of Mission Beach and dive nearby Otter Reef (or just relax in a hammock all day instead).
6. Camp like a true castaway on Dunk Island and walk the trails to discover remnants left by the Royal Australian Air Force during WWII.
7. Take a 15-minute dash from Port Douglas to Low Isles with Reef Sprinter to snorkel with turtles and reef sharks.
8. Visit the worst-kept secret on the Great Barrier Reef – the Frankland Islands. Low-key, small-footprint travel with the team at Frankland Island Reef Cruises will have you face-to-face with clown fish and turtles within minutes.
Townsville North Queensland
Exceptionally healthy reef systems, wreck diving punctuated by one of the most sought-after shipwrecks in the world and the home of Great Barrier Reef conservation on land have elevated Townsville to a must-visit destination for divers and reef lovers alike.
Where: The Townsville region includes Ayr to the south and Mission Beach to the north.
How to get here: Townsville receives daily flights from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, and thanks to its placement near other destinations, it’s highly accessible by both air and land. If you’re already in Cairns, it’s only a four hour drive down the Bruce Highway or if the Whitsundays is your base, it’s a three hour journey north.
When to visit: Any time is a good time for Townsville, but like its northern neighbours, outside the months of December-February are ideal.
The must-do experiences
1. Dive the SS Yongala wreck, which is consistently rated as one of the top 10 dive sites in the world.
2. Spark your curiosity at Reef HQ, the world’s largest living coral aquarium and home to 150 species of reef fish, turtles, and live shark feedings.
3. Go on an overnight hiking adventure around the World Heritage-listed Hinchinbrook Island and discover the remote beaches and waterfalls of the island’s famous Thorsborne Trail.
5. Take a tour of the research station on Orpheus Island and peer over the shoulder of visiting scientists undertaking research on the Great Barrier Reef.
6. Throw on your best sailing hat and get involved in Magnetic Island Race Week, whether you’re manning the winches as a deckie or cheering from the shoreline.
7. Paddle out on a sunset kayak around Horseshoe Bay on Magnetic Island to spot turtles and dolphins before a champagne toast.
8. Dive into Shark Alley to spot blacktip and white-tip reef sharks, grey reef whaler sharks and pygmy rays from October to December on Wheeler Reef.
9. Camp on Pelorus Island and snorkel fringing reef just a few steps from your tent. There are no camping facilities on the island so you’ll need to be a savvy camper.
10. Follow the Nelly Bay and Geoffrey Bay snorkelling trails off Magnetic Island, with the Moltke wreck and a WWII aeroplane propeller your reward (plus giant clams, hard corals and an array of fish species, of course).
The Whitsundays and Mackay
Ahhh, the home of Heart Reef, Whitehaven Beach and a million quintessential Great Barrier Reef photos. Welcome to the Whitsundays and Mackay, where 74 islands await.
You might come for the sailing and end up staying for the summer. Drop into Airlie Beach on a road trip and find yourself returning with your family 10 years later. Any way you look at it, there’s a good chance this region will capture your heart.
Where: The Whitsundays covers the land-based towns of Mackay, Airlie Beach, Proserpine and Bowen (among others) as well as the regions 74 famous islands including Hamilton, Daydream and Hayman.
How to get here: There are two options for flights into the region – Proserpine airport (40 minute drive from Airlie Beach – a bus service lines up with incoming flights) and direct flights to Hamilton Island.
When to visit: The annual migration of Humpback whales take advantage of the Whitsundays’ protected waters to give birth, making June-September an ideal time for us mere humans to join them.
The must-do experiences
1. Spend a day on the best beach in the world. Ruin all other beaches for life.
2. Charter a yacht and sail your way around the 74 islands that make up the Whitsundays – no billionaire bank balance or boat licence required.
3. Take a quintessential scenic flight over Heart Reef (declarations of love and proposals are most definitely encouraged). Want to turn it up a notch? Check out this tour to be one a handful of people who get to snorkel around this lovely coral outcrop.
4. Get touchy-feely in the Living Reef Lagoon on the recently re-opened Daydream Island.
5. Sleep right on top of the reef on Cruise Whitsundays’ Reefsleep floating pontoon under a sky full of stars (and the splash of Nemo just below you) or camp like a true castaway on the Newry Islands off Mackay.
6. Join a deep sea fishing charter from Mackay or Airlie Beach.
7. Kayak your way around some of the lesser-known beauty spots of the Whitsundays with Salty Dog Sea Kayaking.
8. Zip and bounce along the pristine waters of the Whitsundays in Ocean Rafting’s wildly fun vessels as you visit the best-of-the-best including snorkel sites and Whitehaven Beach, or take to the skies in their fly and raft tour.
The Southern Great Barrier Reef
Sitting pretty in the southernmost reaches of the Great Barrier Reef, the heroes of this region are the islands, particularly the coral cays that are home to low-key nature experiences, epic diving and snorkelling and some of nature’s true miracles.
Where: The Southern Great Barrier Reef covers a range of regions including Bundaberg, Gladstone, Yeppoon, Agnes Water and 1770 as well as island gems including Lady Musgrave, Heron, Lady Elliot, Great Keppel, Pumpkin and Wilson islands.
How to get here: There are a host of options for flights with the major destinations of Bundaberg, Gladstone and Rockhampton all serviced directly from Brisbane. The best way to see the region is to land in one destination, hire a car and begin exploring up and down the coast.
When to visit: Sitting pretty around latitude 24 makes the region perfect all year round. Turtles nest and hatch at Mon Repos and on nearby Lady Musgrave, Heron and Lady Elliot Islands from November-March every year while the whale migration passes many of the region’s islands from June-October.
The must-do experiences
1. Watch turtle hatchlings burst out of their nests and hurl themselves down to the oncoming waves under moonlight at Mon Repos.
2. Join the amphibious LARC! in the Town of 1770 for a trip up to the Bustard Head lighthouse and toast the sunset – one of only a handful of places on Australia’s east coast where the sun melts into the ocean.
3. Take your pick of 17 pristine beaches and a range of accommodation options on Great Keppel Island – 30 minutes by ferry from Rosslyn Bay.
4. Camp on the coral atoll that is Lady Musgrave Island for a measly $6.50 per night and enjoy a front-yard consisting of some of Australia’s greatest, richest reef.
6. Swim with resident manta rays and snap a turtle selfie in the waters surrounding Lady Elliot Island.
7. Equalise and dive your way around the 20 spectacular dive sites surrounding Heron Island.
8. Hunt down an elusive secret surf break – it does happen, you just need to speak to the right locals to get there.