How to explore the Great Barrier Reef in a day

Move over New York, there’s a new the city that never sleeps. Only this one is underwater, has coral skyscrapers and happens to be the largest living organism in the world: the Great Barrier Reef.

In fact, it’s pumping with more activity and bright colours than Times Square and is open for business 24-7 too.

But given its vast beauty, there’s a lot to see and do. Rather than trying to cram as much as you can in a day, the Great Barrier Reef is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace. Luckily for you, we’ve been sleuthing the 2300km of the reef for years, charting its behaviours and talking to people who know it like the back of their scuba mask in order to find the ultimate day on the reef.

Don’t worry, you’ll still see everything on your wish list with these itineraries and experiences. Here’s how to make the most of a day on the Great Barrier Reef.

1. Where to watch the sunrise

Early birds are best positioned on a Great Barrier Reef island to catch a postcard-worthy sunrise over the reef. It’s a tough decision picking the best sunrise spot on a reef that’s spoilt for island choices, however you can’t go wrong on a coral cay. Surrounded by reef, they offer the most beautiful, uninterrupted views of the sun coming up over the horizon as it glistens over the ocean. Two famous ladies in the Southern Great Barrier Reef – Lady Musgrave Island and eco-resort Lady Elliot Island –  both promise the best pastel sunrise this side of the mainland.

If you want a more immersive experience, take a stand-up paddle board off the shore of eco-friendly Pumpkin Island and cruise towards the sun.

For seriously Instagrammable sunrise pictures, time your trip for November and December for the chance to see green sea turtles who have come ashore to lay their eggs before slowly lolloping back to the water, following the sun. You can read more about the turtle experiences here.

The reef starts waking up at the first sign of sunlight, too. From the parrot fish eating algae off the coral for breakfast, to anemones opening up, you’ll see a highly active reef as all animals and corals prepare for their day ahead.

2. When you can only dedicate a morning or afternoon to see the Reef

There’s no shortage of reef within reach from the mainland, especially if you only have half a day up your sleeve.

Choose your transport of choice – flying above the reef in a helicopter, gliding through the water on a cruise, kicking back on a sailboat or whizzing over the reef’s surface in a jet boat.

From the air, you’ll get a birds-eye view of the size and scale of this natural wonder. Don’t worry about missing the marine life, the water clarity will have you spotting turtles, whales and schools of fish without needing binoculars. From Cairns, Nautilus and GBR Helicopters will give you a memorable 30-minute helicopter ride.

For boat lovers who like to feel the wind in their hair, a half day spent sailing on a luxury Lagoon 500 catamaran to Low Isles with Sailaway Port Douglas will deliver an unforgettable afternoon of snorkelling and sunset. Once you arrive on the coral cay, fill your afternoon with a guided snorkelling tour with a marine biologist (and possibly a turtle or two), a glass bottom boat ride and an Island Heritage Walk. Who says you need a whole day to see the best of the Great Barrier Reef?! There’s even time for a light lunch, afternoon tea and canapes. At the end of the day, you’ll sail into the sunset as you make your way back to Port Douglas.

3. Spend a full day on the Great Barrier Reef

A full-day tour of the reef is truly the best way to see as much as possible in an eight or more hour window. By day, the reef is buzzing with all the memorable GBR faces, including the Great Eight – clownfish, giant clams, manta rays, Maori wrasse, potato cod, sharks, turtles and whales.

You can experience a day on the reef a few different ways but pontoon or island-based tours are the most popular options.

If a day of sand, snorkelling, paddle boarding, kayaking or exploring an island at your leisure is top of your list, then say ahoy to Fitzroy Island. Just a 45-minute ferry ride from Cairns, this trip promises more time in the water, than getting to it.

For a day trip that has a bit of everything – reef, rainforest and river – Frankland Island Reef Cruises offer a diverse itinerary that won’t disappoint. Departing Cairns daily (or Mission Beach), the tour starts with a boat ride along the rainforest-lined Mulgrave River before heading out into the ocean to Frankland Island. A protected national park, the island has no shortage of things to do during the 4.5 hours  you’re allocated to explore here. A guided snorkelling tour and tropical buffet lunch are included, but plenty more optional activities are available, including clear kayaks, a glass bottom boat tour and a guided island walk. Beginner and certified scuba divers are catered to as well.

If you have great sea legs and want to base yourself firmly in the heart of the reef action – aka the outer reef – go one of the reef pontoons. Reefworld and Quicksilver Cruises pontoons are situated on Hardy Reef (a three-hour journey from Airlie Beach) and Agincourt Reef (90 minutes from Port Douglas) respectively. From these ship-like pontoons, you can enjoy various activities from diving with a scuba helmet, to snorkelling and underwater observatories.

If you want to explore the Great Barrier Reef deeper and up close, check out these places to become a PADI certified scuba diver on the Great Barrier Reef itself.

And of course, don’t forget, there are plenty of ways to see the reef without getting wet with this range of activities, or on a budget here.

4. Where to watch the sunset on the Great Barrier Reef

For sunsets that look more like a watercolour canvas than real life, you can’t beat the reef for uninterrupted views and western-facing outlooks.

Up the romance with a sailing charter around Magnetic Island with Big Mama Sailing, which promises an Instagrammable luxury 18-metre yacht, glass of bubbles and an antipasto platter to enjoy as the sun recedes behind the horizon.

If romantic sails aren’t your thing, then base yourself island-side for the reef’s sunset glow. We love Orpheus Island for an intimate (only 28 guests allowed) experience that balances downtime and adventure. After a day of snorkelling, fishing and cruises, the best spot to soak up a sunset is the island’s exclusive dining experience – Dining with the Tides – which gives you a position on the pier to bid the sun adieu.

Secluded and literally on the Great Barrier Reef, eco-friendly Lizard Island is also perfectly placed for glorious sunset viewing in a multitude of ways. Be wined and dined with ultra-fresh local produce in a private beach pavilion during a seven-course degustation dinner as the sun comes down. Sit on the aptly named Sunset Beach and look out at the reef as the sky lights up in a new array of colours every night.

5. For an overnight experience on the Great Barrier Reef

Sunlover by Starlight

There’s nothing quite like sleeping under a ceiling of stars, but throw in the lapping tunes of some of Australia’s bluest waters blanketing an active reef below, and you have yourself the perfect sleepover setting.

Surrounded by nothing but ocean, with a pontoon as your home and a swag for a bed, Reefsleep (72km from Hamilton Island) and Sunlover by Starlight (54km from Cairns) offer ‘sleep on the reef’ experiences that allow visitors to connect with the reef after dark.

For the more adventurous and diving pros, explore the ocean’s depths with Pro Dive Cairns’ Liveaboard Dive Trip.  When it’s pitch black, you’re more likely to see schooling sharks, octopus, morays and other predators who catch the other animals unawares in the night. Armed with a torch, you’ll find a completely different snorkelling or diving experience, where you can focus your attention in place as the beaming light moves from coral to coral.

After the ultimate once-in-a-lifetime experience on the reef? Time your visit for the miraculous coral spawning event. Known as the ‘snowstorm of the sea’, coral spawning is a fairly recent discovery by researchers who accidentally encountered this phenomenon in 1981. Occurring four to five days after a full moon in October, November or December, when the water temperature is just right, the coral release tiny cells of eggs and sperm to create clouds of white, red, yellow and orange throughout the water.

The opportunity to see this event is all about timing because scientists are unable to predict exactly when the phenomenon will occur. Check out Tusa Dive Coral Spawning Night Dive & Snorkel or Divers Den Coral Spawning for the best guesstimates for when this spectacular natural phenomenon will take place this year.

For more ideas on how to spend a night on the Great Barrier, here are eight ways to sleep on the reef.