The ultimate family-friendly Great Barrier Reef guide

Queensland is blessed with many natural wonders, but one that stands out above all is the Great Barrier Reef; the largest coral reef system in the world.

Running 2600 kilometres along the Queensland coast, from Bundaberg in the south to the tip of Cape York in the north, the Great Barrier Reef is brimming with adventures suited to your family. So pack the swimmers, and pop on the reef-safe sunscreen – we’ve rounded up your ultimate guide to a Great Barrier Reef family holiday.

Tropical North Queensland

Port of call

Leaving from Port DouglasQuicksilver Cruises offers tours suitable for toddlers through to older children. The Agincourt Reef pontoon (located on the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef) has a number of family-friendly activities, including an underwater observatory, semi-submersibles, snorkelling platforms and specially designed introductory dive areas.

Intro scuba diving lessons are offered for children aged 12 and older. There’s also the added bonus of undercover tables and seating, fresh water showers and change rooms.

Great Barrier Reef family holiday
Lagoon for littlies

If your family prefers to have a beach to bask on between said snorkelling sessions, Quicksilver Cruises has an alternative Great Barrier Reef family holiday adventure to Low Isles. A short hour aboard the luxury sailing catamaran Wavedancer III will have you finding yourselves marooned on an idyllic island fringed by reef with shallow lagoons to snorkel.

Fun fact: the Great Barrier Reef is home to over 1500 fish species, and more than 600 hard and soft coral species.

Pontoon play date

Sunlover Reef Cruise Cairns

Moore Reef Pontoon via Sunlover Reef Cruises. Photo by @phlipvids.

Cairns is the Northern Great Barrier Reef headquarters, with plenty of options to get your family out to the Reef for your next Great Barrier Reef family holiday.

Sunlover Reef Cruises can whisk you to the outer edge to Moore Reef pontoon where you’ll enjoy four full hours of Reef time. Stay dry by taking a glass-bottomed boat tour or a spin in the semi-submersible, or for a first time introduction, kids can hop in the fully enclosed ocean pool.

Guided snorkelling safaris will suit experienced snorkellers and for daredevils, take a slide down the only waterslide found in the Great Barrier Reef. Snorkelling gear is provided.

Island time

Sunlover Cruises can also take you on the 45-minute glide to island paradise, Fitzroy Island. You’ll find shallow waters teeming with fish, plenty of snorkel spots and a beach that’s known as Nudey by name but not by nature (which is also counted among Australia’s best beaches). Visit the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre and Reef Restoration Coral Project to see conservationists at work, or take a walk to the lighthouse in between snorkel sessions where you might just spot a turtle.

A stay on Fitzroy island can include a visit to Moore Reef, giving you plenty of options to relax while enjoying your Great Barrier Reef family holiday for a day, a week or perhaps even longer.

Eco aware

Passions of Paradise (as its name suggests) are passionate about their place here on the Great Barrier Reef, and offer smaller, more personalised tours that depart from Cairns.

You’ll visit two snorkelling spots from over 26 sites and be expertly guided on the importance of conserving and protecting this pristine natural environment by locals who call this part of the Great Barrier Reef their backyard.

Green means go

Green Island | Put your feet up at these 5 islands off Cairns
One of the easiest islands to visit from Cairns is Green Island, a quick 45-minute cruise with Big Cat Green Island Reef Cruises. As the only coral cay on the Great Barrier Reef (there are 300 of them) to have rainforest, here you’ll get the best of land and sea.

Take a glass bottom boat ride or snorkel in the shallow waters to view both coral reef and seagrass beds, which are ideal places to spot turtles and dugongs feeding. For an unexpected twist, visit Marineland Melanesia to see crocodiles and view marine life up close.

Fun fact: six of the seven species of sea turtles are found on the Great Barrier Reef.

Townsville, North Queensland

Magical Maggie

Magnetic Island, a 30-minute ferry crossing from Townsville, has two DIY snorkel trails outlined with buoys at Nelly Bay and Arthur Bay. Nelly Bay is more suited to beginners and just 100 metres from the beach, but be sure to pick up a nifty identification bracelet from local traders to identify what you might be seeing on the fringing reefs here.

From Townsville or Magnetic Island, join the crew of Adrenaline Snorkel/Dive. Suitable for kids aged six and up, the central Great Barrier Reef is a little further out but is said to be one of the best coral viewing spots for families as it’s less visited. Hover around Lodestone Reef where you’ll spot large coral bommies buzzing with fish.

Under the sea

For those that prefer not to get wet, or for a pre-snorkel education session, view the largest coral reef aquarium in the world with over 300 species at Reef HQ Aquarium Townsville. Learn from experts in their field via the hands-on Discovery Lagoon, or by taking a tour of the turtle rehabilitation centre. Be sure to stick around to press your faces to the glass for the shark feeding.

Fun fact: there are 133 species of sharks and rays found on the Great Barrier Reef.

The Whitsundays

Cruise Whitsundays

Reefworld Pontoon | Great Barrier Reef family holiday
With over 900 islands dotted throughout the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, 74 can be found in The Whitsundays. And naturally, it’s a great spot to combine an island stay at Hamilton Island, Hayman Island or Daydream Island as a side to a family-friendly Great Barrier Reef adventure.

Cruise Whitsundays visits Hardy Reef, departing from Abel Point Marina Airlie Beach, Daydream and Hamilton Islands. Take the fast cat out to the reef and then snorkel, swim or dive with hundreds of fish that get so close, you can feel them tickle. Coral viewing is close to the pontoon for little swimmers, while your older kids can take a guided drift snorkel tour to explore the deeper shelf. A semi-submersible glides through reef channels for an out-of-water experience you’ll all love too.

For fringing reef closer to (or on) shore, try Catseye Beach at Hamilton Island with beginners. At Daydream Island, visit the spectacular man-made reef from the underwater observatory to check out Nemo and his friends, or sign up for a snorkel tour with a marine biologist if your kids are over 12.

Whitsundays Jetski Tours

Whitsunday Jetski Tours knows the best spots around the Whitsunday Islands. And while more suited to older children (eight and above, and from 16 they can drive), the Airlie Adventure Tour is great for spotting turtles, while tweens (ages 12 and above) can get their adrenaline pumping with the Two Island Safari.

Fun fact: there are 2900 individual reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Southern Great Barrier Reef

Great Keppel Island

Great Keppel Island | Great Barrier Reef family holiday

Photo by @awolfamily

Freedom Fast Cats will get you all to Great Keppel Island in no time from Yepoon, with only 15 kilometres to navigate.

17 white sand beaches await your arrival, as well as protected bays for the kids to swim, snorkel and explore. There are also plenty of places to stay if you’d like to turn a day into a longer holiday.

Heron Island

If staying on an island located right on the Great Barrier Reef is what your family holiday dreams are made of, you’ve come to the right place.

Heron Island is a small coral cay off the coast of Gladstone and a hive of marine and bird life. Kids can pop on their snorkelling gear and find turtles, rays, fish and coral metres off the beach. They’ll snorkel a shipwreck, and if aged between seven and 17, can join the Heron Island Junior Reef Rangers Program for some hands-on learning beside real life marine biologists.

During November to January, turtles nest or hatch on the island, turning Heron Island into the coolest classroom for kids.

Lady Musgrave Island

Lady Musgrave Experience | Best family Great Barrier Reef Islands
Hop onboard Lady Musgrave Cruises at Seventeen Seventy for a glide across the azure waters to Lady Musgrave Island.

A true coral cay with a protected lagoon perfect for little snorkelers, and with a glass-bottom boat or semi-submersible submarine rides, you can see the reef from all its beguiling perspectives. Spot manta rays (in season), turtles, fish and coral galore straight off the beach.

Turtles love Lady Musgrave Island, so the chance of seeing and maybe swimming with them is considered high. And with a new three-storey pontoon including accommodation coming to lady Musgrave Island soon, watch this space to be one of the first families to try it.

Lady Elliot Island

Speaking of turtles… Lady Elliot Island is home to some of the friendliest in Queensland, and they’re not only easy to spot off the beach, but on high tide you can actually swim with them.

Getting here is part of the fun, with a light plane or helicopter ride from Bundaberg, Brisbane or the Gold Coast. Expect to be mesmerised by manta rays and humpback whales that sweep past in season, but also a dazzling array of fish, coral, molluscs and migratory birds that call the island home.

Turtles nest and hatch here too, offering your family an up-close lesson in ecology with marine biologists who are on hand to guide you.

Fun fact: 215 bird species can be found on the Great Barrier Reef.