Great Barrier Reef

8 epic Great Barrier Reef experiences

It’s the world-famous natural wonder that carries some sizeable tags – largest reef system, and largest living organism on the planet – so it’s no surprise that the list of Great Barrier Reef experiences is, well, sizeable.

Soak up all its beauty with these eight categories of Great Barrier Reef adventures that’ll take you from under to on and above the Reef.

1. The chopper ride

They say you can see it from space, but unless you’re pals with Mr Branson or Mr Musk, seeing it a little closer may be more realistic.

Short, but with sweet views, the 30-minute helicopter flight from Cairns with HeliTours North Queensland will have you soaring over lush Green Island, bright patches of coral reef and infinite shades of blue. Double your time in the air with the one-hour tour, and you’ll also spy Fitzroy Island and the swaying coconut trees of Palm Cove.

If your Reef holiday is in Townsville check out Nautilus Aviation (they also operate from Cairns) or if the Southern Great Barrier Reef is more your style you can fly with Marine Helicopter Charters.

2. The sailing day

Whitsundays sailing, 8 epic Great Barrier Reef experiences

Prefer your tours on water instead? Live your best life aboard a 36-foot yacht as you sail around the spectacular Whitsundays.

Take stunning and tranquil waters in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef, add in lunch and sweet treats prepared by a local French chef, and you have the gourmet sailing tour by Airlie Beach Day Sailing.

With a full day of swimming, snorkelling and beach-exploring as you anchor at one of the 74 islands, the culinary addition is as welcome as the photo opportunities.

More of a DIY person? Check out this comprehensive guide on how to bareboat the Whitsundays. No license required, all you need is a sense of adventure and some basic navigation skills.

3. The diving lesson

Diving Heron Island

If there’s any neck of the waters that’s perfect for scuba diving, it’s this world-renowned 2,300-kilometre stretch.

You can get your training flippers on with many dive shops across the State, but for reef within reach it’s hard to pass the classrooms of Lady Elliot Island and Heron Island.

After completing your theory and pool dives on land, you’ll then head straight on to the Great Barrier Reef to practice your techniques and earn your certification in one of the world’s most idyllic locations.

4. The marine encounters

Great Barrier Reef experiences

Speaking of under-the-sea creatures, the Great Barrier Reef is home to the Great Eight, a checklist of must-have marine encounters. Its members include clown fish, giant clams, manta rays, Maori wrasse, potato cods, sharks (white tip, black tip and grey reef), whales and six turtle species.

Sightings of the Great Eight are abundant along the length of the Reef, as are the options for snorkelling excursions. Glide with manta rays and turtles at Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, get as happy as a clam on the Ribbon Reefs north of Cairns at the Clam Gardens Dive Site, or see eye-to-eye with minke whales in the waters off Port Douglas with Mike Ball Dive Expeditions.

5. The island hop

Great Barrier Reef experiences

Photo by @scotty_bowen

There’s a lot of island to cover in the Whitsundays, so max your viewing time with some sun-drenched island-hopping.

From catamarans and tall ships to party boats and luxe vessels, Whitsundays Sailing Adventures have a two or three-day tour to tickle anyone’s seafaring fancy. Tick off the famous Whitehaven Beach and swirly sands of Hill Inlet, while you feast on your daily meals against an amazing turquoise backdrop.

6. The liveaboard trip

Go deeper with the ultimate dive experience – that is, three days on-board a comfy (and WiFi enabled) dive vessel.

The Pro Dive Cairns liveaboard trip will have you out of your cabin for 11 dives (including two at night) to an array of diverse outer Great Barrier Reef sites, then back on deck for catered meals to refuel.

Visiting Flynn, Thetford, Milln and Pellowe Reefs you’re guaranteed hours exploring swim-throughs, drop-offs and getting closely acquainted with turtles, stingrays, reef sharks and many of the 1,500 species of fish that inhabit the Great Barrier Reef.

Need to know a little more about liveaboard trips? Be sure to check out this post and then have a read of 11 of the top dive sites in Queensland.

7. The paddle out

Kayaking Whitehaven Beach

Glide across the seas and give the arms and abs a workout as you get acquainted with fringing coral reefs and un-inhabited islands in a sea kayak.

From its base at Shute Harbour, Salty Dog Sea Kayaking will have you paddling around these warm tropical waters on a fully-guided, half-day, full-day or six-day expedition.

The burn might be real tomorrow, but today the picturesque islands and beaches are worth it.

Islands across the Reef including Hayman, Orpheus and Great Keppel to name a few all have kayaks for hire or included as part of your stay so you can explore on your own terms.

8. The reef sleep


When you’re ready to bunker down after your Great Barrier Reef adventure of choice, this might be the most unique spot you’ve ever rested your head.

With Sunlover by Starlight you can spend a night on a moored pontoon at Moore Reef on the outer GBR, beneath an Australian swag (translation: a low tent). Once you’ve cruised to your accommodation on the outer reef, you’ll have two full days of exploring the waters around the pontoon.

As the day trippers depart and the sun starts to descend, a lucky few will experience the reef environment exclusively, whether relaxing on the sundeck with a drink and a three-course meal, star gazing the southern hemisphere sky, marvelling the glorious sunset and sunrise, or private snorkel and glass bottom boat tours.

Consider it total immersion in one of the natural wonders of the world.