How to fit Queensland’s top 8 marine life encounters into just 5 days
Home to 1625 species of fish, not to mention sea turtles, whales and dolphins, the Great Barrier Reef is a place wherethe best of Queensland marine life encounters are pretty much guaranteed.
With 2300km of coral reef stretching from Bundaberg all the way up to Cape York to explore, you might be wondering where to begin – or how much time you’ll need to see it all. The good news is that seeing the best of the reef doesn’t require a big time commitment. If you’re looking to pack a lot into a short space of time, try this marine-life spotting mini-break on for size.
Meet the Great 8
Kicking off in Hervey Bay and wrapping up in Port Douglas, this five-day itinerary will take you on a journey of discovery in search of Queensland’s Great 8. A checklist of the reef’s rarest and most spectacular marine creatures, the Great 8 features whales, turtles, manta rays, clown fish, sharks, potato cod, Maori wrasse and the giant clam. Get ready to experience nature at her jaw-dropping best.
Day 1: Go in search of whales in Hervey Bay
From Brisbane, hop on a quick 50-minute flight or take the scenic three-and-a-half-hour drive north to arrive in Hervey Bay, Australia’s whale-watching capital. This laidback seaside town was recently crowned the world’s first whale heritage area and considered – with good reason.
Each year, more than 20,000 humpback whales and their newborn calves travel along Australia’s eastern coast on their annual migration. Hervey Bay’s warm, protected waters provide a natural nursery where mother whales teach their calves to socialise and play, making it a wildlife-spotter’s dream.
You’ll be able to spot them breaching and tail-slapping from the shore during whale watching season (July to October) – but for a more up close experience, jump aboard a day tour with Tasman Venture. If the conditions are right, you may even be lucky enough to swim alongside them. (Queensland is one of just a handful of places worldwide where this is possible).
Hervey Bay is known for its lively local dining scene, so wrap up your day with dinner at one of the town’s many restaurants and cafes.
Day 2: Snorkel with giant turtles and potato cod at Lady Elliot Island
Your base for the next few days is Lady Elliot Island, a coral cay off the coast of Bundaberg in a conservation Green Zone. Home to sea turtles, manta rays and much more, it’s one of Queensland’s best locations for marine life encounters.
From Hervey Bay, take the 40 minute scenic flight across the bay (a trip highlight in its own right) to arrive at the award-winning Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort. Travelling with kids? Don’t miss the resort’s Reef Rangers program. Budding conservationists will love learning all about Lady Elliot’s incredible marine ecosystem and the work being done to protect the reef.
After lunch, grab your mask and snorkel and head for the island’s eastern lagoon. Be sure to check out the lagoon’s far-left corner: the favourite hangout place of an enormous potato cod. Next, head to the western side of the island. Explore coral ledges and underwater valleys as you swim among hawksbill and green turtles, as well as schools of shimmering fish.
Tip: for even more turtle-spotting action, visit between November and April. This is nesting and hatching season, when mama turtles lay their eggs and baby hatchlings scuttle down to the sea.
Day 3: Meet manta rays and Maori wrasse on a scuba adventure
Today will see you tick two more iconic marine creatures off your list. First up: manta rays. Hop aboard a dive boat to the Anchor Bommie site, just a short distance off the island’s south west coast, for the chance to swim alongside these gentle giants. Marvel at their graceful movements as they cruise around and above you, using their enormous wings to glide effortlessly through the water.
Next stop is Maori Wrasse Bommie, named after the family of giant Maori Wrasse that call the area home. With their bright blue and yellow markings and impressive size, they’re impossible to miss. Famously friendly, Maori Wrasse rarely pass up the opportunity to say hello – so bring your waterproof camera for an underwater selfie.
Day 4: Get up close to sharks Townsville (without getting wet)
You’ll need to get an early start today, because it’s time to wave goodbye to Lady Elliot and set your sights on Townsville. From Bundaberg you can choose to fly (via Brisbane) or take the epic 1000km, 11 hour scenic drive up the coast.
While in Townsville, don’t miss the chance to brush up on your reef knowledge at Reef HQ: the world’s largest living coral reef aquarium. Wander through the underwater reef tunnel to experience life under the waves without getting wet. (It’s perfect for little ones who haven’t mastered the art of snorkelling yet). Don’t miss the daily shark feeding show for the chance to see these sleek and efficient predators in action.
Day 5: Spot tiny clownfish and giant clams in Tropical North Queensland
Alternatively, put your trip on pause and spend a day (or more) exploring Cairns and its surrounding beaches and reef. Keen to get back on the water? Check out the boat trip options at Sunlover Reef Tours. For expert insights into reef ecology, sign up to their Marine Biologist for a Day program. Your day includes a guided snorkel safari as well as a practical session on how to analyse coral health and look for signs of environmental impact. Combine it with their Astronomer for a Night tour and spend the night stargazing 50kms off the coast of Cairns.
If you’re cruising on to Port Douglas, head to buzzing Macrossan Street on arrival to refuel (The Little Larder is a local favourite). Then, it’s time to explore the underwater world of the Outer Reef.
Discover the weird and wonderful marine life that inhabit the bommies and coral cays of Agincourt Reef aboard Silversonic, Quicksilver Cruises’ high speed dive catamaran. For the best chance of spotting giant clams, parrotfish and Maori Wrasse, head to The Point on the northern end of the reef. Continue north and west to reach the Three Sisters, where clownfish dart amongst the colourful sea anemones that double as their homes.
Back on dry land, celebrate completing your bucket-list of Queensland marine life encounters with sunset drinks on the deck at the Tin Shed, Port Douglas.
Seeking more in-the-wild animal experiences? Read about 7 more of the best.