Heron island | where to snorkel Southern Great Barrier Reef

Snorkelling for kids: how to do the Great Barrier Reef as a family

Whether you choose to dive or snorkel, experiencing the underwater kingdom of the Great Barrier Reef is a bucket-list experience you’ll never forget. If you’re travelling with young children, diving isn’t the most practical option – but luckily, Queensland has an abundance of safe, accessible snorkelling spots for kids and families on the Great Barrier Reef.

Stretching from Bundaberg past Gladstone and all the way up to the Capricorn Coast, the Southern Great Barrier Reef  is home to some of the most accessible fringing reefs in Australia.  A place of colourful coral cays and island jewels, verdant hinterland and authentic seaside towns, the first thing you’ll notice is the distinct lack of crowds. If you’re seeking a family-friendly holiday that’s a little off the beaten track, with plenty of underwater sightseeing thrown in, then read on.

Snorkel the sheltered bays of Great Keppel Island

Set your watch to island time and set sail for Great Keppel Island. Home to no less than 17 white sand beaches where you can snorkel just metres from the shoreline, Great Keppel is only 30 minutes by boat from the coastal town of Yeppoon. And, as the largest of the Keppel islands, it’s packed with family-friendly activities and affordable accommodation options.

While the island is dotted with countless private coves and pockets of fringing reef worth exploring, the best snorkelling for kids can be found close to the protected bays of Monkey Point and Shelving Beach.

Although only accessible by foot (or boat), the hour’s walk through lush sub-tropical forest from Long Beach to Monkey Point is an easy one. Expect to see stingrays, reef fish and stunning coral gardens – and maybe even the odd turtle. Just 20 minutes on foot from Great Keppel’s main beach, Shelving Beach is a little easier to reach but offers equally impressive snorkelling right off the beach.

You’ll be able to hire all the snorkelling gear you need (not to mention kayaks and standup paddleboards) on the island. And if you like the idea of someone else taking charge, book the whole family on to a kayak or snorkel safari with a local guide from GKI Adventures and explore the beautiful bays and beaches like a local.

Fancy making a night of it? Check out Great Keppel Island Hideaway and Great Keppel Island Holiday Village for great value sleeping options from camping and glamping tents through to comfy cabins.

Get schooled in conservation at Heron Island, Gladstone

With its calm waters and shallow tidal lagoon, family-friendly Heron Island is the perfect spot for snorkelling novices to build their confidence. It’s also a nature-lovers’ paradise with a huge array of animal encounters to be had – both on and offshore.

Getting to Heron takes a little planning (there’s no airport and it’s a two hour ferry ride from Gladstone) but it’s worth every minute. Accommodation is courtesy of Heron Island Resort – an award-winning eco resort which encourages guests to get involved in conservation and nature-themed activities throughout their stay.

Step off the beach and straight onto the reef to snorkel amongst colourful fish, eagle rays and loggerhead turtles. Explore the reef at low tide and learn all about the island’s delicate ecosystem as part of the resort’s Junior Rangers program (a must-do for all visitors aged between 7-12).  Or take the kids on a tour of the University of Queensland’s Heron Island Research Station and let them discover how researchers are preserving the reef for future generations.

If you or your little ones are first-time snorkellers, try Shark Bay (don’t let the name put you off – it’s named after the friendly shovelnose ray) or the Gantry, just in front of the resort’s Pandanus Lounge.

Learn more about snorkelling for beginners in our first-timer’s guide.

Take a dip in nature’s giant swimming pool at Lady Musgrave Island, Bundaberg

Introducing Lady Musgrave Island:  a 1,200-hectare lagoon surrounded by a naturally-formed coral wall, protected from the current and with fantastic visibility all year round. Its gentle, sheltered waters have been likened to swimming in a giant swimming pool, which is why it’s so popular with young families and first-time snorkellers.

The huge lagoon is home to 350 varieties of corals and 1,300 species of tropical fish, as well as clownfish (that’s Nemo to the kids) and graceful manta rays. An encounter with the local turtles – who wait at ‘cleaning stations’ to have algae and parasites picked off their shells by little cleaner fish – is almost guaranteed.

Lady Musgrave is just 90 minutes by boat from Bundaberg or The Town of 1770. Make a day trip of it with 1770 Reef Tours or Lady Musgrave Experiences or get back to nature with an overnight camping trip. (Be warned, there are no facilities so it may not be suitable if you’re travelling with younger kids and toddlers.)

Snorkel off the mainland at Barolin Rocks, Bundaberg

You don’t have to visit one of the Southern Great Barrier Reef islands to encounter incredible marine life.  If you’re looking for snorkelling options for kids closer to the mainland, check out Barolin Rocks in Woongarra Marine Park – home to some of Queensland’s most accessible shore snorkelling options. It’s only 22 minutes’ drive from downtown Bundaberg – and less time travelling means more time in the water (not to mention fewer complaints from the kids).

Within a few metres of the shore you can expect to see soft and hard corals, vibrantly coloured nudibranchs (otherwise known as sea slugs), moray eels, turtles and wobbegong sharks. If you’re lucky, you might even catch sight of the elusive dugong – Barolin Rocks is one of the few sites in Queensland where these rare creatures can be spotted.

Share the water with turtles and mantas on Lady Elliot Island

Calm, protected waters where you can snorkel with turtles year-round. A giant coral lagoon perfect for little explorers to investigate at low tide. The chance to swim alongside giant manta rays if you visit during the winter months. It’s easy to see why Aussie families come back to Lady Elliot Island year after year.

Not only does Lady Elliot offer incredible snorkelling for little kids, more adventurous snorkellers can join a guided snorkel safari or head to the western side of the island to explore the Lighthouse and Coral Gardens dive sites. This is where you’re most likely to encounter manta rays, dolphins and whales (during their migration season) as well as countless species of corals and fish.

As if that wasn’t reason enough to visit, if you time your trip to coincide with the turtle nesting and hatching season (November through to April)  you’re in for an even bigger treat. Visit early in the season to see mama turtles nesting or come later to watch their tiny hatchlings scuttle down to the sea.

After more Queensland snorkelling inspiration? Learn how to do the Great Barrier Reef on a budget or discover more of the Great Barrier Reef’s best island snorkelling spots.