See a new side of the Great Barrier Reef from Townsville

Forget what you’ve heard, Townsville is just as much a gateway to the Great Barrier Reef as any of its larger, northern neighbours.

It’s not only conveniently close to the world’s largest reef system but the once-sleepy town promises to show a new side to the natural wonder, which stretches 2,300 kilometres from the tip of Cape York to Bundaberg further south. Looking for some ideas for how to explore the Great Barrier Reef from Townsville? Read on.

Grab a snorkel

Lodestone Reef | Great Barrier Reef from Townsville

One of the best ways to see the Great Barrier Reef from Townsville is by snorkel, so that you can make the most of its 3,000 separate reefs and 900 continental islands and cays.

Just a short boat ride from town you’ll be able to submerge yourself in the coral at neighbouring Magnetic Island. Go solo or join the team at Pleasure Divers for an adventure. Or choose to partner your trip with an ample side of education, joining a Discovery Cruise with Adam from Aquascene, or marine biologist Andy for a guided Reef Eco Tour.

That’s not mentioning Remote Area Dive and its day trips across Pelorus and Orpheus Islands, or Adrenalin Snorkel and Dive which makes its way to Lodestone Reef regularly throughout the week.

Like your alone time? Meander the self-guided snorkel trails on Magnetic Island. Developed in 2012 these oceanic tracks wind through bommies overgrown with vibrant coral and fish, and historic landmarks like a World War II aircraft propellor. There are two trails to choose from; Nelly Bay with access directly in front of X Base Backpackers, and Geoffrey Bay.

Dive the Yongala

SS Yongala

Experienced divers will be all too familiar with Townsville’s dive sites, considering one of the world’s top 10 lives nearby. The SS Yongala is well-regarded as a must-do for the diving inclined. The historic shipwreck is considered to be one of the best preserved diving offerings, and stretches across 107 metres and lies 30 metres below the surface. An advanced dive, it’s best guided by the experts – turn to the likes of Adrenalin Snorkel and Dive and Yongala Dive.

Don’t fret if you don’t yet have your diving licence; Townsville is the perfect place to learn. The northern city is awash with passionate diving instructors and experts all too eager to share their knowledge of the ocean’s depths. When it comes to scoring your scuba accreditation here there’s plenty of reputable places to choose from; stand-outs include Mission Beach Dive and Adrenalin Snorkel and Dive.

Hover your way

Nautilus Aviation scenic helicopter flight Townsville

Splash out on a truly memorable experience, flying a helicopter across the reef.

This may be one of the more expensive ways to see the Great Barrier Reef from Townsville, but it’s also one of the best. Hire a chartered helicopter flight with Nautlius Aviation and you’ll make your way straight for Havannah Island, the southernmost island in the Palm Island Group. Expect to spend three hours hovering over the Coral Sea, before landing on your own private white sand beach, where you’ll spend time snorkelling, swimming and picnicking before you return to the mainland.

That’s not the only option available of course. Embark on a scenic getaway to the more secluded sand cay at Wheeler Reef with Townsville Helicopters instead.

Jump aboard a cruise

Fans of a more relaxed approach to exploration will no doubt be tempted by a trip with SeaLink Queensland, which runs cruises along the Great Barrier Reef between May and September each year.

There are a number to choose from, but Island Highlights Cruise is a stand-out. Commence the day with a traditional Indigenous welcome on Palm Island, before you pull on your snorkel gear and splash about Pelorus Island and Orpheus Island pre- and post-lunch. The historically inclined may prefer the Cape Cleveland Lighthouse Tour, where you’ll meet some of the families who have called the nautical landmark home. Or the Great Palm Island Day Tour, where Indigenous arts and dance performances are at the fore.

Educate yourself at Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium

Reef HQ Townsville | Queensland marine life encounters

Learn more about the Great Barrier Reef and how we can better preserve this natural wonder with a trip to Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium.

The 140 volunteers on hand will help guide you through the displays (turtle hospital included) created to educate the masses. This is the largest living coral reef aquarium in the world, which impressively teaches as many students in their online education programs as they do in the flesh.

Still eager to learn? Guests at Orpheus Island Lodge have been granted special access to the Great Barrier Reef scientific research station at Pioneer Bay. Operated by James Cook University, visitors are often scientists or students involved in vital reef research. Embrace your chance to tour the facility, watching the scientists at work and experience the live reef touch tanks.

Set sail around Magnetic Island

Pilgrim Sailing

Photo by Pilgrim Sailing

Cruise the calm waters surrounding Townsville by yacht.

Magnetic Island in particular is a boat haven, attracting the likes of former Sydneysiders Paul and Clare Ley who sail their 58-foot yacht Pilgrim into Nelly Bay Harbour annually. The duo will lead you on a tour through the district, making the most of the slightly cooler winter weather from May to late September. Join them for an afternoon sail, complete with swim and barbecue, or the twilight cruise, which comes accompanied by cocktails at dusk.

Fellow local operators include Big Mama Sailing who operate year-round from both Magnetic Island and Townsville.

Feel inspired by the Museum of Underwater Art

Meander your way through the only underwater art museum in the southern hemisphere with a trip to MOUA.

There are four sites to choose from which are scattered around the Townsville region and have only recently made their debut in the district; you’ll find submerged artwork amidst The Strand, Palm Island, Magnetic Island, and John Brewer Reef.

Each piece has been designed by world renowned underwater sculptor Jason de Cairns Taylor (the creator of MUSA in Mexico and Museo Altanico in Spain), and explore the themes of conservation, restoration and education.

Sleep under the stars

Sunset on Pelorus Island near Townsville Queensland

Get back to basics with a night spent under the stars on Pelorus Island. Fringed by a rainbow reef accessible by the beach, this tropical haven has only a small population of goats which call it home. As it’s completely self-sufficient, pack appropriately, drinking water included. You’ll also need your own method of transport to get there, though you can hitch a lift with Remote Area Dive, which incorporates a visit to the isolated stretch every weekend with their Unlimited Dive Safari. As an added bonus, this tour provides all the camping gear you could possibly need.

For those eager to pitch a tent in total seclusion, more offerings abound nearby. Camping out on Orpheus Island and Hinchinbrook Island is also allowed, though its best to do your research on the Department of National Parks, Sports and Racing and to book a site.

Prefer comfort to camping? There’s plenty of other options on offer, including the eco-friendly Orpheus Island Lodge, which is now 100% sustainably powered.