The ultimate guide to the Great Barrier Reef

During my second year of uni, I spent six months studying abroad in Sydney (if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know I mention this at every opportunity). I didn’t have a lot of time to travel which, as you can imagine, killed me, but I made the most of every chance.

The top experience on my bucket list was easily visiting the Great Barrier Reef. How could I travel all the way to Australia and not see this natural wonder?!

I spent ten days travelling the east coast of Australia, and naturally had to make the most of the reef. I snorkelled four times: twice in Cairns, twice in the Whitsundays; and I did two introductory scuba dives.

It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, but also probably one of the most expensive.

For anyone thinking of holidaying to the Great Barrier Reef, this post is for you – find out the best part of the reef to visit, when to go and what to do.

The biggest question you’ll likely be asking yourself: is it worth it?

A photo of some colourful coral on the sea bed of the Great Barrier Reef
Curious about my study abroad? Click here for reasons why I think every student should do one!

Where is the best place to visit the Great Barrier Reef?

If you’re anything like me, you’ll want to make the most of your trip and get the best experience for your money. I spent a long time researching the most beautiful parts of the reef, as well as the ones that were easiest and cheapest to get to. As the Great Barrier Reef spans 2,300 kilometres of Australia’s eastern coast, and comprises of 2,800 different individual reefs, you have a lot of choice.

The main four destinations are Cairns, Port Douglas, Hamilton Island and the Whitsundays, all of which have great travel options. Expect to spend more time travelling to the reef in the Whitsundays, however, as they’re a fair distance from Airlie Beach.

Sailing on the Calypso boat after doing two introductory scuba dives and a snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef

Day trips to the Great Barrier Reef

One of the best ways to experience the reef is on a day cruise. You can visit 2-3 different sites, though usually only along the outer reef – they’re quicker to get to. All boats will offer snorkelling, and the larger ones will also let you buy scuba diving packages. I personally recommend doing a day trip from either Cairns or Port Douglas. Cairns has the advantage of being easier (and therefore cheaper) to get to, whilst Port Douglas requires you travelling an hour or so north of the airport. However, Port Douglas offers some more exclusive and untouched reefs for you to visit. Fewer tourists visit the reef from there, which means they’re generally in better condition.

I personally decided to tour the reef from Port Douglas for this reason. I did two introductory dives and one snorkel on the Calypso tour with Tropical Journeys. This is a full-day tour to the outer Great Barrier Reef, where you can visit three different dive sites on either the Agincourt or Opal reefs. Both of these are incredibly well-known, remote and high quality sites.

Few tour companies do day trips to the Agincourt reef, as it’s so remote. It’s situated on the outer edge of the reef, near the coral trench, it’s surrounded by deeper water and incredibly colourful walls of coral. The disadvantage is that you spend more time travelling to and from the reef – a small price to pay for the experience. Thanks to strict access conditions, the Opal reef remains in incredibly high quality condition. It’s highly regarded as one of the best regularly-visited reefs, and has been used by the BBC and National Geographic as the filming location for reef documentaries.

Experienced divers – Great Barrier Reef scuba diving

If you’ve already gone scuba diving before, you’ll probably want to experience something different. The best reef diving locations, like the Ribbon Reefs and North Horn, are found further from the mainland. They offer a chance to visit more remote areas of the Great Barrier Reef – ones less touched by other tourists. You’ll generally see immaculate, vibrant coral reefs as well as a wider range of fish. Look into liveaboard scuba-diving trips – generally offered only to qualified divers. You’ll get the opportunity to swim with Minke whales, see Humpbacks and even dive during a shark feed!

If you’re looking to experience something even more unique. you could dive the famous Yongala shipwreck. Now widely rated as one of the best dives on the planet, the SS Yongala is Australia’s largest and most historic shipwreck. It was en route from Melbourne to Cairns when it sank off the coast in Queensland in 1911. It disappeared for decades, unfound until 1958, but has remained incredibly intact. Situated inside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the wreck has now become a magnet for marine life.

Get the most for your money

If you’re going to be flying all the way there, you might as well see as much as you can. There are a few places along Australia’s east coast where you can visit the Great Barrier Reef, and there’s enough else to do to keep you busy for a short holiday.

  • The Whitsundays: Fly into Airlie Beach and visit the incredibly famous, and creatively named, Heart Reef. You can also make the trip to Whitehaven beach – possibly one of the most renowned beaches in the world. It’s a 7km stretch of pure silica sand, so white and fine; it feels almost like flour.
  • Port Douglas: The only place in the world where two World Heritage-listed sites meet, Port Douglas remains one of my favourite places on Australia’s east coast. It sits just an hour north of Cairns, yet has an unrivalled tranquility for an area with so much to do. You can visit the Great Barrier Reef, explore the depths of the Daintree Rainforest, see the crystal clear water of Mossman Grove and the golden sand of the Four Mile Beach.
  • Cairns: The fifth largest city in Queensland, you’ll find there’s a lot to do. Besides exploring the reef, you can spend a holiday in Cairns enjoying the beaches, great nightlife, awesome food and the buzzing city. Check out this post on how to get the most of a 3-day trip to Cairns.

When I travelled to Cairns and Port Douglas, I spent 3 days exploring the Daintree Rainforest, Mossman Grove and the Great Barrier Reef. Check out the video below (more on my YT channel!)

Sleep on the reef

I did a 3 day, 2 night boat trip around the Whitsunday islands on the Habibi, a tiny boat that sailed from Airlie Beach. There’s no experience quite like falling asleep watching the stars in the sky, and waking up to watch fish swimming in the crystal clear water just a few metres away. There are a range of tours available – from luxurious and adventurous, to party boats or the cheap and cheerful ones (perfect for backpackers!) We tended towards the latter. 3 days away from WiFi and phone signal might sound scary, but it was the most relaxing part of my entire trip. I loved the opportunity to escape bustling city life, and feeling so close to nature. What I loved less, however, was the ban on shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and deodorant. The chemicals in them damage the reef, so water-only showers are the only way to go on board those boats. On the bright side, nothing says “I had a super relaxing holiday” like flying home with sand in your hair.

I made a little YouTube video of my time sleeping on the reef – check it out below!

Luxurious holiday

If you want to see the Great Barrier Reef in style (adventurous honeymoon, anyone?), you’ll have no lack of choice in Queensland. They’ve really made a market of 5 star getaways! Try Lizard, Bedarra and Hayman, some of their best luxury islands. Secluded and tranquil, these islands combine the best of red carpet experiences and palm trees. You’ll find white-sand beaches, hidden lagoons, tropical birds and seas filled with marine life!

Want to read more about secret islands of the Great Barrier Reef? Check out this guide!

When is the best time to visit the Great Barrier Reef?

You can go visit at any point throughout the year, but the best time to visit the Great Barrier Reef is during winter (June – August). The water temperatures are still pleasant, days are sunny, but the ocean has less of a tide meaning you get much better visibility (and photos!) Whenever you go, I recommend avoiding the months of November – March, when jellyfish are rife. It’s completely safe to go in the water, however, so long as you’re wearing a stinger suit!

What’s there to do on the Great Barrier Reef?

There are a ridiculous number of things to do on the reef, even if you don’t want to swim. There’s something for everyone – whether you’re looking to backpack or eyeing up a luxury holiday. I think that’s one of the reasons I’d recommend visiting the Great Barrier Reef to anyone!

I’ve listed a few activity ideas below, for you to get the most out of your time on the reef:

  • Great Barrier Reef scuba diving
  • Great Barrier Reef snorkeling
  • See turtle hatching at Mon Repos beach
  • Swim with whales
  • Go on a glass bottom boat (great if you want to see the reef without swimming!)
  • Helicopter ride over the reef
  • Sky diving
  • Reef fishing
  • Sea walking / helmet diving
  • See the reef in a submarine
  • Hot air balloon
Scuba diving selfie whilst exploring the depths of the Great Barrier Reef!

How bleached is the Great Barrier Reef?

Coral bleaches when it gets stressed. They release toxins which expel the algae from their surface. The algae is what gives them their vibrant colour. This bleaching occurs when coral is left in changed water temperatures (even by one or two degrees) for a prolonged period of time. If conditions normalise, the reef can recover fairly quickly. However, in times of global warming, and with two massive coral bleaching events having occurred in 2016 and 2017, recovery is much more challenging.

Scientists now approximate that 93% of the reef is suffering from some degree of bleaching. This is shockingly high, and incredibly sad to witness. If you watch my video above, you’ll see a vast amount of coral that has lost all of its vibrant colour and is left a stark white. This is seen more in the top third of the coral, which is likely what you’ll visit (unless you’re an excellent scuba diver)!

Check out this post discussing how there’s still a hope of recovery for the Great Barrier Reef. 

Visiting sustainably – how to save the Great Barrier Reef

The greatest danger to the reef is negligence by tourists. It’s surprisingly easy to injure the delicate coral – from the chemicals on your skin, to accidentally knocking parts as you swim by. Therefore, it’s important to remember to be careful. Don’t use moisturisers, wear a stinger suit instead of covering yourself in SPF, and don’t sit on the bottom of the ocean (no matter how tired your legs start feeling!) However, the balance of tourism to the reef is one that’s difficult to get right. Many argue that tourists are the ultimate “guardians of the reef”, and help protect it through the Environmental Management Charge (EMC) required to visit.

Ultimately, the best way to protect the Great Barrier Reef is through tackling climate change, and to visit sustainably. We can all do our part to protect it. Do your homework before you go, and spend time picking the right tour operator. There are a few I’ve found in Cairns, Port Douglas and the Whitsundays who have been awarded Advanced Ecotourism levels – Reef Magic, Quicksilver and Tall Ship Adventures.

Is the Great Barrier Reef worth visiting?

Aah the main reason you might have visited this blog post. If you’re thinking of travelling all the way to the reef – and particularly if you’ve heard or seen how bleached the reef now is – you’ll probably be asking yourself: is visiting worth the money?

Yes, it definitely is! I can honestly say that visiting the reef was the best part of my entire trip to Australia. It was beautiful and amazing – no matter the colour of the reef. I’ve never seen as many different variety of coral, fish, turtle or general marine life! I even saw two reef sharks. That’s an experience I’ll never forget, and one I’ll treasure forever. If anything, it taught me a lot about living a more eco-friendly life. I urge you, if you’re debating, take the plunge and go! You’ll never regret it.

Posing by an Australian flag on the boat back to Port Douglas' shore, after exploring the Great Barrier Reef

Like this post and want to save it for later? Don’t forget to pin it!

The Ultimate Guide to Visiting the Great Barrier Reef: the best reefs to visit, where to go, what to do and is it worth it? #GreatBarrierReef #Australia #TravelGuide #coralreef #Queensland

Sharing is caring!

Similar Posts