Great Barrier Reef Guide

Your Ultimate Guide to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef


This article may contain affiliate links.  For more information, please see our disclaimer here.

Table of Contents

Considered to be one of Mother Nature’s most fascinating creations, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is an amazing sight that most travelers want to tick off their bucket list. As the largest living reef system on the planet, the Great Barrier Reef is the perfect setting for diving, snorkeling, sightseeing, and wildlife watching.

The waters are home to an abundance of exotic marine creatures, including whales, turtles, manatees, sharks, and of course, colored coral. In fact, there are over 600 types of living coral in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park alone. 

But despite it being one of the most scenic wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef is at a turning point, with multiple issues threatening its once-thriving ecosystem. However, the reef remains a popular destination for outdoor adventurers and eco-tourists, who travel far and wide to admire its beauty.

In this article, we’ll share with you everything you want to know about the Great Barrier Reef, along with some of our favorite things to do and places to stay!

Interesting facts about the Great Barrier Reef

As your reading this guide about the Great Barrier Reef, you probably have a million questions about this spectacular part of the world. Let’s try to give you some answers on at least a couple of your questions!

Where is the Great Barrier Reef Located?

The Great Barrier Reef is located in the Coral Sea off the coast of Queensland in northeastern Australia. The closet part of the reef is just a short 45-minute boat ride from the coast of Cairns. 

What is the Great Barrier Reef?

Not only is the Great Barrier Reef the largest reef system in the world, but it’s also the biggest single structure made entirely out of living organisms. It’s comprised of over 2,900 individual reefs and over 900 different islands, 

The waters are home to an impressive amount of marine life, some of which are considered vulnerable or even endangered. There are over 1,500 different species of fish that can be found living in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, including snappers, trouts, and red-throat emperors. But in addition to the abundance of fish, you can also find whales, dolphins, manatees, sharks, stingrays, turtles, and crocodiles.

However, marine creatures aren’t the only living things in the reef. Over 215 species of birds live around the area, many of which come to nest or breed.

How Was the Great Barrier Reef Formed?

Many people are surprised to find out the Great Barrier Reef actually sits on top of a mountain range that was once above land, over 25 million years ago. Due to shifting tectonic plates and erupting volcanoes, the mountains started to drift into the ocean, creating little islands and rock formations throughout the Coral Sea.

Over time, corals started to grow over the mountains, creating a linked chain of colorful reefs that you see today.

Must Read: Get the best travel insurance for adventure travels

Picture: Great Barrier reef from space

Want to know how the great barrier reef looks from space? In the two images below you’ll see an image from space and an aerial picture

How Big and How Long is the Great Barrier Reef?

The Great Barrier Reef covers approximately 133,000 square miles (344,400 square kilometers) of the Coral Sea. From its northernmost point near Papua New Guinea, it stretches almost 1,500 miles (2412 km) down Australia’s coast towards Brisbane, making it the most extensive living reef system on the planet. 

To put that into perspective, that’s like 70 million football fields worth of coral reef! It’s so large that you can even see the Great Barrier Reef from space!

Why is the Great Barrier Reef Dying?

Over the past few decades, the natural ecosystem and diverse marine life of the Great Barrier Reef have been dangerously threatened. Between climate change, water pollution, and over-tourism, more than half of the reef is considered to be dead. 

As climate change continues to shape our planet, one of the biggest threats contributing to the damage is climate-impacted coral bleaching. This occurs when the temperature of the water rises to a point where the living coral can no longer survive. As a result, the coral starves, leaving irreversible damage to the once-thriving underwater ecosystem. Not only are the existing corals starting to die off, but the warm temperatures are preventing baby corals from being born at all.

In 2016, 30% of the coral was believed to be dead. This damage has grown exponentially, with that number increasing to 50% just one year later.

However, climate change isn’t the only contributing factor responsible for reef damage. Water pollution has also been killing off wildlife, especially due to fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides coming from nearby farms. That is why we highly recommend you to do your part in preventing the pollution of the Great Barrier Reef even further. Be kind to nature and use reef-safe sunscreen when going into the ocean.  

How to Get to the Great Barrier Reef

Depending on which part of the reef you want to visit, you’ll have several different options when it comes to transportation. If you’re coming internationally, you’ll likely fly into Cairns (or enter the country via another Australian city and then fly domestically to Cairns).

Although Cairns is the closest you can get from the mainland, other travelers may choose to base themselves more towards the middle section of the reef, in areas like Townsville or the Whitsunday Islands. Townsville has its own airport, which you can easily reach from Cairns, Canberra, Brisbane, Sydney, or Melbourne.

It’s also possible to take the Spirit of Queensland Train to Cairns or Townsville from Brisbane. Despite it being a modern and relatively comfortable ride, the entire journey takes around 25 hours, so it’s not the most efficient way to travel if you’re pressed for time.

Further down south, you’ll find the Capricorn Coast section of the reef. We spent a few days on Heron Island (which we believe is literally heaven on earth) snorkeling and admiring the vibrant marine life, but we’ll talk more about that a little bit later.

The main town on the Capricorn Coast is Yeppoon, which is served by the Rockhampton Airport. Alternatively, you can take the train from Brisbane (7 hours), or rent a car if you’d prefer to stay in one of the smaller villages by the water.

In for a road trip? Check out our ultimate route guide from Brisbane to Cairns to explore the coastal route along the Great Barrier Reef. 

How to See the Great Barrier Reef

While the Great Barrier Reef is best explored underwater, there are still plenty of other ways to enjoy this stunning natural wonder. From research-led tours to scenic helicopter rides, you’ll have many opportunities to see the Great Barrier Reef from all angles.

Australian Institute of Marine Science

Located in Townsville, the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) is dedicated to researching and conserving the ecosystems around the Great Barrier Reef. 

They’re also focused on saving the reef from further destruction through what they call “assisted evolution”. Some of these efforts involve physically moving warm-adapted corals to cooler parts of the reef, where they can survive. AIMS has also been looking into creating genetically-diverse corals, which should be able to withstand the drastic change in water temperature.

If you want to learn more about their efforts firsthand, we recommend taking a guided tour of their headquarters. We did this during our trip, and we can honestly say it was such an eye-opening experience to see what they’re working on.

Besides learning about their cause, you’ll also get to see the marine life up close. AIMS has massive aquariums with all types of creatures, including corals, fish, snails, and starfish. Best of all, the tour is completely free! You can check this page for more information. 

Boat trips

If you’re based on the mainland, then you’ll definitely want to book a tour that takes you out into the open waters. Depending on what you want to see and do, you’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to tour operators and cruises. 

Many tours combine a boat trip with snorkeling, which is great if you’re eager to swim with the colorful sea life. Or what do you think about sailing the Great Barrier Reef on a beautiful sail yacht? There are also plenty of day cruises for non-swimmers, like sunset cruises and island hopper tours.

Of course, scuba-diving day trips are also very common in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. There are many dive sites that are located close to shore, which makes it possible to visit the reef even for the day. 

For the best of both worlds, consider a day cruise in a semi-submersible boat tour. Part of the catamaran is underwater, so you can see everything clearly from the large, expansive windows while also staying completely warm and dry. 

Related content: Ultimate hiking guide Australia


This should go without saying, but one day in the Great Barrier Reef is clearly not enough time to see everything this miraculous place has to offer. To make the most of your visit, we recommend staying on a liveaboard boat.

These multi-day experiences allow you to spend a few nights on a small cruise boat, so you have as many opportunities to go snorkeling, diving and swimming during your stay. Liveaboards also allow you to see different parts of the reef that day cruises can’t access, which means you’ll be seeing some of the most untouched parts of the Great Barrier Reef.

Best of all, you’ll meet other like-minded people during your trip. You’ll dive together, eat together, and share once-in-a-lifetime experiences that you can’t get anywhere else!

Helicopter Tour

See the Great Barrier Reef Australia from an entirely different perspective when you embark on a breathtaking helicopter tour! As you soar high above the ocean, you’ll have a birds-eye view over the colorful swirls of turquoise and azure waters. 

You can also choose for an extended flight, where you won’t just be able to admire the reef below, but you’ll also have amazing views of the Wet Tropics of Queensland and many of the neighboring islands. 

And of course, it’s also possible to see the best of both worlds and combine a cruise with a helicopter tour

Most helicopter flights leave from Carins, which is the best jumping-off point for exploring both the reef and the rainforest. Although it’s not the most wallet-friendly outdoor activity, a helicopter ride over the Great Barrier reef is guaranteed to be a memorable experience. 

What to expect of diving and snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef?

Between the sun-soaked beaches, crystal clear waters, and multitudes of islands, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has something appealing for every type of outdoor adventurer. 


No trip to Australia would be complete without going Great Barrier Reef snorkeling. As you dip below the surface of the waves, you’ll be immersed in an entirely different world filled with tropical fish and brightly-colored corals.

Don’t worry if swimming in the great abyss seems a little frightening at first. The Great Barrier Reef has plenty of shallow and calm waters guaranteed to make even the most hesitant of swimmers feel comfortable.

We went snorkeling on Heron Island, which we can whole-heartedly recommend for any travelers. You can literally go snorkeling right off the shores of the beach and still find an abundance of sea turtles, manta rays, and tons of marine life. However, there are tons of other snorkel sites to check out, especially around Lady Eliot Island, Fitzroy Island, Ribbon Reef, and Hamilton Island.


Between the translucently clear waters and the variety of exotic marine life, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most sought-after diving locations on the planet. 

No matter your skill level, there is likely to be a dive spot that suits your taste. The Outer Reef is the most frequented spot for scuba divers, as it’s close to the mainland and very beginner-friendly. These shallow dive sites can easily be visited on a day cruise, which is great if you’re short on time or still learning the ropes of diving.

As you head further down the coast, you’ll find a few other notable dive spots. Ribbon Reef, while shallow, is generally only accessible by liveaboard boats, which makes them better suited for more experienced divers. Osprey Reef is also the best place to swim with sharks and other larger-than-life creatures like whale sharks, sperm whales, and bottlenose dolphins.

While you’re Great Barrier Reef diving, see if you can spot the Great Eight. The Great Eight are the iconic Great Barrier Reef animals that every traveler should be lucky to tick off their checklist. The list includes clownfish, sharks, manta rays, Maori wrasse, potato groupers, giant clams, turtles, and whales.

To see something more unique, we can also recommend a shipwreck dive. There are over a dozen wrecks that lurk beneath the waves off Queensland, many of which can be reached by boat or ferry. The most popular wreck is the SS Yongala, a passenger ship that sank over 100 years ago.

Best Places to See in the Great Barrier Reef

The truth is – there’s really no wrong place in Australia for seeing the Great Barrier Reef. Each island, beach, and reef system has something spectacular to offer, so don’t worry too much if you have a hard time choosing where to go first. However, there are some notable places that we can recommend if you’re visiting Australia’s Great Barrier Reef for the first time.


As we mentioned, Cairns is one of the most popular choices for people visiting the Great Barrier Reef. There’s a wealth of activities for every type of traveler, from snorkeling and diving to glass-bottom boats and beach going.

Because it’s also the closest mainland city to the reef (only 35-minutes by boat), Cairns is ideal for short day trips or for those with limited time. You’ll also have the added benefit of being close to other Queensland attractions, like the Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation, Kuranda, and the Atherton Tablelands.

Also interesting to read: 9 good reasons that make you want to visit Cape Tribulation


Centrally located right in the middle of the reef, Townsville is another popular choice for first-time visitors to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Although it’s a bit further from the outer reef, there are still numerous islands that are worth visiting during your trip.

Magnetic Island is just a few miles off the coast of Townsville, although it seems like a world away thanks to the golden sand beaches, vibrant coral reef, and even wild koalas! It’s a great place to go snorkeling or diving if you’re spending time in this area.

Heron Island

A tropical oasis in the middle of the ocean, Heron Island is one of the coolest places to visit in the Great Barrier Reef. The entire island is under 3,000 feet long and less than 1,000 feet wide, so it truly feels like you see a secluded part of the country. 

There is a resort on-site, as well as a research center and national park, which means you’ll have plenty to see and do during your stay. You can even simply strap on your mask and flippers and go snorkeling right off the shores from your private bungalow. Swim to the shipwreck and enjoy all the wildlife you’ll see on the way there, like turtles, sharks and manta rays. 

The Whitsundays

If laid-back island vibes are calling your name, then make sure to spend a few days on the Whitsundays. The entire area comprises 74 individual islands, each one with its own unique atmosphere and abundance of activities. 

Snorkel cruises, diving centers, yacht rentals, and even sky diving activities can be found here. If you can’t decide where to spend your time, consider taking an island-hopping cruise or a scenic flight in a small propellor plane to experience the best of what the Whitsundays has to offer!

Pin it for Later

Want to find this article back in a while? Easy, just pin it to your Australia Travel Board!

We Love to Hear From You!

If you’re planning a trip to the Great Barrier Reef, then we know that you’ll have a wonderful time exploring all the scenic natural wonders in Australia (above and below land!). What are you looking forward to seeing the most while you’re there? Tell us in the comments below!

Are you ready to discover more about Australia? Check out our Australia page to read all our Australia articles.

Adventure Travel Insurance

Travel Insurance

Make sure you have the right travel insurance for your next trip! After 5+ years of full-time traveling, I learned a lot about travel insurance. World Nomads offers the best Travel Insurance For Extreme Sports and SafetyWing is the unique Travel Insurance For Digital Nomads.

All Australia posts

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *