Great Barrier Reef - The 6 Best Things To Do

Written By: Jack Buscombe

The world heritage 'Great Barrier Reef' is one of Australia's national treasures. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is the collective of almost 3,000 individual reefs and 1,000 islands stretching for 2,300 km's alongside the Queensland Coast of Australia. Its body occupies a whopping 344,400km2, starting at the most northern tip of Australia at the Cape York Peninsula, down to Bundaberg. As the lifeblood for millions of wildlife species, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest living organism on the planet.

Covering such a large area, there's a myriad of things to see and do at the Great Barrier Reef. This article narrows down the very best things to do along the reef and on the mainland. Whether you're lapping up the sun on the southern end, or adventuring in the tropics of the north, the Great Barrier Reef delivers on all fronts.

Snorkeling: First Things First

If you're at the Great Barrier Reef, pick yourself up a snorkel and get in the water as often as you can. The coral reefs are stunning, the water is warm and the weather is (most likely) fantastic. You're in the region for the best snorkeling in the world so it would be a travesty to miss it.

Snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef

If you're on a reef-spotting and snorkeling tour of the Great Barrier Reef, we recommend checking out:

  • Hayman Island (in the Whitsundays)
  • Green Island (outside of Cairns)
  • Heron Island (outside Gladstone)
  • Lady Elliot Island (south GBR - near Bundaberg)
  • Lady Musgrave Island (south GBR - just north of Lady Elliot)
  • Orpheus Island (near Palm Island & Townsville)

Visit the Whitsundays

The Whitsundays is the busiest region along the Great Barrier Reef and is densely populated with natural wonders and marine life. As a hub for tourism, there are plenty of tours and day trips. The Whitsundays covers a large area with 74 islands, and we've narrowed down the top spots of the Whitsundays in this article. Depending on what tickles your fancy, you can get a good idea of what to expect from the best bits below:

  • Whitehaven Beach (the worlds best beach - great for a day trip)
  • Airlie Beach (the city hub of the Whitsundays)
  • Hardy Reef (home of Heart Reef)
  • Hamilton Island (for those looking to unwind)
  • Hayman Island (family friendly holiday fun)
Flying over Whitehaven Beach

The Whitsundays is iconic in its vast range of beach islands. Featuring an abundance of spectacular reef coral and diverse activities, wherever you may roam at the Whitsundays is a winner. This makes it our top pick for places to visit at the Great Barrier Reef. Read more about the Whitsundays here and browse from the Whitsundays flight experiences here.

Sail to Lady Elliot Island

Lady Elliot is a tiny island covering just 45 hectares. Based on the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef near Bundaberg, Lady Elliot Island is known for its superior snorkeling - even by Great Barrier Reef standards! While the island itself is small, the surrounding reef covers more than double the area of the exposed land.

View of Lady Elliot Island and the Surrounding Reef

On the island is an airstrip for planes and the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort. There's a surprising amount of accommodation at the resort, from fully fledged beach-side suites to 'glamping' tents and eco cabins. While it's unbeaten in qualifying for the island getaway, don't expect to have a lot to do on the island.

If you're looking for the perfect scuba diving or snorkeling spot, look no further than the 'home of the manta ray'. The Lady Elliot Island Reef has so many exquisite sea life, like coral reef fish, sea turtles and manta rays. All of this combined with the sunny weather and clear turquoise waters makes Lady Elliot Island the snorkeling highlight of the southern Great Barrier Reef!

Relax and Restore at Port Douglas

Sunset at Port Douglas

Known for its beach resorts, Port Douglas is a charming beach town with a population of just 3,500. As the perfect location for a relaxing break or romantic getaway, there are more than 60 eateries which is perfect for seafood lovers.

Due to its central location, the town of Port Douglas is heavily focused on tourism. It's smack bang between 2 of the spectacular North Queensland rainforests; the Daintree and Kuranda. And on top of that, it's right along the Great Barrier Reef, with just a short sail to reach some of the nearby reefs!

4 Mile Beach at Port Douglas

If you base your holiday out of Port Douglas, you can easily spend time on 4 Mile Beach and in town enjoying the down-tempo lifestyle. And on your spare day, take a boat trip around to Green Island and to the Arlington and Upolu Reefs. Its brilliant snorkeling and the reef fish are an incredible sight!

Take a walk on the wild side - Go hiking!

Hiking through the North Queensland Rainforest

The Great Barrier Reef is most commonly known for the diverse array of water-based activities and island viewings, however there are world-famous rainforests around here too! Along the tropical north coast, there is a vast land mass of national parks stretching for hundreds of kilometers. It's a beautiful contrast to the Great Barrier Reef introducing the open Coral Sea.

The 2 best rainforests to visit along the Great Barrier Reef are:

  • the Daintree Rainforest (based around Cape Tribulation), and
  • the Kuranda Rainforest (based in Cairns)

Daintree Rainforest - The world's oldest tropical rainforest

If you follow north from Port Douglas, you'll soon arrive at Australia's largest tropical rainforest; the Daintree Rainforest. Covering over 1,200 km2 of the Queensland coast, the Daintree Rainforest is also the oldest tropical rainforest in the world. With estimations the that Daintree is 180 million years old, it's even tens of millions of years older than the Amazon. That means you'll see some pretty ancient plants and complex fern families!

The Walking Trail through the Daintree Rainforest

When you arrive at the Daintree, there is a range of accommodation - from camping to lodges and hotels. You can book hiking tours around the rainforest which pay visit to some of the park highlights, such as:

  • Thornton Beach,
  • Noah Beach (and Cooper Creek),
  • Myall Beach,
  • The Cape Tribulation Lookout, and
  • Kangkiji Beach.

Many of the hikes along the coast have incredible views through the forest out to the Coral Sea and the area is busy with native wildlife. So take a camera!

Kuranda - Village in the Rainforest

Kuranda Rainforest Helicopter Tour

Based just north-west of Cairns is the Kuranda State Forest. It's a utopia of natural forest beauty combined with futuristic facilities, such as the Skyrail and the scenic railway. It's the perfect place to holiday for families due to the amount of awesome things to do. At Kuranda, the tours and activities are the highlight. You can do things like:

  • Quadbiking,
  • Riverboat Tours,
  • Scenic rail trips - the gondala and elevated train rail,
  • visit the koala gardens or check out bird world,
  • and the list goes on!

But of course, going for bush walks through the rainforest is the theme, and you won't get much better viewing than Kuranda. There are plenty of guided walks, but exploring the rainforest on your own is always a good option. There's so much to see, and the guided tours can be limiting if you want to explore certain things a little bit more. Similarly to the Daintree, you're bound to experience plenty of complex plant systems and native Australian wildlife on your adventures! You might even see the cassowaries if you get lucky!

Our top pick for tours around the rainforest is the Kuranda Rainforest Helicopter Flight. Flying out of Cairns, you'll take a trip through the Kuranda Rainforest to see the waterfalls and encounter some of the forest highlights. Along the commute, you'll also get aerial views of the Great Barrier Reef, wetlands and Palm Cove.

Rainforest Flight

Mon Repos - Have an encounter with the turtles!

Mon Repos is home to the highest density of nesting marine turtles on the eastern Australian mainland. The Mon Repos beach boasts the largest population of the endangered loggerhead turtles in the South Pacific. Mon Repos is located on the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef and is a hot-spot for voluntary conservationists and marine biologists across the country.

The Mon Repos Turtle Centre is the hub where significant conservation efforts and research is undertaken. They also have a public gallery which is open 7 days a week, and conduct tours during the turtle season.

Turtle Season

Hatchling Turtles at Mon Repos

Turtle Season at Mon Repos usually lasts from November to late-March. During Turtle Season, the centre puts on regular turtle encounter tours to get up close and personal with the marine life. Most of the turtle activity happens at night, so the tours take place around 6pm. Depending on which month you visit, you'll be treated to a unique experience:

  • From November to January, the turtle tours involve joining the rangers to watch the turtle nesting.
  • Between January to March, the hatching begins, and you'll have a personal experience with the new-born turtles.

I recommend going at the end of the season (around February-early March) during the hatching period. While there is no guarantee that the turtles will arrive on the Mon Repos beach, it's likely that you'll have an intimate encounter if you join one of the turtle tours.

Buy a ticket to the tour here, and view the Parks and forests page to follow updates and upcoming events at Mon Repos.

Conclusion

When most people think of the Great Barrier Reef, the following things usually spring to mind: coral, snorkeling and fish. There is no doubt that if you visit the Great Barrier Reef, it's important to go snorkeling and see as much of the coral reefs as possible. There are, however, so many awesome hot spots on the mainland adjacent to the islands and reefs. From the ancient rainforests to the quaint coastal towns and nesting sea turtles, the entire stretch along the Queensland coast is full of surprises.

The Whitsundays comprises a significant amount of the Great Barrier Reef. From the white silica sand of Whitehaven Beach to the picture-perfect views over Heart Reef and Hill Inlet, you'll be hard-pressed to find more spellbinding experiences than those presented here. The density of reef tours and incredible natural wonder of the Whitsundays makes it arguably the best place to visit at the Great Barrier Reef.

FAQ

What can you do at the Great Barrier Reef?

Some of the most popular activities at the Great Barrier Reef are:

  • Snorkeling and scuba diving
  • Scenic flights over the reefs
  • Sailing
  • Skydiving, and
  • Hiking on the Islands

What are the main features of the Great Barrier Reef?

The main features of the Great Barrier Reef are the 2,900 coral reefs and 900 islands stretching over 2,300km's. There are billions of marine life, including:

  • 1,500 species of fish,
  • 5,000 species of mollusks,
  • 411 types of hard coral (1/3 of the world's soft corals),
  • 134 species of sharks and rays,
  • 6 species of marine turtles, and
  • over 30 species of marine mammals.

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

The best time to visit the Great Barrier Reef is between September to November. This is when rainfall is at its lowest and temperatures are increasing from the end of Winter.

The north end of the Great Barrier Reef (north of Cairns) is quite different to the south Great Barrier Reef (south of Whitsundays):

  • Due to the tropical climate of the north, you can expect heavy rainfall with hot and humid weather for the first half of the year. Temperatures average between 21°C - 30°C and rainfall occurs on 40% of days.
  • The South Great Barrier Reef is not as affected by the tropical weather. This means the southern areas are less rainy and temperatures are more consistent throughout the year.

What should I bring to the Great Barrier Reef?

The most important things to bring to the Great Barrier Reef is:

  • swimming attire,
  • sunscreen, and
  • a snorkel with fins.

If you have access to a car, it will come of use on the mainland. There are plenty of cool things along the coastline to check out. If you're taking a cruise ship to one of the islands, be prepared to take money; it can be quite expensive!

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