Visiting Australia was our dream. Just like visiting the Great Barrier Reef. It turned out to be one of our favorite travel experiences ever. It was our first diving experience, too. So we’d like to tell you everything about how and when to visit it to make your experience truly memorable and truly yours.
Do we really need to start this post with praising this famous wonder of our world? Probably not, but we can’t help it. Because the Great Barrier Reef is an incredible wonder – and a living wonder! Actually, it’s the largest living thing on our planet.
Fascinating facts about the Great Barrier Reef
Then, of course, it’s the largest coral reef in the world. But what does that mean? It means over 900 islands stretching for over 2300 kilometres along the Queensland coastline. It also means more than 2900 individual reefs, over 600 types of hard and soft corals.
You can find 10% of the world’s fish species here. It’s home to 130+ shark and ray species, and about 30 species of whales and dolphins. It’s a colorful tropical wonderland under the water.
While the average depth of inshore waters is around 35 metres, it’s more than 2000 metres at the outer reefs. And it’s estimated to be as much as 20 million years old.
It’s in danger!
The Great Barrier Reef, just like all the other coral reefs, is sensitive and vulnerable. Climate change affects it dramatically. First of all, rising sea temperature causes heat stress and mass coral bleeching. Climate change also leads to more intense cyclones that damage the structure of the reefs. And changes in the ocean’s chemistry decrease the capacity of corals to build skeletons.
There were two mass coral bleaching – in 1998 and 2002 -, and they caused significant damage to this colorful world. We saw the result of bleeching when we visited. We heard about reefs that were once lively and colorful, but intense cyclones damaged them.
Sensitive natural habitats like the Great Barrier Reef remind us of how much we can lose if things don’t change. Saving the reef and saving our planet are the same goals. Visiting it responsibly is not enough anymore – it’s a bare minimum though.
Visiting the Reef
With that said, we had the impression that tourism is well-managed and under control at the Great Barrier Reef. Most of the islands are undeveloped and untouched. Tour companies take environmental responsibility seriously. At the same time, you have a wide range of tours to choose from.
They are of different length, they take you to different areas, they offer different activities throughout the day. Whether you want to go under the water (which we absolutely recommend you to do!), whether you can swim or scuba dive, there are options for everyone. We were looking for a tour that let us spend long hours underwater. And we were excited to try scuba diving for the first time in our lives – where else if not at the Great Barrier Reef?
Main cruise ports to access the Reef
Most tours depart from Cairns and Port Douglas, some from Airlie Beach and Townsville. The Outer Reef is closer to the coast as you go north. So to have a shorter journey and a longer time at the Reef, we decided to choose a tour that departs from Cairns.
On the other hand, Airlie Beach is the main port on the Whitsunday Coast. It means that you can combine visiting the Reef with visiting one of the 70+ islands of the Whitsundays. Though we chose to do our reef tour from Cairns, we did visit the Whitsunday Island on another full day cruise – for good. Read more about it here.
How to spend a full day on the Reef?
So to spend as much time as possible in the water, diving or snorkeling, we recommend you to choose a tour company that has a reef pontoon. It’s kind of a floating observatory with all the facilities you need for the day. You’re taken there in the morning, then have about 5 hours to do whatever you want, then you’re taken back to the mainland in the afternoon.
That 5 hours flew by for us very quickly, because there’s a lot to do on the pontoon. A snorkelling kit and glass bottom boat tours are usually included in the price of these tours. You can also add extra activities to your package if you’d like to.
We spent most of our time snorkeling. Water temperature was 28°C (in April), so we were able to stay in the ocean for long hours. And a great advantage of snorkeling from a pontoon is that it’s so easy to get into the water. You simply walk into the sheltered pool, there’s no need to jump in. You can also take breaks and spend time on the sundeck to warm up from time to time.
The snorkel area is supervised, and flotation devices are provided. It’s especially handy if you’re not a confident swimmer or visit with kids. Or if you often struggle adjusting your mask like I do.
Even non-swimmers can find their way to enjoy the reef, like going on a glass bottom boat tour or joining guided underwater walking tours.
Scuba diving or snorkeling?
We swim and snorkel a lot, so it was no question we’d enjoy that at the Reef. Okay, in my case water temperature was the only question, because I feel cold easily. But 28°C was pleasant even for me.
There was one thing we had no experience and still wanted to try though: scuba diving. So we signed up for an introductory dive which is exactly for people like us, no experience is needed. An instructor taught us the most important skills in a sheltered pool, then we went out to the reef together, holding hands. The serenity and beauty of the underwater world left us speechless. You bet it wasn’t our last dive in the tropics!
Though we were happy to try scuba diving, the truth is that even snorkeling at the reef was an extraordinary experience. It was so close to the surface that most of the time we were just floating, gazing at all the colorful fish right below us.
When is the best time to go?
Tours are organized to the Reef year-round. However, wet season (from November to April) with intense rain and cyclones can be very unpredictable. It’s also the time for marine stingers to breed. And the warm waters of tropical North Queensland are home to some of the most dangerous marine stingers on the planet.
However, stingers are more likely to be present in coastal waters, while Outer Reef tours take you further from the coast. Tour companies also provide you with so-called “stinger suits”, if you visit during “stinger season”. These are full-body lycra suits that protect against marine stingers.
We were given them when visiting in late April. The possibility of the presence of stingers were extremely low, but hey, better be safe than sorry, for one, and they are also great protection against the strong Queensland sun.
Have you ever visited a coral reef? Tell us about it!
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