Everything You Need To Know About The Great Barrier Reef

16 November 2014

Australia’s stunning Great Barrier Reef is said to be so big it can be seen from space. It supports such a huge variety of marine life it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's also one of Australia's most popular tourist attractions, so here’s how to make the most of your visit to this fascinating underwater world.

 The Great Barrier Reef is home to colourful marine life

An Underwater World

Consisting of 900 islands and around 3,000 individual reefs, the world’s largest coral system covers an area measuring approximately 344,400 square-kilometres off Australia’s east coast. But no amount of numbers can do this living, breathing natural beauty justice. So head to Queensland and see it for yourself.

A large part of the coral is protected by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. This makes the area a pristine breeding ground for humpback whales migrating from the polar waters of Antarctica. It’s also home to endangered species such as the green sea and loggerhead turtle, as well as the dugong.

Reaching The Reef

Running almost parallel to the Queensland coast from Bundaberg up past the tip of Cape York to the fringes of Papua New Guinea, the region is studded with tropical islands and white sand beaches.

You can fly from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne to Cairns or Proserpine on the mainland, as well as to Hamilton Island – the largest inhabited island in the Whitsundays. Offering a real chance to get away from it all, only seven of the 74 islands offer lodging, ranging from well-equipped campsites to five-star resorts.

It’s also easy to access the reef from the mainland, with boats departing regularly from the coastal gateways of Port Douglas, Cairns, Townsville and Rockhampton. Alternatively, travel by water taxi or seaplane from Airlie Beach from to your island destination, or join a multi-day sailing trip.

The islands off the coast of Queensland are always temperate and get progressively warmer and more humid the further north you travel. November to April is the wet season, which brings the warmest temperatures and occasionally heavy rainshowers. From May to October the reef enjoys warm weather and good visibility.

 Hamilton Island boasts some of the region's best accommodation

Aquatic Activities

Lying between 15 and 150 kilometres offshore, the reef provides a colourful playground for watersport enthusiasts. There are plenty of opportunities to don your flippers and go snorkelling and scuba diving. Heron Island (72 kilometres northeast of Gladstone and accessible by boat and seaplane) continues to be a popular spot, boasting more than 20 dive sites – half of which are only 15 minutes from the main beach.

Spot clownfish, giant clams, manta rays and large Maori Wrasse in the water. Alternatively, stay dry in a glass-bottomed boat and head out on a vessel at night armed with ultraviolet lights to reveal pretty nocturnal coral polyps. Depending on the season, there’s also the opportunity to join a whale-watching trip or swim with dolphins.

Seaways that can be crossed by kayak or sailboat link many of the walking tracks that make up the Whitsunday Ngaro Sea Trail. The trail encompasses Whitsunday, Molle and Hook Islands. Simply follow the signposts on dry land and uncover a diverse range of plants, birds and wildlife, as well as secluded beaches and incredible views.

For even more breathtaking views, take in the scene from the air. Hot air balloons take off daily from Cairns and Port Douglas, while scenic helicopter tours are another popular method of exploring the reef.

Helen Alexander

Originally from London, freelance writer Helen Alexander has spent much of her life on the road and, after stints in South America and New Zealand, she is proud to call Melbourne her adopted home. When she isn't travelling, she's writing – and dreaming of her next destination.