The Technicolour Underwater World of the Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s biggest coral reef system. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, the structure is made up of 2,900 individual reefs that cover an area of approximately 345,000 square kilometres along the east coast of Australia. The Great Barrier Reef is so large that it’s split into five major sections: the far northern section, the northern section, the Cairns section, the central section, and the southern section.
In addition to the individual reefs, roughly 900 islands are part of the Great Barrier Reef as well. Some of the most well-known in the region are the Whitsunday Islands.
The Great Barrier Reef is a scuba diving hotspot that attracts people from all over the world. You don’t need to be an expert diver to embark on one of the many snorkelling expeditions available. It’s one of the best ways to explore what’s beneath the waves. Those who want to learn to scuba dive, however, also have plenty of introductory courses to choose from.
Clownfish, giant clams, manta rays, green sea turtles and white tip reef sharks are among the hundreds of animal species that call the reef home. Another animal commonly sighted in the waters of the reef is whales.
Climate in the Great Barrier Reef Region
Given its tropical climate, the Great Barrier Reef only experiences two seasons: the wet and the dry. You’re likely to see stormy conditions during the wet season from November to April. Australia’s traditional ‘stinger season’ corresponds with these months as well. The name refers to an influx of dangerous jellyfish species in and around the reef.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t scuba dive or snorkel in the wet season, but it’s strongly advised that you wear a wetsuit for protection. Come rain or shine, the reef is full of things to do, even outside peak season. A visit during this time of year is also ideal if you want to avoid the crowds.
The tropics have their dry season from May to October, so it’s best to visit the Great Barrier Reef in either June, July, or August. The warm weather and mild seas make this time of year perfect for outdoor activities.
No matter the season, a trip to the Great Barrier Reef is sure to be a memorable experience. Thinking about what activities you’d like to do will help you decide which weather conditions are most suitable for your holiday.
Top Places to See at the Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef isn’t the only reason to visit Australia’s east coast. The surrounding area is brimming with extraordinary places to explore and exciting activities to enjoy. Allow us to guide you through some of the top places to see on your Great Barrier Reef adventure!
Lady Elliot Island
The southernmost island on the reef, Lady Elliot Island, is known for its resident population of manta rays. The island is so small that you only need about 45 minutes to walk around its entirety. Its remote location, however, means that it’s only accessible by plane.
Due to the exceptionally clear waters here, Lady Elliot Island is regarded as a true snorkeller’s paradise. Fish, corals, turtles, and occasionally even dolphins are easily visible in this area, with most marine life congregating here between May and September. Manta rays, nonetheless, can be found on the island all year round. Despite their huge wingspan of up to seven metres, these rays are completely harmless.
Between November and February on Lady Elliot Island, turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. The best time to witness this magic is at night, ideally as part of a tour. Between February and April, hatchlings emerge from the sand and find their way to the sea. It’s a sight you won’t want to miss!
Hamilton is the largest of the inhabited Whitsunday Islands. Located just off Australia’s northeast coast, the island is easily accessible by ferry. With not only snorkelling and diving, but also scenic walking trails on offer here, Hamilton has plenty to keep you busy. One such trail will take you to the island’s renowned hilltop lookout, One Tree Hill. Enjoy an early evening cocktail here with breathtaking views of the Whitsunday sunset.
A guided tour at Hamilton Island Wildlife also gives you the opportunity to get a closer look at native Aussie animals, allowing you to learn about creatures such as koalas, kangaroos, snakes, and crocodiles.
Situated north of Brisbane, Hervey Bay is the best place to go for whale watching. Named the world’s first official Whale Heritage site, the region is committed to protecting the animals.
Humpback whales are most commonly sighted between July and October, when they head here from the frigid Antarctic to give birth in warm waters. As trusting and curious creatures, they occasionally swim extremely close to boats. They often put on a real show for spectators by jumping out of the water, flapping their fins, and even spouting fountains of water through their blowholes!
You can choose to either observe the gentle giants from a boat or swim alongside them. For a safe encounter, a few ground rules are in place for swimming with whales. First of all, as soon as a whale is spotted, the boat’s engine is switched off. No more than 12 people are then allowed into the water. These people hold onto a rope and wait for the whales to approach them. This leaves the amount of interaction up to the whales.
If you’d prefer to start a little smaller, you can swim with dwarf minke whales in either Cairns or Port Douglas. Though not as large as the 15-metre-long humpbacks, minke whales too can reach a length of around eight metres. For swimming with minke whales, the same rules apply as in Hervey Bay.
The tiny Magnetic Island is a short ferry ride away from the Queensland city of Townsville. This island is one of the east coast’s most popular destinations for backpackers, meaning that budget accommodation is aplenty.
Some of Magnetic Island’s 23 beaches – such as Alma Bay, Arthur Bay, and Florence Bay – are also ideal for snorkelling or scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef. These bays are just as suitable for novice divers and snorkellers as they are for seasoned professionals.
For those who aren’t quite ready to dip below the waves, kayaking is a great alternative to snorkelling and scuba diving. Several kayak tours allow you to explore the island at your own pace, including sunset tours whereby you can marvel at the various bays in the enchanting evening hues.
A number of hiking trails take you to new heights on the island, including the climb up Mount Cook – Magnetic Island’s highest point. Upon reaching the peak, you’ll be greeted with a spectacular view over the sea and the rest of the island. With a little luck, you’ll even catch a glimpse of some koalas during your hike. Some animals can be spotted near the trails during the day. Koalas are nocturnal, though, meaning they’re most active around dawn and dusk. For this reason, it’s important to be as quiet as possible in these areas so as not to disturb these adorable marsupials’ sleep.
The island is home to rock wallabies as well as koalas. These smaller members of the kangaroo family can be found near Geoffrey Bay. Feeding the animals used to be prohibited, but since many visitors failed to observe this rule, you can now buy special bags of feed on the island. The wallabies have also become very tame and trusting over the years. Stay calm, and they’ll come close enough to feed right out of your hand.
The Yongala Shipwreck
Magnetic Island is a good place to start if you’re looking to dive the Yongala shipwreck. The SS Yongala was a 110-metre-long passenger and cargo ship that sank to the depths of the sea floor during a cyclone in 1911. Virtually all traces of the Yongala had been wiped by the storm, meaning that she lay undiscovered until 1958. Today, the ship sits intact on the seabed at a depth of 28 metres. The wreck has developed its own ecosystem, providing habitat for an array of sea creatures.
Even though the incident is considered one of Australia’s most tragic maritime disasters, the Yongala is a very popular site, its mysterious history drawing people from all over the world. To participate in this dive, however, diving experience and certification are required.
The Whitsundays are another must-see destination on the east coast, the world-renowned Whitehaven Beach being a particular highlight. An archipelago of 74 islands – only 17 of which are inhabited – the Whitsundays are protected as part of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.
The six national parks of the Whitsundays provide havens for wilderness and wildlife alike. A guided tour is generally the best way to experience these idyllic islands. Day trips as well as two- and three-day tours with overnight stays are on offer.
The largest island of the archipelago, Whitsunday, is best known for Whitehaven Beach. Renowned for having some of the whitest sand you’ll ever set foot on, this beach is reckoned the most beautiful in the world. The powdery sand, which is almost pure quartz, doesn’t retain heat in the same way that regular sand does. This means you can comfortably walk around barefoot, even in the scorching midday sun.
The Hill Inlet has another scenic lookout area. When the tide here is low, the pristine white sand fuses with the turquoise waters to create a mesmerizing swirl effect. It’s a phenomenon known as the swirling sands of Whitehaven Beach. The viewpoint is accessible via a 20- to 40-minute guided walk, depending on where you start from.
When you think of the Great Barrier Reef, the iconic Heart Reef is probably one of the first things that comes to mind. As the name suggests, this small coral reef has naturally taken the form of a heart. Understandably, the only way to admire its shape is on a scenic flight.
Due to its protected status, you can’t swim, dive, or snorkel at Heart Reef. You can, nevertheless, take a glass-bottom boat tour around the formation. In doing so, you’ll still be able to see the turtles and colourful reef fish that lie beneath.
Threats to the Great Barrier Reef
Coral reefs provide shelter for thousands of sea animals, including fish, sharks, and turtles. Like all ecosystems, corals are constantly changing. Unfortunately, some of these changes are negative, such as those caused by climate change. Rising sea temperatures threaten these incredibly delicate ecosystems. They cannot tolerate temperatures below 18 degrees Celsius or above 30 degrees Celsius. Therefore, as the water warms, they become stressed and lose their pigmentation. This is known as coral bleaching. If temperatures remain high for prolonged periods of time, bleached corals can die.
How You Can Help Preserve the Great Barrier Reef
When visiting the reef, it’s important to respect the environment. One way in which you can do this is by travelling with eco-certified tour operators. These companies are committed to ecologically sustainable tourism. They implement environmentally friendly practices, and a portion of the revenue generated goes to support reef conservation. Certifications are reviewed once a year to ensure that companies continue to meet certain environmental standards.
You can also contribute by not touching the corals with any part of your body or anything on your person. This includes securing all of your diving or snorkelling equipment, so that loose regulators, gauges, and the like don’t cause accidental damage to the corals. Removing things from the reef to keep as souvenirs is also best avoided.
If you want to use sunscreen, remember to go for mineral-based products, as these are reef-safe. Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, contain ingredients that have been shown to damage coral reefs.
It goes without saying that the Great Barrier Reef is a water lover’s dream. Though, the ways to experience this natural wonder go beyond just snorkelling and scuba diving. From the mainland to the islands, you won’t be short of fun activities, both at sea and on land.
How you decide to explore the reef can be as varied as the region itself. Spend your days snorkelling, wildlife watching, trying your hand at water sports, or a combination of the three. The choice is yours. Grab your backpack, the vast diversity of the Great Barrier Reef is waiting for you!