Seven top ocean adventures on the Great Barrier Reef

Take the plunge and explore the GBR, where devils wait in the shadows, sharks circle in the shallows and a whole world reveals itself under the sea.
By AG STAFF December 16, 2020 Reading Time: 6 Minutes Print this page

I’VE NEVER heard of a devil ray, so when one suddenly bursts through the beam of light my torch is painting on the black canvas of the ocean at night – two demonic horns sticking straight out of its head – I think it’s either a mutant manta or a monster from the deep. The satanic-looking ray keeps barrel rolling through the shoal of fish it has cornered, gorging on its midnight snack. It only scarpers when a 2m shark swims past our shoulders, utterly unseen until it abruptly appears in the pocket of light to join the feast. I glance at my dive-buddy, Deb, and the whites of her eyes are as wide as her mask. One thing is certain – neither of us will ever forget our first self-navigated night dive.

This encounter, and the explosion of excited conversation it precipitates once we’re back on the boat, epitomises the attraction of diving: it’s a very controlled pursuit, conducted within extremely safe technical parameters, but when you’re down there, you just don’t know what you’re going to meet.

You could spend a lifetime diving the Great Barrier Reef and barely see half of it. That such a watery wilderness exists right on our doorstep is a magical thought. This is a special, peaceful place, where you’re removed from – and can forget about – the rest of the crazy, fast-paced world above.

Here’s how you can dive into the Great Barrier Reef in Tropical North Queensland this summer

Explore the Indigenous significance of the GBR

Try a Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel

Enjoy one of Cairns’ most unique and exclusive Great Barrier Reef tours. Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel invites you to step back into the Great Barrier Reef’s Dreamtime with Indigenous sea rangers on a day tour to two spectacular outer Great Barrier Reef sites, Moore Reef and Milln or Flynn reef.

At Moore Reef, you’ll have the opportunity to explore the underwater world with included snorkelling and glass bottom boat experiences, or choose to splash out with extra activities such as an introductory or certified dive.

For more information visit Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel.

Snorkelling never looked so good

Join an Ocean Safari

Ocean Safari offers an exhilarating ride to snorkel the pristine untouched Great Barrier Reef off the Daintree coast at Cape Tribulation. The half-day Great Barrier Reef tour visits two different snorkel sites, each with an extraordinary array of marine life and coral species. After a fast 25-minute ride, you’re ready to snorkel two fabulous locations at Mackay and Undine reefs.

On most days, you can snorkel alongside sea turtles, which are found in abundance swimming over reefs full of colourful coral, along with myriad tropical fish, eagle rays, giant clams and starfish. The coastal rainforest of the Daintree can be seen along the mainland beach while snorkelling – two world heritage areas side by side. Your experienced skipper and eco host ensure the trip is filled with fun and appreciation of both. Magical memories like these sometimes only happen once in a lifetime.

For more information visit Ocean Safari.

Divers meet a lionfish on the GBR

Learn to scuba dive

Whether you’re a complete beginner or thinking of making diving your career, there’s a dive course to suit you with friendly, expert instructors who’ll ensure you have a safe and fun experience.

Divers Den, out of Cairns, has Great Barrier Reef Day Trips, OceanQuest Overnight (Liveaboard) Experiences, Four Day PADI Open Water Courses on offer. Find out more here.

Prov Dive Cairns has Beginner, Advanced and Professional courses available including liveaboard options as well as day trips from both Cairns and Port Douglas. Find out more here.

Get involved in citizen science with AG on the GBR

Join our 10-night citizen-science coral reef expedition

Australian Geographic has partnered with Coral Expeditions for a once-in-a-lifetime nature conservation experience on the Great Barrier Reef. Hosted by some of Australia’s most accomplished reef experts, you will participate in real scientific research projects including a focus on the annual migration of the dwarf minke whales – with the opportunity to swim eye to eye with these magnificent creatures – and coral surveying and identification for the world-first Living Coral Biobank project. Also, $500 from your fare benefits GBR Legacy.

Expedition Highlights

  • Have the chance to swim amongst the dwarf minke whales and come eye to eye to make a true personal connection with these beautiful and curious creatures.
  • Be a part of conservation history by taking part in coral surveying and collections for the world’s first Living Coral Biobank project
  • Share your journey with a team of the most respected and knowledgeable marine scientists in the world
  • Discover Australian heritage and history as you explore the frontier township of Cooktown
  • Make connections with ancient Indigenous culture and hear the tales of creation from a traditional elder amongst the rock art at the sheltered Yindayin cave
  • Learn about reef conservation at the Research Station on Lizard Island and visit the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre on Fitzroy island
  • Close each day over a refreshing sundowner as you watch the sun set over the vast expanse of the Coral Sea
  • Explore spectacular Osprey Reef, and observe overnight scientific research on the elusive Nautilus

Discover more here.

Coral spawning on the GBR

Experience the GBR coral spawning

Strap on your mask and snorkel or oxygen tank for the Great Barrier Reef’s biggest event of the year – the beautiful and mysterious mass coral spawning. This incredible spectacle usually happens two to six nights after the full moon in November, so now’s the time to start planning your escape for 2021.

In simple terms, coral spawning is the reef having sex. Coral polyps simultaneously release egg and sperm bundles that they’ve spent months growing into the ocean for external fertilisation. This happens in a mass event annually often affectionately named the world’s largest orgasm on the world’s largest organism.

“It’s literally just an eruption that lasts for 20 minutes to a half an hour, where the whole Great Barrier Reef just has sex, with coral polyps releasing. Clams go. Sea cucumbers go. Starfish go. Everything just goes. It’s literally a mass orgy. It’s the biggest sexual event on the planet. It’s an amazing thing to go snorkelling or diving in.” – Gareth Phillips, Marine Biologist

Find out more here.

Your picnic destination: Vlasoff Cay

Take a chopper to paradise

You’ve made the wise decision to chase the sun to “where you’d rather be” – Tropical North Queensland. If you’re looking to treat someone special, propose, or simply spend a day saying “I love you”, look no further than a romantic morning at this VIP of sandy cays in the Great Barrier Reef. Let Nautilus Aviation give you the full rockstar treatment with a heli ride to your exclusive rendezvous spot. Check-in complete, it’s time for lift off.

Find out more here.

Nudey Beach, Fitzroy Island

Indulge in island life

Scattered along the Tropical North Queensland coast are islands that range from tiny uninhabited strips of sand to private ultra-luxury resorts. Whether you want to fall asleep beneath a blanket of stars or lie back in luxury, there is an island that’s right for you. And getting there is easy.

For families and first-timers, Green Island is the place to test the waters. It’s one of only three true coral cays in the Great Barrier Reef and there’s sheltered snorkelling right off the beach. Fitzroy Island is another local favourite and its rainforest-covered hills are threaded with hiking trails, including the picturesque Secret Garden track. There are resorts on both islands, but they are also easily accessible as a day-trip from Cairns.

If you’re looking for a reef option, Low Isles is perfect, and just 15km off the coast from Port Douglas. The protected lagoon waters are ideal for beginners who shouldn’t be surprised if a marine turtle floats by.

Looking for something more indulgent? Lizard Island, off the coast of Cape York, is a 1000ha national park with 24 beaches and one ultra-luxe resort, the most northerly in the Great Barrier Reef. Bedarra Island is a small, rainforest-covered gem just offshore from Mission Beach and home to one exclusive resort and a handful of holiday villas.

If you’re planning to camp on one of the islands, make sure you book your permit early. There are only limited spaces and they can fill up quickly, especially during school holidays. Remember that you can only camp in designated areas.

Find out more about your island escape here.

So, what are you waiting for? Start planning your summer in the tropics today.