Best ways to experience the Great Barrier Reef
1. Reef activity platforms
Sometimes referred to as a pontoon, multi-level reef activity platforms moored permanently at the outer Great Barrier Reef provide a spacious, stable base to enjoy a wide range of reef activities in all weather conditions.
- Suitable for all ages to experience the reef at your own pace.
- Ideal for families, non-swimmers and swimmers/snorkellers and introductory divers seeking the widest range of reef experiences.
- Suitable for experienced, certified divers travelling with family and non-divers.
- For passengers that don’t want to spend all day in the water, or even get into the water at all, there are options to experience the reef from a semi-submersible or underwater observatory and even optional helicopter tours.
- For those susceptible to motion sickness, large, platforms and spacious modern catamarans provide the most stable bases from which to enjoy your day.
Quicksilver Cruises is the pioneer of Great Barrier Reef cruising and they depart daily on the high-speed Wavepiercer catamaran from Port Douglas to an exclusive platform on the Agincourt Reef. Here, special reefs known as ribbon reefs run parallel to the continental shelf. These ribbon reefs are recognised as the most pristine ecosystems in the reef’s environment.
With Quicksilver, guests get to enjoy snorkelling, semi-submersible tours with commentary, viewing from the underwater observatory, marine biologist presentations and a hot-and-cold buffet lunch – all included in the day. This is Australia’s most awarded reef cruise. Marine biologists conduct guided snorkel tours and you can also try the Oceanwalker helmet dive, which is an ideal way to see the underwater world up close and personal – perfect for non-swimmers or if you are a little unsure about scuba diving. Scenic helicopter tours are also available.
2. Islands and cays
The benefits of islands are that corals are often very close, which makes snorkelling an easy and enjoyable experience straight off the beaches. You can come and go at your leisure and relax in between swims. Some islands have refreshments for sale and offer equipment for hire. Others have glass-bottom boats or special gear, such as the Seabob Jet on Fitzroy Island.
- Suitable for all ages, couples and families seeking a relaxing tropical island experience.
- If you’re not comfortable in deep water, you can snorkel direct from the beaches or wade in the shallow crystal clear waters.
3. Adventure: dive and snorkel
Fancy scuba diving or adventure snorkelling the largest living organism in the world?
Day trips depart Port Douglas and Cairns daily to visit multiple reef sites so you can experience up to three different reef ecosystems in one day. There are also live-aboard options for the super serious scuba divers looking to optimise the time available to dive.
- An exciting day best suited to people who are confident in the water. This is an active day because you visit up to three different outer reef sites.
- Ideal for certified divers seeking to experience multiple dives at different high-quality reef sites.
- Suitable for snorkellers and introductory divers.
Silversonic is one of the newest custom-built dive and snorkel catamarans based in Port Douglas. You’ll spend five hours at the reef visiting three different reef sites. This vessel operates with a unique roaming permit and has the most exclusive permits at Agincourt Reef. Each spectacular site is chosen for visual and ecological diversity in accordance to the day’s conditions. Silversonic is also one of the few vessels in Port Douglas with a permit to swim with minke whales. The peak season to encounter these inquisitive whales at Agincourt Reef is July–September.
If you have a little more time and are a certified diver with a thirst for adventure, live-aboard dive trips spend from three nights up to a week at some of the world’s most pristine dive spots. Spirit of Freedom will take you to the famous Cod Hole and Ribbon Reefs of the Great Barrier Reef. The three-day live-aboard option includes a return flight from Lizard Island over the reef.
Or you can choose an expedition ship such as Coral Expeditions. Limited to 44 passengers, this luxury vessel runs 3–7 day tours of the GBR out of Cairns and has permits to stay in some of the most remote parts of the reef. The beauty of a ship like this is that it caters for divers, snorkellers and those who just want to soak up life aboard ship.
- If you’re travelling as a family, be sure to ask about family fares.
- Look for tours that are accredited with Advanced Ecotourism Certification. These tour companies are committed to the ongoing conservation of this World Heritage environment.
- Check the website for a list of certified tour operators, at www.ecotourism.org.au