- It’s big
Remember: Astronauts can see the Great Barrier Reef from space. There’s no way to see all of its 132,973 square miles in one trip, so create an itinerary based on your must-see attractions.
- Bring an underwater camera
Since much of your time will be spent below the sea’s surface, consider buying or renting an underwater camera. The reef’s waters are notoriously clear, allowing for spectacular photos.
- Follow responsible reef practices
The Great Barrier Reef is a World Heritage Area, and there are strict guidelines for visitors. Read up on the Marine Park Authority’s reef-friendly practices before exploring.
As one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Great Barrier Reef holds a spot on every traveler’s bucket list. Hugging the east coast of Queensland, Australia, the Great Barrier Reef extends from Cape York in the north all the way to Bundaberg in the south — a total of 1,250 miles. With roughly 3,000 coral reefs, 600 islands and 1,625 species of fish, the reef leaves its 1.6 million annual visitors enchanted.
But before diving in, it’s important to get your bearings. The northern half of the reef runs from the Cape York Peninsula to Cairns, a popular home base for many reef visitors. Not only does Cairns provide the closest reef access from the mainland, but it also boasts a few attractions of its own, like the Kuranda Scenic Railway and the Wildlife Habitat Port Douglas. Travel farther down the coast and you’ll run into the southern half of the reef, which stretches from the Capricorn Coast (along the Tropic of Capricorn) to Gladstone and Fraser Island. Airlie Beach is a favored hub for travelers in the south thanks to its array of stylish resorts and its close proximity to a cluster of 74 islands known as the Whitsundays.
Wherever you decide to hang your hat, the Great Barrier Reef is a treasure trove of once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Whether you’re gazing at marine life through a scuba mask, letting the tropical breeze unfurl your sail, or in a plane gliding high above it all, the possibilities for exploration are nearly limitless.
- Set up camp
Roughing it on one of the Great Barrier Reef’s secluded isles is actually a popular (and affordable) way to immerse yourself in the region’s spectacular environment. Reserve your camping permit and read up on camping guidelines on the Queensland government website.
- Explore on your own
While guided diving trips can take you to some of the reef’s most secluded locales, they can also put a major dent in your vacation budget. To keep costs down, consider venturing solo. Just be sure to take a look at a zoning map — you can incur hefty fines if you’re in a no-dive area.
- Bed down on the mainland
Island accommodations are more expensive than the mainland’s resorts. Unless you’re planning to camp or stay in a hostel, you’ll enjoy more budget-friendly choices in Cairns or Port Douglas, situated along Queensland’s northern coast.
Great Barrier Reef Culture & Customs
Protecting the Great Barrier Reef and all its inhabitants is as much a part of the region’s culture as it is the law. For the Indigenous Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander communities, the Great Barrier Reef is home to significant cultural and spiritual sites, meaning respect for the land is essential. More than 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional Owner clan groups are situated along the Queensland coast, from the northern Torres Strait Islands to southern Bundaberg. Because each group values the land for different reasons, be it cultural, spiritual, economic or social, it’s important for visitors to follow responsible reef practices. In other words, heed the “take only pictures and memories, and leave only bubbles” eco-tourism mentality.
By adhering to responsible reef practices you can also avoid some of the common dangers associated with exploring the Great Barrier Reef. If you’re swimming or diving near the Queensland mainland during the reef’s rainy season (November through March), be aware of deadly box jellyfish — wear a stinger wet suit to avoid any jellyfish stings. And always remember that you’re entering an animal’s natural habitat, so try not to disturb its environment. Also, it’s against the law to damage or collect coral, alive or not. But that’s not the only reason you should avoid coral’s sharp polyps: cuts can quickly turn into infections due to the Great Barrier Reef’s thermal climate.
When you’re not sporting your wetsuit, feel free to embrace the region’s casual seaside disposition by wearing loose, comfortable clothing (and don’t forget the SPF!). While you won’t have to worry about a language barrier here (English is the primary language) or differences in gratuity expectations (10 to 15 percent is acceptable), there are a few key characteristics to keep in mind: The official currency is the Australian dollar (AUD), which is roughly equivalent to the U.S. dollar (USD). And when driving on the mainland, remember that Aussies drive on the left side of the road.