9 Ways to Explore Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

Even if you knew nothing about the Great Barrier Reef you’d still be able to gather that it’s pretty big. It’s right there in the name! Which gives most travellers a dilemma. You want to see this amazing natural wonder, but where to start?

We’ve listed all the ways we know to get stuck into the reef – let us know if you’ve tried any more.

1. Glass-bottom Boat Cruises

Australia Great Barrier Reef - Clam Garden
Great Barrier Reef Clam Gardens © Pete Niesen

If you like the idea of seeing the rich marine life without getting your feet wet then a glass-bottomed boat is for you. You’re likely to see sea turtles, star fish, giant clams and small reef sharks as your boat glides above the coral.

Trips are usually only a few hours long and as this is one of the most common and easiest ways to see the Great Barrier Reef and you’ll be spoilt for options in Cairns and other popular jumping off points to the reef.

2. Sea Kayaking

Australia Great Barrier Reef - Whitsunday Island
Beach in Hill’s inlet on Whitsunday island © Sasapee

Another popular way to see the reef from above the waves is to join a Sea Kayaking expedition. There are plenty of tours of the reef around the popular Whitsunday Islands – And the experience is worth leaving Hamilton’s brilliant white-sand beach for.

Typically a tour will be a mixture of drifting over shallow areas of the reef and some areas of deeper water too, where you may meet dolphins and sea turtles. Most tours are suitable for beginners, so even if you’ve never paddled a kayak before you can join in.

3. Scuba diving

Australia Great Barrier Reef - Diver and coral
Scuba diver viewing colourful coral – © Debra James

Diving in the Great Barrier Reef is unbeatable, and as one of the world’s most popular dive spots you’re going to find experiences suitable for all levels. If you’re a beginner the Great Barrier Reef is an incredible place to learn, and even on your first sea lesson you’ll get to come face to face with the fishes.

Experienced divers can explore the Yongala shipwreck off the coast of Townsville or swim among tame giant potato cod at Cod’s Hole.

4. Snorkelling

Australia Great Barrier Reef - Snorkeller
Snorkeller surrounded by fish © Martin Valigursky

A cheaper and more accessible alternative to diving is to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef. Grab a mask and flippers and you’re set! Though you’re stuck to the surface you’ll see almost as much as a scuba diver as a lot of the marine life prefer the surface, so you can swim up to shoals of fishes and glide over the colourful coral structures.

If you’re staying on one of the islands in the reef like the Whitsundays or Heron Island you’ll be able to snorkel straight off the beach, though of course there are an abundance of tour operators who will take you out to more remote locations in the reef.

Whether you’re on a tour or by yourself do be careful not to damage the delicate coral when you snorkel – don’t touch!

5. Underwater Walk

Australia Great Barrier Reef - Green Sea Turtle
Green sea turtle © Sebastien Burel

If you’re not sold on either snorkelling or scubadiving we’ve got one more trick up our sleeves for you. How about just waking a walk beneath the water on a helmet dive? You’ll be kitted out with a diver’s helmet which allows you to breath normally underwater (and only looks a little like you’ve got an upside-down fish bowl on your head) and be lead on the tour by a qualified diver. This experience is offered in a couple of locations including Green Island

6. Viewing platforms

Australia Great Barrier Reef - Clown Fish
Clown fish © BMCL

If you’re not ready to head out into that huge reef alone there are some platforms such as Quicksilver in the Agincourt Reef which will offer you a base and plenty of facilities in the middle of the ocean. This is essentially a floating island where you can snorkel in a protected environment, or watch fish being fed from the Underwater Observatory.

7. Submarine

Australia Great Barrier Reef - whitemouth Moray Eel
whitemouth Moray Eel © Sebastien Burel

Head to Fitzroy Island for a unique opportunity to explore beneath the waves by submarine. Great Barrier Reef Submarines has yellow submarines just big enough to take two passengers and the submarine pilot down to a depth of 40 metres. You get a choice of day or night dives allowing you the rare chance to see what happens underwater after dark!

8. Helicopter Flights

Australia Great Barrier Reef - Heart Reef
Heart Reef © deb22

The view from above gives you an amazing perspective of sheer size of the reef and because of the clear waters you can still spot sharks, turtles, manta rays and even whales at the right time of year.

It isn’t the cheapest way to see the reef, but a helicopter ride out to the more inaccessible islands at the edge of the reef sure is a spectacular experience. Companies like gbr helicopters offer scenic flights from Cairns and Port Douglas.

9. Seaplanes

Australia Great Barrier Reef - Green Island from Above
Green Island © Regien Paassen

Another way to get out into remote parts of the reef is by seaplane. Cairns Seaplanes offer regular tours to Idyllic Green Island, which is just a 15 minute flight from Cairns, as well as tailor made packages and scenic flights.

Cairns is the biggest transport hub for accessing the Great Barrier Reef, so if you’re feeling inspired to go we can help you compare flights to Cairns and elsewhere in Australia.