Scuba Diving in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Great Barrier Reef, Australia

As the world’s largest coral reef system, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is a premier spot for divers and snorkelers. It’s home to over a thousand species of marine life and is the perfect destination for getting up close and personal with some of the world’s most mesmerizing sea creatures.

Geography of the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is located in the Coral Sea, about nine to 93 miles off the northeast coast of Queensland, Australia, just near the town of Bundaberg. It is composed of over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands that stretch over 1,600 miles—from Torres Strait in the north to the area between Fraser Islands and Lady Elliot in the south. Much of the reef is protected by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and can be seen from outer space.

Yongala Wreck

Recognized as one of the finest dive sites in the world, the SS Yongala Wreck is Australia’s most prized historic shipwreck. The dive starts at 14 meters deep and extends up to 28 meters below, and the 109-meter long vessel is mostly intact despite sinking over a century ago in 1911. The coral encrusted wreck now hosts a prolific variety of marine life, including some of the largest sea creatures that can’t be missed by serious divers.

Whitsunday Islands

The Whitsunday Islands not only have some of the most beautiful beaches in Australia but also one of the most iconic Great Barrier Reef diving destinations: the Cathedral. It features a trove of large coral outcrops, bommies, and swim-throughs, making it an exciting spot to kick off all your other dives in the reef.

Cod Hole

This northern Ribbon Reef dive site is home to some of the most friendly reef creatures, particularly giant species of Potato Cod (Grouper) and Maori Wrasse. It’s the ideal spot for taking wonderful close-up pictures as these species of fish are used to being around divers. Don’t miss the chance to take selfies with some of the biggest fish you’ve ever seen!

Green Island

The Green Island is one of the most accessible (and therefore popular) islands in the Great Barrier Reef. It’s a 12-hectare coral cay set in a larger, 710-hectare reef bed in the far north of Cairns. Those based in Cairns can take a 45-minute trip on a high-speed catamaran to discover the underwater world that awaits you on Green Island.

Lady Elliot Island

Just 10 kilometers off the continental shelf is an island that’s home to turtles and over 100 manta rays. For those diving for the first time, the island’s Eco Resort offers over a week-long dive course so that you can truly enjoy your holiday. Whale season, manta ray season, and turtle season stretches throughout the year, which means you won’t run out of large pelagic fish to see.

Magnetic Island

Just 20 minutes away from Townsville lies a popular island that’s renowned for its beautiful beaches, secluded bays, and resident koalas. This part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park also boasts of some of the easiest shore diving, as well as a couple of wrecks, so you’re sure to encounter fringing coral reefs and a wide variety of sea life.

Orpheus Island

Way north of Townsville is a peaceful island that can only be accessed by charter or private boat. It’s only 12 kilometers long and 2.5 kilometers wide and lacks roads and formal hiking trails. The best activities include offshore snorkeling and diving. It’s home to 1100 species of fish, over 300 kinds of hard corals, and one of the region’s largest collections of soft coral.

Lady Musgrave Island

A top spot for those interested in maximizing their Great Barrier Reef scuba diving trips, Lady Musgrave Island is an awesome destination for explorers of both land and sea wonders. Go on organized tours to explore this southern area of the Great Barrier Reef and its surrounding reefs. When you’re not diving, you can also go camping and discover the island’s unusually large protected lagoon with beautiful corals.

Marine Life

The Great Barrier Reef is home to more than 1,500 species of fish, which make up around 10% of the world’s total fish species. Other than that, it also holds one-third of the world’s soft corals, over 400 types of hard coral, six of the world’s seven species of endangered marine turtles, hundreds of ray and shark species, and more than 30 species of marine mammals. It’s typical to encounter manta rays, green sea turtles, and even reef sharks in any of the dive sites in this part of Australia. Simply put, you’ll never run out of new things to see, especially on a week-long dive at the reef.

Other Attractions

  • Whitehaven Beach - Take a sightseeing cruise to visit this glorious Whitsunday Island beach, which is frequently ranked as one of the top ten beaches in the world.
  • Scenic Flights - Appreciate the magnitude of the Great Barrier Reef by booking flights that allow you to soar over coral reefs and islands, including a heart-shaped reef that’s popular for romantic flyover proposals.
  • Night Markets - The Cairns Esplanade holds nightly night markets where you can discover an incredible world of arts, crafts, and wonderful Australian souvenirs that you can remember your trip by.
  • Kuranda Scenic Railway - For those who need a break from exploring the reef, you can go on this two-hour train ride from Cairns, which takes you 1,076 feet above sea level, through the upper Barron George, and to Kuranda, which is known as “the village in the rainforest.”
  • Wildlife Habitat - Great for families and kids, this wildlife sanctuary in Port Douglas promotes conservation by offering up-close encounters with pythons, kangaroos, crocodiles, pelicans, and its main attraction, the koalas.

How to Get There

Australian residents can easily travel to the northeastern coast without a passport or visa, although it is highly recommended to bring your passport for identification. Non-Australian citizens will need a passport and visa to visit the Great Barrier Reef.

By Air
The city of Cairns is considered to be the main gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. Cairns Airport (CNS) welcomes domestic and international flights from all over the world, so you can fly straight to Cairns as your point of entry to Australia and the Reef.

By Land
The Queensland Rail, or Tilt Train, is a great way to travel to Cairns and the Tropical North area. It offers business class seating and serves passengers about five times a week.

By Water
The best way to experience the reef system is to take liveaboard dive trips to the Great Barrier Reef. Choose from a wide range of liveaboards that start off at popular cities like Cairns for an overnight stay or for as long as 10 days.

Getting Around
As the reef stretches off an entire coast in northeast Australia, you can get around via all sorts of public transport, like shuttle buses, trains, taxicabs, and ride-sharing services like Uber. However, the best way is still by car, which you can rent even from the airport, or by boat, if you plan to stay in any of the reef’s remote islands.

Best Time to Visit

The weather and climate in the Great Barrier Reef coincides with that of Queensland, Australia. Summer is from October until May and visibility greatly improves in many areas of the reef between June and November. Coral spawning typically occurs in October and November, which means that the Great Barrier Reef diving season is between June and December.

Required Trainings & Certifications

Although it covers a very wide area, the Great Barrier Reef is generally not a deep dive destination. Dive sites range from 10-25 meters (30-80 feet) deep, although you might be advised to stay at up to 15 meters (50 feet) for the best view of the reef. Some dive sites allow you to go in without any experience (though you’ll need to know how to swim). If you are not yet a certified scuba diver, some courses offered by accredited scuba diving certification agencies are bundled with liveaboard cruises so you can start diving in the reef right after your classroom and pool training.

Miscellaneous Information

As part of Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef area uses the Australian dollar (AUD) as its official currency. Money changers and ATMs can be found onshore, but not on liveaboards.

Like the rest of Australia, the cities closest to the Great Barrier Reef use Australian English, although dive crews commonly speak other languages in order to communicate with tourists.

Time Zone
The Great Barrier Reef area observes Australian Eastern Standard Time (AEST) and does not utilize Daylight Saving Time.

Driving Side
The Queensland area drives on the left-hand side of the road.

Calling Code
Dialing +617 will allow you to call Queensland from another country.

ISO 3166 code
ISO 3166-2:AU is the entry for Australia in ISO 3166-2.

Internet TLD
.au is the Internet country code top-level domain for Australia.