Adventure 101: Great Barrier Reef

“Immersing yourself in the Great Barrier Reef is the best way to see how fragile it is,” says Ben Southall, who has served as the reef’s honorary “caretaker of islands” and retraced Captain Cook’s route of discovery there, by kayak.

The largest coral reef ecosystem in the world, it stretches for 1,430 miles off the Queensland coast and contains 2,000 individual reefs. “It’s the vastness and marine life that draws people in,” says Southall.

Approximately one million visitors dive or snorkel the Great Barrier Reef each year. While there are many access points, Southall has three favorites that show the reef’s diversity:

  • From Port Douglas: Head to the Low Isles, about 15 miles away by boat. The coral cays sheltered by reef are home to schools of angelfish and clownfish, and branching soft corals.
  • From Cairns: Visit the Agincourt Reef, part of the ribbonlike coral reefs in the outer edge, with sea turtles, stands of elkhorn coral, 
and a wealth of color due to the clarity of the water.
  • In the Whitsunday Islands: Langford Reef is easy to get to from the beach. During an hour-long snorkel, you can see up to 
50 different types of coral and creatures like the hump-headed Maori wrasse, the green turtle, 
and enormous parrotfish.

For guided reef day-trips (from beginner to advanced), often with a marine biologist on board to offer tips and answer questions, book a boat tour from Cairns or Port Douglas. Outfitters provide snorkeling instruction, gear, and reef access (from $95).

What you’ll need: Outfitters and rental shops provide equipment (mask, snorkel, and fins) in a variety of sizes. Southall suggests trying the mask on in the water to make sure there are no leaks. If you’re spending more than two days snorkeling, you may want to pack your own mask, snorkel, fins, and sun shirt (to keep from getting sunburned) for comfort.

What you’ll want to have: Bring a waterproof camera to capture the underwater views. “The warm, shallow water has more clarity, so even with an inexpensive camera, you’re likely to get good shots. Most aquatic life congregates around structures. Sea turtles and Queensland groupers are curious and will often get up close for a photo.” Purchase and study fish identification cards so you know what you’re seeing.

When to go: October through November are 
considered the best months for sunny days, warm water, and calm seas. Catch a snippet of whale song underwater between mid-June and late October, when humpback whales migrate along the Queensland coast.

If you’re on the other side of the world and can’t make it all the way to Australia, consider these other underwater hot spots in the Americas:

This piece, written by Jill Robinson, appeared in the April 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine. 


  1. Helen Harris
    September 22, 2014, 2:51 pm

    Planning to go to Great Barrier Reef around May 15,2015, but I can change that date. I REALLY have a problem with motion sickness, so Pls tell me what months are good for a smooth ride from Port Douglas.

  2. Ashlyne
    March 26, 2014, 9:44 am

    Intelligent Travel, this photo is beautiful! What an exciting thing to do on a vacation! I went snorkeling in the Bahamas when I was younger and the reefs were one of the most beautiful things I have seen. They were so colorful and I could see fish swimming in and out of the reefs, I even saw a barracuda and a baby whale shark. The Great Barrier Reef is much bigger and better I’m sure! I love animals, beaches, and trying new things, so maybe a visit to Australia and the Great Barrier Reef is something to jot down on my list to try in the near future! Seeing the sea turtles up close would be a wonderful experience! I’ve seen them from a distance when I went para sailing, and I saw one near our boat when we went deep sea fishing, both when I was in Marco Island, FL. Snorkeling in The Great Barrier Reef would be a wonderful way to enjoy a vacation, and to be up-close with the natural beauty and creatures of the sea.

  3. Iida
    March 14, 2014, 3:35 am

    Love the photo and the place! Wish I could go back.
    xx Iida

  4. Wayne Bromiley
    United Kingdom
    March 13, 2014, 12:41 pm

    love this photo

  5. Phil
    March 11, 2014, 9:47 pm

    We recently went out to Hardy’s lagoon and did the Seaplane flight over Heart Reef in the Whitsundays and it was spectacular. We got to snorkel the lagoon and the coral was in good condition I’d say because the lagoon offers a bit pf protection, The Cod Hole and out reef and Coral Sea from Cairns is amazing too. Makes me want to go diving now! One point about the above, make sure you have a strap for your underwater camera!! Seen a few of them go missing of late, especially with all the GoPro’s out there!