Updated: Oct 18
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With more than 2,900 individual reefs, the Great Barrier Reef is so large it can be seen from outer space. Located near the city of Cairns, Australia, the 1,430-mile reef racks up over two million visitors a year. The site is listed as one of the seven natural wonders of the world as well as an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981. Along with seeing more than 1,600 species of fish, tourists seek out what’s known as the Great Eight, a list of the reef’s most popular residents. Like always, preparation is the key to getting the most out of your trip. Here’s how you can do that at the Great Barrier Reef.
How to Get There
Though it’s possible to gain access from elsewhere, Cairns, located in Far North Queensland, is considered the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. Cairns is the closest city to the reef from the mainland, so getting there is as simple as driving or renting an Uber from your hotel. Depending on which section you’re planning to discover, reaching the reef takes anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half.
Full of wilderness, Cairns has many other things to take in while you’re in the area. One such place is Cairns Esplanade – an area with lagoons, beach volleyball courts, and playgrounds. Another beautiful location is the Barron Gorge National Park, home to a stunning four-tiered waterfall where you can even book a white water rafting trip.
Best Ways to See the Reef
Many people explore the Great Barrier Reef by snorkeling. The water has a visibility of 120 feet, so it’s easy to spot marine life and colorful corals. Those who want to venture deeper into the ocean can choose to scuba dive. The best time of the year to do this is from June to October, when the water temperature is guaranteed to be warm. You can implement either of these options by booking a snorkel and dive cruise. Diving and snorkeling gear are available on most trips.
If you’re interested in seeing the reef without getting in the water, you can opt for a glass bottom boat tour. Another unexpected way is by viewing from a helicopter. This particular helicopter tour takes you over the rainforest of Barron Gorge as well as the Great Barrier Reef itself. No matter which way you choose, you’re sure to be awestruck by this natural wonder.
What to Look for
Similar to how an African safari has the Big 5, the Great Barrier Reef boasts a Great 8. This list, though not at all comprehensive, can serve as a barrier reef bucket list. The sea creatures on this list include whales, manta rays, sharks, clownfish, Maori wrasse, turtles, potato cod, and giant clams. You can also look out for seahorses, tiger fish, and more than 200 species of birds on the shore. There are a range of plants on the reef, one of which is seagrass that produces underwater flowers. You can also see over 400 species of marine algae, such as seaweed, and 39 species of mangroves.
Other Notable Tips
Like any excursion where you spend hours outdoors, it’s a good idea to slap on some sunblock. However, due to the sensitivity of the reef, you should opt for something reef safe, such as Hawaiian Tropic Everyday Active Clear Spray. You should also keep in mind that coral is a living creature, so make sure you don’t step on it or otherwise disturb it. It’s also vital that you don’t remove anything, litter, or feed the fish.
Earlier in this post, I listed some rather intimidating sea life to look out for. Luckily, swimming in the Great Barrier Reef isn’t dangerous. In fact, humans are probably more damaging to the reef than resident sea creatures are to us. Reef sharks are typically harmless to humans, and currents are never too strong for swimmers.
As noted earlier, Cairns is considered the gateway of the Great Barrier Reef, so it's the best place to book a hotel. Low in price but high on amenities, Cairns Queens Court is a good choice for budget travelers. Sunshine Tower Hotel has updated rooms, a great view, and a fantastic location at a mid-range cost. Finally, Crystalbrook Riley is a 5-star hotel that's nothing short of elegant. From pools to spas and restaurants, this luxury hotel has it all.
Full of beauty and amazing wildlife, the Great Barrier Reef is a magnificent site. Unfortunately, it's been a victim of coral bleaching and tourist mishandling. Though coral bleaching is a direct result of global warming, what we choose to do when we visit the reef is entirely in our control. I encourage you to see the reef in all its glory, but make sure to follow all the care tips from above to keep it alive longer.