10 Highlights of the Great Barrier Reef

Published 31 May 2017

Angela Griffin

Angela Griffin

The Great Barrier Reef: it’s all about the fish, right? Wrong! Yes the colourful parrotfish and nemo-esque clownfish play a large part in it, but there’s more to see and do here in tropical north Queensland than just diving and snorkelling. Here are 10 of our favourite Great Barrier Reef highlights:

Hamilton Island

Nestled in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef’s Whitsunday Islands, Hamilton’s azure waters and bleached beaches are admired the world over. Once reserved for romantic honeymooners and laid-back yachties, Hamilton has stretched its restless legs and now offers quad biking, go-karting, fishing and world-class golfing, along with more than 12 miles of walking trails. Or perhaps just grab a spot on a poolside sunlounger, order a cocktail…and relax.

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsundays

Whitehaven Beach

You’ve probably seen photos of Whitehaven Beach, a swirling mass of fine white sand and seemingly impossible turquoise water backed by forests and surrounded by ocean. Found on Whitsunday Island, this beach really is as blue as it looks in the photos. Come to snorkel, swim, sunbathe or simply admire the view. To reach Whitehaven Beach, you can hop on a boat, take a seaplane flight or ride a helicopter from Airlie Beach or Hamilton Island.

Sailing the Whitsundays

Island hopping sailing trips

Whether you’re an experienced sailor or have never even set foot on a boat, there are many ways to sail around the Great Barrier Reef. Chartering a fully crewed yacht and sailing around the Whitsunday Islands is a popular choice, but there are all sorts of cruises you can join too. With day sails on catamarans, simple there-and-back reef visits, speedboat tours from Hamilton Island or Airlie Beach, overnight snorkelling trips and luxury multiday cruises from Cairns all on offer, the choice is endless!

Heart Reef in the Whitsundays, Australia

See the reef from above

Flying over the Great Barrier Reef is an excellent way to take in its enormity, and to admire the wonderful shades of aquamarine and royal blue that blend together in its waters. A favourite spot to see from the air is Heart Reef, so-called because it is a heart shape, while methods of flight include small planes, helicopters and seaplanes, which are extra exciting because you can touch down on an island or two and spend some time chilling or snorkelling on the beaches.

Lady Elliot Island, Australia

Lady Elliot Island

The southernmost inhabited island of the Great Barrier Reef, this peaceful landmass is named after the Lady Elliot, a ship that once ran aground on its reef. Its clear seas are blessed with an abundance of marine life, including reef sharks, trigger fish and wrasse, which you can view by glass-bottomed boat. Keep a look out for the shadows of manta rays, sometimes visible from the plane window as you fly in. Most come to Lady Elliot Island for its unrivalled nature, but for a man-made attraction try the old lighthouse, where you can learn about the history of the building and its keepers.

Fitzroy Island, Australia

Fitzroy Island

Hop on the ferry from Cairns and around 45 minutes later you’ll be among the tropical rainforests and clear blue waters of Fitzroy Island, just 339 hectares in size, 324 of which are protected national park. There are no cars on the island, so sea kayaking or walking are the preferred modes of transport. The calm seas are ideal for swimming, and there are plenty of varied walking tracks through the lush interior. Don’t miss the Fitzroy Island Turtle Rehabilitation Centre – take a look around this centre and learn about the work they do to look after sick and injured sea turtles before returning them to the wild.

5. Reefsleep

Sleep on the reef

Sleeping on the Great Barrier Reef may sound like a bizarre activity, but banish all thoughts of prickly coral mattresses and rather soggy duvets, and think more floating hotel. Reefsleep owns a permanent pontoon known as Reefworld, which is moored near Hardy Reef, about 40 miles offshore. Here, you’ll be set up with a comfortable swag bed, and be treated to tasty meals with sparkling wine for the duration of your stay. Long sunny days are spent snorkelling, diving or sunbathing, and nights spent gazing up at the stars.

Baby turtle

Watch turtles hatch

If you’ve always wanted to see baby turtles hatch on the sand and scurry into the sea, then this is your chance. Heron Island is the best place to do this, as between October and March each year, green and loggerhead sea turtles breed on its beaches. Prime hatching time is from December to March, where you can observe the newborns dashing frantically towards the ocean. Even if you can’t make it for breeding season, the turtles can be seen year-round on Heron reef, so why not book a stay at the island’s only accommodation – Heron Island Resort – and observe one of nature’s greatest spectacles?


Walk on the ocean floor

Yes, you heard us correctly. Oceanwalker, as it’s known, involves donning a clear helmet and walking along the seafloor, allowing you to observe the marine life in action without the need for oxygen tanks or swimming of any kind. In fact, you’ll be breathing fresh air fed in from the surface, and your hair won’t even get wet! Oceanwalker is just one activity on offer as part of the Quicksilver Outer Great Barrier Reef day tour to Agincourt Reef, which sails daily from Port Douglas.

Great Barrier Reef corals

Diving and snorkelling

We couldn’t end this list without including at least a mention of diving and snorkelling. The reef would not be the same without the fish after all. Diving and snorkelling are offered everywhere, and you don’t need to be experienced, as classes are readily available and the standards are high. But even if diving’s not your thing you can admire this magical underwater world in a glass-bottomed boat or semi sub, meaning that you don’t even need to get wet to experience this underwater wonderland.

Visit the Great Barrier Reef with one of Round the World Experts’ Great Barrier Reef holidays.

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