The Great Barrier Reef Australia – Here off the northeastern coast of Australia, many millions of minuscule cells multiply relentlessly in fantastic shapes, growing into an infinitive variety of brightly colored forms to create the world’s largest living phenomenon. The Great Barrier Reef is home to 400 different types of coral and a seemingly infinitive array of luridly colored marine creatures. Seen through a diver’s mask, it is the spectacle of a lifetime. The fancifully shaped coral, gently waving in the tide, might almost lull you to sleep. But not for long. A blazing blue and red fish darts into sight, pursuing a cloud of a thousand minnows. A sea urchin stalks past on its needles, a giant clam opens its hairy mouth as sighing with nostalgia for its youth, a century ago. To call it visually arresting is an almost criminal understatement this natural kaleidoscope is as unique as it it extraordinary.
Proclaimed a marine park by the Australian Government in 1975, the Great Barrier Reef was placed on the World Heritage list in 1981, becoming the biggest world heritage area in existence. It is now managed by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.
There are many ways of appreciating the coral and its fishy visitors. You can stay dry in a glass bottom boat. Join a brief cruise aboard a semi submarine or sign up for snorkelling or diving adventure.
Hundreds of islands are scattered across the protected waters between the coral barrier and the mainland, and more than a dozen have been developed into resorts. These have facilities ranging from spartan to sybaritic, but only two Heron and Green are on the Great Barrier Reef itself. For all the others you have to travel by sea or air. Day visits to the Reef can also be made from mainland centres such as Shute Harbour or Airlie Beach, Townsville, Mission Beach, Cairn and Port Douglas.
The Reef Island – The 25 or so resort inside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park offer many attractions and a huge variety of accommodation options. They include (listed from south to north).
Lady Elliot Island – A coral isle situated south of the Tropic of Capricorn and accessed via air from Bundaberg and Hervey Bay. Activities Centre on diving, swimming and wind surfing.
Heron Island – A small coral island right on the Reef that is adored by divers. The island resort accommodates up to 250 people. No day trips and no camping. Access by boat from Gladstone.
Great Keppel Island – Large resort island with a variety of accommodation including a holiday village with tents, dorm beds, cabins and houses. The reef is 70 km (44 miles) away, but there’s good local coral and an underwater observatory. Accessible via ferry from Rosslyn Bay or air from Rockhampton.
Brampton Island – Luxury resort accessed by air or sea from Mackay.
Lindeman Island – The most southerly of the islands in the Whitsunday archipelago, with a club MED resort and some campsites access via boat from Shute Harbour.
Hamilton Island – A huge resort offering hotel room, apartments and bungalows for all budgets. Access via boat from Shute Harbour.
Long Island – Close to the mainland and far from the reef, with three resorts . Accessed by boat from Shute Harbour.
South Molle Island – Mainly national park, plus a resort that was under renovation at the time of research. The Reef is about 60 km (37 miles) away but coral reefs exist nearby.
Daydream Island – The tiniest of all the Barrier Reef resort islands, accessed from airline Beach by boat. The resort has a spa.
Hook Island – The second largest island in the Whitsundays, with budget camping, dorm rooms and cabin. Accessed via boat from Airlie Beach.
Hayman Island – The most northerly of the Whitsunday group is home to a luxury resort.
Magnetic Island – This busy day trip destination is virtually a suburb of Townsville, with many of the island’s permanent residents commuting to work on the mainland by ferry. There is a wide range of accommodation options.
Orpheus Island – National Park and a small and secluded resort. Day trippers are banned. Flights from Townsville and Cairns.
Hinchinbrook Island – A continental rather than coral island, but only 5 km (3 miles) from the Reef. Home to a national park. There are a couple of campsites and an ecoresort. Access is via ferry from Cardwell or Lucinda.
Bedarra Island – Exclusive Resort in the Family island group, accessible via neighboring Dunk Island.
Dunk Island – Part of the family Islands National Park, with one resort and a few campsites. Reached by ferry from Clump Point at mission Beach.
Fitzroy Island – Only 6 km (4 miles) offshore and easily reached on day excursions by boat from Cairns. Totally surrounded by coral reef, so a great place for diving and fishing.
Green Island – Right on the Reef and popular with day trippers from Cairns, should get here by boat. Luxury accommodation only.
Lizard Island – devoured by millionaires and celebrities, so stay at the exclusive and pricey Lizard Island Resort. The only other alternative is at the other end of the price scale. A very basic campsite. Reached by air from Cairns.
Diving and Snorkelling at the Great Barrier Reef Australia
The best way to experience the Great Barrier Reef is to do as its marine population does and take to the waters. If you are based at an island resort, there are always options on offer to snorkel and dive. But it’s just as easy to take a day trip from Airlie Beach, Cairns or Port Douglas. Every morning dozens of fully equipped dive boats and catamarans head out from the two centres to various pre-selected sites on the Great Barrier Reef.
Because the water is so shallow, snorkelling is perfectly satisfactory for seeing the marine life (in fact, many people prefer it to scuba diving). Even so, most boats offer tanks for experienced divers and introductory courses for people who have never dived before. Above the waves, the turquoise void might be broken only by a sand cay crowded with seabirds, but as soon as you poke your mask underwater, the world erupts. It’s almost sensory overload. There is a vast forest of stag-horn coral, whose tips glow purple like electric Christmas tree lights, brilliant blue clumps of mushroom coral, layers of pink plate coral and bulbous green brain coral. Tropical fish with exotic names slip about as if showing off their fluorescent patterns, painted flute-mouth, long finned bat-fish, crimson squirrel fish, hump headed Maori wrasse and cornflower sergeant major.
Many of the Reef trips follow a similar format. There’s a morning dive or snorkel, followed by a buffet lunch, then, assuming you haven’t eaten too much or had too much free beer, an afternoon dive. There should be a marine biologist on board to explain the Reef’s ecology. Before you book, ask how many passangers the boat takes. They vary from several hundred on the Quicksilver and Fantasy fleets to fewer than a dozen on smaller craft.
In general, the further out the boat heads, the more pristine the diving. But don’t be conned by hype about the Outer Reef as the edge of the continental shelf it may be the real Reef, but it looks exactly the same as other parts.
When to visit The Great Barrier Reef Australia
The best time to visit the Great Barrier Reef is between April and October, when the clear skies and moderate breezes offer perfect conditions for coral viewing. Diving, swimming and sunning. In November the first signs of the approaching Wet appear. Variable winds, increasing cloud and showers. This is also when the venomous box jellyfish appears, staying around until March. By January it rains at least once most days and can be very windy. And when the winds are up and windy. And when the winds are up and the waters are stirred, visibility in and under the water diminishes.
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