By Hayley Simpson | Published on September 2, 2022

A bucket list item for many, the Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest reef system and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. It's the ideal place for thrill-seekers to visit in Australia, as the adventures are endless. Choose your water-based thrill ride: snorkel, scuba dive around shipwrecks, kayak, island-hop, sail the open seas and even sleep on the Great Barrier Reef. Epic adventures await you on your Great Barrier Reef vacation in Australia.

The Great Barrier Reef is a breathtaking sight
The Great Barrier Reef is a breathtaking sight

Planning An Adventurous Australian Vacation

When you think of Australia, your imagination probably conjures up images of endless sandy beaches, Chris Hemsworth look-a-like surfers and cosmopolitan Sydney Harbor. I'm here to confirm that yes, this is all true about Australia. If you think a vacation is only complete with adrenaline-pumping activities, Australia is the ultimate destination for you. Thrilling water-based experiences abound from coast to coast, whether you want to swim with sharks, leap out of a plane onto a palm-fringed beach or surf record-breaking waves. If you want to savor several water sports in one destination, it's time to plan a Great Barrier Reef vacation.

Willis Island, Australia Sea Turtle
Sea turtle in the ocean

However, it's essential you know just how vast the Great Barrier Reef is, as it stretches over 1,800 miles along the Queensland coastline from Cape York to Bundaberg. To put it into perspective, it's greater in size than the United Kingdom, Netherlands and Switzerland combined. The only living structure visible from space, it's home to nearly 3,000 coral reefs, 600 islands and over 1,500 fish species. Therefore, there are a few different destinations to choose from, each offering a treasure trove of wild experiences.

When planning the perfect Australian vacation, another thing you need to know is when to visit. The best time of year to explore the Great Barrier Reef is from May to October. This is the dry season in Northern Australia, and the minimal rainfall leads to improved water visibility and better diving conditions. But when you're out of the water, you can still expect temperatures to hover around a perfect 70 degrees. Meanwhile, the wet season can include heavy monsoonal rain and stingers lurking in the ocean, so stinger suits are strongly recommended and available from retail stores across Queensland.

You can even attempt bareboating, and skipper a yacht yourself in the Whitsundays. Just imagine anchoring in a secluded bay on an uninhabited island and sunbathing on your own private beach.

The City Of Cairns Is The Heart Of The Great Barrier Reef

Clown fish hiding in an anemone. Australia
Clown fish hiding in an anemone. Australia

The most popular base for millions of reef visitors is Cairns, but for good reason. Firstly, Cairns and its neighbor, Port Douglas, are home to the closest reef access from the mainland. In fact, you can be snorkeling on the reef just 30 minutes off the shoreline.

Channel your inner Nemo as you snorkel beside vibrant tropical fish, coral and marine life like sea turtles on the Great Barrier Reef. There are plenty of organized tours to the reef operating from Cairns and Port Douglas daily. Local tour operators have their own pontoons anchored on different sections of the reef, so you can snorkel and dive until your heart's content. There are also daily trips to Fitzroy Island or Green Island.

Tropical Australian beach. Fitzroy Island, Australia
Tropical Australian beach. Fitzroy Island, Australia

Green Island is a 6,000-year-old coral cay, where you can step off the sandy shore and immediately start snorkeling on the reef. Other activities on Green Island include scuba diving, glass-bottomed boat tours and kayaking. You can expect the same experience on Fitzroy Island, with kayaks and stand-up paddleboards for rent and coral reef just off the shoreline.

For an unforgettable adventure, you can take a helicopter flight or chartered boat to the private island of Vlasoff Cay for a castaway picnic that includes a bottle of champagne. Vlasoff Cay is a mere speck of sparkling sand surrounded by clear azure water. Don't forget your snorkel!

But Cairns also wins points for its selection of dynamic water sports. Keep the adventure going and parasail, go whitewater rafting down the Tully River, skydive onto palm-fringed Mission Beach or get your heart pumping on a crocodile-spotting jet-ski tour.

Be Blown Away By The Beaches In The Whitsundays

Aerial view of heart reef on a Great Barrier vacation. Australia
Aerial view of heart reef on a Great Barrier vacation. Australia

Then there's the whimsical Whitsundays, which consist of 74 islands sitting on or close to the Great Barrier Reef. It's the only section of the Great Barrier Reef that hasn't yet been impacted by severe coral bleaching. Your first stop should always be Whitehaven Beach, one of the world's most beautiful beaches. Its snow-like sand is juxtaposed beautifully against the vibrant turquoise ocean. While you can take a boat to the beach, there's always the option to go that extra step and fly to Whitehaven Beach.

Speaking of flying, one of the most popular things to do in the Whitsundays is to take a scenic plane or helicopter flight to see Heart Reef. This is the only way to see the heart-shaped reef, an iconic symbol of the Great Barrier Reef — skydive over the reef for an even closer look!

Next, there are plenty of sailing and snorkeling tours to enjoy from Airlie Beach. If a day tour isn't enough, there are two and three-day sailing experiences available. You can also stay overnight on the Reefworld pontoon with Reefsleep. Explore Hardy Reef by day and then literally sleep under the twinkling stars at night. For those that need their creature comforts, there are also Reefsuites available below deck with incredible floor-to-ceiling underwater views. Visiting the pontoon on a day trip is another worthwhile option. However, it's important to note that because the water in the Whitsundays is cooler than Cairns, you won't see as many brilliantly colored fish. But, don't be surprised if you find yourself in the presence of a friendly sea turtle instead.

Sailboat sailing on the Great Barrier Reef. Australia.
Sailboat sailing on the Great Barrier Reef. Australia.
You can even attempt bareboating, and skipper a yacht yourself in the Whitsundays. Just imagine anchoring in a secluded bay on an uninhabited island and sunbathing on your own private beach. Otherwise, base yourself on dry land, and visit one of the Whitsunday Islands. Hamilton Island is known for its water sports and luxurious resorts, while Hayman Island is the perfect romantic honeymoon escape.

Dive Deep Exploring The Great Barrier Reef

Pink soft coral on a shipwreck. Australia.
Pink soft coral on a shipwreck. Australia.

One of the ultimate water sports to enjoy on the Great Barrier Reef is scuba diving. While there are diving opportunities available from both Cairns and in the Whitsundays, there are tons of other exciting options.

First, there's the legendary North Horn dive site on the isolated Osprey Reef. Located at the reef's northernmost tip, it's characterized by a sloping coral shelf with depths from 12 meters to 1 kilometer (0.6 miles). But its claim to fame is the fact that it's been home to shark feeds for decades, so sharks are very accustomed to divers. While gray and whitetip reef sharks are the most popular, divers might also find themselves swimming alongside silvertip sharks, hammerheads, tiger sharks, manta rays and potato cod. It's an adventure to get there, but it's undeniably a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Then there's the Cod Hole, with its giant potato cod near luxurious and remote Lizard Island. Here, you'll find 24 secluded beaches and coral reefs just offshore. Another option is the SS Yongala shipwreck dive, which is easily accessible from Townsville or Magnetic Island. The ship sunk in 1911 and claimed 121 lives, but now it lives on in spectacular fashion and is home to hundreds of different fish, ray, turtle and coral species.

Aerial view of Lady Elliot Island. Australia
Aerial view of Lady Elliot Island. Australia

Sir David Attenborough named Heron Island in the Whitsundays and Lady Elliot Island as two of his favorite dive sites. Heron Island is just a short boat ride away from multiple dive sites, and guests of the all-inclusive resort can also snorkel right off the beach. Meanwhile, Lady Elliot Island is sitting pretty in a Green Zone (the highest protection zone), which translates to unparalleled diving and snorkeling. You can expect to see turtles, manta rays, dolphins, sharks and whales in its surrounding waters throughout the year.

One of the best ways to experience diving on the Great Barrier Reef is with a live-aboard experience. Tours range from overnight to over a week and this means you "live aboard" the boat by night but spend your day diving different reefs. It doesn't get more thrilling than that!

For More Thrills, Continue Down The Coast

Wave in Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast. Australia
Wave in Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast. Australia

It's evident that Australia's East Coast is filled with wild wonders. But if you're on the hunt for more exciting water-based adventures following your Great Barrier Reef vacation, you'll find them in Queensland.

The Sunshine Coast in Southern Queensland is home to some of Australia's best surfing beaches. Noosa Heads is most renowned in the area as the best surfing spot, with breaks suitable for beginners to pro surfers. Noosa is also known for its supreme kite surfing conditions if that's more your style. Another drawcard is the Noosa Everglades. With a 37-mile-long river and lake system leading to the Pacific Ocean, it's the perfect spot for stand-up paddleboarding.

Meanwhile, in Mooloolaba, you can live out your dreams with Sunreef Hire, which offers the region's largest and fastest ocean jet-skiing experience. This means you have over 1 square mile parallel to Mooloolaba Beach to go as slow as a snail or as fast as Usain Bolt. Alternatively, embark on a 90-minute jet-ski tour that takes you on a 37-mile journey through mangrove-lined channels to Moreton Bay Marine Park. Keep your eyes peeled for sea turtles, dugongs and dolphins, and try not to get distracted by the breathtaking views from the Glass House Mountains.

Your next stop should be the glamorous Gold Coast. The beaches here host international surfing competitions, so surfers can't look past the breaks at Snapper Rocks and Burleigh Heads. If you prefer a more relaxing excursion, try stand-up paddleboarding along Tallebudgera Creek. The creek leads out to the ocean, but its sandbars mean the waters remain calm and perfect for stand-up paddleboarding year-round.

Alternatively, reach new heights with flyboarding. Fearless risk-takers need only apply for this adventure, as it involves attaching a device to your feet that creates water pressure to propel you into the sky. Another way to get the adrenaline pumping on the Gold Coast is on a jet boat ride. Get set for speeds of up to 50 mph and 360-degree spins. No other rush compares.

Aerial view of Tangalooma shipwrecks off Moreton island, Queensland. Australia
Aerial view of Tangalooma shipwrecks off Moreton island, Queensland. Australia
Finally, base yourself at Tangalooma Island Resort on Moreton Island, and you'll have endless fun at your fingertips. Say hi to the resident marine life with a whale-watching Australian cruise or wild dolphin feeding experience. Take kayaking to the next level with a clear-bottom kayak tour. Or head under the sea, and dive or snorkel the Tangalooma Wrecks. Guests can also hire catamarans or a motorboat to sail the calm surrounding seas.

More Australian Oceanic Adventures

Beyond Queensland, Australia is brimming with wild escapades to add to your bucket list. Firstly, New South Wales cities like Newcastle and Sydney are known for their historic ocean pools. There's nothing quite like watching and feeling the waves break as you contently swim laps. Another activity is kayaking around magical Sydney Harbor.

Across the country in Western Australia is the 186-mile-long Ningaloo Reef. It's one of the few places in the world where you can swim among whale sharks, the 40-foot-long gentle giants of the sea. Tours depart from Exmouth daily between March and August. But outside of peak season, you can still admire the beautiful reef and have the chance to mingle with four turtle species, six toothed whale species and eight types of baleen whales.

Whether you see the Great Barrier Reef from the sea, sky or a sailboat, you're guaranteed to have an unforgettable Australian vacation. Plus, you don't have to travel far to find more exhilarating ventures on the water. No matter where you go in wonderful Australia, you'll never be bored.

Written By

A Bachelor of Journalism graduate hailing from Australia, Hayley is an experienced travel writer and the award-winning travel blogger behind Hayley on Holiday. Her travel writing has featured on Lonely Planet, Matador Network, and The Culture Trip. As for her travel experience, Hayley is a big advocate for solo travel and working holidays and has visited over 40 countries.

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The Great Barrier Reef is a breathtaking sight
The Great Barrier Reef is a breathtaking sight

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