The Great Barrier Reef: Islands and Reefs

The Great Barrier Reef: Islands and Reefs

Stretching along the east coast of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is a glorious chain of coral, rainforest and lush islands. TV presenter Monty Halls explains how to explore it all...

The Great Barrier Reef ecosystem lends itself naturally to superlatives, although perhaps the best way to describe it is to simply let the data do the talking. It extends for 2,300km north to south, made-up of at least 2,900 individual coral reefs. It is peppered with 600 or so islands, as well as 300 cays. It is estimated that 10% of all the world's coral is here.

But the real joy of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park - all 350,000 sq km of it, the largest on earth - is that most of it isn't reef at all. Only 7% of the park and protected area is coral. The bigger picture sees the oldest rainforest on earth lead to mangrove swamps and beaches, before a truly immense lagoon dotted with islands, and then that final, triumphant, symphonic note that is the reef itself. It's this variety of environments that makes visits here entirely different every time, offering a vast range of activities, from diving to sailing, from island resorts to forest camps, from secluded research stations to bustling coastal resorts.

Here's how to make the most of it on your honeymoon...with the most romantic reefs and islands

1. Islands

Base yourself on the reef for the most intimate encounters - options include everything from beachside camping to five-star style

Purists would say you only really experience the reef by staying on one of its offshore islands. And while there are plenty to choose from - 600 to 2,000, depending on your source - only 20 or so cater for tourists.

Make it happen

The biggest - indeed, the largest sand island on earth - is 1,840 sq km Fraser Island. Just south of the reef proper, this Unesco-listed site has it all: lakes, rainforest, sandstone pinnacles, river valleys, dunes, a 120km-long beach. Hike the 90km Great Walk, which delves into the island's interior, or hire a 4WD to explore - drive on the beaches and park up at sites such as eucalypt-hugged Lake Wabby, gentle Eli Creek and turquoise Lake Mckenzie.
Get there:
Regular ferries run to Fraser from River Heads, 10km south of Hervey Bay.

A 4WD is required to drive on the island. The southern reef has some wonderful outposts. One popular option is Heron Island, where tourist-dodging visitors can take part in research walks and attend lectures given by the staff of the station. Maintaining a happy medium between commerce and science, happily the island also has excellent accommodation. Other islands nearby include Lady Elliot, a  lush coral cay where excellent diving and snorkelling can be accessed right off the beaches, and Great Keppel Island, 14 sq km of sandy strands and bush-walking trails.
Get there:
Ferries run to Great Keppel from Rosslyn Bay. Lady Elliot is only accessible by seaplane.

The 74 Whitsunday Islands comprise one of the most beautiful archipelagos on earth. They remain relatively unsullied: 66 of the islands are uninhabited. The islands that do cater for travellers offer a full spectrum of accommodation options, from the five-star luxury of Hayman Island to the bustle of well-developed Hamilton and the campsites of Whitsunday (home to postcard-perfect Whitehaven Beach). Adventures available include seaplane flights, diving, whalewatching, trekking and sailing.
Get there: Boat services and sailing tours around the Whitsundays leave from Airlie Beach or Shute Harbour. Hamilton has an airport.

Lizard Island is one of the northernmost island resorts, and gateway to the wild Coral Sea. It's a rocky, hilly place with glorious beaches and great snorkelling. The highest point is Cook's Look (360m, a 3hr-return climb) - the vantage that Captain Cook used to chart his course through the reef.
Get there: Lizard is a 1hr flight from Cairns

2. Inner reef

Shelves, bommies, atolls, outcrops: the coral comes in many formations, and offers endless underwater possibilities

There is a bewildering array of options for those wishing to explore the Great Barrier Reef itself. This 2,300km stretch of coral tracks the coast, sometimes within a few kilometres but sometimes as far as 200km offshore - accessing it can require a hefty boat journey. Indeed the lagoon between the coast and the reef is huge - covering an area about one and half times the size of Great Britain.

Make it happen

Those short on time can take day trips from the mainland. You'll be limited to the more-visited, less-pristine inner reefs, but should still see plenty of marine life.

Cairns and Port Douglas, where the reef is close to shore, are good places for quick excursions. From Cairns, Moore, Norman, Hardy, Saxon and Arlington Reefs are all within a 90-minute boat trip. From Port Douglas you can easily access Split Bommie, Barracuda Pass and the Cathedrals - suitably evocative names that speak volumes about these fine diving sites.
Get there: Numerous operators in both towns offer dive, snorkel and sight-seeing day trips. Cairns is a good place to learn to scuba dive; choose a course on which you do plenty of training in the sea (not pools).

From Townsville, their are glass-bottomed boats for short forays, as well as numerous dive and snorkel trips. The wreck of the SS Yongala is accessible on a fast day boat. This is no idle foray - representing as it does a wreck that consistently delivers extraordinary dives.
Get there: Fast boats from Townsville can reach the Yongala in 30 minutes.

Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays offer good access to the inner reef, with trips for all budgets. Hook Island has some of the best dive and snorkel sites - try Manta Ray Bay, which has fun swim-throughs and mantas in the winter months. Airlie is also a popular departure point for scenic flights over the reef, so you can see the incredible formations from the air.
Get there:
Several scenic flight options run from Whitsunday Airport, in Airlie Beach.

3. Outer reef

For the most pristine and extreme sub-aqua encounters, venture far offshore, to where big fish and passing whales rule the reef

The real magic of the GBR lies beyond the influence of the mainland, where the Outer Reef meanders through a wide blue sea.

Make it happen

Forming the reef system's outer edge off northern Queensland, the Ribbon Reefs are 50-100km offshore and offer outstanding diving. At Ribbon Reef 10 is Cod Hole, so called because of the large potato cod that approach divers. Licenses are issued to certain operators to conduct feeding activity, though this has become a contentious issue.

In June and July, the Ribbon Reef's Lighthouse Bommie is the site of one of the GBR's most special encounters. Juvenile dwarf minke whales approach snorkellers hanging on a rope at the stern of a boat. This is not whalewatching, it's people watching: the whales are completely in control.
Get there: The Ribbon Reefs are 100km north of Cairns. Access is via liveaboard dive vessel; trips range from three to five days.

Approximately 350km north of Cairns is Osprey Reef, renowned for its shark activity; the main encounters occur at a site called North Horn. Under strictly controlled conditions, licensed operators can introduce a tub of fish to a large bommie, which attracts whitetips, silky, silvertips and even bull sharks. If you're not keen on meeting Jaws' cousins, the Around the Bend site is a drift dive that begins at a manta cleaning station and ends in a beautiful coral garden.
Get there: Seven-day liveaboard dive trips run from Cairns; trips can be shortened by ending at Lizard Island and flying back to Cairns.

Liveaboard trips can also be arranged from other locations, including Airlie Beach, where fast boats zip past the Whitsundays to access the Outer Reef, and Townsville, for overnighters on Kelso Reef and the Yongala.
Get there:
Shop around. Trips of various durations are available. Ask if night dives will be possible.

Want to know what the absolute best bits are?

Check back on Friday 19th April to find out...

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