CNN labelled the Great Barrier Reef one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and it’s easy to see why. The UNESCO World Heritage Site covers an area of approximately 348,000 square kilometres off the Queensland coast in Australia. As the world’s largest reef system, it’s a must-see Australian destination. Learn more about the Great Barrier Reef’s history, as well as the best things to do in the region.
History of the Great Barrier Reef
Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders have been living along the Great Barrier Reef for 40,000 years and 10,000 years respectively. Historically, indigenous Australians have been using the reef for thousands of years, and the Great Barrier Reef is a part of their cultural identity. In 1770, Captain James Cook’s Endeavour ran aground on the reef while he was exploring the coast of Australia. Although it sustained considerable damage, he was able to continue. Today, it’s estimated that Great Barrier Reef tourism injects over $6 billion into the region’s economy annually.
A Green Sea Turtle swimming over shallow reef | © Michael Smith ITWP / Shutterstock
The Great Barrier Reef stretches from Cape York to Bundaberg. It can be easily accessed from Port Douglas, Cairns, Mission Beach, Townsville, Airlie Beach, Town of 1770, and Bundaberg; although Cairns and the Whitsundays are the main hubs. The Great Barrier Reef is the only living organism visible from space. Its ecosystem includes approximately 2,500 individual reefs and over 900 tropical islands. Home to 1,500 fish species, 400 coral species, 4,000 mollusc species, and 240 different types of birds, UNESCO says “No other World Heritage property contains such biodiversity.”
The biggest threats to the Great Barrier Reef today include climate change, overfishing, and pollution. Rising ocean temperatures lead to coral bleaching, and unfortunately, reports suggest that this could become an annual occurrence. Poor water quality from the region’s farm runoff is the main pollution problem. The Australian government created the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) in 1975, to protect a large portion of the reef from damaging activities, like overfishing.
Lyretail Anthias in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia | © WaterFrame / Alamy Stock Photo
Things to do on the Great Barrier Reef
There are perhaps too many exciting ways you can experience the Great Barrier Reef. Firstly, there are various companies offering snorkelling day trips from Cairns and Townsville to islands on the Great Barrier Reef, including Fitzroy, Green, and Magnetic Islands. For something a little more adventurous, you can sleep on the reef with Cruise Whitsundays; walk along the seafloor with Seawalker at Green Island; take a helicopter flight to a secluded island in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef; skydive over the reef at Mission Beach; or go on a scenic flight from Airlie Beach to see the reef from above.
Helicopter ride over the stunning Great Barrier Reef, Australia. | © Jillian Mitchell / Alamy Stock Photo
For diving enthusiasts, it’s no secret that the Great Barrier Reef has some of the world’s best dive sites. Osprey Reef is known for its whitetip reef sharks. Divers can sit in a natural underwater amphitheatre and watch the sharks being fed. Cod Hole near Lizard Island is famous for its curious potato cod population. Divers can also visit the SS Yongala shipwreck, off the coast of Townsville. Finally, Heron Bommie is Heron Island’s signature dive site.
Although experiencing the reef underwater is thrilling, there’s a lot to enjoy above the water on the Great Barrier Reef as well. Specifically, the reef is the perfect place for island hopping. In the Whitsundays, there are many companies offering cruises and day trips to some of the 74 Whitsundays islands. You can also stay in exclusive resorts on Lizard and Bedarra Island. Other islands to visit include Dunk, Great Keppel, and Hinchinbrook Island.
Scuba diver exploring coral at the Great Barrier Reef | © Cavan Images / Getty Images
Where to eat on the Great Barrier Reef
Here’s a selection of the top restaurants along the Great Barrier Reef, including the best dining options in Cairns, Townsville, Port Douglas, and Airlie Beach. In Townsville, A Touch of Salt and Jam Corner both serve creative modern Australian dishes. A local’s favourite, which is also family-friendly, is Cactus Jack’s. Meanwhile in Cairns, Fusion Art, Bar & Tapas is a new offering, and C’est Bon is an award-winning French restaurant.
In the exclusive Palm Cove north of Cairns, Nu Nu Restaurant is the premier beachfront dining option. However, Lime & Pepper at Pepper’s Beach Club & Spa is a delicious alternative. Keep heading north and you will discover Harrisons by Spencer Patrick, located in Port Douglas. The highly-rated Walter’s Lounge in Airlie Beach is perfectly situated, overlooking the Port of Airlie Marina. On Hamilton Island, it’s difficult to choose between fine-dining options. But qualia and Bommie are the best of the best.
Beachfront dining in Palm Cove, Cairns, Queensland, Australia | © Travelscape Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Where to stay on the Great Barrier Reef
Travellers Oasis is consistently rated as the best backpacker accommodation in Cairns. It was also voted Australia’s best hostel in Hostelworld’s 2018 Hoscar awards. In Airlie Beach, Magnums is in a central location and has licensed travel agents onsite to help you plan your Great Barrier Reef adventures.
Relax under the swaying palm trees at Travellers Oasis | © Travellers Oasis
Cairns Plaza Hotel is located directly on the Esplanade. This means it’s walking distance to the city’s best attractions and has waterfront views. Sarayi Boutique Hotel in Palm Cove is also located on the beachfront. The Ville is Townsville’s resort-casino, with views towards the Great Barrier Reef and Magnetic Island. Otherwise, Whitsunday Vista Resort in Airlie Beach is a mid-range apartment hotel.
Take your pick of one of the exclusive resorts located on several islands in the Great Barrier Reef. Lizard Island is the northernmost resort on the Great Barrier Reef, and is only accessible via a one-hour flight from Cairns. Orpheus Island is the reef’s most secluded island, as it has a maximum of 28 guests. Bedarra Island Resort claims it’s Australia’s most unique resort. On Hamilton Island, qualia is the ultimate luxury accommodation option.
Anchor Bay, Lizard Island Resort, Great Barrier Reef. | © Wendy Johnson / Alamy Stock Photo