The Great Barrier Reef is one of the world's most spectacular natural wonders, the largest coral barrier reef on the planet that stretches over 1,600 miles (2,600 km).
Access to the reef is almost always by boat, for the reef is far off the coast of Queensland, Australia's vast state located in the northeast region of that island country. Depending on the size and speed of the boat, the reef is a 2-3 hour trip, which means most visits take a full day. Live-aboard boats also head out to the reef, allowing visitors to stay overnight on the water for a few nights or even a week or more.
Helicopters or small planes are other ways to see the reef, with sightseeing trips scheduled most days of the week. Most of those trips offer an aerial look only, as there are few places to land out where the reef exists.
There are small islands found in various parts of the long reef, many of them with resorts that are accessed by seaplane, helicopter or boat. Those include Lady Elliot Island, Pumpkin Island, Fitzroy Island, Orpheus Island, Heron Island, Lizard Island, Dunk Island and the Whitsunday Islands.
Choose Cairns, Port Douglas, Airlie Beach, Townsville or one of the other gateway cities in Far North Queensland as your home base, then choose your favorite mode of transport to get out and see the reef. Or simply let us guide you on your bucket list trip, with one of our bespoke tours. Try a 7-day Tropical North Queensland tour, a 5-day Far North Queensland getaway, or this 8-day Discover Queensland adventure.
Duration: Full day trip or overnight
Catching a dive or snorkel boat out to the Great Barrier Reef is the most common way to get out to the reef. In every port/gateway city in Queensland, you'll find a wide range of choices, from small, intimate yachts and medium-sized sailboats to huge catamarans that hold nearly 100 people. Pick the size and specialty boat you prefer (there are fishing boats, too) and expect the trip out to the reef to take from two to three hours in each direction.
You can also book a live-aboard boat, which usually caters to scuba divers and go out for overnight stays on the water. Remember to wear sunscreen!
Duration: 1-2 hours (typically from Cairns)
For a bird's eye view of the Great Barrier Reef, book a helicopter tour to see it from the sky. There are numerous companies offering copter rides, including standard trips that stay in the air (yet swoop close to the water, too) or flights that combine a shorter flight with a day cruise. Check the offerings in the city you've chosen as a home base and note that Cairns is likely to have the most options for flying out to the reef.
Duration: 1-2 hours
Booking a seaplane tour of the reef is similar to booking a helicopter, with the difference being that the seaplane can actually land in the water. Most plane tours last from one to two hours, with trips of longer duration including landing and enjoying a sandy cay or a secluded island. These tours are ideal for amateur photographers, as are the helicopter tours.