Safari to the Great Barrier Reef: How to See the Best Reefs Today

Are you worried about damage to the Great Barrier Reef, thinking maybe it’s no longer worth the trip? Well, you’re only half-right. The verdict of the science community is in. Two successive sea warming events and severe cyclones between 2014 and 2018 destroyed well over half the living reef. The damage is so extensive that some predict it will never fully recover and may actually die.

But here’s the good news: as dismal as this assessment may be, you can still experience the grandeur and beauty of the Great Barrier Reef if you know where to go and how to best see the reef. Read on to discover our expert tips for making the very most of your safari to one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

Marcia dives near a wall of coral in scuba gear. The fluorescent yellow of her goggles pops against the deep blue water. A variety of bright fish swim around her.
Marcia diving in the Whitsundays in Australia ©Extraordinary Journeys

How to Best Experience The Great Barrier Reef

1,400 miles long and stretching across half the eastern coast of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest structure on Earth made by living organisms, and it’s certainly the largest reef system on the planet. It’s so massive that it is easily visible from outer space. The reef, however, is not one large structure; it’s actually comprised of over 2,900 individual reefs. More than 400 unique types of hard and soft coral, each with its own special architecture and color, make up what we collectively refer to as the Great Barrier Reef.

This region is home to over 1,500 species of fish, 200 species of birds, giant clams over 100 years old, and a multitude of mollusks, starfish, rays, turtles, dolphins, and sharks. The outer reef varies in distance from 9 to 90 miles offshore and is around 40 miles wide in some parts. The inner reef, closer to shore, is composed of smaller, less dramatic coral structures.

At about 133,000 square miles, the sheer scope of the Great Barrier Reef is nothing short of gargantuan.

Short of going up in a spacecraft, how can you best see this huge edifice? In our opinion, to fully appreciate the grandeur of the reef--and its spectacular patterns of the reef--it is imperative to see it from two angles. First, take in the reef from above in a small plane or helicopter. And then you have to explore the reef from the water’s surface, too! Take a boat out to get a close-up of the reef’s intricacies while snorkeling or diving.

Read on for where and how to get the most out of your Great Barrier Reef adventure.

Flying Over The Reef

Aerial shot of the Great Barrier Reef. An intricate network of countless reefs stretches across turquoise blue waters under a near-cloudless sky.
Marcia flying over the Great Barrier Reef in Australia ©Extraordinary Journeys

If you choose to stay at Lizard Island Resort, you’ll be spoiled during your one-hour private charter flight en route from Cairns to the island with fantastic views of more than 75 square miles of the reef.

Upon arrival, you can expect to spend a few days in total pampered bliss, exploring the reef up close.

As a general rule, the farther from shore and the farther south you travel, the more undamaged reefs you’ll find. So venturing to the outer reef or remote islands is more important than ever.

To get to the outer reef, you can take plane or helicopter fly-overs from Port Douglas or Cairns in the north, as well as from Hamilton Island or Airlie Beach farther south. While some of the flights land on sandy beaches and offer a full- or half-day excursion complete with snorkeling, other flights are just an hour or two in length.

Another option is to have the best of both worlds: travel one way by boat and the other by helicopter! Port Douglas still holds pride of place as the best and easiest location to get the full reef experience, so long as you don’t mind sharing the experience with lots of other people.

The other advantage of Port Douglas is that it is right at the doorstep of Daintree National Park’s Mossman Gorge. The Daintree rainforest is home to over 463 square miles of magnificent 110 million-year-old virgin rainforest. No trip to this stretch of Queensland is complete without a trek through this ancient wonderland.

Boats to the Reef

An aerial shot of the reef features a tiny white boat set against a massive stretch of turquoise water and thriving reefs
Boat to the reef ©Orpheus

There are many boats available to explore. The biggest ones are the most comfortable when seas are rough.

Quicksilver from Port Douglas takes about 90 minutes to reach the Agincourt Reef. There, you’ll disembark onto a large pontoon that is your base for exploring the reef. While snorkeling is sure to delight, there are other ways to take in the sights! Check out what’s going on in the ocean around you in Quicksilver’s underwater observatory. Opt for a glass-bottom boat or an ocean walker! Or you can even do the first dive of your life from the pontoon, a magical experience.

The downside to Quicksilver is that it is BIG. The newest boats hold over 400 people, and there are several boats going to the pontoon each day. It is all incredibly well-organized, but you will share the experience with lots of others.

For a more intimate, exclusive boating experience, we recommend Wavelength. It’s a much smaller vessel and reaches the first of three reefs visited each day in about an hour. With only 48 passengers and skilled marine biologists as guides, Wavelength provides an exceptional experience.

Farther south, from Hamilton Island in the Whitsunday Islands, Cruise Whitsundays offers a reef experience similar to the Quicksilver, including all the opportunities for getting into the water except for the ocean walker. The ride out to Heart Reef takes about an hour.

Pro tip: a lucky 30 people can stay on the Cruise Whitsundays pontoon overnight (and sleep out on the deck!) to take advantage of the area in the late afternoon and early morning when most everyone has left. Ask us how we can arrange this special accommodation.

You can also explore the magnificent Whitsundays from a boat that sailed in the America Cup or from an elegant, reconditioned vintage sailboat. For thrill seekers, we recommend a monster speedboat!

However you choose to see the Great Barrier Reef, know that the islands are stunningly beautiful, and snorkeling is still impressive.

Where to Stay


Indulge in total luxury at Lizard Island Resort ©Luxury Lodges of Australia

Lizard Island Resort

two snorkelers swim through clear turquoise waters over colonies of coral. Above them are steep, rocky cliffs that drop off into the water with no beach.
Snorkeling off Lizard Island ©Lizard Island

Lizard Island Resort, mentioned above, is the epitome of luxury in nature. You can only get there by private plane. And with just 40 rooms and villas on the whole island, you need not share your paradise with another soul. There are small dinghies for exploring on your own and miles of beach to explore.

To the happy surprise of all, many dead and nearly-dead reefs have been re-colonized and experience a 50% to 100% growth rate per year. Rest assured that you’ll discover plenty of fabulous reefs that are as stunning as ever.

Haggerstone Island Resort

For the ultimate barefoot adventure, you need to go to Haggerstone Island Resort--if you are lucky enough to snag one of their five houses (some are huts)! Each is different, but all are stylish, rustic, and open to the fabulous forest and sea around you. Think of yourself as being the guest of a well-supplied Robinson Crusoe with a great sense of fun and adventure. Owners Anna and Roy Turner will be there to take care of you and help you appreciate the raw nature of a wild, wonderful, and very remote area. Access is by a two-hour charter flight north from Cairns.

Orpheus Island Lodge

the bright, airy interiors of a luxury suite give way to near-unobstructed views of the ocean and reefs beyond. Cozy seating is abundant; the windows are huge.
Enjoy the beautiful setting at Orpheus Island Lodge ©Orpheus

The other standout location we love, Orpheus Island Lodge, is farther south on the central portion of the reef. Accessible only by a 30-minute helicopter ride from Townsville, it’s an easy jaunt to paradise. With only 14 villas, the island is the ultimate secluded tropical retreat with eight miles of immaculate turquoise coastline around a national park. Step out your door onto the pristine fringing reef or explore larger reefs on included daily excursions. Take a dingy out to find a beach for a picnic lunch or use the SUP boards or kayaks to explore on your own. To get to the outer reef, you will have to pay for the boat, but everything else is included. Needless to say, food, equipment, and staff are of a very high standard.

The Whitsunday Islands

Aerial shot of the sprawling, lush Whitsunday Islands, surrounded by pristine white beaches, turquoise water, and a bright blue sky with cotton-candy clouds.
Short sail from the Whitsundays ©Qualia

Also in the central section of the reef, you will find the Whitsunday Islands, including Hamilton and Hayman Islands.

Pro tip: we love the pristine white sands of Whitehaven Beach, the most photographed beach in Australia and one you are sure to visit on excursions here.

The sleek, minimalist interior of the restaurant, Long Pavilion, opens out to stunning shoreline views of turquoise waters and mountainous islands in the distance.
Dining at the Long Pavilion at the Qualia Lodge ©Qualia

Qualia Lodge & the Beach Club, Hamilton Island

Hamilton Island comprises four properties plus quite a number of beach homes, all under single management. There are several restaurants, shops, beaches, an airport with daily scheduled flights from Sydney. There’s also a large quay for the myriad sailboats, yachts, and boats for hire, as well as the boats going to the reef for the day.

The two properties that we recommend are the very deluxe and very exclusive Qualia Lodge--with its own boats, quays, and beaches--and the Beach Club. We especially like the Beach Club as it is tasteful, calm, and very attractive, but not “over the top.” In fact, the Beach Club offers most of the advantages of Qualia Lodge at half the price.

If you like your beach experience tame with golf and lots of dining, shopping, and excursion choices, Hamilton may be a great choice for you.

Hayman Island Resort

This well-known luxury retreat, heavily damaged by Cyclone Debbie in 2017, is undergoing major renovations and will re-open July 2019 under the InterContinental flag. Hayman is fabulous and the ultimate in luxury if you are happy to share your space with a lot of other people. The resort (the only accommodation on the very private Hayman island) has 166 stunning rooms, all with magnificent views. Hayman is the island closest to the Outer Reef and is surrounded by some of the best reefs in the area.

Hervey Bay & Fraser Island

The southern part of the reef near Bundaberg provides access to the only part of the reef that has not been affected by severe coral bleaching events (the result of abnormally warm water). The best beaches are at Hervey Bay and the remarkable Fraser Island which is actually a large sand island, not one built of coral. 

Ningaloo Reef: Beyond the Great Barrier Reef

If you tire of exploring the Great Barrier Reef, you can always fly right across the continent to Sal Salis, a luxury tented camp on Ningaloo Reef. It may not be as big as the Great Barrier Reef, but it has more spectacular coral than you will ever be able to see. As a bonus, Ningaloo Reef also offers the opportunity to swim with reef sharks, a pretty thrilling event.

shot of a whale shark, up close and head-on, swimming through a clear blue sea
Dive with whale sharks in Ningaloo ©Chris Jansen

Our 5 take-aways

We hope we have whetted your appetite. The Great Barrier Reef is easy to see, easy to get to, and still absolutely amazing. Your safari specialist will set you up with the experiences best for you and plan a marvelous journey to see some of the other wonders of Australia.

  1. If you’re concerned about the impact of coral bleaching on your reef-viewing experience, head south.
  2. You don’t have to be a diver to get the most out of your reef experience! Snorkeling, underwater observatories, ocean walkers, and glass-bottom boats all provide fascinating perspectives!
  3. For the best of both worlds, we recommend viewing the Great Barrier Reef from the air, in a plane or helicopter, and by boat.
  4. To explore more of Australia’s incredible marine life, we recommend a jaunt to the west coast’s sensational Ningaloo Reef.
  5. Don’t sell yourself short! We’ll work with you and leverage our connections to plan an itinerary that fits your budget and maximizes your reef-exploring experience.

Plan Your Reef Adventure

Ready to start planning your own incredible marine safari to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef? We make the process stress-free and enjoyable. Call or email us today to explore your best options for a safari holiday you’ll never forget!

Then, start packing that suitcase because we’ve got all the details covered.

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Have you started planning your safari on your own? Are you totally overwhelmed with all the information out there? Let us help you cut through all the conflicting information online and start planning a safari that is completely tailored to you. Get in touch with us and we can discuss your travel passions and help you begin the planning process for your dream safari.

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John Moody