Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is a coral formation, the largest in the world, located off the Pacific coast of Queensland, Australia. It is home to a spectacular array of marine life and offers awesome diving opportunities.
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Most travellers will arrive in the coastal cities of Far North Queensland, usually Cairns but sometimes Townsville or Proserpine (known to some airlines as the Whitsunday Coast). Transfer to the islands of the reef is then by boat.
In addition, some of the islands of the reef have airports, some served only by short hop flights from Cairns, others from the Australian east coast capitals: Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Operators to these islands have fewer or no competitors on their routes and so these are typically more expensive than flying to Cairns. Islands with airports are Hamilton Island and Lizard Island.
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Diving and snorkeling
The Great Barrier Reef is a famed diving destination, although divers with experience of the tropics find parts of it overused and damaged.
Most travellers learn to dive in Townsville, Cairns or Port Douglas: all have a very competitive dive industry. Most students prefer to do a two day pool and classroom course, followed by a two or three day liveaboard visiting the reef to the east of Cairns. It's possible to learn with some of the operators that travel to the Coral Sea, but check first about the difficulty of their dive sites. Land based learn to dive courses cost about $500, dive courses including a liveaboard start at about $700.
Some day trips to the reef are available from Cairns and Port Douglas diving operators. These trips involve about 2 hours boat travel in each direction and will cost $170-$200. Most operators do three day liveaboards to the reefs east of Cairns, starting about about $500 for 3 days diving and 2 nights on the boat, meals included. Snorkelers can travel on these trips for reduced prices, but check first about the suitability of their sites for snorkeling. Serious divers generally prefer the five or seven day liveaboards visiting the Coral Sea to the north.
Most boat trips, particularly liveaboards, may be up to 40% cheaper if booked at the last possible moment on standby rates. A certain amount of risk is involved in doing this: you must arrive at the destination hoping that a booking will become available, you need to be able to be somewhat flexible about your date of departure, and you may not be able to travel with your first choice operator. However, most divers report that they are able to find at least one standby trip when they try this. Dive travel agents may also be able to advise you.
Some of the islands have a fringing reef, and it is possible to dive or snorkel from shore.
The southern part of the reef off Townsville is known mostly for the wreck of the Yongala, visited on both liveaboards and day trip operators from Townsville, Ayr and Magnetic Island. The Yongala sank in 1911 in about 30 metres (100 feet) of water. As the bottom is otherwise featureless in this area, it is a haven for fish and coral. However, as the site is unprotected many trips have to be cancelled if weather conditions are not favourable.
There are marine threats on the reef, from Stonefish to Sharks, Sea Snakes to Jellyfish. Many trips to the reef are made all year around, and injuries due to any of these causes on the reef are rare. Still, take advice from authorities, obey all signs, and pay close attention to safety warnings.