Great Barrier Reef
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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.
By day trip reef boat
Day trips to the reef run from most of the length of the Queensland Coast. Generally speaking, the further north you leave from, the shorter the trip to the reef, as it approaches the coast near Cape Tribulation.
The general trip plan for the major operators provides for a early morning departure, Tie up a few hours later off a pontoon or cay where they have purchased rights, usually lunch is available (or included) and a late afternoon return to port. They always return to one or two specific locations, and it is not unusual for several boats to be within a few hundred metres of each other.
These types of trips are offered (at least) from the mainland coastal towns out of Cape Tribulation, Port Douglas, Cairns, Townsville, Airlie Beach (Shute Harbour), Mackay, Gladstone, and 1770 (from north to south). Check destination guides for more information, as not all trips run every day from every town.
Charter or independent boat
It is possible to hire a yacht or launch, or to do an independent charter. The seas inland from the reef tend to be calm. It is possible to hire a boat as a group with no boat licence.
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There are many islands scattered off the Queensland Coast in several different island groups. Many cater for day trips, overnight stays, or both, offering widely varying standards of facilities accommodation. Not all islands off the coast are on the reef. Some are continental islands, some coral cays. Some of the continental islands have coral gardens off the beach, others do not. Some islands are teeming with marine life, and others have little. Check the specific destination guides, to see if the island you are thinking of visiting is a snorkeller's paradise, or just a nice place to pull up a deckchair and relax.
The islands that are not on the reef, generally run some sort of day trip by boat to the reef. Some of these trips, especially those in the Whitsundays, can pick up from the mainland prior to picking up from one or two islands, servicing daytrippers from the islands to the coast, coast to islands, and coast and islands to the reef. In these cases, prices are usually similar to what you would pay from the coast. However, there are some islands (typically the premium ones) that offer their own trips, and these can cost considerably more.
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 at about $500 for 3 of 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.
Reef day trips sell alcohol on board. Reef islands nearly always have at least one bar, usually much at the centre of island life. Some have innovative pool bars. Some have a young party scene, others have cocktails by the pool, and others close early, targeting the demographic that prefers to wake early to see the dawn, rather seeing it through the haze of the night before. Check the destination guides.
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.