Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef: A Great Family Adventure

The Great Barrier Reef is a marvel of the world, one that is full of colorful corals, hundreds of fish species and a little bit of mystery.  Located just off the coast of Queensland, there are a number of Australia tours that can get you there, but you don’t have to be an adventure traveler or scuba diver to experience the thrill.  A trip snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef is perfectly family friendly.

A beech along the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.

5 Reasons a Reef Snorkeling Trip is Family Friendly

It’s safe.  For the most part, a trip to the reef for snorkeling is safe.  The tour company that is taking you there will most likely have a specific area that they cover that is watched intently by life guards.  There are a number of safety measures on hand, which they will go over on the ride there.  If it is the swimming part that you’re worried about, life jackets are generally made available.  These help not only your little ones that may not be strong swimmers, but also anyone that wants to be extra buoyant in the salty sea.

It’s great exercise.  Part of the joy of swimming is the fact that it is such good exercise without actually feeling like you’re hitting the gym.  In short, it’s fun exercise.  Even slowly swimming along admiring the magical world below calls for more exertion than you think as you paddle your legs and stroke your arms.  And, let’s not forget about the relaxing deep breathing that takes place when you snorkel.  What better activity for a family holiday than one that promotes health and well-being in the process?

It’s educational.  Kids, especially, tend to be hands-on.  When they can see and touch things, their minds tend to be more excited and inquisitive as opposed to when just reading about it in a book.  There are also the bright colors of the coral and fish to draw them further into the magic of the Great Barrier Reef (Hey, it worked for me, and I’m no kid.)  If you choose the right tour, you may also get the benefit of on-board educational experiences, such as presentations by marine biologists about reef-life, as well as touch aquariums and other kid-friendly activities.

It’s social. Since snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef is such a family-friendly activity, chances are plenty of other families will be partaking in the same cruise as you.  This gives your children instant friends to play with, and the parents other parents to share travel stories with.  And, on top of this, snorkeling is an activity that you can all do together.  Sure, your head might be under water for most of the time, but heading out together to the same areas can let you experience what the reef has to offer, and communicate when necessary, as a family.

It provides space.  Just like being on a tour with your family can bring you together, it can also provide some much needed space for those that need to have a little bit more independence (think teenagers).  Since you’re out at the reef on a boat that is watched by lifeguards, there really isn’t too much a kid can do when it comes to running off.  If there are certain members of the family that desperately need to just be alone, snorkeling the reef may be the perfect opportunity for them to do so.

So, if you have children that might be interested in finding Nemo, getting some glorious sun or just having an experience that they’ll never forget, snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef might be just the trip for you.

Top 5 Beach Towns for Getting to the Reef

The Great Barrier Reef stretches along the coast of the eastern Australia state of Queensland.  Because of this, there are a number of great beach towns that can be used as a hub for a nice Reef cruise, one that can range from a simple day-trip to a multi-day diving adventure.  If you are already in the country, there are plenty of cheap flights in Australia that can take you north to the following popular reef hub cities.

Cairns – Cairns is definitely the most popular beach town in Queensland, not only because it has great access to numerous Great Barrier Reef tours, but also because of its proximity to Kuranda and the Daintree Rainforest.

Port Douglas – Port Douglas is the tropical beach town about an hour north of Cairns.  Catching a reef cruise from here also leaves the possibility for further day trips to Mossman Gorge and Cape Tribulation, both of which are nestled in the Daintree Rainforest.

Mission Beach – Located just 2 hours south of Cairns, Mission Beach is a cozy beach town that not only gives you access to the Great Barrier Reef, but also to the magnificent little Dunk Island.  Kayaking tours to the island are just another option on your list of things to do in Mission Beach.

Airlie Beach – Airlie Beach, located just near Proserpine, is the beach town that gives visitors access to the Whitsunday Islands.  If you’re idea of a holiday is sailing amongst 74 tropical islands that are surrounded by the Reef, Airlie Beach might be the hub for you.

Townsville – Townsville is located about 4 hours south of Cairns.  This town features not only access to the Great Barrier Reef and Magnetic Island, but it also houses The Museum of Tropical Queensland and an aquarium.

As an alternative to these mainland hubs, there are also a number of great island resorts to choose from on the Great Barrier Reef.  These include resorts on Lizard Island, Bedarra Island and Green Island to name a few of the most popular destinations that are perfect for family stays.

5 Tips for Visiting the Great Barrier Reef

Be respectful.  First and foremost, you must be respectful when visiting the Reef.  It is, after all, a living thing and an UNESCO World Heritage site.  Do not touch the coral, stand on the coral or litter the waters while on your snorkeling adventure.  There would be nothing worse than having the magical experience broken by seeing a Snickers wrapper floating by.

Brush up on your reef knowledge in advance.  There are so many amazing aspects of the Great Barrier Reef, many that can’t be appreciated to its full potential without having some sort of knowledge on the subject.  As a part of your cruise tour, there will most likely be someone who can educate you on how the reef has been created, but what about all the different types of fish?  Researching these in advance can make the whole experience that much more amazing when you spot one in the deep blue.

Bring sun protection.  Queensland is the sunshine capital of Australia, and unfortunately that sunshine isn’t always a good thing.  The thinned out ozone over Australia means that this sunshine is typically stronger than in other parts of the world, so to avoid getting burned, you will want to bring sun protection.  This can be in the form of sunscreen, hats, glasses and even swimming outfits that cover more skin.

Drink plenty of water.  One of the most difficult things to gauge when submersed in water is your thirst, and you can believe that snorkeling, swimming and being in the sun for a few hours can quickly dehydrate a person.  Bring a bottle of water and maybe even some fresh fruit to snack on when taking breaks so that you stay healthy during the entire adventure.

Rent an underwater camera.  If you have the chance to grab an underwater camera of sorts before leaving, do so.  I was so happy to have the amazing underwater photos as a memory of the magical world that is the Great Barrier Reef.  Imagine having shots of your entire family seeing the Reef for the very first time.

When to Go to the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is a tourist destination at just about any time of the year.  The glorious climate of the north Queensland area means that it is never really too cold to get out in the water (and there are always wet suits that can help with that).  However, the best time to visit would probably be in the late winter months of July and August since the tropical humidity and rains are not a factor.  These rains tend to be a nuisance from November to March, which is also the time of year when jellyfish are known to enter the waters.

Getting to the Great Barrier Reef from Sydney

Getting to the Great Barrier Reef from Sydney varies in length depending on which beach town you prefer to use as a hub, as well as the type of transportation you use to get there. Of course, you will need to think about your little kiddies in the process as some families just can’t handle being stuck in a car together for long periods of time, while others loathe taking the time out to get through the airports. Cairns, for example, is about 2800 kilometers north of Sydney in tropical Queensland, and the other cities mentioned above are within a couple of hours driving distance from each other.

Plane: For time’s sake, I generally recommend a flight unless you have the free time available to spend driving or taking the bus up the coast. It takes about 3 hours to fly from Sydney to Cairns, and around 2.5 hours to get to Townsville.

Train: Taking a train from Sydney to the Great Barrier Reef is a bit difficult, and I typically wouldn’t recommend this tactic for families with young children. In fact, the entire journey can take around two days if going non-stop to Cairns. This also involves a layover / change in Brisbane that can really last half a day or more if not timed right. From there, it is a slow, slow ride to Cairns.

Bus: Getting to the Reef by bus is definitely easier than taking the train, but it is still extremely long and time-consuming. You can hop on a Greyhound in Sydney and arrive in Townsville about 40 hours later, Mission Beach around 44 hours later and Cairns around 46 hours later.

Rental Car: Again, taking a rental car to the Great Barrier Reef from Sydney will take lots of time. However, unlike taking a bus or train, this option can give a family a lot of freedom to experience the wonders of Australia’s east coat along the way. Another popular method is to rent a camper van so you can also have your accommodation and transportation covered in one place.

About the author: Brooke Schoenman is the expert author for WhyGo Australia, an online travel guide with life.

She currently resides in Sydney, Australia and can be found on both Twitter and Facebook.

6 questions and comments

  1. Frannie

    Thanks for the great insights! There’s many districts listed under Cairns (for lodging) which to choose…?? The kids LOVE snorkeling (ages 9 & 10) and we like to be walking distance to services (food, shops) if possible. Any recc’s? THANKS!

  2. Johanna, Tasmania

    We went out to the Great Barrier reef from the town of 1770 (located between Noosa and Airlie Beach)and a lifeguard on the boat with us offered us the use of her child’s boogie board with a glass hole in the middle. This is a brilliant thing for kids as it meant I could go snorkling with my two year old on the boogie board (with a life jacket on as well) and she could look at all the fish and coral. I snorkled behind her holding onto the boogie board with my hands with flippers on. She actually fell asleep on the boogie board much to the amusement of people on board the boat. Our six year old snorkled with my partner. It means that you do not have to sit in the boat babysitting and the whole family can go snorkling (and considering you have to pay a reasonable amount to go out it is worth snorkling for as long as you can!). Older kids that are a bit scared can use them too. We looked for these boogie boards in Airlie Beach and eventually found one at the boat hire place. If you go to the reef and want to do quite a bit of snorkling with your kids it could be worth buying one online.

  3. Chris

    Great, informative article – and good to see Cairns getting poll position as it so rightly deserves, although ‘beach town’ doesn’t really cover the fact it has poor beaches :-p

  4. Amy @ The Q Family

    Great tips! We always want to visit Australia and have never made it there yet. But I know that one of the thing we must do is the Great Barrier Reef. Do they have minimum age requirement for kids?

    1. Brooke, WhyGo Australia

      I don’t believe there are any age restrictions on the reef cruises – any age can get on the boat, and it doesn’t mean that you have to actually get out and into the water to snorkel. They also may feature glass-bottom viewing platforms and the like. It’s up to you if you want your child to get in the water, and you might want to make sure they have a life jacket on.


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