Great Barrier Reef off Cairns, Australia

Two pontoons on the Great Barrier Reef near Cairns, Australia

Two tourist dive/snorkel pontoons on the outer reef near Cairns.

Trips to the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns go on various craft with various deals

. . but they will all be quite pricey, take an hour and a half to get to serious reef (about 30kms away) and may well involve a bumpy ride too. In fact travellers prone to seasickness might opt for tours that head for large, anchored pontoons such as those pictured above that are relatively stable compared to rocking and rolling boats – even if you have taken seasick pills.

Tourists in stiner suits on a Great Barrier Reef dive pontoon, Australia

Space Station GBR. Barrier Reef trippers – divers and snorkellers – get suited up on a pontoon 30kms from Cairns during the stinger season.

The outer reef near Cairns is supposedly one of the finer diving and snorkelling areas in Australia but for us didn’t get close to the world’s best, such as Red Sea sites or even the Ningaloo Reef on Australia’s west coast. Fish species are fine and varied but the coral looks tired and lacking in colour or variety while visibility is often poor.
However, we are reliably informed that the reef off Port Douglas – which is a mere 66kms or one hour’s drive north of Cairns – is in better shape than the reef off Cairns, more colour in the coral cheeks and more fish on the prowl. More on coral deterioration

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

The GBR stretches for 2, 300 kilometres (1, 430 miles) along the Queensland coast and is the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem as well as the Earth’s most extensive protected marine area, supporting 400 types of coral, 1, 500 species of fish among other things. Apart from the selection of tropical fish, the reef is also home to whales, dugongs, turtles, reef sharks and dolphins.

The Great Barrier Reef has been a magnet for divers, sailors and people who dream of finding their own South Sea paradise for many years so it has a well-developed tourist infrastructure.

A number of islands, such as Lizard, Bedarra and Hayman, have their own self-contained luxury resorts while others offer little more than a tent and hammock.

Despite its remoteness, Queensland’s far north still caters for those on a modest budget, as well as the more affluent who charter private yachts to cruise around the Whitsundays.

Your budget, length of stay and activity preferences will determine which piece of the reef you visit. The main four destinations of Cairns, Townsville, Port Douglas and Hamilton Island provide varied options for the snorkellers, scuba divers and yachties, as well as luxurious resort islands.

More on coral deterioration

A beautiful dream shot of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia

The Impossible Dream. The Probable Reality

When to Go there

Queensland is promoted as a year-round destination but is best during the southern winter, June to August when water temperatures are a pleasant 70F (21C) and days tend to be clear and sunny. In this kind of tropical environment there are two seasons, the wet and the dry. Stick with the dry!

The wettest season is January – March, when the heat and humidity is oppressive, air temperatures uncomfortably high (in the 30Cs/90Fs), storms may occur, water will be rough and visibility poor.

Avoid Australian school holidays when accommodation and tours are more expensive and frequently overbooked, particularly during the summer vacation November-February .

Marine stingers are a problem November – March so stinger suits need to be worn at this time.

On a Budget

If you’re happy to hang out with backpackers, Cairns and Townsville offer lively, budget gateways to the reef. You can pick up a day trips running half-day snorkelling excursions or take a proper live-aboard dive trip (learners as well as experienced divers) to the outer reef.

From Townsville there are low-cost trips to Magnetic Island or longer trips to reknowned dive sites such as the SS Yongala and Wheeler Reef.

Outside peak holiday times, independent travellers should find no problem booking accommodation and reef tours as they go.

Hiring a camper van is a popular option for exploring the back country and wild beaches but do observe warning signs regarding salt water crocs and other nasties, and take care with navigation, this is a vast country and visitors from tiny Europe can, and do, get terminally lost from time to time.

Avoid

Cheap day trips to the reef from Cairns, Townsville and Port Douglas may seem like good value, but most of the day will be spent travelling to and from the reef and you’ll be snorkelling along with a mass of inevitably irritating strangers. If the budget permits find a more personalised reef adventure, possibly overnight, as you are unlikely to be doing this again.

Getting there

Townsville, Cairns and Port Douglas are the main launch points for the reef. Overseas visitors often fly direct to Brisbane and then transfer to a connecting flight from there. There are regular flights to Hamilton Island, the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands.

Cairns is a popular place to get a dive licence

Great Barrier Reef from sea level, near Cairns, Australia

The Great Barrier Reef; that’s about all you will see above sea level without help from an aircraft.

Prices in Cairns are competitive, training will be in a pool and final dives will be on the reef. In high-jelly season (November-March) stinger suits will be part of any good tour package.
Diving is better further north in the Ospreys or south on the Yongala wreck (neither of which are actually the GBR), while Lady Elliot Island, the Barrier Reef’s last gasp way down south offers some good dive sites.

Death and destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, from the UK Guardian newspaper

Poor visibility and no colour underwater, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

The probable reality. Photo by Steveprutz.

More evidence of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef has emerged ahead of surveys that will confirm whether an underwater heatwave has caused widespread damage for an unprecedented second year in a row.

Photos and footage taken by marine biologist Brett Monroe Garner at a reef between Port Douglas and Cairns – south of the hardest-hit northern section of the reef last year – indicate severe bleaching of corals he said were “full of colour and life” just months ago.

Climate change impact on Australia may be irreversible, five-yearly report says.

The scale of bleaching will be confirmed through surveys by reef scientists and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which is due to release some findings on Friday from aerial inspections on Thursday.

The prospect of widespread damage compounds fears for the survival of coral already stressed by the reef’s worst ever bleaching event in 2016, which killed off 22% of coral in one hit.

Coral recovery has been challenged by stubbornly high sea surface temperatures over the 12 months since, including through winter.

It follows pictures of newly bleached coral taken in recent weeks at Moore Reef, near Cairns, by the reef scientist Tyrone Ridgway, as well as by divers further south near Palm Island.

Garner, who has been documenting the bleaching with Greenpeace, said: “I’ve been photographing this area of the reef for several years now and what we’re seeing is unprecedented.

“In these photos nearly 100% of the corals are bleaching and who knows how many will recover? Algae is already beginning to overgrow many of the corals.

“Just a few months ago, these corals were full of colour and life. Now, everywhere you look is white. The corals aren’t getting the chance to bounce back from last year’s bleaching event. If this is the new normal, we’re in trouble.”

The bleaching has prompted Terry Hughes, a leading reef scientist at James Cook University who is also with the National Coral Bleaching Taskforce, to embark on a week-long aerial survey of the reef from next Wednesday.

The survey will replicate one last year that drew global attention to the extent of damage to the natural wonder.

He said indications from underwater thermometers were that although sea surface temperatures were lower than this time last year, they had been above average over the last year, including through winter.

Bleaching occurs when warm waters prompt coral to expel algae living within their tissues, turning white.

The coral may die in the six to 12 months after bleaching, meaning the level of mortality on the reef will not be determined until later in the year.

The world heritage-list reef was spared an “in danger” listing by Unesco in 2015 but environmental groups argue it remains on the organisation’s “watch list”.

The Australian and Queensland governments, which are obliged to show how they are jointly managing the reef’s long-term conservation, acknowledge climate change is its main threat.

The Queensland Labor government, which is focused on improving water quality after its bid to pass tree-clearing laws to curb emissions – a key plank of Australia’s reef conservation plan – failed, has urged its federal counterpart to price carbon.

However, the federal environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, at the start of a review of the government’s climate change policies earlier this year, was forced to rule out pricing carbon after a brief internal revolt.

The Greenpeace campaigner Alix Foster Vander Elst said the Australian and Queensland governments should rethink their support of the giant proposed Adani coalmine, given its potential contribution to climate change.

“We have on our doorstep the clearest signal that climate change is happening, and that governments aren’t moving fast enough to stop it,” Elst said. “Tackling climate change is the only real solution here and that starts by stopping public funding for climate-killing coal projects.”