Is snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef on the top of your bucket list? It’s an experience like no other, a marine adventure that people travel the whole world to experience, an unforgettable day during your time in Australia. In this post we talk about snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef, what it’s like, what are the dangers, is it safe, where can you snorkel, sharks on the GBR, taking kids snorkelling on the reef, and more.
We’ve lived in Far North Queensland on and off for over a decade.
We are divers (Padi Advanced) and snorkelers.
Our kids first went out to the reef at around 2 and 4 years old, that’s me and Boo above, he was 6.
They, and we have snorkeled all over the world, but the GBR is home.
Snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef
There are so many questions and so many variables related to snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef.
The reef itself is vast, 2,300 km long (that’s 1,430 miles) and is the largest coral reef system in the world.
There are many places along its length along the northern east coast of Australia to take a snorkel trip.
We are in the southern hemisphere, so the further north you go, the warmer it will be.
Yes, there have been coral bleaching events recently but the reef is far from dead and is still worth visiting.
How quickly that will change, we don’t know, but we do our best to answer your questions below.
My husband works on the reef, he’s out there on one of the snorkel boats several times a week, in the company of marine biologists. We are a trusted source of information.
Where To Snorkel on The Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is huge, stretching almost halfway along the eastern coast of Australia.
It’s 2,300 kilometres long, that’s 1,400 miles and comprises 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands.
As such, there are many places to snorkel. In Far North Queensland, our home, we have to take a lengthy boat journey to reach the reef.
This, in part, is what makes The Great Barrier Reef so expensive to visit.
There are also a few islands off Australia where you can snorkel off the beach.
The table below gives you a few of the best places to snorkel on the GBR, heading roughly south.
|Daintree, Cape Tribulation||Reef Day Trips by Boat. Mackay and Undine reefs.|
|Port Douglas||Pontoon snorkelling and boat day trips. Low Isles trips also. Ribbon reefs, Saxon, Norman, Hastings, Agincourt|
|Cairns||Pontoon snorkelling, islands, boat trips, liveaboards, Green Island. Fitzroy Island|
|Palm Cove||None that we know of currently.|
|Mission Beach||Boat trips and Dunk Island|
|Bundaberg||Lady Elliott Island, Lady Musgrave Island|
|Townsville||Magnetic Island, Orpheus Island|
|Whitsundays||Hayman Island, Blue Pearl Bay, Underwater Art Installation. Boat or pontoon to Hardy Reef|
We haven’t done every trip to the Great Barrier Reef, but we’re doing our best to do as many trips as we can in order to review them.
If you have a snorkel tour that you’d like us to share, please let us know, we’d love to feature it. We have already taken every trip to experience snorkelling from Port Douglas, many times over!
How to Snorkel
Just in case you didn’t know, snorkeling is basically swimming or floating in the water, looking down at fish and coral, while using a snorkel to breath.
It’s not hard and you don’t need to be a great swimmer.
My husband works on a snorkelling boat on the Great Barrier Reef and sees hundreds of snorkellers, many are beginners. Here are a few tips from a pro.
- Keep calm, go slowly, control your breathing, don’t panic.
- If you buy your own brand-new snorkel and mask, clean the protective film off the inside of your mask before first using it. We use toothpaste for this.
- Make sure your fins fit well. If they drop off, they can sink.
- Follow your crew’s instructions, stay where it’s safe and don’t get taken away by currents.
- Don’t try and climb up ladders to a boat in fins, they break and you’ll likely hurt yourself.
- Yes, you can use flotation devices, such as pool noodles and life jackets when snorkelling. Hold onto them, the wind will take them easily and pool noodles are terrible for marine plastic pollution.
- Be very aware of the sun. Your hairline, above your mask, is a common place to burn.
- Use reef-safe sun protection, like this, but cover as much of your body as possible with rashies (rash vests) or stinger suits. Take a look here.
- Make your lips like Angelina Jolie to get a good fit around the snorkel.
- Don’t breath in or out through your nose.
- Beards and moustaches can cause your mask to leak. Use Vaseline to create a seal. Thick beards normally aren’t a problem.
- Make sure you don’t get hair under your mask.
- Your mask should be quite loose, water pressure will hold it on. The tighter it is, the more likely it is to leak.
- Full face snorkel masks aren’t ideal for snorkelling on the reef. An old-fashioned (good quality) mask and snorkel set is probably better, but the full face masks are fun. Some kids snorkel sets are really just toys.
- If you’re in any danger of sea sickness, take medication, it will ruin your day.
How Expensive is a Snorkeling Trip to the Reef ?
Snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef is an amazing day out but it carries a hefty price tag, at least 7 hundred dollars Au for a family day trip, often a lot more.
I’m working on a full cost break-down in this section. Per person snorkelling costs for the Great Barrier Reef are in the region of $200 Au plus per day. This will vary with season and location.
There are still a lot of special offers and local deals available on Great Barrier Reef trips as this industry has been hit hard by the lockdowns.
It’s worth it, it’s unlike any snorkeling experience I’ve had anywhere else in the world.
You should go if you get the chance. Check our video below, we also talk about scuba diving, scuba certification and liveaboards on the reef.
Click through for full posts on these topics. Check out our recent shark encounters in the video above!
Is Snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef Scary?
A lot of people are nervous or anxious about deep water, fish with teeth, getting left behind or many perceived dangers. I can relate because that was me, I was scared to death to go out there the first time.
Read on, it’s not so scary really!
The Great Barrier Reef is a long way away from the Queensland coast, certainly up here in Port Douglas and Cairns. It takes around an hour to an hour and a half on the boat to get there.
It’s not just paddling out from the shore like you would with fringing reefs, you are in open water and it’s deep away from the actual areas of coral.
Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef involves jumping off the back of the boat or pontoon into deep water, it can be scary, the thought used to terrify me, but now I find my desire to see the fish is stronger than my fear of jumping in the water.
I just used to get on with it but nowadays, after a few years of practice and knowing there’s really nothing to worry about, I’m fine.
You usually find that there will be a bit of deep water to cross before you get to the actual coral, obviously boats can’t moor on the coral.
You can see the bottom if the visibility is good and there should be lots of other people around. It’s not so bad, my 6 year old can do it.
Is the Great Barrier Reef Safe?
No, nothing in life is ever fully safe, but your crew will do everything they can to keep you safe. You are in danger of sunburn, drowning, being stung by jellyfish, some of which are deadly, bites and stings from various animals, coral scratches, and more. However, most visitors to the reef just have a wonderful day out with no issues whatsoever. I’ve been out there with my kids dozens of times. The only problems we’ve encountered are very mild jellyfish stings on our faces, the only parts of our body exposed by stinger suits.
Most reef boats are running after Coronavirus and through the pandemic crisis. My husband crews on one of them so we stay very current with all developments.
New measures to protect us from infection are in operation, track and trace, no buffets, food is now individually packaged, and reduced capacity.
You’ll see a less crowded reef. However, lack of tourists means that not all boats are running every day. Crew and owners have been hard-hit in the two years of lockdowns. Thankfully, Australia is now starting to relax these regulations.
Will I See Sharks on the Reef?
There are loads of sharks on the Great Barrier Reef but will you see them? Yes, if you’re lucky. It’s quite common to see reef sharks.
Species of shark found on the Great Barrier Reef include white and black tip reef sharks, leopard sharks, wobbegongs, epaulette sharks and grey whalers.
None of these are particularly dangerous unless you try to touch, feed or otherwise mistreat them.
Sharks don’t want to be around people and you’re most likely to get a glimpse of one disappearing rapidly.
On our most recent snorkel trip I saw 1 white tip in 3 hours and I was actively looking for them by swimming along the wall, away from people.
The time before we saw 4 white tips throughout the day, again, we were looking for them, we like sharks. All were smaller than my son.
Staff on the boat told us they’d seen a leopard shark the day before, a rare event that was really exciting for them.
You are far more likely to see sharks scuba diving. You don’t often see them on top of the reef, in fact I’ve never seen one above the reef, only in the deeper water around the edge.
In theory, there are no Great White Sharks on the Great Barrier Reef. It’s too warm for them as they’re a cold water fish.
There is a vague possibility of tiger sharks, oceanic whitetips, bronze whalers, or hammerheads wandering into the coral from deeper waters, but I don’t know anyone who’s ever seen one while they’ve been snorkeling on the GBR. I do know boat crew who have.
Yes, it is possible to see whale sharks on the Great Barrier Reef, I know people who have seen them in September 2022 and I’ve seen the photos. I’ve also seen video of a small saltwater crocodile out on the reef. These sightings are very rare.
Update: Beyond the dropoff, outside the reef, my husband has seen monstrous tiger sharks. One time only he saw a tiger shark in the snorkelling areas.
You can go shark diving from northern Queensland and see the big sharks but it’s specialised and you need to head further out. More on this later, we’re trying to arrange a trip.
Night dives are great for seeing the small reef sharks in predation mode, again, they pose very little threat to humans even at night.
Bull sharks tend to make their presence felt more in murky estuaries where yes, they have been a danger to people.
Spearfishing puts you at an increased risk of shark-inflicted injury. But why would you want to kill our beautiful reef fish?
I’ve scuba-dived with grey nurse sharks, lots of them, big ones. They totally ignored us, just remained almost motionless and looked menacing. Most sharks aren’t interested in you at all.
This organised shark dive was down south at Bateman’s Bay in New South Wales. I’ve never seen a grey nurse shark on the reef.
Dangers of Snorkeling on the Reef
If you follow the rules you really shouldn’t be in any danger on the Great Barrier Reef. Yes, there are things out there that could hurt you. But there are anywhere.
You need to be aware of Stinger Season and follow regulations with regard to stinger suits. They are there for your protection.
The sun is possibly your biggest danger out there, it’s fierce.
You may see fish that can sting or puncture, some rays, maybe a lionfish, but they won’t chase after you to hurt you.
Follow instruction. The crew know what they are doing.
Don’t snorkel or dive beyond your limits.
Don’t swim too far. Most boats have somebody on watch, often the skipper, they keep an eye on everyone in the water. If you’re told to stay in a certain area, do it.
Crew count snorkellers time and time again. If somebody goes missing (unlikely) they will know.
Don’t be dumb, don’t touch anything or get too close to anything. Even an angry turtle could bite.
Sharks are not a danger (mostly), sharks are friends.
Crocodiles on The Great Barrier Reef
North Queensland has plenty of crocodiles. These are saltwater crocodiles and yes, they have been seen out on the reef. Our electrician recently showed me video he shot of a very small crocodile while he was out there. He actually swam after it to get a better shot. It’s incredibly rare. Likewise, crocodiles can put in an appearance on beaches.
Are There Jelly Fish on the Great Barrier Reef?
There are millions of tiny organisms in the water and some will make your skin tingle. But what of the dangerous jellyfish?
It’s always a possibility you’ll encounter one, but a fairly unlikely one. In Queensland we have Stinger Season from around November to May, it’s when the water is warm enough for the deadly Iirukadje and box jellyfish.
There are thousands of people out on the reef every week, it’s fairly rare to hear of a major sting.
Your chances of getting stung on the reef are lower than on the shore. In stinger season you will always be required to wear a full body stinger suit, only your face and finger tips are exposed.
They are terribly inelegant but do the job.
Can Children Snorkel From the Reef Boats and Pontoons?
Yes, absolutely, it’s fantastic for them.
I’ve taken my kids out since they were tiny. We didn’t have much luck the first few times as they didn’t fancy the deep water but they had fun on the step of the pontoon or boat instead. The big fish can come right up close to be fed which thrills most kids. Fish feeding is generally not allowed or encouraged these days.
My husband and I have had to take it in turns with snorkeling and child watching at times, but still, take them.
My kids began to really love snorkelling on the reef around the ages of 8 and 6, neither were particularly strong swimmers, but they got about fine. Fins help children get about and flotation devices are provided ( pool noodles, sometimes life-jackets). Watching your children snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef is priceless.
As we got into the teen and tween years the kids became snorkelling ninjas. As soon as the boat stopped they’d be gone, no fear, just fascination.
The staff on the reef boats are usually pretty fantastic with kids. The hardest part of the day is keeping them occupied and stopping them falling in (which is highly unlikely) on the journey out. Coming home they usually fall asleep after such a big day.
Will You Get Seasick?
Possibly, if you are that way inclined. Crew normally hand out ginger-based anti-sickness tablets on departure, I don’t know if they work. We’ve been on boats recently who had pharmaceutical non-drowsy sea sickness medication for sale.
Keep your eyes on the water and get plenty of fresh air to avoid seasickness.
I’ve only been seasick once, on the way out to the Yongala, a wreck dive off Townsville. Some people were vomiting causing fish to come up to the surface for a feed, so it was kind of gross but cool. My seasickness disappeared as soon as I jumped in the water.
What Do You Need to Take With You to The Great Barrier Reef?
Sunblock is the big one. It’s hard not to burn and even wearing a stinger suit you can burn your face. Try and find a reef- safe sunblock or sunscreen if you possibly can. Sunscreen kills coral.
The boats will generally provide plenty of food, tea, coffee, and water. Soft drinks are usually available to buy and the bar will usually open on the return trip. Obviously you need to check what the boat you choose offers.
Reef safe sunscreen is available here. Check specifications are OK for you.
The boats normally provide all gear, but again, check.
You’ll need a towel and clothes for the return trip. You can stay in your swimsuit and towel if you like but I find it more comfortable to change back into dry clothes.
Some boats have freshwater showers on board.
Should you take underwater cameras? Well we do now. We own a Go Pro. You don’t normally need a waterproof housing for snorkelling but you really do need a Go Pro handle that floats. See below. If you’re looking for a compact underwater camera to use for snorkelling and not too deep scuba, we can’t say enough good things about the Olympus Tough TG 5 . It’s an amazing piece of kit. For deeper scuba use you’ll want the underwater housing for it and maybe a wide-angle lens and colour compensator filter. Accessories just go on and on!
GoPro The Handler Floating Hand Grip (GoPro Official Mount) available here.
Should You Take a Boat or Pontoon Based Trip to The Great Barrier Reef?
This is the big choice, some boats take you out to permanently moored pontoons, these things are huge and come with underwater viewing galleries, mini submarines, helmet diving, all sorts of frills. These may be a better option for really small children or people who know they aren’t going to snorkel.
My choice is usually the smaller reef boats, the ones that take you to the outer reef and stop at 2 or 3 snorkel sites during the day. You see a better reef. There will be fewer people in the water and you receive a more personal service.
Is Snorkeling or Scuba Diving Better?
I love scuba diving but I have kids, so we mostly snorkel.
My elder son, at 14, got his scuba certification ( See how he learned to dive in Cairns before final certification out on the reef ), my 12-year-old still preferred to snorkel, so as the kids became teenagers we juggled between the two.
When you snorkel you mostly see the top of the reef, the bit that gets the sunlight. It’s actually the prettiest part, I think.
When you scuba dive you see more of the edges and deeper parts, you can get more up close and personal with the reef and you have a better chance of seeing bottom dwellers and creatures hiding in the nooks and crannies.
You have to be qualified to dive and the course takes a few days. It can be very expensive, there is an exam, but scuba diving is worth it. Some reef boats do offer trial dives.
It will cost you an arm and a leg to learn to scuba dive on the reef up here in Port Douglas because of those long boat trips. If you can find somewhere to learn to dive from a beach, such as Magnetic Island, it’s generally cheaper. Maybe read about the time I almost died scuba diving first. But don’t let it put you off, I still dive.
Photo Credits : Not all of these were taken by the World Travel Family team, some came from the professional photographers on Calypso and Wavelength Reef Cruises, we were very kindly given them to use. You can read about these operators in the post below. Most boats will have a photographer on board to take and sell photos of your day.
So that’s about it, unless you have any questions? What do you think, would you be happy snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef?
We have a full post on the reef boats that operate out of Port Douglas along with loads of content on Things to do in Cairns and Things to Do in Port Douglas. If you’re staying in Port our Port Douglas Accommodation Guide is here. For travel around the state, we even have Places to visit in Queensland.
Is it Snorkelling or Snorkeling?
Both versions of the verb, to snorkel, are correct. The Americans spell it snorkeling, in British English (and Australian English) it’s snorkelling. Likewise snorkelled and snorkeled. The word snorkel comes from a German word Schnorchel, an air shaft for submarines. Snorkeller gets a single l too, in the US word, snorkelers. Apologies for using both in this post, our website’s biggest audience uses the single l but mostly on this site we use UK English.
I’ve snorkeled in many countries now, the Great Barrier Reef is a big business and unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere, it’s slick and well managed. Conservation is always a big consideration and by visiting the reef you are helping to save it. Tourism dollars send a powerful message to governments that would otherwise see it destroyed. Thanks for reading our Great Barrier Reef travel blog, come back soon!
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Friday 7th of April 2023
Thank you so much for this article! I am planning our family's first trip to Australia and have gone back and forth on whether or not we should come to Cairns. We will have a 2.5 yr old and a 2 month old with us, and I'm not sure what to do with them. Both my husband and I are scuba certified and we want to do a dive together, but that would mean we have to hire a babysitter and leave the kids behind, or we'd have to hire a babysitter and pay for them to come with us. I am breastfeeding so leaving the baby behind isn't really an option. Any recommendations? I'm leaning towards just taking turns snorkeling; one of us can go out while the other watches the kids on the boat. But would that even be worth it?
Alyson for World Travel Family
Sunday 9th of April 2023
Hi Heather, I must admit, when I had small kids I didn't get a lot of snorkelling or scuba diving in. My husband did though, funny that! So, I'd go with taking turns and maybe go to Low Isles instead, where one of you can be on the beach with the kids, one snorkelling just off shore, yes I think it's worth it and Low Isles can be a half day. Maybe if Low Isles goes well take a day trip to the outer reef too. The outer reef, being a 2 hour or so journey, will be A LOT with little ones. I'd certainly go from Port Douglas not Cairns. We live in Port, my husband works on one of the boats. When they have babies and small kids they will go out of their way to help you out, but what about sea sickness? Is that going to affect them, a lot get sea sick. And if they cry or scream or are just fed up, you're going to have a tough (expensive) day. I wouldn't trust my kids with an unknown baby sitter on land, certainly not on a boat, so that option would be out for me. It's not a very safe environment and the boat bounces a lot. Good luck! I'll message Chef now to just check you're allowed to take babies out to the reef (he's at sea). If I don't come back and change this comment assume you can.
Wednesday 16th of November 2022
Good morning. Visiting the GBR has always been our bucket list (my hubby and I). On many sites it states best time to visit is JUNE through OCTOBER. Although we can wait, is it much different than visiting before? We have are from the states and plan to visit Australia for approximately 10 days. We do not dive, but love to snorkel. We also love exploring and hiking etc. any recommendations would be great. We plan to visit either in January, April or September.
Alyson for World Travel Family
Thursday 17th of November 2022
Hi Joni, I was out on the reef 2 days ago (November) and it was magic out there! Mid October to mid December it can be perfect out there. You can have a really good day on the reef at any time of year. Sometimes at the "wrong" time the water will be crystal clear and glassed out. Those guides to the "best" time to visit - June to October , are ridiculous, they say that because that's when it's not stinger season and there's almost zero chance of storms, and because they're just copy/pasting from the internet, but for me it's chilly in winter. The coral spawns in November usually and we were lucky enough to see the pink coral eggs in the water, the spawning was the night before. The problem with visiting in Australian summer, US winter, is 1. It's stinger season, you need to wear a stinger suit, which is generally no problem at all. 2. There's a chance of storms. If you have a week or more, you should be able to work around the weather, but if you only have 2 days and a storm or cyclone is passing through, you may find the boats not running.Jan/Feb isn't the best, that's when the wet season is usually doing its worst. In American summer, June, July, the trade winds can be strong, you can get rough seas and poor viz, but you can also have great days. Water will also be cool and you'll need a shortie wetsuit. The humpback whales pass through in our winter, your summer, and you're quite likely to see them. I'm not sure what you mean by "before'. Before the big coral bleaching events? Before cyclone Yazi? It's fine. The boats only take visitors to the best sites. We were on Long Bomi 2 days ago, that was destroyed by Yazi, it looks amazing now, but they didn't visit for a few years while it grew back. If you want to hike, come in Australian winter. April is probably the coolest month of your 3. October is horribly hot. I've been living in the tropics on and off for 15 years and I still find the heat horrible here, once the sun is up fully I'm indoors. I love hiking in the Himalayas, but here I find it too hot. If we do any good walks we do them at dawn and dusk. But then you have mozzies. My husband works on the reef, he's out there several days per week, in the water helping snorkelers, so I don't think you'll find a better source than us. We're based in Port Douglas, so that's our top recommendation. Fly into Cairns, get the shuttle up here. We recommend Wavelength because they're so conservation focused, or the big catamarans if you'd like a more luxurious sail. Sailaway. Also eco accredited. Look for our post on the best reef trips out of Port Douglas. If you want to hike, we have a thing just outside Port Douglas, up the mountain, called "The Bump Track" It's aboutut a 4 hour walk up and back and there's a good waterfall to see, through gum trees and rainforest. Plenty of wildlife. I last did it about 8 months ago and it nearly killed me. Take lots of water and some emergency food. If you come maybe I'll do that walk with you if you'd like a local guide! I need the exercise :)
Monday 10th of October 2022
Hi Alyson, We are a family of 4, my husband and I and our two adult daughters age 24 and 26, coming from USA to Australia. We will only have about 48 hours in Queensland to experience the GBR. We will be there mid-day Dec 1 - mid-day Dec 3. Port Douglas has been recommended by many. Can you please recommend good accommodations for our stay and a good day-trip or half-day GBR boat trip to get a good experience? Thank you in advance for your assistance.
Alyson for World Travel Family
Monday 10th of October 2022
Of course! You know we live in Port Douglas and my husband works on the reef? The accommodation depends on your budget, but I'm going to recommend the best in town. This one. It's as close to beach-front as you can get in Port Douglas, has a vast lagoon pool, newly refurbed, and is close enough to Macrossan St. (Where the restaurants are) that you can walk along the beach on your way to / from dinner.(about 2 km, but nothing else is closer unless you want something more budget) There are also shuttle busses or purple electric scooters to zip about on. If you'd like to be ON Macrossan St but away from the beach, this one has family apartments. We recommend Wavelength Reef Cruises, owned by friends and seriously into marine biology and conservation, you'll need to contact them directly. Otherwise, this one, for a luxury catamaran, glass bottom boat, and coral cay stop. We took that one recently and it was lovely. Also look into sunset sailing, that's nice, use that same link. Enjoy! I love that you asked and thanks so much for using our links. Book a restaurant, they sell out. I recommend Sassi for their seafood platter. For cheaper food, The Courthouse Hotel /Pub, but we tried to go there last night and it was so busy we walked out and went elsewhere. Things are crazy here! Feel free to email me for any more information.
Sunday 9th of February 2020
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most beautiful places to snorkel and dive. Beautiful beaches and warm water makes it perfect to explore the under water World. I love Queensland and all its beauty. Can't wait to get back!
Friday 1st of November 2019
We are two couples who want to snorkel the GBR. Staying in Palm Cove. Is it best to go out of Port Douglas? I was looking at the Wavelength which seems to be a smaller boat. Seemed like a lot of people still though. How many do they pack on the bigger boats? It appeared they charge $50 per person to pick up and deliver. Would you recommend renting a car while we are in Palm Cove. It is a short visit. Flying from NZ Sunday 11/17 to Sydney and then flying up to Cairns the same day. Staying 3 nights and flying back to Sydney. Thinking of snorkeling Monday11/18 and possible rain forest Tuesday 11/19. Is it safe to wait until arriving inCairns to make our snorkel reservations? Not sure how busy they are this time of year.
Thanks in advance for your insight Frank
Friday 1st of November 2019
Wavelength is a good boat. I don't think it takes a lot, under 100, but it depends how busy they are on the day, they may go out half full. Wavelength actually belongs to a friend of ours and they're passionate about conservation so it's a good choice. I'd hire a car, you have to get to Palm Cove from the airport, it would be easier with a car but cost fluctuates massively, we've hired cars from around $30 a day, but that can skyrocket at busy times. Is it safe to wait? I don't know, I've never had to book to a tight schedule because we lived there. I would certainly look at the weather forecast and pick a day with low wind. If weather is bad people could all rush to book on the one good day. The big boats, like Quicksilver are vast, hundreds of people on the pontoon and you won't see such good reefs as on Wavelength.