Meet The Reef: How It Differs From North to South

4 May, 2016

Described as the tropical rainforest of the ocean, this intricate living environment of extraordinary marine diversity is the world's largest coral reef system –so large that it can be seen from space. The Great Barrier Reef is approximately 350,00km² in size and stretches 2,300 kilometres along the Queensland coast from Bundaberg to the tip of Cape York – that's about the size of 70 million football fields or roughly as big as Japan.

Meet The Great Barrier Reef!

There are seven key destinations for visitors to access the Great Barrier Reef – and, as each reef has its own personality, each of these regions offers its own natural advantages: Tropical North Queensland, Townsville, Mackay, The Whitsundays, Capricorn, Gladstone and Bundaberg.  Within these destinations are five distinct reef experience precincts:

The Wild North (Cape York and Torres Strait): A Marine Wilderness Expedition

The unspoilt and remote wilderness of the wild north provides all-manner of marine encounters for intrepid adventurers – from fishing expeditions to remote coral cays, to exploring the untouched tranquillity of Haggerstone Island or grabbing a front row seat on the biggest shark feed on the Great Barrier Reef at North Horn on Osprey Reef.

This precinct takes in the remote northern reefs and is the ultimate destination for a digital detox. You can explore the quiet beauty of untouched coastlines; experience 'island time' at one of the indigenous island communities in Cape York; travel in the footsteps of the first explorers and take a liveaboard cruise to dive the remote Ribbon Reefs to swim with dwarf minke whales, knowing that at every flip of the fin, you will also come face-to-face with one or more of the Great Eight marine creatures.

Cairns and Port Douglas: Adventure and Adrenalin For All Ages

World Heritage rainforest and reef collide here in the Tropical North - one of only two places in the world where World Heritage sites sit side-by-side and where reef adventure is easily accessible and suitable for every type of traveller. Jump on board a boat to the outer reef for your very first dive, or take a liveaboard for a few days and get far, far away.

There are a raft of ways to experience the Great Barrier Reef in this precinct if you're a first timer, from sailing a graceful catamaran to Low Island, helmet diving on Green Island, kayaking and snorkelling around Cape Tribulation, stand-up paddling over the reef, hovering over Vlassoff Cay in a helicopter or getting back to muddy basics spear fishing with the Kuku Yalanji people.

Visitors from all over the world come here for the mind-blowing choice of reef experiences - both in and out of the water.

Townsville North Queensland: Learning, Conserving And Discovering The Reef

Townsville is the education centre and the HQ for the Great Barrier Reef and is easily the first place keen minds go to learn about the marine environment alongside people who are passionate about sharing their knowledge.

The feather in Townsville's world-class learning cap is Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium, a 660,000 gallon coral reef exhibit and the world's largest living coral reef aquarium housing an impressive collection of native marine life to the reef.  It is also the headquarters for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), the organisation tasked to manage nature's biggest single living organism – the iconic Great Barrier Reef.

Right on Townsville's doorstep are three island beauties – Hinchinbrook, with its famous Thorsborne Trail, serves up hiking and affordable adventures; Magnetic Island offers mid-range family-friendly options and Orpheus Island adds a touch of luxury to the mix.

Townsville has always earned its serious diving stripes thanks to the rich underwater encounters around the SS Yongala, now, it's letting the world in on Lodestone Reef.  This little-known patch of the Great Barrier Reef is home to big schools of trevally and boasts large colourful coral bommies. And best of all, if it remains a loosely-kept secret, you'll have this little patch of paradise to yourself.

Mackay and Whitsundays: Stylish Islands And Sailing Adventures

This precinct is the heart and the home of Australia's island resorts. Think fleets of boats, charter yachts, Airlie Beach, 74 islands, and a raft of island and mainland resort choices to suit every budget. Here, travellers can flop and drop on some of the whitest sand on the planet at the heavily crowned Whitehaven Beach or laze around an iconic lagoon, or they can choose to go to the outer reef – by seaplane, catamaran or sailing boat.

The Whitsundays is all about “sleeping on the reef” – from Reefsleep with its signature under the stars product (overnight on a pontoon) to the six-star Qualia and swanky One & Only Hayman. What really knits this precinct together is the fact these are the best waters in Australia to sail and charter yachts are available by the fleet.

The mainland base for all this sailing action is Airlie Beach, a vibrant coastal town and the perfect launch pad for activities both on the water and in the lush, green rainforest of the Whitsunday Coast.

Southern Great Barrier Reef: Characters and Uncrowded Getaways

The Southern Great Barrier Reef (SGBR) refers to a collection of islands and beaches (and the inland area) located between Bundaberg and Rockhampton.  Here, the coral cays of Lady Elliot, Lady Musgrave and Heron Island provide world-class diving and snorkelling while Great Keppel Island boasts seventeen pristine beaches and lies 15km off the Capricorn coastline near Yeppoon.

The precinct is also known for low-key reef holidays, and the small twin villages of Agnes Water and the Town of 1770, hit the spot. This is the first place in Australia where Captain Cook came ashore way back in the year 1770, and today it's known as the southern-most jump off point for reef tours and the northern most surfing beach in Australia.  The area is a mixture of low key beach homes, laid-back safari tent style accommodation and million dollar mega mansions.

The SGBR region offers extraordinarily beautiful diving conditions and rich megafauna experiences – all without the threat of stingers (it's too far south for irukanji).  Hailed a “reef within reach” for being just five hours' drive north of Brisbane, it also proudly boasts some 1200 of the GBR's 1600 fish species.

When it comes to megafauna, the Southern Great Barrier Reef delivers the biggest turtle rookery in the Southern Hemisphere at Mon Repos, near Bundaberg and one of the most affordable nature-based encounters.  November to January is turtle nesting season whilst January to March is turtle hatching season and tourists can assist the rangers to relocate eggs where needed and direct hatchlings to the ocean.

Key Reef Facts

  • The reef receives almost two million tourism visits a year, many actively contributing to its conservation by holidaying with quality accredited operators and participating in volunteer conservation programs.
  • Stretching over 2,300 kilometres along the coast of northern Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest reef system comprising more than 2,900 individual reefs; more than 1050 islands and coral cays, thousands of square kilometres of sea grass beds and important mangrove habitats.
  • Around one third of the world's soft coral and pens (often grouped with soft coral, these animals are named after their feather-like appearance reminiscent of antique quill pens), more than 150 species, as well as more than 411 species of hard coral can be found here.
  • Some 1600 species of fish, 215 bird species, 30 whale and dolphin species, and six of the world's seven marine turtle species have been recorded within this landscape.
  • The Great Barrier Reef was listed as a World Heritage Area in 1981 as an outstanding example of a reef system as well as for its important biological diversity.


Word Count: 11150 Author: Tourism and Events Queensland.

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