Snorkelers and scuba divers will find unparalleled diversity on the world's largest "living" structure.

Sydney Harbour and Opera House

  The Great Barrier Reef  

Australia is a vast continent, roughly the size of the continental United States. You probably can't see it all when you visit, but at least visit the Great Barrier Reef.

Along the eastern waters of Queensland, on the northeast coast of Australia, lies one of the world's great natural wonders, the 1,200-mile-long Great Barrier Reef. It is the largest structure in the world built by living creatures. Because the outer layers of coral are still alive, some have called it the world's largest living organism; others consider this hyperbole, since many different species of coral make up the reef.

Verbal tiffs like this won't matter if you've come here to snorkel or scuba dive. The reef is enormous, it's colorful, and the sea life is abundant and diverse. It's deservedly known as a divers' paradise.

The coral of the outer portion of the reef forms a steep underwater cliff which leads to the deep waters of the South Pacific Ocean. At points, the Reef is only 19 miles from shore; however, by the time one reaches Mackay it is 160 miles from shore. Between the mainland and the outer reef the waters are shallow and warm and thousands of individual reefs, shoals, atolls, cays and islands are to be found.

The Reef is unparalleled by any other ecosystem on Earth for its diversity and beauty. Tiny coral polyps, organisms with limestone outer skeletons which form the building blocks of the reef, build structures of all sizes and shapes in a variety of vivid colors. Over 350 species of coral provide a complex and beautiful environment. These structures are the home of a multitude of plant and animal life including fish, sponges, starfish, crabs, sharks, turtles, and shellfish.

The Islands of the Reef

It has taken over 25 million years of the construction to reach its' present extent. Numerous islands dot the reef throughout it's entire length. The diverse north islands are closest to the city of Cairns. The major islands include Magnetic Island which features 1,640 foot granite hills as well as diverse beaches. Orpheus Island, formed by a volcano, is covered by dense forests. Hinchinbrook Island is the site of hills up to 3,746 feet and lush rain forests. Tropical forests also cover Dunk and Fitzroy Islands. In addition, Dunk boasts fantastic beaches and rich wildlife. Green Island is the site of the reef's oldest underwater observatory.

To snorkel or to dive?

Scuba divers can spend a week on the reef, or more, with new locations and different ecosystems each day. If you're a certified diver, you'll have no trouble finding a PADI or NAUI dive operator in Port Douglas or Cairns. You'll have a choice of day trips, or if time allows, you can spend several days at sea, with much more bottom time, on a liveaboard.

Most of the reef is too deep to be fully enjoyed by snorkelers, but there are sites with perfect snorkeling conditions. If you just want to snorkel, find an operator who specializes in that. Don't go with a dive operator who says a location will be good for snorkeling too; it's not likely to be ideal for your purposes.

Landlubbers can enjoy the reef by means of glass-bottomed boats. They're not as good as being in the water, but if you're determined not to get your feet wet, these boats are better than staying ashore.


Travel in Australia with a small, friendly gay and lesbian group.

Boomerang!, our 2-week Australian adventure, combines time in Sydney with hiking and canyoning in the Blue Mountains, and 3 days in Queensland during which you can snorkel or dive on the Great Barrier Reef, visit the rainforest, and go whitewater rafting. (More about BOOMERANG!)