Queensland, home to the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef system

Snorkeling is generally not possible along the Queensland mainland coast, where the underwater visibility is often bad, and the dangerous box jellyfish are common.

The real treasure of the state is offshore, on the Great Barrier Reef, which stretches for more than 2000km along the Queensland coastline. Comprising 3000 reefs, and 900 islands and cays, it is the world’s largest coral reef system.

Nudey Beach, Fitzroy Island
Nudey Beach is Fitzroy Island‘s iconic beach. You’ll find nice snorkeling around the coral patches extending a few meters from shore.

The Great Barrier Reef provides many locations for snorkelers to explore, but you’ll generally need to take a boat tour, or to book an overnight stay on one of the islands located on the barrier, to reach them.

Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef feature some of Australia’s most popular snorkeling spots. The Low Isles (located 15 kilometers northeast of Port Douglas), Green Island, and Fitzroy Island (both located on the inner reef, a 45-minute boat trip from Cairns), are highly popular with day-trippers.

Sixbar angelfish at Green Island
A pair of sixbar angelfish at Green Island‘s reef. It is the most common angelfish species in Eastern Australia.

Still in Cairns area, Michaelmas Cay, a small coral cay emerging from the reef, is also a great option.

Further south, the two tiny resort islands of Heron Island and Lady Elliott Island, fringed by coral reefs, are also among the best snorkeling options in Queensland. Staying in one of these resorts, you’ll find world-class snorkeling just footsteps from your room.

Snorkeling with turtles and manta rays at Lady Elliot Island
The small Lady Elliot Island, located at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, is one of the best spots in Australia to snorkel with manta rays and green sea turtles.

If the islands offer good snorkeling, don’t miss a trip to the outer reef, the very best part of the Great Barrier, where marine biodiversity is exceptional. Some reefs, including Norman Reef, Moore Reef, Opal Reef, Agincourt Reef and the Ribbon Reefs are all renowned snorkeling spots. They can be reached by day tours or liveaboard cruises, mainly from Cairns and Port Douglas.

Snorkeling the Outer Reef of the Great Barrier
The outer reef offers the most spectacular snorkeling in Queensland (left, Norman Reef; right, Opal Reef, both located some 2 hours from the coast by boat)

Some operators even have floating platforms moored near the reefs, with all the necessary amenities (restaurant, toilets, etc.). Some are found, for example, at Moore Reef, Norman Reef and Agincourt Reef.

Outer reef trips are quite expensive, averaging around AUD200 per day, including the entrance fee to the Great Barrier Reef National Park.

Floating platforms at Moore Reef
Moore Reef’s floating platforms allow visitors to literally spend the day “on the reef”.

Moreton Island, just 25km off Brisbane’s shore, hosts the Tangalooma Wrecks, one of the most spectacular snorkeling spots in Australia. This chain of 15 wrecks, skunk deliberately in 1963 just off the coast of the island, and reachable by swimming from the beach, is full of coral and fish.

The Whitsundays Archipelago, known for being home to some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, is one of the most stunning locations on Australia’s east coast. Most tours in the archipelago include snorkeling stops at several spots (for example at Saba Bay, Manta Ray Bay, Luncheon Bay or Mackeral Bay), but the corals are mostly unhealthy there, and the underwater visibility can be an issue.

Shark at Heron Island
Heron Island’s lagoon is a nursery for small sharks, which find shelter and food in its shallow waters.

The Great Barrier Reef is home to an incredible array of marine life, including nearly 400 varieties of hard and soft corals and 1,500 fish species. In a few meters of water, you will easily spot clownfish, sweetlips, angelfish, moray eels and butterflyfish, among hundreds of other colorful species.

The region is also home to exceptional populations of manta rays, green sea turtles, reef sharks and dugongs, which are randomly encountered around the reefs. On some spots, Maori wrasse are almost tamed and come greet snorkelers near the surface.

Masked stingray in Whitsunday Islands
A bluespotted stingray noted in Saba Bay, Whitsunday Islands.

If you are planning a snorkeling trip to Queensland, we recommend taking with you the Guide to Sea Fishes of Australia: A Comprehensive Reference for Divers and Fishermen. This is the reference guide to ID the fish you will encounter snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, but also the more temperate regions of Australia, such as Sydney area.

When to go to snorkeling Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef

Queensland is a year-round snorkeling destination, with a sub-tropical climate marked by two main seasons. During the humid season, from November to May, you can expect hot temperatures (the temperature often exceeds 35°C/95°F around Cairns in December), and rains nearly every day, but fewer crowds.

The humid season is also the marine stingers season, jellyfish being prevalent around the mainland and the islands of tropical Queensland. All tours will provide you with stinger suits.

During the drier season, from June to October, you can expect lower day temperatures (around 25°C/77°F) and sunny weather, but you will get many more snorkelers with you in the water. Central and northern Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef are generally wetter and hotter than the south.

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