Hosting the Great Barrier Reef, the largest and healthiest expanse of living coral on the planet, Queensland has some of the best ocean life in the world. Whether you are dreaming about swimming with manta rays, sea turtles or sharks, exploring wrecks teeming with sea life, observing clownfish in their anemone or encountering Maori wrasse just below the surface, this unique destination offers endless snorkeling opportunities.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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Lady Elliot Island is one of the best spot in the world to snorkel with manta rays
The most common angelfish species of the GBR. Can be seen in the islands as well as at the Outer Reef.
Abundant in Lady Elliot Island waters, common in Fitzroy Island and Green Island. Sporadic along the Outer Reef.
Often seen on the Outer Reef, rare elsewhere.
On all spots, sometimes only a few meters from the beach
A spectacular fish, commonly spotted on reef spots, from 10ft deep.
Huge specimens on all reef spots, including Norman Reef and Green Island
Common in Lady Elliot Island, frequently seen at the Outer Reef
Lagoon and reef drop off with sea turtles, manta rays and sharks
Protected coral reef with sea turtles and reef fish
Shallow reefs and seagrass meadows with sea turtles, giant clams and reef fish
Fringing reef with coral, fish and sea turtles
Shallow coral reef with fish and clams
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