The Great Barrier Reef precincts you never knew about
Spreading itself up the Queensland coastline, the Great Barrier Reef was never going to be conquered in a day. In fact, it’s divided into five distinct precincts, each offering its own special blend of experiences and wildlife encounters.
The only question then is, which one to tackle first?
The Wild North
For those who have already been there, done that and got the T-shirts, Queensland’s Wild North offers endless opportunities to get in touch with your inner Bear Grylls.
With rugged tracks leading north from Cooktown to Cape York – and the remoteness of the Great Barrier Reef coastline, islands and coral cays – these adventures will show you the real definition of ‘untouched’.
The bucket list
2. Witness a live shark feed on Osprey Reef or, in winter, watch pods of minke whales and dolphins as they frolic in the warm water.
3. Dress up with the locals in Cooktown to celebrate the landing of Captain James Cook and his interaction with Indigenous Guugu Yimithirr people, with a three-day festival each June.
4. Explore rugged beaches and ancient Indigenous rock art on the seven islands of Flinders Group National Park.
5. Dive with the world’s largest green turtle population on the reefs around Raine Island with Mike Ball Dive Expeditions.
6. Camp at one of Australia’s most northern glamping sites at Cape Tribulation and wake to the Great Barrier Reef on your doorstep and the Daintree Rainforest in your backyard.
7. Fly to Horn Island in the Torres Strait to get acquainted with the islands’ pearl farming, WWII and cultural history.
8. Splurge on a helicopter fishing expedition from Horn Island or Weipa.
10. If you’ve got the mula, rent Haggerstone Island to have the beauty of the reef to yourself!
Cairns and Port Douglas
This is the Great Barrier Reef you picture in your dreams. The hub of all things GBR also shows off with the world’s oldest rainforest in its back pocket.
Get set for adventure with this bucket list that will take you above, around and smack bang into the centre of the Great Barrier Reef.
The bucket list
1. Zoom straight to the outer Great Barrier Reef with Quicksilver Cruises to explore Agincourt Reef.
2. Make like a rock star and charter a private helicopter to see the Great Barrier Reef from above and touch down for a picnic on a sand cay.
3. Go on a walkabout underwater and keep your hair dry! With helmet diving available from Green Island and Moore Reef, it’s an amazing way to see coral and marine creatures up close.
4. Take the plunge and learn to dive on the Great Barrier Reef. Combine your course with an all-inclusive liveaboard trip to the outer reefs and experience what rush hour traffic is like on the largest reef in the world.
5. Skydive over the reef and land on Mission Beach, or hit the sand on a blokarting adventure.
6. Visit the turtle rehabilitation centre on Fitzroy Island.
7. Escape to the privacy of Bedarra Island off the coast of Mission Beach and dive nearby Otter Reef (or just relax in a hammock all day instead!).
8. Toast the sunset over the Great Barrier Reef aboard a swish catamaran with Aquarius Luxury Sailing, departing from Port Douglas.
9. Camp like a true castaway on Dunk Island and walk the trails to discover remnants left by the Royal Australian Air Force during WWII.
10. Take a 15-minute dash from Port Douglas to Low Isles with Reef Sprinter to snorkel with turtles and reef sharks. Or head out with Windswell and challenge your core to a session of stand-up paddle boarding over the coral gardens.
Townsville North Queensland
If wreck dives and coral reef islands are your bag, get yourself to Townsville and start exploring.
This tropical region is the home of Great Barrier Reef conservation, with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), James Cook University and the Australian Institute of Marine Science all based here.
The bucket list
1. Dive the SS Yongala wreck, which is consistently rated as one of the top 10 dive sites in the world.
2. Spark your curiosity at Reef HQ, the world’s largest living coral aquarium and home to 150 species of reef fish, turtles, and live shark feeding.
3. Go on an overnight hiking adventure around the World Heritage-listed Hinchinbrook Island and discover the remote beaches and waterfalls of the island’s famous Thorsborne Trail.
5. Take a tour of the research station on Orpheus Island and peer over the shoulder of visiting scientists undertaking research on the Great Barrier Reef.
6. Throw on your best pirate hat and get involved in Magnetic Island Race Week, whether you’re manning the winches as a deckie or cheering from the shoreline.
7. Paddle out on a sunset kayak around Horseshoe Bay on Magnetic Island to spot turtles and dolphins before a champagne toast.
8. Dive into Shark Alley to spot blacktip and white-tip reef sharks, grey reef whaler sharks and pygmy rays from October to December on Wheeler Reef.
9. Camp on Pelorus Island and snorkel fringing reef just a few steps from your tent. There are no camping facilities on the island so you’ll need to be Bear Grylls-savvy.
10. Follow the Nelly Bay and Geoffrey Bay snorkelling trails off Magnetic Island, with the Moltke wreck and a WWII aeroplane propeller your reward.
The Whitsundays and Mackay
Ahhh, the home of Heart Reef, Whitehaven Beach and a million quintessential Great Barrier Reef photos. Welcome to the Whitsundays and Mackay, where 74 islands await.
You might come for the sailing and end up staying for the summer, or drop into Airlie Beach on a road trip and find yourself returning with your family 10 years later, but any way you look at it, this region is a complete stunner.
The bucket list
1. Spend a day on the best beach in the world. Be ruined for any other beaches for life.
2. Charter a yacht and sail your way around the 74 islands that make up the Whitsundays – no billionaire bank balance or boat licence required.
3. Take a quintessential scenic flight over Heart Reef (declarations of love and proposals are most definitely encouraged).
4. Get a massage. In the ocean. On the Great Barrier Reef. One&Only Hayman Island puts the humble day spa to shame with a location like this.
5. Get touchy feely in the Living Reef Lagoon on Daydream Island.
6. Sleep right on top of the reef on Cruise Whitsundays’ Reefsleep floating pontoon under a sky full of stars (and the splash of Nemo just below you) or camp like a true castaway on the Newry Islands off Mackay.
7. Join a deep sea fishing charter from Mackay or Airlie Beach.
8. Kayak your way around some of the lesser-known beauty spots of the Whitsundays with Salty Dog Sea Kayaking.
9. Master and commandeer the Derwent Hunter, a tall ship crafted in 1946 that plies the pristine waters in a bygone style.
10. Hire a buggy and circumnavigate Hamilton Island and get up close to the multi-million dollar digs and soak in the divine island views.
The Southern Great Barrier Reef
Sitting pretty off the coast of Bundaberg, Gladstone and the Capricorn Coast, this is true reef within reach – where low-key nature experiences, epic diving and snorkelling, megafauna, and islands you’ve never heard of are on the menu.
The bucket list
1. Watch turtle hatchlings burst out of their nests and hurl themselves down to the oncoming waves under moonlight at Mon Repos.
2. Join the amphibious LARC! in the Town of 1770 for a trip up to the Bustard Head lighthouse and toast the sunset – one of only a handful of places on Australia’s east coast where the sun melts into the ocean.
3. Take your pick of 17 pristine beaches and a range of accommodation options on Great Keppel Island – 30 minutes by ferry from Rosslyn Bay.
4. Camp on top of Lady Musgrave Island’s 3000 acres of living reef with the seabirds and turtles as your only neighbours.
6. Swim with resident manta rays and snap a turtle selfie in the waters surrounding Lady Elliot Island.
7. Sail your way 15 kilometres east of Yeppoon and anchor at one of the three beaches on Middle Island.
8. Equalise and dive your way around the 20 spectacular dive sites surrounding Heron Island.
9. Join a week-long liveaboard fishing charter to the Great Barrier Reef from Gladstone marina.
10. Hunt down an elusive secret surf break – it does happen, you just need to speak to the right locals to get there.
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