10 ways to experience the Great Barrier Reef from Townsville
Think Attenborough saw it all when he filmed his latest doco, Great Barrier Reef? Maybe not.
From snorkelling trips you’ve never heard of, to educational behind-the-scenes journeys, and limited-access island visits, there are still plenty of secrets to be uncovered on the Great Barrier Reef when you base yourself in Townsville North Queensland.
Psst! If you’re looking for more adventures along the Great Barrier Reef coastline, check out our free drive guide called; The Ultimate Guide to Driving the Great Barrier Reef.
1. Join a snorkelling trip
Okay, so you can’t just strap on your snorkel and mask and dive off The Strand to experience the reef, but within an easy boat ride, there are a plethora of pristine snorkelling spots to get your Finding Nemo fix.
After a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ferry ride from town, join a Discovery Cruise with Adam from Aquascene or with Pleasure Divers and pull up anchor in some of Magnetic Island’s prettiest bays to immerse yourself in the coral and marine life that lies beneath. Or you could join marine biologist Andy on a guided Reef Eco Tour to spot giant clams and learn more about the fringing reef that surrounds the island.
Remote Area Dive offers day trips from Townsville filled with snorkelling opportunities at the relatively unknown (aka untouched!) Pelorus and Orpheus islands, while Adrenalin Snorkel and Dive heads to Lodestone Reef every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday (subject to weather conditions and availability), where you’ll have the chance to snorkel over gigantic bommies and spot vivid blue starfish, squidgy sea cucumbers, and see some of the planet’s prettiest coral.
2. Dive the Yongala
Certified divers will need no introduction to Townsville, knowing that one of the world’s Top 10 dive sites lies submerged just offshore.
The SS Yongala is a bucket-list shipwreck dive – 107 metres long and listing to starboard 30 metres below the surface – it’s one of the most intact and pristine shipwrecks known to man.
Even if you haven’t earned your stripes for this advanced dive before you visit, you can start from scratch and tick off all the certifications and dives you need to reach the pinnacle in a liveaboard trip with Adrenalin Snorkel and Dive before diving the wreck with Yongala Dive.
3. Chopper to your own private island
If you’ve always wanted to feel like a high roller, save up your pennies for a chartered helicopter flight to Havannah Island – the southernmost island of the Palm Island Group. Never heard of it? Well, neither had we!
Nautilus Aviation’s three-hour Havannah Island experience allows you to fly over the coral-studded Coral Sea, touch down on your own private white sand beach, snorkel the fringing reef and throw your head back and laugh your best evil villain laugh as you enjoy a gourmet brunch picnic.
Or, embark on a scenic flight of the Great Barrier Reef and escape to a secluded sand cay at Wheeler Reef with Townsville Helicopters.
4. On a cruise
As well as operating the passenger ferry between Townsville and Magnetic Island, SeaLink Queensland run a limited edition season of Great Barrier Reef cruises between May and September.
On their Island Highlights Cruise, you’ll spend the morning soaking up a traditional Indigenous welcome on Palm Island, then snorkel the dreamy turquoise waters of Pelorus Island and, after tucking into some lunch, snorkel or swim near Orpheus Island.
SeaLink also run a historic Cape Cleveland Lighthouse Tour, where you can meet some of the lighthouse families who have called it home, and a Great Palm Island Day Tour, giving you the chance to take an Indigenous guided walk to learn more about the island, browse local arts and crafts markets, get hands-on with dot painting, and watch Aboriginal dance performances. For something whale-ly awesome, SeaLink have just launched Whale Watching tours so you can get up close and personal with these gentle giants.
5. Sail around Magnetic Island
Magnetic Island in winter is nothing short of magical, and Sydneysiders Paul and Clare Ley know it, which is why they sail their 58-foot yacht called Pilgrim into Nelly Bay Harbour for the season every year from May to late September.
On offer are afternoon sailing trips (that include a swim stop and BBQ), a twilight cruise (aka ‘Sip and Sail’), and charters. If you fancy yourself a bit of a sea dog, or want to get prepped for the annual Magnetic Island Race Week, this is the boat for you.
Or, you can also hire Big Mama Sailing who operate year-round from both Magnetic Island and Townsville.
Pilgrim can also be hired for overnight expeditions, allowing you to explore the nearby Palm Island Group for that Beyonce in the Bahamas feeling.
6. Visit Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium
“If you sit long enough you’ll see interactions start to happen that you never could have expected, even if you were diving or snorkelling you wouldn’t comprehend it happening,” Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium director Fred Nucifora says. “It can be so overwhelming when you’re in the water.”
There’s no two ways about it, Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium is hell-bent on educating as many people as possible about the reef. There are 140 passionate volunteers on hand to take you on a tour or just have a chat about what you’re seeing, all without getting wet.
As well as the many visitors to walk through the doors of the aquarium – the largest living coral reef aquarium in the world – the Reef Educators at Reef HQ beam out underwater classroom sessions to university students in the USA, school children in Mexico City, and classrooms and conference rooms all over the world. In fact, they reach as many students with their online education programs as they do in the flesh.
But for the everyday Joe visiting Townsville? As well as the excellent existing displays and the opportunity to join a behind-the-scenes tour of their turtle hospital, a new biodiversity exhibition is currently being built that will cover everything from plankton up to charismatic megafauna. Oh, and you can see the resident shark ‘Cuddles’ chow down on a seafood smorgasbord a couple of times a day.
7. Visit a research station
Guests at the luxurious Orpheus Island resort have very special access to the Great Barrier Reef scientific research station in Pioneer Bay.
Operated by James Cook University, the hub of fish fascination plays host to visiting scientists and students undertaking vital reef research.
On the educational tour (that just falls short of kitting you out in your own white lab coat), you’ll be able to check out the facility, watch scientists at work, and experience the live reef touch tanks.
8. Learn to dive
Being the home of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and James Cook University – aka the holy grail for anyone studying marine biology – Townsville literally breeds reef experts and passionate dive instructors who love sharing their secret patches of the world’s largest living organism.
Forget being confined to a resort pool or blowing bubbles in dull depths – see page 16 of our FREE ebook, The Secret Side of the Great Barrier Reef, to suss out all your options when it comes to scoring your scuba accreditation in Townsville North Queensland.
9. Camp on an island
Is there anything else so fine, and so utterly Survivor-like, than camping on an island? Barefoot. Electricity free. Completely isolated.
This is what staying the night on Pelorus Island is like, where the only bumps you might hear in the night are the hooves of the goat family who call the island home, or the smooth rocks nudging each other on the shoreline as gentle waves roll in.
You can hitch a ride with Remote Area Dive as part of their Unlimited Dive Safari, which runs every weekend and includes all the camping gear you’ll need, or if you’re lucky enough to have access to your own boat, you can camp a little further down the beach for free.
Campers need to be totally self-sufficient – what you take on the island must come off, and remember to bring enough drinking water, especially if you like the idea of kicking it like Tom Hanks in Cast Away.
You can also camp on Orpheus Island and Hinchinbrook Island. See the Department of National Parks, Sports and Racing for more information and to book a site.
10. Follow the self-guided snorkel trails off Magnetic Island
The more you get to know Magnetic Island, the more you find lies beneath her waters.
This is excellent news for snorkellers since two fantastic self-guided snorkel trails were developed in 2012 to lead you quickly and easily to bommies flourishing with coral and fish, and historic relics like a WWII aircraft propeller and the SS Moltke wreck.
There are two trails to choose from: Nelly Bay, which you can access directly in front of X Base Backpackers resort (you can pick up your snorkel gear and trail map from the dive shop there, too), and Geoffrey Bay – the latter of which hides the wrecks mentioned above just beneath the surface.
Or, if you prefer to be guided by someone a little more qualified, Pleasure Divers offer guided tours of these trials too!
The best time to snorkel is at low tide so you can get nice and close to the coral. At Geoffrey Bay, take advantage of the easy access near the old ferry terminus to save a swim across the bay to the first buoy – just be cautious as the rocks can be slippery!
Numbers on the maps correspond with floats that are placed along the trails to give you an understanding of what you’re looking at – so you can identify that weird-looking fish or learn more about the history of the wreckages.