The ultimate Great Barrier Reef road trip for budding marine biologists
Sometimes you need to reconnect with something to understand it more deeply. The Great Barrier Reef is the largest and most complex living organism on the planet. A source of wonder and fascination, but also an adventure playground for anyone who likes the ocean.
If you’re raising the next Jacques Cousteau at home, bundle up the family for this ultimate journey of discovery and understanding along the Great Barrier Reef.
What will you learn?
Sure, you can just enjoy the pretty colours of the Great Barrier Reef on a day trip, or you can start to understand the Reef, admire it and do your part to help to protect it.
Discover for yourself why manta rays visit Lady Elliot and turtles visit Heron Island, why this reef is teeming with fish and why that reef isn’t. Understand that all the rain eventually ends up in the ocean and what that means for the rainforests, ocean and wetlands in between.
The media is full of stories about coral bleaching, water quality and plastic pollution, but what does it all mean? How do these things affect the Reef and what can you do about them?
Of course, the Great Barrier Reef is massive… so massive, it’s hard to get your head around it. Where to start your Reef exploration is often the question.
Well, much like the critters in the ocean food chain, the best way is to start at the bottom and work your way up. Here’s an itinerary that will take you from the Southern Great Barrier Reef all the way up to Townsville and provide the platform for you and your family to be schooled on what makes the reef so damn great every step along the way.
Day 1: Meet Australia’s #1 eco island… Lady Elliot
Your Great Barrier Reef adventure starts the moment you board the little Seair Pacific plane bound for Lady Elliot Island – whether that’s from the Gold Coast, Brisbane, Hervey Bay or Bundaberg.
When you spot Lady Elliot from the air you’ll be itching to get into that clear water to see the marine life and turtles up close.
You’ll be amazed and possibly a little spoilt by the experience. Due to its proximity to the Continental Shelf (the drop-off) – and the distance from mainland – Lady Elliot sets the bar pretty high in terms of water quality and pristine coral reefs.
When you arrive, spend an hour or so before dinner at the Reef Education Centre re-discovering how your Reef works and what makes Lady Elliot Island so special.
Hot Tip: It’s one of Project Manta’s most important sites for studying the ecology of manta rays. If you take any photos of mantas during your trip, be sure to submit them to Project Manta on Facebook so they can be added to their database.
Also, watch this video before you go!
Day 2: Dive with manta rays and turtles on Lady Elliot Island
Take a full day to explore the waters around the island – dive with mantas and snorkel with turtles – just get out there and up close and personal with your Reef.
As you wander through the island’s forests, remember that everything you see growing is here thanks to revegetation efforts since the 1970s. What was once barren rock now supports hundreds of thousands of seabirds – proof that with the right conservation efforts we can turn back the clock on past mistakes.
Day 3: Witness turtle miracles at Mon Repos
Enjoy a final morning snorkel or a reef walk through the lagoon before flying on to Bundaberg.
You’ll be sad to leave but happy to remember that it’s possible to repair an environment when you combine conservation principles with a low-impact eco resort.
In Bundaberg, grab some wheels and get to your accommodation as soon as you can because you’ll want to be among the first to take a guided walk along the beach at Mon Repos to witness turtles laying their eggs (and if you’re lucky, see some hatchlings). During turtle season (November to late March) there can be as many as 400 visitors here per night.
Day 4: On the road from Bundaberg to Gladstone
Allow yourself a lazy start after your late-night – you just need to get yourself to Gladstone today, about a three-hour drive.
If you feel the need for some historical context, drop into Seventeen Seventy where Captain Cook made his first landing in Queensland 247 years ago. Visit the small museum and spend an hour reflecting on just how Australia was then compared to now.
Day 5: Finding Nemo (and all his friends) on Heron Island
All aboard the Heron Islander for the two-hour trip to Heron Island. Finding Nemo screens on every trip – how many of the characters’ species can you actually name? Challenge yourself to be able to identify a dozen or so by the end of the trip. You can start right here with the Great Eight.
Heron has a Marine Centre where you check-in for diving and snorkelling, and as important, an Information Centre where you can learn how your Reef functions, but also plays a part in planet-wide ecosystems.
The large infographic panels show the Reef’s connected food chains from phytoplankton right up to reef sharks, and also illustrates that Heron is an international destination for world travellers – with turtles visiting from Indonesia, whales from Antarctica and birds that fly in from as far afield as the Arctic Circle.
Heron Island is also home to the University of Queensland’s world-class Research Station, with tours run daily by station staff to give you insight into how it operates and the research that’s conducted (enquire at resort reception for tour cost and availability).
And don’t forget to grab a copy of the Heron Times to see what’s on and read up on your turtle etiquette.
Day 6: Turtle time on Heron Island
Enjoy a full day of diving, snorkelling and reef walking, and during turtle season go and find the turtles on the beach.
Overnight and in the early morning, there’ll be turtles all around the island, lugging themselves up the beach, digging an egg pit, laying the eggs, covering up and finally hauling their exhausted bodies back into the ocean.
It’s exhausting just watching them and crazy to think that they do this every season in the same place because it’s from here they first crept out of the sand and scampered down the beach in the moonlight.
Heron offers stargazing too – a great way to begin to understand the grander scheme of things and this planet’s place in the cosmos.
Day 7: On the road from Heron Island to Yeppoon
Enjoy a final dive or snorkel in the morning before boarding the Heron Islander at 2pm for the trip back to Gladstone.
Take the two hours of downtime to reflect on what you’ve discovered so far. On arrival, enjoy the short drive up to Yeppoon.
Day 8: The Keppel Group of Islands with Barry’s Dive
By now you’ll have seen enough to want to help the Reef in any way you can – and for that, Barry’s your man. Not only can he take you out to the green zones around the Keppel Islands – but he can also teach you how to use two citizen-science reef data collection tools: Eye on the Reef and CoralWatch.
Eye on the Reef uses a smartphone app to capture and submit sightings to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA). Your sighting could be of wildlife – maybe a crown-of-thorns starfish – or a coral bleaching event.
The app is really easy to use and populates the date, time and GPS coordinates automatically. You simply select whether to submit a wildlife sighting or an incident. It’s also full of pictures and information and helps you learn to identify what you’ve seen.
CoralWatch uses a Coral Health Chart to help you determine whether any coral you’re seeing is stressed. It’s a simple colour-coded chart – you just need to learn to identify the four different types of corals: Branching, Boulder, Plate or Soft – and to make it really easy, there are pictures of each type in the Do It Yourself Kit.
You collect the data onto a slate whilst out for snorkel or dive and simply tap it into their app afterwards using the same colour-coded buttons in the app.
These are just two simple but powerful initiatives where you and your budding marine biologists can get involved as a citizen scientist and make a difference, helping kids to recognise what a healthy coral reef really looks like.
Day 9: From reef to Rainforest Scuba in Mackay
Time to leave the ocean for a while and head inland for a unique scuba dive in the rainforest. As you wind your way up to Finch Hatton, 40km inland from Mackay, count the creeks, streams and rivers you cross, in the four-hour drive. All that water and all that’s in it – and anything floating on it – is heading for the Reef.
At Rainforest Scuba you’ll have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to dive in the rainforest’s crystal-clear freshwater with a variety of turtles, fish, eels, shrimp, and if you’re lucky, a platypus. This is a completely personal experience, with a 30-minute introduction to the platypus and a 20-minute show-and-tell of all the other aquatic life to be seen in our rainforest eco-systems.
As you drive back from rainforest to ocean you might notice that the water quality is excellent up here, but 40km away as it enters the ocean (a two-hour drive away), it’s not so good, and perhaps think about why?
Day 10: Airlie Beach and cruising the Whitsundays’ Reef
Time for another full day cruise to the outer reef. Cruise Whitsundays‘ Reefworld Pontoon is a little man-made island that floats near the edge of Hardy Reef. You can explore the reef edge by scuba, with a mask and snorkel or even in their semi-submersible (it’s worth the 20-minute trip for the commentary alone).
The marine biologist on board will explain that your Reef is actually made up of zillions of animals called polyps – think of them as tiny upside-down jellyfish. They live in the limestone branches with little plants called zooxanthella from which they get part of their food and colour.
The zooxanthella use sunlight and photosynthesis to get their food, but if it gets too warm the polyps reject their plant partners, draining the colour and leaving only the bone white limestone skeleton behind – what scientists refer to as ‘coral bleaching’.
They can return but only if it’s cool enough and their home hasn’t been taken over by the algae that thrive in fertiliser-rich waters. Food for thought on the trip back to Airlie Beach.
Day 11: Saltie Safari
A choice today between a day trip to Daydream Island’s Living Reef or you could explore the wetland habitat around Airlie Beach.
Daydream Island Resort and Spa, just a 30-minute ferry trip from Airlie Beach, has a free-form ‘Living Reef’ coral lagoon flowing through it. A team of marine biologists care for the 200+ species of fish, corals and invertebrates, and offer you a range of interactive opportunities to learn about the fascinating biological processes at play in your Reef.
(*Please note: Daydream Island will be closed until mid-2018 while renovations are underway.)
Alternatively, you can explore the wetlands behind the coast, discover a whole new set of freshwater fauna and understand how the local estuaries and wetlands interact with your Reef. On the Whitsunday Crocodile Safari, you’ll get (safely) as close as you’d ever want to with Queensland’s famous saltwater crocodiles.
Head off late afternoon to Ayr – a two-hour drive – as tomorrow’s an early start for the most famous wreck on the Great Barrier Reef.
Day 12: Dive the SS Yongala
The minimum requirements to dive the Yongala are an Open Water certification, at least six dives experience, and a minimum age of 14 years. Non-diving families can head straight to Townsville and enjoy an extra day snorkelling the bays of Magnetic Island.
The wreck, sunk in 1911, is an isolated artificial reef that really attracts ‘the big stuff’, including large schools of fish, Maori wrasse, reef sharks aplenty, giant trevally, as well as turtles, manta rays, clownfish and inquisitive sea snakes.
Why is it such a hot spot for prolific marine life? The waters around the wreck in a 797m radius are a fully protected marine reserve, demonstrating that just a little protection goes a long way.
After the dive, head up to Townsville for your final stop, just an hour’s drive from Ayr.
Day 13: Magnetic Island
By now the entire family should be feeling like expert marine explorers – so it’s time to start discovering the reef on your own.
Take a public ferry to Magnetic (“Maggie”) Island and explore a bay or two. Most of the sandy bays on the eastern side of the island have coral reefs extending from about 3m down to 12m.
For those of you ticking off the Great Eight, if you haven’t discovered any Giant Clams yet, there’s a snorkel trail laid out in Geoffrey Bay that includes them on the way.
Day 14: Reef HQ Townsville
Before you head home, round out your journey of discovery with a visit to the Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium.
As the National Education Centre for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), a visit to Reef HQ Aquarium is a fun way to cement your knowledge. The large reef exhibit is open to weather elements, meaning the reef creatures that call the coral reef exhibit home receive natural day and moonlight and experience rain and storm-like events.
Test your knowledge – after your Great Barrier Reef road-trip, you’ll probably now recognise more species than you could before (did you find a dozen?), and also be able to link them to their habitat and understand why any species is endangered or any habitat is under threat.
Visit the turtle hospital and the recovering turtles that are being cared for there. Learn about how a single discarded plastic bag could spell the end of one of these magical creatures.
How will you use what you’ve learned?
A little knowledge goes a long way, and now you can use what you’ve learned to make a difference collectively for the Great Barrier Reef.
Climate change is having the biggest impact. How can you reduce your carbon footprint? Use the car less, use less electricity – maybe even switch to a renewable energy supplier?
Another big issue is marine plastic pollution, especially single-use plastic bags. Get some reusable bags and keep them in the car, remembering to take them with you whenever you go shopping.
If you really do have a budding Jacques Cousteau in the family, encourage them along a study path of marine sciences – Queensland has some of the best facilities for a career in this area, in particular at James Cook University and the University of Queensland.
Most importantly, stay in touch with the Reef and continue learning about how it’s changing. An easy way is to sign up as a Citizen of the GBR (citizensgbr.org) to see what you can do to help protect your Great Barrier Reef in the future.
*Some of the businesses listed above have been impacted by recent weather events in Queensland. Please make contact with the operator or visit their website for information regarding bookings and travel plans.