11 best snorkelling sites in Queensland
You don’t need a dive certificate or expensive equipment to be able to appreciate the immense beauty that lies below the waterline.
Here are 11 top spots where you can don a snorkel, snap on your fins and get up close and personal with some of the state’s spectacular marine life, no matter what your level of snorkelling expertise.
1. Tangalooma Wrecks | Moreton Island
Just an hour from Brisbane, Moreton Island is the world’s third-largest sand island and a place of pristine natural beauty. Just offshore are the Tangalooma Wrecks, some 15 decommissioned barges, dredges and flatboats scuttled in 1963 to create an artificial harbour for local boaties.
Teeming with marine life, the wrecks are home to more than 175 species of reef fish such as yellowtail, kingfish and lionfish, as well as moray eels, turtles, dolphins, stingrays and harmless wobbegong sharks, all totally unmoved by human presence. Crystal-clear, emerald-tinted water, perfect photo opportunities and easy accessibility (a lazy swim from the beach) make the wrecks highly attractive to snorkellers, especially novices.
2. Lady Elliot Island | Bundaberg
The southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef is easily accessible from south-east Queensland (it’s only a one-hour flight from Brisbane) and has plenty of options for on-reef stays. Lady Elliot, a coral cay island in a protected marine park, offers magnificent snorkelling, with underwater gardens beginning as soon as you step off the beach. A calm lagoon perfect for less experienced snorkellers on the eastern side of the island features lots of coral outcrops, starfish, sea urchins and smaller reef fish.
On the western side, Lighthouse and Coral Gardens have deeper water and offer the possibility of spotting reef sharks, whales, dolphins and hawksbill, green and loggerhead turtles. Lady Elliot is known as the “Home of the Manta Ray”, so the likelihood of an encounter with these magnificent (and entirely harmless) rays is pretty much a given, particularly in the winter months when they congregate off the island in large numbers.
3. Magnetic Island | Townsville
There are two self-guided snorkel trails on “Maggie”, a popular day trip for locals and tourists being just 25 minutes by ferry from Townsville. Perfect for snorkellers who want to understand what they’re seeing, the trails are marked out by white surface and subsurface floats.
Nelly Bay is the easiest for beginners, starting 100 metres off the beach. Information cards guide the snorkeller through gardens of lettuce, cauliflower, boulder and staghorn corals teeming with colourful clownfish and a few giant clams. The Geoffrey Bay snorkel trail offers the added thrill of viewing the remains of a shipwreck, the SS Moltke, and part of a World War II fighter plane.
4. Orpheus Island | Townsville
The first thing you might notice here is a huge field of giant clams outside the Orpheus Island Research Station squirting seawater during low tide, the result of an abandoned clam-farming experiment.
Orpheus has some of the most colourful coral outcrops (known as bommies) on the entire Great Barrier Reef, along with more than 1,000 species of reef fish, 340 varieties of hard corals and one of the region’s largest collections of soft corals.
It’s just over an hour from the island to reach the outer reef, home to green turtles, manta rays, bull rays and reef sharks. Visit Orpheus between late June and mid-September, when you might just spot a migrating humpback!
5. Lady Musgrave Island | Southern Great Barrier Reef
A pristine 1,200-hectare lagoon encircles the uninhabited coral cay of Lady Musgrave Island, 90 minutes from Bundaberg or The Town of 1770. Protected from the current and with fantastic visibility all year round, the lagoon is home to about 350 varieties of corals and 1,300 species of tropical fish, including triggerfish and clownfish, damsels and goatfish.
Harmless leopard sharks and whitetip reef sharks can be spotted in the shallows, along with graceful rays, while vivid blue starfish, sea cucumbers and anemones cling to crevices in the coral gardens. An encounter with local turtles – who wait at “cleaning stations” to have algae and parasites picked off their shells by little cleaner fish, and nest on the island in the summer months – is almost guaranteed.
6. Hayman Island | Whitsundays
The closest of the Whitsunday Islands to the outer reef, Hayman hotspots include Blue Pearl Bay, where you can swim among soft and hard corals and a multitude of marine life. You may also meet Priscilla, the resident giant Maori wrasse. Over at Langford Reef, you’ll find a long sandy spit with a small but richly populated reef encircling the island, as well as fields of seagrass frequented by turtles. Nearby tiny Black Island, also known as Bali Hai, is largely undisturbed by big tour operators.
In its shallow aqua waters, you can spot green sea turtles, giant clams, colourful corals and reef fish. It’s also possible to visit the outer reef from Hayman by boat, and snorkel from a pontoon at Hardy Reef (hit up Cruise Whitsundays), floating over myriad corals alongside rainbow-hued Maori wrasse and clownfish, reef sharks, rays and green sea turtles.
7. Green Island | Cairns
Highly popular with day-trippers – it’s just a 45- minute boat ride from Cairns – Green Island’s coral gardens and rich marine life begin almost the moment you step off the sandy beach. Both hard and soft corals proliferate, supporting giant clams, anemones and sea cucumbers, while the rich diversity of fish life includes coral trout, butterflyfish, angelfish, fusiliers, chromis, clownfish and parrotfish as well as turtles and reef sharks. There are also plenty of rays around and you might even spot a humpback whale between July and November.
The best snorkelling is around the jetty, particularly in the mornings when the water is calm and visibility is at its best. With its own lifeguard service, Green Island is not only one of the most accessible reef islands to snorkel, but one of the safest.
8. Hastings, Saxon and Norman Reefs | Cairns
All within a short boat ride of one another on the outer Great Barrier Reef in Tropical North Queensland, these three reefs offer superb water clarity and a rich variety of marine life. Saxon Reef consists of many shallow platforms covered by colourful corals and anemones, home to damselfish, fusiliers and clownfish.
Norman Reef’s caves and swim-throughs are probably best left to scuba divers, apart from the northern reef at low tide when the plate corals are visible. You may encounter Barney, the amiable Maori wrasse, here. During winter, Norman Reef is another hotspot for minke whales, which have shown a marked preference for interacting with snorkellers rather than divers.
Nearby Hastings Reef is renowned for spectacular coral formations, with residents including parrotfish, turtles, giant clams, small reef sharks and brilliant yellow butterflyfish.
Visit the reefs in late October and November (dates vary) to witness the nocturnal phenomenon that is sex on the reef, aka, coral spawning.
9. Ribbon Reefs | Port Douglas
Also beloved by divers, who come for the spectacular drop over the Coral Sea trench along with the kaleidoscope of colourful sea life, the Ribbon Reefs are a long necklace of individual reefs running parallel to the continental shelf. Sitting about 65 kilometres off the coast of Port Douglas, the reefs are notable for their water visibility and pristine ecosystem.
Shallow lagoons are rich in coral growth, with spectacular and diverse marine life including damselfish, triggerfish, giant clams, parrotfish, unicornfish, black-tip sharks and hammerhead sharks. Pick an operator with the required licence and you could swim alongside dwarf minke whales.
10. The Low Isles | Port Douglas
A small coral cay 15 kilometres off Port Douglas, the Low Isles consists of two small islands separated by a common reef. The tranquil lagoon is home to 150 different species of hard corals and 15 species of soft, from staghorns to brain coral bommies. You may spot clownfish, angelfish, sea cucumbers, reef sharks and rays. It’s a feeding ground for a large group of resident turtles, with numbers increasing during nesting season.
A research station on the Low Isles has studied reef health since the late 1920s. Due to the fragility of the islands and the wildlife they support, visitor numbers are limited, which makes snorkelling here close to perfect.
11. Agincourt Reef | Port Douglas
Located on the outer edge of the Barrier Reef and teeming with marine life is Agincourt Reef. Complete with an underwater observatory, this ribbon reef is family-friendly and operators like Quicksilver Cruises have a number of fun activities to entertain the little ones.
The reef is comprised of 16 different dive sites and offers incredible underwater experiences for snorkelers. You can snorkel by Blue Wonder, a breath-taking wall dive or watch pelagic fish feed at the Nursery Bommie.