A day in the life of the Great Barrier Reef

Move over New York, there’s a new the city that never sleeps. Only this one is underwater, has coral skyscrapers and happens to be the largest living organism in the world – the Great Barrier Reef.

In fact, it’s pumping with more activity and bright colours than Times Square and is open for business 24-7 too.

Like an all-hours convenience store, the lights are always on somewhere on this World Heritage-listed icon… the only trick is knowing where to go.

Lucky for you, we’ve been sleuthing the 2300km of the reef for years, charting its behaviours and talking to people who know it like the back of their scuba mask in order to find the ultimate day on the reef.

To see the GBR in all stages of its daily cycle – from the moment the sand-cleaning foragers come out, to when the schools of fish play tag and creatures of the deep turn on their neon spotlights – here’s your 24-7 access pass to the Great Barrier Reef.

1. Where to watch the sunrise

Early birds are best positioned on a Great Barrier Reef island to catch a postcard-worthy sunrise over the reef.

Picking the best sunrise spot on a reef that’s made up of 1200 islands, is a bit like choosing your favourite M&M when they’re all as delicious and hard to distinguish (at times) from one another.

If you’re not interested in sacrificing comfort by camping, we’d recommend stationing yourself on the two famous ladies in the Southern Great Barrier Reef – Lady Elliot Island and Lady Musgrave Island. Both promise the best pastel sunrise this side of the mainland.

Both islands are coral cays, which means the sun dances off the crumbled coral sand like a tango dancer, spinning, dropping and twisting to the delight of the human retina. For seriously Instagrammable sunrise pictures, time your trip for November and December, for the chance to see green sea turtles who have come ashore to lay their eggs, slowly lollop back to the water, following the sun. You can read more about the turtle experiences here.

Dip under the water’s surface and you’ll see the reef waking up too. From the parrot fish eating the mucus cocoon it was sleeping in, to anemones opening up, you’ll see a highly active reef as all animals and corals prepare for their day ahead.

2. When you want to see the reef but can only dedicate a morning or afternoon

There’s no shortage of reef within reach, especially if you have half a day up your sleeve.

Choose your transport of choice – flying above the reef in a helicopter, gliding through the water on a cruise, kicking back on a sailboat or whizzing over the reef’s surface in a jet boat.

From the air, you’ll get a birds-eye view of the size and scale of this natural wonder. Don’t worry about missing the marine life, the water clarity will have you spotting turtles, whales and schools of fish without needing binoculars. From Cairns, Nautilus and GBR Helicopters will give you the blades to fly.

Boat lovers, get ready for an itinerary of secret snorkelling sites, private islands and animal spotting through glass-bottom boats. Operators like Reef Sprinter and Raging Thunder Adventure have tours designed for time-poor thrill seekers, which leave for half-day sprints of the reef, without scrimping on any of the detail.

Daytime on the reef is the equivalent of store opening hours as all the animals have to get their best hunting and gathering done in daylight hours. Overlay to that stress, having to find a mate, and you’ll start to understand why the fish are such frenzied swimmers between 9-5.

3. Make it a full-day date with the Reef

When you’re in search of Nemo and his friends, book yourself in for a full-day tour of the reef. By day, the reef is pumping with all the memorable GBR faces, including the Great Eight.

You can experience a day on the reef a few different ways but pontoon or island-based tours are the most popular options. Either way, you’ll find an Atlantis ecosystem so diverse and colourful, it would make an Andy Warhol painting look dull in comparison.

If lazing on the sand, snorkelling, paddle boarding, kayaking or exploring an island is your idea of heaven, then say ahoy to Fitzroy Island. Just a 45-minute ferry ride from Cairns, this trip promises more time in the water, than getting to it.

Its neighbour, Green Island, is perfect for a day trip too, with white sandy beaches, surrounded by lush rainforests. Avid birdwatchers and budding botanists will love discovering the 120 native plant species and birdlife that call this island home.

If you have great sea legs and want to base yourself firmly in the heart of the reef action – aka the outer reef – then take the family to one of the reef pontoons. Reefworld or Quicksilver Cruises pontoons are situated on Hardy Reef (3 hours journey from Airlie Beach) and Agincourt Reef (90 minutes from Port Douglas) respectively. From these ship-like pontoons, the family can enjoy various activities from diving with a helmet, to snorkelling and underwater observatories.

If you’ve “been there, done that, bought the T-shirt” when it comes to snorkelling, you might want to check out these places to get PADI certified on the Great Barrier Reef itself.

And of course, don’t forget, there’s plenty of ways to see the reef without getting wet with this range of activities, or on a budget here.

4. Where to watch the sunset

For sunsets that look more like a watercolour canvas than real life, you can’t beat the reef for uninterrupted views and western-facing outlooks.

Up the romance with a sailing charter around Magnetic Island with Pilgrim Sailing’s Sunset Sip and Sail, which promises an Instagrammable luxury sailboat, glass of bubbles and cheese platter to enjoy as the sun recedes behind the horizon.

If romantic sails aren’t quite your thing, then base yourself island side for the reef’s sunset glow. We love Orpheus Island for an intimate (only 28 guests allowed) experience that balances downtime and adventure. After a day of snorkelling, fishing and cruises, the best spot to soak up a sunset is the island’s exclusive dining experience – Dining with the Tides – which gives you a position on the pier to bid the sun adieu.

Dive into the deep blue at sunset to see the reef winding down for the evening and animals retreating to their homes among this colourful coral chaos.

5. For the night owls

Sunlover by StarlightThere’s nothing quite like sleeping under a ceiling of stars, but throw in the lapping tunes of some of Australia’s bluest waters blanketing an active reef below, and you have yourself the perfect sleepover setting.

Surrounded by nothing but ocean, with a pontoon as your home and a swag for a bed, Reefsleep (80km from the Whitsundays) and Sunlover by Starlight (48km from Cairns) offer ‘sleep on the reef’ experiences that allow visitors to connect with the reef after dark.

For the more adventurous and diving pros, dive into the ocean depths with Pro Dive Cairns‘ Liveaboard Dive Trip. At night, you’ll meet some of the Reef’s stranger-looking characters as they come out to play.

By night you’re more likely to see schooling sharks, octopus, morays and other predators who catch the other animals unawares in the night. Armed with a torch, you’ll find a completely different snorkelling or diving experience, where you can focus your attention in place as the beaming light moves from coral to coral.

For the ultimate one-night-stand with the reef though, time your visit for the miraculous coral spawning event. Known as the ‘snowstorm of the sea’, coral spawning is a fairly recent discovery by researchers who accidentally encountered this phenomenon in 1981.

Occurring four to five days after a full moon in October, November or December, when the water temperature is just right, the coral release tiny cells of eggs and sperm to create quite the spectacle. The opportunity to see this event is all about timing (no surprises there) because scientists are unable to predict exactly when the phenomenon will occur. Check out Mike Ball Dive Expedition’s Spawning Liveaboard or Heron Island Research Centre for the best guesstimates for when the world’s biggest sex show – aka spawning on the reef – will take place this year.

What’s your favourite time of day to be on the reef?