Snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef Queensland islands to snorkel straight from the shore

6 islands with the best snorkelling straight from shore

The world is a super convenient place – and don’t we just love it! Want a burger and sweet potato fries delivered to your door? You got it! Turn the lights on with your voice? You got it! Binge watch a TV series and not wait for the weekly releases? You got it!

Travel is no different. Want to jump out of bed in the morning, take a couple of strides and be snorkelling on Australia’s incredible natural wonder, the Great Barrier Reef? No shocks here – you got it!

With more than 900 islands dotted along the 2300km long world famous marine park, there’s a piece of island paradise for every type of traveller, where you can strap on your fins and explore the underwater world directly from the shore.

Because you love convenience ohhh so much (no barriers here people!), we’ve rounded up our top six picks with the best snorkelling just for you.

Heron Island – Gladstone, Southern Great Barrier Reef

Heron Island jetty - Islands with the best snorkelling

The Southern Great Barrier Reef is sprinkled with tiny coral cays that are surrounded by protective coral lagoons, providing exceptional snorkelling the moment you enter the water.

Heron Island is no exception, its surrounding waters are brimming with rays (eagle, cow-tail and giant shovel-nosed to name a few), turtles (primarily green, but keep an eye out for a giant and very old loggerhead named Ben) and reef sharks (don’t worry, they’re terrified of you).

Because the reef literally comes up to the side of the island, you don’t even have to get wet to spot a couple of locals. In the time it took me to consume one sun-downer I saw three eagle rays, a handful of reef sharks and 20 (for real) turtles swimming past my vantage point, a stone’s throw from my room. Now that’s what I call convenience!

Who’s it for?

Heron Island is great for families. The lagoon provides very comfortable snorkelling for kids or first-timers, they run a junior rangers program on weekends and school holidays for kids aged 7-12 and there are plenty of free activities to keep the kids busy (check out this post for a couple of ideas).

Snorkeller’s tip

The best spot to see a range of rays, particularly eagle rays, as well as turtles and larger fish species is the Channel (open before 8am and after 5:30pm only due to boat traffic). I recommended starting on the far side of the channel (opposite the jetty) and snorkelling until you’re adjacent with the HMAS Protector, before crossing the channel to explore the wreck.

Where to gear up

The Marine Centre on the island has your hiring needs sorted with wetsuits, fins, masks and everything else you’ll need at the ready for a daily fee.

Lizard Island, Tropical North Queensland

If you want to dial up to the max luxury, romance and reef experiences, Lizard Island is for you.

The northern-most resort on the Great Barrier Reef is one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World for a mighty good reason – we’re talking access to some of the best dive locations on the planet including the Ribbon Reefs (and the renowned Cod Hole), 24 private beaches and incredible meals.

For snorkelling directly off the beach, the Clam Gardens at Watson’s Bay should be at the top of your list. The resident giant clams, some a whopping two metres long, with technicoloured flesh, will leave you speechless.

While you’re snorkelling the bay, keep an eye out for the local groper Simon, who weighs a casual 200kgs.

Who’s it for?

Lizard Island is a little pricey, so it may fall into the ‘special occasion’ category. As it should. With outstanding accommodation in a location only dreams are made of, it’s worth every cent.

Snorkeller’s tip

Anchor Bay and Sunset Beach are great spots right off the beach. For those wanting to cruise a little further, nearby world-class dive sites include the Ribbon Reefs, the only location in the world you can swim with minke whales.

Where to gear up

Impressively, dinghies for exploring coves, picnic hampers and of course all the snorkelling gear you’ll need are inclusive.

Lady Musgrave Island, Bundaberg/1770 – Southern Great Barrier Reef

Lady Musgrave Island - Islands with the best snorkelling

Photo by @jamesvodicka

If Lizard Island is for luxury, then Lady Musgrave Island is for low-key.  It’s the ‘BYO supplies, a couple of composting toilets (the only structure), you and hundreds of marine and bird species’ type of low-key.

Another one of the Southern Great Barrier Reefs’ magical coral cays, LMI is raw, beautiful, a world-away from normal life and at only $6.55 per person per night (camping), it takes the cake for affordable reef-front real estate in Australia.

The beauty of the island is how little it’s been touched. It exists how it should and you feel like a lucky visitor to nature’s house when you arrive.

The coral lagoon is akin to a gigantic, vibrant, aquarium and guarantees an endless supply of snorkelling opportunities – just pick a spot and get stuck in.

From November to late January every year, the island’s maximum of 40 guests have their island gate-crashed by hundreds of predominately green turtles, who lumber onto the beach to lay their eggs. For once, gate-crashers are very welcome.

Who’s it for?

Ever watched Survivor and thought you’d love to give it a go but only if you had more food and shelter not made from sticks? If so, this island is for you!

Okay, maybe I’m being a touch dramatic, but LMI is for the genuine campers who are well-versed in bringing everything with them.

Not quite Bear Grylls? Lady Musgrave Experience offers a two-day one-night reef sleep experience smack bang in the middle of the lagoon, with all of nature’s wonders as well as creature comforts.

Snorkeller’s tip

Keep an eye out for turtle cleaning stations, reef ledges and schools of squid that hang around the reef crest in front of the camping area.

Where to gear up

Snorkelling gear can be hired from Lady Musgrave Experience but like the rest of the island, BYO is best. If you’re planning your first trip to LMI, be sure to check out this post first.

Hook Island – the Whitsundays

Bareboating Whitsundays - Islands with the best snorkelling

If the Whitsundays was playing a game of poker it’d see your ‘snorkelling straight from shore’ idea and raise you ‘snorkel amazing fringing reefs off the back of a yacht.’ I fold.

Why limit yourself to one location when you can hire a yacht and go bareboating around the Whitsundays’ 74 islands?

No licence or experience is required to charter a yacht and after a morning briefing, you and your crew armed with a thirst for exploration are ready to sail off into the sunset (literally).

Hook Island is a great mooring site and the northern coves offer spectacular snorkelling opportunities. Butterfly Bay, Luncheon Bay, Maureen’s Cove and the aptly-named Manta Ray Bay (the graceful giants can be seen during the cooler months) are all worth checking out.

Who’s it for?

Bareboating offers complete freedom. If you want to sail for two days or two weeks, travel far or just settle on one location, take your family or your best mates, it doesn’t matter – it’s completely flexible.

Non sailors can opt for camping on Hook Island at Maureen’s Cove, Steen Beach, Curlew Beach and Crayfish Beach.

Snorkeller’s tip

Besides the northern coves, The Gardens in Hook Passage is a well protected location, dominated by large plate corals with plenty of small friendly reef fish and occasional large pelagic fish.

Where to gear up

The good folk at Whitsunday Escape can kit you out with everything you need – a dinghy for exploring bays, stand up paddle boards, kayaks and all snorkel equipment.

Keswick Island – Mackay

If you want beaches to yourself and a feeling of disconnect that comes with hot showers and a golf buggy to drive from beach to beach, Keswick Island is the place for you.

Any aerial trip over the Great Barrier Reef and the Whitsunday islands is always worth it and the 15-minute flight from Mackay to Keswick Island is no different.

Nicknamed ‘The Treasure Island’, Keswick Island is, like on a treasure hunt, best when you explore as much as humanly-possible. From hikes to the island’s highest peak, hunting and gathering your own seafood and oysters (be sure to check zones before you cast), kayaking, beachcombing and of course, snorkelling.

The snorkel game off the beach here is strong – we’re talking swim-through caves, deep ledges and shoals of vibrant reef fish.

Who’s it for?

Keswick Island has a range of accommodation options with camping, glamping and a holiday rental home. The island is a more relaxed version compared to its northern Whitsunday family like Hamilton Island and is best for getting away from the world and enjoying the simple pleasures. Want to dig a little deeper? Check out this post.

Snorkeller’s tip

Horseshoe Bay, Connie Bay and the Coral Gardens are three of the best snorkel sites – keep an eye out for turtles and the occasional manta ray at each site.

Where to gear up

You are bound to visit the Kiosk on the island more than once, be it for snacks, fishing gear replacements or snorkel hire.

Lady Elliot Island – Bundaberg, Southern Great Barrier Reef

Another from my ‘coral cays are the best’ list is Lady Elliot Island (LEI).

Located off the coast of Bundaberg, LEI lands the double-blow of protected coral lagoon on one side and deeper ledges with a vast array of coral bommies on the other.

Basically, LEI has it all. If you prefer sheltered spots with an array of smaller fish and turtles, head to the east side of the island. If you prefer exploring coral ledges in deeper waters, visiting manta ray cleaning stations and keeping an eye out for large schools of pelagic fish, sharks and more turtles, head west.

Do you remember the turtles from Finding Nemo that were really chill? The turtles in the protected zones around the Southern Great Barrier Reef are exactly that; super cruisey and willing to pose for a few (hundred) photos.

On land, Lady Elliot Island eco-resort has your meals and RnR time sorted as well as west-side sundowners conveniently brought to you.

Who’s it for?

Nature lovers. LEI is remote, relaxing and surrounded by the finest mother nature can throw at you. It’s the type of fuss-free eco-resort that suits all travellers, especially those who love being face down in the water.

Snorkeller’s tip

LEI plays host to the majority of the Great 8 including whales (seasonal), maori wrasse, anemone fish and everything in between. My tip? Chat to the dive shop crew every morning. They basically live in the water so can always point you in the right direction. This is also where you can gear up with fins, mask and wetsuits.

This blog could turn into War and Peace, but that’s not convenient, so be sure to check out this post for a couple more islands that provide epic off-the-beach snorkelling.

Do you have a favourite Queensland island for snorkelling? Let us know in the comments below.