Great Barrier Reef holiday ideas for your budding marine biologists
If my grade eight biology teacher taught me anything it was the greatest classrooms don’t have four walls. Nothing beats experiencing and ultimately connecting with the world around us to drive our understanding and this couldn’t ring more true when it comes to the Great Barrier Reef.
As the largest and most complex living organism on the planet it is a source of wonder and fascination that offers something new and worth learning with every kick of a fin.
If you’re raising a budding marine biologist, explorer or simply a child with a fascination of everything in the ocean, these Great Barrier Reef experiences might be just the ‘classroom’ they’re after.
Stay at an eco-resort
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 (think manta rays, schools of fish and of course 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.
The Eastern side of the island is a tidal coral lagoon, making it perfect for children to snorkel in at high tide, or for a guided reef walk at low tide.
Hot Tip: Lady Elliot Island is 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.
Witness turtle miracles at Mon Repos
As an adult, gathered around a loggerhead turtle as she laid her clutch of eggs last season, I was in total awe. Then I turned and looked at the children around me. Eyes wide, mouths open, cheering the mother on and rattling of questions (all that were expertly answered mind you) to the Ranger on Duty. Magic is the only way to describe turtle season.
Every year from November to March, primarily loggerhead turtles lumber onto the beach at Mon Repos near Bundaberg to lay their clutch of eggs (they’ll repeat this several times during the season). Early in the new year the sand starts to rumble as the nests explode with at times more than 100 baby turtles as they take their first steps, scampering for the ocean.
During the season, tours are conducted nightly. The stars of the show can run on ‘turtle-time’ so be sure to pack something to keep the kids entertained as the wait can be upwards of an hour. Don’t worry. the wait is sure worth it. Be sure to check out this post for everything you need to know on turtle season in Queensland.
Find Nemo (and all his friends) on Heron Island
All aboard the Heron Islander for the two-hour trip to Heron Island. Finding Nemo/Dory screens on every trip – how many of the characters’ species can you actually name? Challenge yourself 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 the 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).
Lastly, Heron Island runs a fantastic Junior Rangers program that will have your little ones reciting fun marine facts for days!
Head to Reef HQ in Townsville
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 learn about the reef without getting wet.
With impressive exhibits including the world’s largest living coral reef exhibition (at a casual 2.5 million litres) the aquarium offers an ever-changing, always fascinating experience, showcasing rare and extraordinary features of the Great Barrier Reef.
Be sure to visit the turtle hospital and the recovering turtles that are being cared for there.
Be marooned on a pontoon
Outer-reef pontoons provide the perfect base for a family day on the reef with plenty of activities (did someone say water slides) and the ability to chill out when need be after a few hours in the water.
Sunlover Reef Cruises depart Cairns and have two pontoons, one on Moore Reef located on the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef and the other at the closer Arlington Reef. With glass-bottom boat tours, underwater observatories, marine life touch tank, fully-enclosed kids’ pool and a guided snorkel safari, there are more than enough options to keep the whole family entertained.
To ramp the reef experience up to 11, you can stay overnight on the Moore Reef pontoon with the Sunlover by Starlight experience. 26 nautical miles off the coast of Cairns and among the company of just 17 other people, you’ll have the Sunlover pontoon to yourself between 3:30pm and 11am for a private reef show after dark.
Departing Port Douglas, Quicksilver Cruises offer cruises, both suitable for toddlers through to older children. The Agincourt Reef pontoon (located on the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef) has a number of family-friendly activities, including an underwater observatory, semi-submersibles, snorkelling platforms and specially designed introductory dive areas.
Intro scuba diving lessons are offered for children aged 12 and older. There’s also the added bonus of undercover tables and seating, and freshwater showers and change rooms.
Further south in the Whitsundays, Cruise Whitsundays offer a number of cruises that cater to children of varying ages. Take your pick from a trip to Whitehaven Beach, Hamilton Island their Reefworld pontoon at Hardy Reef. For children who prefer to keep dry, there are underwater viewing chambers and semi-submersibles to explore the coral and marine life. The shallower waters offer the perfect environment for children to go snorkelling, plus there’s the added bonus of a lifeguard station and rest stations in the water.