Sunlover | credit: Lachlan Ennion

How to see the Great Barrier Reef with a toddler

If you have a toddler who can’t yet swim solo, let alone don a mask and snorkel, planning a trip to the Great Barrier Reef can be daunting.

We’ve done the hard work for you and rounded up the best reef experiences for young families from top to bottom!

Sunlover Reef Cruises

Subnlover | How to see the GBR with a toddlerThis is the full package for young parents keen to introduce their kids to the Great Barrier Reef. Departing from Cairns, this tour is to a permanent pontoon at Moore Reef.

There are so many activities for kids on this tour that it’s easy for mums and dads to tag team so they, too, get a chance to go snorkelling to the deeper areas of the reef.

For toddlers, the highlights are bound to be the water slide that shoots them into the ocean (close enough to the boat so they can swim back with or without floaties), as well as the semi-submarine ride. Being able to spot turtles and fish without getting wet is a cool way for tiny tots to see what lies beneath the surface.

There is also an underwater observatory, glass-bottom boat and a “touch tank” so kids can get a closer look at animals such as sea cucumbers.

If they’re keen to try snorkelling, there is a fabulous enclosed “pool” that is safe and that fish swim through. Mini life vests and snorkelling gear is provided, too.

Pack: Toys and books for the boat ride, as Moore Reef is on the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef and the trip is two hours (one way). You’ll then have four hours on the reef, so if your child still has day naps, pack a favourite bedtime friend and blanket.

Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium

Reef HQ Townsville | How to see the Great Barrier Reef with a toddlerYou may be surprised to learn that you don’t need to head out onto the water to have a reef experience.

Reef HQ in Townsville is a fantastic place to take little ones to give them an understanding of the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef ecosystem. As the world’s largest living coral reef aquarium and the Australian Government’s education centre for the Great Barrier Reef, this is the perfect spot to start your family’s reef journey.

Kids will love the underwater viewing tunnel where they can see living coral and an abundance of marine life, as well as the Turtle Hospital and the captivating shark-feeding show. Children under five get free entry.

Pack: A camera so you can capture the look of amazement on your child’s face when they view the reef exhibit.

Magnetic Island

Day-tripping to the reef doesn’t always mean checking out the colourful coral. There are around 900 islands and cays that make up the 2300km-long Great Barrier Reef and they’re not only visually stunning but are home to plenty of fun activities.

Picking the right isle to visit to suit your family’s travel style can be overwhelming, but Magnetic Island is a crowd favourite. It’s easy to get to, being a 25-minute ferry ride from Townsville, and children will be able to swap watery creatures for tree-hugging ones.

At Bungalow Bay Koala Village, toddlers can meet an iconic Aussie koala, as well as a wombat and lizard, among other critters.

Fit parents and energetic toddlers will also enjoy the popular 4km (return) Forts Walk. Although children may not appreciate the WWII fortifications the same way adults will, little adventurers will have a hoot exploring the interesting war-time structures. Keep an eye out for koalas along the way, too.

PS. Here’s 7 more reasons why ‘Maggie’ offers one of the best holidays for kids.

Pack: Swimmers, sunscreen, hats, plenty of water and a tasty snack to reward toddlers at the midway point of the Forts Walk.

The Whitsundays

Whitehaven Beach | How to see the GBR with a toddlerThis list wouldn’t be complete without including a tour to the star of the Whitsundays – Whitehaven Beach.

Located on the aptly named Whitsunday Island, one of 74 islands in this sparkling archipelago, Whitehaven is an award-winning stretch of white silica sand. The water is clear and shallow, making it one of the most toddler-friendly experiences in the region.

A half-day trip with Cruise Whitsundays is plenty for young children, and the morning departure from Airlie Beach is a great option as tired toddlers can nap on the return leg.

Pack: Activities for the boat ride, a bucket and spade for sandcastle building, and a light-weight tent or umbrella as there is very limited shade on the beach. Morning or afternoon tea is provided on the cruise but take extra snacks to prevent tummy grumbles.

Lady Elliot Island

Lady Elliot Island | how to see the GBR with a toddlerIn the Southern Great Barrier Reef lies one of the best places in the world to see turtles – Lady Elliot Island.

A short flight from Bundaberg, you can day-trip to the coral cay but families will get the most out of a visit by staying overnight in one of the eco resort’s suites.

You may not be able to keep your toddler up late enough to see green and loggerhead turtles coming ashore at night-time to nest (Nov-March) but it’s highly likely they’ll wake you before sunrise. Take advantage of this early alarm call and whisk them to the beach to see those turtles still nesting or making their way back to the sea.

If you visit between January and April, you’ll have a chance of spotting hatchlings do their dash to the water. The island also has glass-bottom boat tours available for children aged three to 12 years.  

Pack: A torch for night-time or pre-sunrise beach turtle spotting and reef booties if you own them.

PS. Here’s a few tips for surviving your first trip with a toddler. And 32 of Queensland’s best family-friendly accommodation options.

If you have older kids, check out our other family guide to the Great Barrier Reef here.

Have you taken your toddler to experience the magic of the Great Barrier Reef? Tell us in the comments below.