The ultimate family-friendly Great Barrier Reef guide
Grab the kids (and your swimmers) and head to the Great Barrier Reef for the perfect family holiday. With child-friendly reef tours and islands galore, you’ll have a hard time picking just one!
We’ve gathered a few options together to showcase the diversity of this ‘great’ reef – arranged by destination – to give you all the helpful tips you’ll need to book in some quality family time on the reef.
Tropical North Queensland
Leaving from Port Douglas, Quicksilver Cruises offer tours 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.
The Low Isles (an inner reef coral island) tour option is perfect for families with kids that are not as confident in open water. They can feel the sand between their toes as they snorkel and swim in the shallower waters surrounding the island.
Child-friendly equipment: Lycra suits from size 2 and fins from size 1-3. Snorkels and masks suitable for toddlers. Buoyancy vests, swimming noodles and flotation devices available.
Sunlover Reef Cruises
Sunlover Reef Cruises depart Cairns and travel out to the pontoon on Moore Reef, located on the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef. With glass-bottom boat tours, semi-submersible coral reef viewing tours, an underwater observatory, 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.
Children from the age of 12 can also try the Seawalker helmet dive and go scuba diving.
Child-friendly equipment: Wetsuits, fins, snorkels, masks and buoyancy vests suitable for children from the age of four.
Passions of Paradise
Leaving from Cairns, choose from a Passions of Paradise cruise to Michaelmas Cay or Paradise Reef on the outer Great Barrier Reef. Michaelmas Cay is perfect for children of all ages with protected waters where they can snorkel in close proximity to the beach. For children that aren’t confident snorkelling, the glass-bottom boat tour is the perfect way to see the coral and marine life.
There’s no pontoon at Paradise Reef so entry to the water is straight from the boat, with floatation vests and rings available for young children to use in the water whilst snorkelling. Scuba diving is offered for children from 12 years of age.
Child-friendly equipment: Lycra suits, snorkels, fins, masks and buoyancy vests available for children from five years old. Flotation devices are also available.
Make your way from Cairns to the outer Great Barrier Reef platform or spend the day at Green Island with Great Adventures. The reef platform offers an underwater observatory, semi-submersible glass-bottom boat tour, undercover seating and tables, change rooms with freshwater showers and scuba diving facilities with a semi-submerged platform. The Scuba Doo activity is available for children aged from 12 years old.
Green Island is surrounded by shallow water and great for younger children. It offers introductory scuba diving and the Seawalker helmet dive for children from 12 years old.
Child-friendly equipment: Lycra suits, fins, snorkels, masks and buoyancy vests.
Big Cat Green Island Cruises
Big Cat Green Island Cruises depart Cairns for tours to Green Island. Kids can hop on the glass-bottom boat tour and semi-submarine to see the magical underwater world of colourful marine life and coral. An intro scuba dive and Seawalker helmet dive are available for children 12 years and older.
Child-friendly equipment: Wetsuits, lycra suits, snorkels, fins, masks and flotation devices.
Green Island is located a 45 minute boat ride from Cairns and is great for families with young children. It’s surrounded by shallow water perfect for paddling around in or to try snorkelling. Take the glass-bottom boat tour from the island and spot colourful coral and marine life.
Children from 12 years old can also try the Seawalker helmet dive. If you feel like spending some time out of the water, check out Marineland Melanesia, a crocodile farm and marine life habitat located in the middle of the island.
Ever tried jumping on an ocean trampoline? This is just one of the kid-friendly activities on offer at Fitzroy Island, off Cairns. Surrounded by calm shallow waters and fringing reef, it’s ideal for snorkelling right off the beach. The glass-bottom boat tours, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards are perfect for younger children who aren’t so keen on snorkelling.
There’s also a turtle rehabilitation centre on the island where the whole family can take a tour and learn about the recovery of sick and injured turtles.
Townsville North Queensland
Located a short ferry ride off the coast of Townsville, Magnetic Island has a number of child-friendly activities on offer.
Explore the island’s marine life and spot turtles on a sea kayak tour, go snorkelling or swimming at one of the 23 bays and beaches, or take a walk around the island to spot koalas and feed rock wallabies.
Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium
For a Great Barrier Reef experience that doesn’t require a boat ride, take the kids to Reef HQ Aquarium in Townsville. It’s the world’s largest living coral reef aquarium and provides the opportunity to discover the Great Barrier Reef without getting wet.
Children can have a hands-on encounter with marine creatures at Discovery Lagoon, explore the coral reef exhibit, take part in various talks and tours and pay a visit to the Turtle Hospital.
Whitsundays Jetski Tours
Leaving from Airlie Beach, Whitsunday Jetski Tours are a fun and unique way to explore the Whitsundays. Offering two tours, you can have an Airlie adventure or explore the beauty of South Molle and Daydream Islands.
Teens from the age of 16 are able to drive the jet-skis, while kids from the age of eight can join the Airlie Adventure tour. They’ll need to be 12 years old to join the Two Island Safari.
Departing from Airlie Beach, Hamilton Island and Daydream Island, 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 or Daydream Island, where you can undertake all the family-friendly activities on offer.
Cruise out to the Reefworld pontoon at Hardy Reef or the Knuckle Reef pontoon. Both have undercover seating and tables, freshwater showers and change rooms.
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.
For something a little different, stay overnight at their Reefworld pontoon (Reefsleep), where you can watch the Great Barrier Reef come alive under the stars. It’s suitable for kids from 12 years.
Child-friendly equipment: Snorkels, masks, fins, lycra suits and floatation devices available for children.
Hamilton Island is another popular family-friendly island. Surrounded by coral reefs, the island provides easy access to snorkelling and scuba diving tours.
Hire snorkelling gear on the island so the kids can explore and swim in the shallow waters of Catseye Beach. Take them on a kayak or sailboat to spot fish and other marine life. There’s also the option to enjoy breakfast with the koalas at the Koala Gallery, located on the island.
Southern Great Barrier Reef
Freedom Fast Cats
Depart Rosslyn Bay for a cruise to Great Keppel Island on Freedom Fast Cats. Surrounded by a fringing reef, children can enjoy snorkelling right off the beach or join the glass-bottom boat tour to see coral and marine life.
Child-friendly equipment: Snorkels, fins, masks and flotation vests.
Great Keppel Island
Catch the ferry from Yeppoon to Great Keppel Island. With 17 pristine beaches to choose from and fringing coral reef, it provides easy access for the kids to go snorkelling or have a swim in the shallower waters. Venture a little further out to go scuba diving and discover some of the colourful fish and marine life.
Lying off the coast of Gladstone, Heron Island is a coral cay that’s accessible by boat, plane or helicopter. Surrounded by shallow waters and an abundance of marine life, it’s suitable for children of all ages.
Kids can snorkel right off the beach directly over coral gardens full of colourful fish, and swim with turtles. There are guided island and reef walks, a semi-submersible boat and glass-bottom kayaks to explore the deeper water.
Children aged 7-12 years old can also take part in the Junior Rangers program. During turtle season, you can see turtles nesting and baby turtles hatching on the beach.
Lady Musgrave Island
Located off the coast of Bundaberg and accessible by boat, Lady Musgrave Island is a true coral cay. The protected waters of the lagoon provide ideal snorkelling for children right off the beach.
See manta rays glide through the water, swim alongside turtles and other colourful marine life. During turtle season (November to March) you might even be lucky to see turtles nesting and baby turtles hatching.
Lady Musgrave Cruises
Lady Musgrave Cruises depart from the town of Seventeen Seventy and cruise to Lady Musgrave Island. Activities for the kids include island walking, a glass-bottom boat tour, semi-submersible submarine tours, diving and fish feeding. The protected and shallow waters of the Lady Musgrave Island lagoon are ideal for snorkelling.
Child-friendly equipment: Snorkels, fins masks and floatation vests available for children of all ages.
Lady Elliot Island
Accessible by a short (30-minute) scenic flight, Lady Elliot Island is a coral cay surrounded by shallow waters located 80 kilometres to the north-east of Bundaberg. Children can swim and snorkel right off the beach and see marine life and colourful coral.
Entering the water at the northern or western sides of the island will allow you to drift-snorkel over some of the healthiest, abundant coral reefs. Expect to see groupers, glittering schools of multi-coloured anthias, puppy-like parrotfish crunching up algae and coral, as well as turtles galore!
The lagoon is a must for newbie snorkellers and young kids – it’s a safe place to explore this underwater paradise and will spark a life-long love for marine encounters.
Other family-friendly activities include a glass-bottom boat/guided snorkel tour, snorkel safari, scuba diving and a guided reef walk. Children aged between 5-12 years of age can take part in the Junior Reef Rangers Club and during turtle season you can see turtles nesting on the beach and baby turtles hatching.
Lady Elliot is not only the reef’s southernmost coral cay but also a magnet for manta rays.
One of the best things about this coral island is sleeping on the reef. Lying in bed you will hear the tinkling of coral being gently pushed back and forth by the water.