11 best snorkelling sites in Queensland
A little admission right off the top – I’m a snorkelling fanatic. The diversity, sheer beauty and the guarantee that no two days are the same mean I have a near permanent mask-line on my face while on holidays.
The best part is you don’t need a dive certificate or expensive equipment to be able to appreciate the immense beauty that lies below the waterline.
So don a snorkel, snap on your fins and prepare to get up close and personal with some of the State’s spectacular marine life at 11 of Queensland’s top snorkelling sites.
1. The wrecks at Moreton Island | Moreton Island
Just an hour from Brisbane, Moreton Island is the world’s third-largest sand island and a place of pristine natural beauty. Just offshore are The wrecks, some 15 decommissioned barges, dredges and flatboats scuttled in 1963 to create an artificial harbour for local boaties.
Teeming with marine life, the wrecks are home to more than 175 species of reef fish such as yellowtail, kingfish and lionfish, as well as moray eels, turtles, dolphins, stingrays and harmless wobbegong sharks, all totally unmoved by human presence. Crystal-clear water, perfect photo opportunities and easily accessible (a lazy swim from the beach) make the wrecks highly attractive for snorkellers, especially novices.
2. Lady Elliot Island | Bundaberg
The southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef is easily accessible from south-east Queensland (it’s only a one-hour flight from Brisbane) and has plenty of options for on-reef stays.
Lady Elliot Island, a coral cay in a Green Zone (no take) section of the marine park offers magnificent snorkelling, with underwater gardens beginning as soon as you step off the beach. A calm lagoon perfect for less experienced snorkellers on the eastern side of the island features plenty of coral outcrops, turtles, starfish, sea urchins and smaller reef fish.
On the western side, Lighthouse and Coral Gardens have deeper water and offer the possibility of spotting reef sharks, whales, dolphins and hawksbill, green and loggerhead turtles. Lady Elliot is known as the ‘Home of the Manta Ray’, with the likelihood of an encounter with these magnificent (and entirely harmless) rays is pretty much a given, particularly in the winter months when they congregate off the island in large numbers.
3. Magnetic Island | Townsville
There are two self-guided snorkel trails on “Maggie”, a popular day trip for locals and tourists being just 25 minutes by ferry from Townsville. Perfect for snorkellers who want to understand what they’re seeing, the trails are marked out by white surface and subsurface floats.
Nelly Bay is the easiest for beginners, starting 100 metres off the beach. Information cards guide the snorkeller through gardens of lettuce, cauliflower, boulder and staghorn corals teeming with colourful clownfish and a few giant clams. The Geoffrey Bay snorkel trail offers the added thrill of viewing the remains of a shipwreck, the SS Moltke, and part of a World War II fighter plane.
4. Orpheus Island | Townsville
The first thing you might notice at Orpheus Island is the huge field of giant clams outside the Research Station squirting seawater during low tide, the result of an abandoned clam-farming experiment.
Orpheus has some of the most colourful coral outcrops (known as bommies) on the entire Great Barrier Reef, along with more than 1,000 species of reef fish, 340 varieties of hard corals and one of the region’s largest collections of soft corals.
It’s just over an hour from the island to reach the outer reef, home to green turtles, manta rays, bull rays and reef sharks. Visit Orpheus between late June and mid-September, when you might just spot a migrating humpback whale.
5. Lady Musgrave Island | Southern Great Barrier Reef
Protected from the current and with fantastic visibility all year round, the lagoon is home to about 350 varieties of corals and 1,300 species of tropical fish, including triggerfish, clownfish, damsels and goatfish.
Harmless leopard sharks and whitetip reef sharks can be spotted in the shallows, along with graceful rays, while vivid blue starfish, sea cucumbers and anemones cling to crevices in the coral gardens. An encounter with local turtles – who wait at ‘cleaning stations’ to have algae and parasites picked off their shells by little cleaner fish, and nest on the island in the summer months – is almost guaranteed.
6. Hayman Island | Whitsundays
The closest of the Whitsunday Islands to the outer reef, Hayman hotspots include Blue Pearl Bay, where you can swim among soft and hard corals and a multitude of marine life. You may also meet Priscilla, the resident giant Maori wrasse.
In its shallow aqua waters, you can spot green sea turtles, giant clams, colourful corals and reef fish. It’s also possible to visit the outer reef from Hayman by boat, and snorkel from a pontoon at Hardy Reef (hit up Cruise Whitsundays), floating over a myriad of corals alongside rainbow-hued Maori wrasse and clownfish, reef sharks, rays and green sea turtles.
It’s not just marine life you’ll find around Hayman Island thanks to two of the Whitsundays Underwater Artworks calling these waters home. Here you can check out the Maori Wrasse (by Adriaan Vanderlugt) and very shortly the next piece – Anthozoa, a 20,000 time size sculpture of a single coral polyp – will be installed at Blue Pearl Bay.
7. Green Island | Cairns
Only 45 minutes from Cairns lies the ever-popular Green Island where you’ll be greeted by coral gardens and rich marine life almost the moment you step off the sandy beach.
Both hard and soft corals are abundant, supporting giant clams, anemones and sea cucumbers, while the rich diversity of fish life includes coral trout, butterflyfish, angelfish, fusiliers, chromis, clownfish and parrotfish as well as turtles and reef sharks. There are also plenty of rays around and you might even spot a humpback whale between July and November.
The best snorkelling is around the jetty, particularly in the mornings when the water is calm and visibility is at its best. With its own lifeguard service, Green Island is not only one of the most accessible reef islands to snorkel, but one of the safest.
8. Heron Island | Gladstone
Adding to the list of immaculate coral cays in the Southern Great Barrier Reef is Heron Island. Located a two hour ferry ride or 40 minute helicopter journey from Gladstone, Heron is famous for its dive sites, but packs a punch when it comes to snorkelling too.
The tidal lagoon area is perfect for novices, home to plenty of reef fish, turtles and temperate reef but the biggest attractions are the channel (open early morning and late afternoon) and snorkelling sites such as Heron Bommie and Coral Cascades only a short boat ride away.
Eagle rays are a wonderful and common site in the channel, as is the resident Loggerhead turtle Big Ben – trust us, you’ll know you’ve met Ben the moment you lay eyes on him.
9. Ribbon Reefs | Port Douglas
Also beloved by divers who come for the spectacular drop over the Coral Sea trench, the Ribbon Reefs are a long necklace of individual reefs running parallel to the continental shelf. Sitting about 65 kilometres off the coast of Port Douglas, the reefs are notable for their water visibility and pristine ecosystem.
Shallow lagoons are rich in coral growth, with spectacular and diverse marine life including damselfish, triggerfish, giant clams, parrotfish, unicornfish, black-tip sharks and hammerhead sharks. Pick an operator with the required licence and you could swim alongside dwarf minke whales during the short yet wonderful season.
10. Frankland Islands | Cairns
Quickly becoming a horribly kept secret, the Frankland Islands, made up of five islands 45km south-east of Cairns in Tropical North Queensland is perfect for a close and personal marine encounter.
Frankland Island Reef Cruises have the only permit to visit Normanby Island where turtles are the superstars with multiple encounters all but guaranteed. Closely on their heels are some not-so-camera-shy anemone fish families that are worth finding just off the shore.
11. Agincourt Reef | Port Douglas
Located on the outer edge of the Barrier Reef and teeming with marine life is Agincourt Reef. Complete with an underwater observatory, this ribbon reef is family-friendly and operators like Quicksilver Cruises have a number of fun activities to entertain the little ones.
The reef is comprised of 16 different dive sites and offers incredible underwater experiences for snorkelers. You can snorkel by Blue Wonder, a breath-taking wall dive or spot pelagic fish at the Nursery Bommie.