Lady Elliot Island

11 of the best snorkelling sites in Queensland

Peter Gash, a Master Reef Guide and self confessed reef-fanatic (who also happens to be the Managing Director of Lady Elliot Island Eco-Resort) once described snorkelling sites in Queensland as the underwater answer to safaris across the African savanna.

Diverse eco-systems teeming with life, interactions like nowhere else on the planet and the guarantee that no two days, or two hours even, are the same. It’s hard to argue with Peter.

Find your snorkel, dust off your fins and prepare to get up close and personal with some of the World’s most treasured underwater creatures at 11 of the best snorkelling sites in Queensland.

1. Orpheus Island | Townsville

Orpheus Island_11 of the best snorkelling sites in Queensland

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.

Clams aside, Orpheus has some of the most pristine coral outcrops (known as bommies) on the entire Great Barrier Reef, along with more than 1,100 species of reef fish, 340 (of the 359 known) 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.

2. The wrecks at Moreton Island | Moreton Island

The wrecks at Moreton Island_11 of the best snorkelling sites in Queensland

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, 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 easy accessibility (a lazy swim from the beach) make the wrecks one of the must-visit snorkelling sites in Queensland, especially for novice snorkellers.

3. Lady Elliot Island | Bundaberg

Lady Elliot Island_Turtle

The southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef is 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 the little fin wearers (a.k.a the kids) 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 Bommie and Coral Gardens have deeper ledges and offer the possibility of spotting reef sharks, 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 pretty much a given, particularly in the winter months when they congregate off the island in large numbers.

4. 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 sections of lettuce, cauliflower, boulder and staghorn corals (not a lot of creativity goes into coral names – they look like their names) 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.

5. Lady Musgrave Island | Southern Great Barrier Reef

Lady Musgrave Island_11 of the best snorkelling sites in Queensland

A pristine 1,200-hectare lagoon encircles the uninhabited coral cay of Lady Musgrave Island, 90 minutes from Bundaberg or The Town of 1770.

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 of this snorkelling site, 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, clownfish, reef sharks, rays and green sea turtles.

It’s not just marine life you’ll find snorkelling 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

Heron Island_11 of the best snorkelling sites in Queensland

Adding to the list of immaculate snorkelling sites in Queensland 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.

the University of Queensland Heron Island Research Station is the largest in the Southern Hemisphere and runs tours ($10 for adults, $3 for children) where you can learn about both the reef and ecosystem of Heron Island and the current research being undertaken in the Station.

9. Ribbon Reefs | Port Douglas

Ribbons Reef_Minke Whale

Also beloved by divers who come for the spectacular drop off 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 in June/July.

10. Frankland Islands | Cairns

Frankland Islands

Quickly becoming a horribly kept secret, the Frankland Islands, made up of five islands 45km south-east of Cairns is the snorkelling site in Queensland you need to get acquainted with.

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

Agincourt Reef_11 of the best snorkelling sites in Queensland

Located on the outer edge of the Great 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.