Fish at pontoon, Great Barrier Reef

Which Great Barrier Reef tour is for you?

There’s a reason it’s called the ‘Great’ Barrier Reef. Stretching across 344,400 km2 in area (it’s bigger than Italy!), this natural beauty has a lot to offer. And one of the top ways to see the best it offers is with your pick of Great Barrier Reef tours.

Great Barrier Reef tours not only handle all the logistics so you can sit back and relax, but they have insider knowledge of the best places to go to ensure an unforgettable experience. From something laid back and low-key, to a day that ticks off everything on your must-see list, find your ultimate Great Barrier Reef tour in this list.

For a family-friendly day on the water

Quicksilver Cruises

The tour: Quicksilver Cruises Outer Reef Cruise

Best for: Families, snorkelling and non-swimmers

A diverse itinerary is the way to please an entire family, and Quicksilver Cruises’ range of activities for scuba divers, snorkellers and non-swimmers will ensure everyone has no trouble filling up their day on the floating pontoon at Agincourt Reef.

Off-the-pontoon snorkelling (with gear), an underwater observatory and a semi-submersible boat are all complimentary, while scuba diving, guided snorkelling tours and oceanwalker helmet diving are optional add-ons. Go your separate ways once on board, then regroup over a long lunch – the hot and cold tropical buffet will help you refuel for an afternoon of more swimming and fish-spotting.

Getting to Agincourt Reef: The air-conditioned 45-metre Wavepiercer catamaran departs the Reef Marina on Wharf Street in Port Douglas at 10am.

To see the best of the Great Barrier Reef from below the surface

Tour option #1: Pro Dive Cairns Silverswift Dive and Snorkel

Best for: Scuba divers and snorkellers who are based in Cairns or Port Douglas

Pro Dive by name, Pro Dive by nature. It goes without saying that these tours are for people who know their way around the bottom of the ocean. Although, new divers with zero experience are welcome, as are snorkellers. The Silverswift Cruise (from Cairns) and Silversonic Cruise (from Port Douglas) are the ideal day trips for those who want to see as much of the GBR as possible in one day.

These tours move between three select sites which have been chosen out of more than 35 exclusive locations on Agincourt Reef according to the best weather conditions that day. You’ll get the absolute most out of your trip with an 8.30am departure and 4.30pm return, with morning and afternoon tea and a smorgasbord lunch included.

Good to know: Liveaboard options of two to seven nights are available for those who want to fit in more time below the surface at some of the Great Barrier Reef’s best dive sites, such as the Coral Seawall, Cod Hole and shark-frequented North Horn.

Tour option #2: Adrenaline Snorkel and Dive Townsville Great Barrier Reef Day Trip

Best for: Scuba divers of all levels (snorkellers are welcome, too) who are based in Townsville

It’s no secret that the Great Barrier Reef is buzzing with diverse marine life and colourful coral, and scuba diving offers an unforgettable up-close view. Adrenaline Snorkel and Dive Townsville’s Great Barrier Reef day trip takes you further off the Queensland coast than most other tours to the central section of the Reef.

Lodestone Reef is a preferred destination for Adrenaline, as the depths range from one to 20 metres and the variety of sea life in the area includes turtles, stingrays and white tip and black tip reef sharks. Your day trip includes two dives at different locations, with a tropical lunch in between.

Experienced divers can opt to explore the reef with a buddy, or join a guided group tour. All of Adrenaline’s day trips (there’s also a Yongala Wreck dive option) are eco-certified by ECO Tourism Australia and they leave from Townsville and Magnetic Island six days a week (every day except Wednesday).

If two dives isn’t enough, opt for one of the liveaboard tours, which range from two to four days and include night dives.

For more overnight experiences on the Great Barrier Reef, check out this guide.

For a leisurely day of snorkelling, sea and sand

Tour option #1: Ocean Spirit Michaelmas Cay Cruises

Best for: Families and those seeking a relaxing day out who are based in Cairns

For a chilled day flitting between the beach, boat and water as you please, Ocean Spirit Cruises is a great eco-certified day trip for families. After a two-hour boat ride on a 32-metre catamaran from Cairns to Michaelmas Cay (the free wifi and marine biologist presentation will help you pass the time), arriving at 10.30am, the rest of the day’s itinerary is in your hands.

The calm, protected shallow waters are perfect for first-time snorkellers and children wanting to see a rich marine life of sea turtles, giant clams and colourful fish. The beach buggy shuttle will transfer you between the Ocean Spirit and sandy island throughout the day. Home to at least 23 species of seabirds, the cay is a renowned bird sanctuary. If you want to get a scuba diver’s view without the equipment, the air-conditioned semi-sub takes you one metre below the waterline.

In addition to a full buffet lunch, the complimentary afternoon tea, glass of sparkling wine and cheese platter will top off a great day on the reef as you make your way home at 2.30pm.

Ocean Spirit | Great Barrier Reef tours

Tour option #2: Lady Musgrave Experience

Best for: Snorkelling, scuba diving and families based in the Bundaberg area

Secluded and surrounded by calm water, Lady Musgrave Island is an idyllic spot for those staying down the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. Departing Bundaberg (a four-hour drive north of Brisbane), after a little more than two hours on the high speed 35-metre catamaran Reef Empress, a day of snorkelling, island exploring (go solo or join the guided island walk), scuba diving and a glass bottom boat awaits.

Swim with turtles, manta rays and (harmless) reef sharks, or just chill out on the boat’s deck or the island’s white sandy shore. For the deep sea divers, the Tobruk Dive Experience will take you to the final resting place of the ex-HMAS Tobruk wreck, where you’re likely to see dolphins, sharks, whales and potato cods in the area.

To lap up island life with all the luxuries

Lizard Island

The tour: Lizard Island Private Charter

Best for: Luxury travellers and those who want to set up their base on an island

The tranquil Lizard Island is the perfect base for a luxurious Great Barrier Reef experience.

While it may be tempting to spend your stay moving between the pristine white sand beach, the day spa, and degustation dining, it would be a wasted opportunity to not explore the surrounding reef. Private charters aboard a 14-metre Riviera Cruise Vessel for fishing, snorkelling and diving are easily arranged, with no more than 10 passengers for an intimate day tour. Overnight and two-day itineraries are possible for up to four guests.

Getting to Lizard Island: A one-hour flight from Cairns Airport will not only get you there in style, it also offers a spectacular bird’s eye view of a 200-kilometres expanse of the Great Barrier Reef.

To see Whitehaven Beach

Ways to experience the reef - Whitehaven Beach

The tour: Explore Group Whitsundays Sail & Snorkel at Whitehaven and Chalkies Beach Tour

Best for: Families, photographers and those wanting a relaxing day

We wouldn’t blame you for placing Whitehaven Beach at the top of your must-see list while visiting the Great Barrier Reef. The unspoilt silky-soft white sand beach stretches for seven kilometres and is surrounded by vibrant, crystal clear water.

Explore Group Whitsundays combines a cruisy catamaran sail with a relaxing stop-off on the picture-perfect Whitehaven Beach, snorkelling at Chalkies Beach, and a healthy buffet lunch of fresh prawns, cold meats, salads and sandwiches for a relaxing postcard-worthy day in the Whitsundays. This tour leaves from Hamilton Island.

To spend more time on a beach than a boat

Low Isles

The tour: Sailaway Low Isles Tour

Best for: Couples and families who want a small-group experience

Sailaway actually moors at Low Isles and the coral cay becomes base for this reef adventure, rather than a boat or a pontoon. Good news for anyone who suffers motion sickness or wants a bit of island time infused with their reef trip. There are 4.5 hours of time dedicated to snorkelling and exploring the island – the perfect mix of land and water-based activity.

For the non-swimmers, there’s a glass-bottom boat and a heritage walk to complete on the island. Sailaway also offers a Mackay and Undine Cays tour.

If you’re short on time but want to snorkel

Reef Sprinter | So kommst Du in Nord Queensland zum Great Barrier Reef

The tour: Reef Sprinter Low Isles Reef Tour

Best for: Kids, the budget-conscious and anyone short on time

On board Reef Sprinter, it only takes 15 minutes to get out to the Reef and 15 minutes to get back. You’re left with with 90 minutes up your sleeve to snorkel the bright blue water around the Low Isles or head out on the glass bottom boat. Turtles frequent the area and there’s no shortage of coral or fish species. The sheltered snorkelling site is great for kids and with a maximum of 14 people on the tour, you’ll have plenty of room to stretch your fins.

Good to know: There are three daily departure times for this tour – 9am, 11.30am and 2pm – leaving from Port Douglas.

If you’re looking for a non-swimmer’s alternative

Sea Walker

The tour: Seawalker Green Island

Best for: Non-swimmers and those short on time

Seawalker on Green Island is the best way for anyone who can’t swim to get a taste of snorkelling without getting their hair wet or having to learn how to breathe underwater.

Wearing a helmet, you’ll be submerged 4.5metres underwater and surrounded by tropical fish as you walk along the sea floor. While you can’t take your own camera or GoPro, a professional photographer will join your group to snap your photo. More than just an activity for non-swimmers, Seawalker is great for those with limited time as the experience only takes 60 minutes (you’ll spend about 20 minutes underwater).

Good to know: The Seawalker experience is open to anyone from 12 years or older.

If you want to spend the night out on the Reef

Sunlover Reef Cruise Cairns

Moore Reef Pontoon via Sunlover Reef Cruises. Photo by @phlipvids.

The tour: Sunlover by Starlight

Best for: Those wanting an overnight Reef experience

With a maximum of 18 others (including staff) overnighting on the floating pontoon, Sunlover by Starlight is an intimate experience and as close as you’ll get to ‘a room with a Reef view’.

By day you’ll be part of the Sunlover day cruise – snorkelling, glass-bottom boating and fish feeding on Moore Reef – and by night you’ll roll out a glamping swag and have the World Heritage Listed site to yourself. This a two-day, one-night reef tour allows you to watch the sunset over water (a rare treat in Queensland with its eastern facing beaches), see the stars and wake up to the orange glow of sunrise over the blues and greens of the reef. After a hearty breakfast, you can have some one-on-one time with the Reef until the next day’s tourists arrive at 11am.

If you want a customised experience

The tour: Aroona Luxury Boat Charters

Best for: Anyone who wants to build their own itinerary or enjoy a luxury boating experience

Aroona Luxury Boat Charters  is a luxury boat that specialises in bespoke reef escapes. They cap tour numbers at 12 people, so you’re not dictated by a large group’s schedule and can have input into your day, if you wish.

You can choose from one of their itineraries, which range from a one day tour at Vlasoff Cay to seven nights aboard its Outer Reef motor yacht sailing from Lizard Island to Osprey Reef and beyond. Or, customise an itinerary to suit your Great Barrier Reef bucket list. Aroona also offers diving, fishing and spearfishing trips.