How to see the Great Barrier Reef without getting wet
If you thought the only way to see the world’s largest reef system was to throw on your swimmers and put your head underwater, we have good news! There are plenty of ways to experience the World Heritage-listed wonder of the Great Barrier Reef without snorkelling, swimming, diving or so much as dipping a toe in.
Explore the 2600km of the Great Barrier Reef without swimming or a snorkel mask with this dry guide to the reef.
Seaplane to Whitehaven Beach
The best seat in the house to see the reef is ironically the furthest from it – the sky. To see the insanely photogenic Heart Reef, take a seaplane over it, joining Air Whitsunday Seaplanes for a scenic flight before touching down at the world’s most famous beach, Whitehaven.
Your hosts will prepare a private picnic, complete with chilled sparkling wine for a memorable day at what’s voted Australia’s Best Beach by TripAdvisor (2017).
Take a stroll along this famous seven-kilometre stretch from end-to-end, stopping to polish your jewellery in the ultra-fine silica sand (or give yourself a full-body exfoliation).
Set sail, your way
Whether you’re a bona fide sailor who could enter the Sydney to Hobart yacht race or more of a sunset-cruise kind of seafarer, start by determining which Whitsundays sailing cruise is for you.
If you’re up for a DIY holiday, charter your own adventure in the Whitsundays and stay in a floating hotel with GoBareboating. All of their boats are fully equipped with a kitchen and are eco accredited.
Even newbies can get in on the sailing action, since the Whitsundays is the only place in the world you can charter a yacht without a licence. You’ll just need to pack common sense and enough attention to sit through a sailing one-on-one lesson before you set sail.
Chopper to an isolated coral cay
Take to the skies with a helicopter ride over the Great Barrier Reef. Departing from Cairns and Port Douglas, experience aerial views of the reef with GBR Helicopters, before landing on a remote coral cay with nothing around you but the ocean and a tropical picnic.
Further south, Havannah Island is yours for the day when you charter a chopper with Nautilus Aviation from Townsville.
For even more epic helicopter experiences in Queensland, check out this post.
Go on, submerge yourself
What would you say if we told you it’s possible to get a diver’s view of the reef without getting wet? Quicksilver Cruises offer a non-swimming solution: a semi-submersible tour. You’ll be in air-conditioned comfort as you tour the reef sitting down, one metre below the water’s surface.
The tour departs from Port Douglas and includes a day out on the reef atop a pontoon at the edge of Australia’s Continental Shelf. A smorgasbord lunch is served on board, and you can add a 10-minute helicopter flight to your trip if you want to experience the Great Barrier Reef from above, too.
Glide on a glass-bottom boat
See the reef from the top down with a glass-bottom boat over its colourful corals. Lady Elliot Island on the Southern Great Barrier Reef offers a glass-bottom boat experience both day and night for two different perspectives of the Great Barrier Reef without swimming in it.
You’ll have the benefit of a marine expert pointing out items of interest like reef fish and corals as you cruise over shallower parts of the reef on an environmentally-friendly jet-powered boat. Under the cover of darkness on the night tour, you’ll get to see the coral polyps awaken with the help of a special UV light.
Good to know: A complimentary bottom boat/guided snorkel tour is included for all Lady Elliot Island overnight guests and day tour bookings.
If you don’t have the best sea legs and the idea of spending the day rocking on a boat makes you feel queasy, opt for a reef trip that visits a pontoon so you have a stable home base in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef.
What’s more, most pontoon-based operators let you experience the Great Barrier Reef without swimming via activities like semi-submersibles and glass-bottom boat tours, while also catering to other family members who are keen to get in the water for some snorkelling or scuba diving.
Sunlover Reef Cruises gives you the option to go from Cairns to the family-friendly Moore Reef pontoon or the shallow Arlington Reef, which is one of the largest and healthiest reef systems in the Great Barrier Reef. You can even spend the night with Sunlover by Starlight, sleeping under the stars aboard the Moore Reef Marine Base.
Sleep island side
Why just reef when you can reef and resort? Considering there are over 900 islands dotting the Great Barrier Reef, one thing is for certain, there are plenty of waterfront views on this national asset.
There are five island resorts to choose from near Cairns which range from bargain budget stays (like camping on Fitzroy Island) to the kind of luxury that’s welcomed Elton John (Bedarra Island, we’re looking at you).
Sleep on the reef
Spend the night on the reef to never miss a beat and see the reef in a different light, at night.
Share the outer reef pontoon with just a small group of other overnighters from the moment the last day trippers depart to when the next wave arrive the next morning. In between, you’ll have dinner and drinks, sleep in a deluxe swag and wake up to the sound of the waves lapping at Hardy Reef.
It’s not just the reef that becomes a hive of activity after dark; sky gazers have lots to enjoy with sunset, sunrise and unpolluted starscapes.
If you’re after a more luxurious on-the-reef sleeping option, try Australia’s first underwater accommodation, Reefsuites. With just two rooms below deck on the new Hardy Reef pontoon, you’ll have maximum privacy and the best view in the house with floor to ceiling windows below the ocean’s surface.
Your nightly rate gets you all-inclusive food and drinks (including a once-in-a-lifetime dinner experience prepared by the live-on chef and featuring bountiful fresh local produce), a guided snorkelling tour, and a semi-submersible tour. Optional extras include heli-scenic flights, scuba diving, and photos.
Paddle around paradise
Paddle power your way around the Great Barrier Reef with a kayak adventure. Explore the Whitsundays’ waters and islands with Salty Dog Sea Kayaking on a day-long expedition from Airlie Beach to South Molle Island.
For something a bit longer, Coral Sea Kayaking take seven days to wind their way around Hinchinbrook Island on their Tropical North Queensland adventure.
Unlike snorkellers and divers who have their heads underwater, kayakers have the benefit of being able to hear the interpretation of your guide. They will be able to point out turtles, sea birds and whales in season.
Explore by foot
It’s not all about watersports on the Great Barrier Reef. The many islands each offer unique hiking trails and picturesque landscapes.
For the ultimate exploration experience, follow the Ngaro Sea Trail, which ticks off a unique blend of seaways and walks across South Molle Island, Whitsunday Island and Hook Island. Between sailing (or for the really adventurous, kayaking) from island to island, head on land and stretch your legs along one of the many trail options, ranging from easy to difficult.
There’s even some culture thrown in. The Ngaro Cultural Site on Hook Island is a 340-metre return walk up the side of the Nara Inlet to a viewing platform at the cave’s entrance, where Indigenous Ngaro artwork adorns the rock surface.
A well-timed escape
The sun is shining year-round on the Great Barrier Reef, so it’s always a good time to visit. But if you’re after a unique trip, it pays to align your visit with what’s on around the Great Barrier Reef.
Fitness fanatics and active families should sign up for the annual Great Whitehaven Beach Run, which happens every June. Kids can compete in the 1.5km or 500m Junior Fun Run, while those wanting to really push their bodies should say yes to the half marathon beach run.
Mountain bikers should make their way to Cairns in August for the four-day Reef-to-Reef race. Starting on the reef fringed Coral Sea coast, peddle your way inland across a network of trails through tablelands, hinterland, farm lands, MTB parks, and tropical rainforest. After 190kms, you’ll be back where you started and feeling ultra accomplished.
If you’re not looking to work up a sweat, the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF) may be more your speed. For a weekend in July, Cairns attracts national and international collectors and curators as well as emerging visual and performance Queensland Indigenous artists.
For more Great Barrier Reef events, check out this guide.
Here are 8 more ways to see the Reef without getting wet:
- Freefall from 15,000 feet for a bird’s-eye view over the Great Barrier Reef, landing on Mission Beach with Skydive Australia.
- Drive around the only suburb on the reef in a topless car on Magnetic Island with Tropical Topless Car Rentals.
- Step aboard the pink amphibious 1770 LARC! (land and sea vessel) for a sunset tour along the Eurimbula National Park.
- Watch Cairns’ coastline wake up from the basket of a hot air balloon.
- Hike within the Whitsunday Islands National Park for panoramic views to Hill Inlet.
- See the habitats of the reef without leaving the mainland at Reef HQ Aquarium in Townsville.
- Join a guided tour of the Living Reef at Daydream Island and descend four metres to the underwater observatory to learn about the ecosystems of the Whitsundays’ underwater world.
- Hook your trophy-catch aboard a charter boat and learn to spearfish and troll for Spanish mackerel in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef off Mackay. Check out this guide for the best places to go fishing in Mackay.