Sunlover | credit: Lachlan Ennion

How to do the Great Barrier Reef with a toddler in tow

Of course a trip to the Great Barrier Reef is on your Queensland holiday wish list. But with a toddler in tow, what tours will suit little reef-goers best?

Relax – we know you’re busy, so we’ve done the research for you and compiled the best ways to do the Great Barrier Reef with a toddler.

Let’s cruise

Quicksilver Cruises – Port Douglas

Your little (and big) seafarers will love the fancy Quicksilver Cruises’ state-of-the-art wave-piercer. It promises the quickest (90 minute) trip to the Agincourt Reef from Port Douglas. As one of the closest points in Queensland to reach the outer reef, this is a family favourite for doing the Great Barrier Reef with your toddler (less boat time means more reef time).

In a silver flash, little snorkelers can be swimming through clouds of multi-coloured fish. And with pool noodles, buoyancy vests and stinger suits provided from a size two, everyone can enjoy the underwater action. If they prefer not to get wet, a semi-submersible sub ride will introduce them to the world under the sea safely, or prepare to spend hours ogling fish in the underwater observatory.

Not quite ready to take on the outer reef with your little darlings just yet, but are still keen to do the Great Barrier Reef with your toddler? Quicksilver Cruises has an alternative. A short one-hour trip aboard the luxury sailing catamaran Wavedancer III and you’ll be swimming in the idyllic shallow lagoon waters at Low Isles. Here you can take your time with a sandy beach entry. Once the kids are ready, hover over patches of fringing reef to see where Nemo and friends really live.

Toddler taming tip: Keep your eyes peeled for turtles and be sure to pack the reef-safe sunscreen and a little turtle toy as a surprise for the ride home.

Sunlover | How to see the GBR with a toddler

Sunlover Reef Cruises – Cairns

Opt for the full package with Sunlover Reef Cruises to spend four hours introducing your toddler to all the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef.

If your tiny tribe is already water-confident, they’ll adore splashing down the only waterslide found on the Great Barrier Reef. Or for an easy introduction to snorkelling, an enclosed fish-filled ocean pool is the perfect playground for them to safely swim. Lifesavers patrol the pontoon swimming areas, and toddler buoyancy vests and flotation devices are also provided.

But the day won’t be a waste if they don’t (or won’t) swim. Here they can safely explore the underwater observatory, join a glass bottom boat tour or semi-submersible without getting wet. For a sensory experience, visit the touch tank to learn about squishy sea cucumbers and count the legs on bright blue starfish. Education is, after all, the most important and rewarding aspect of doing the Great Barrier Reef with your toddler.

Toddler taming tip: Bring their goggles from home if you think a snorkel and mask might be a bit daunting to handle. Happy toddlers equal happy tamers.

Immerse without getting wet

Reef HQ Townsville | How to see the Great Barrier Reef with a toddler

Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium

Not all activities with toddlers on the Great Barrier Reef need to involve heading out onto the water to have an immersive family experience. Reef HQ in Townsville is the largest living reef aquarium in the world and will acquaint your little ones with the mesmerising Great Barrier Reef ecosystem, with 300 species calling this reef on land home.

Learn from ecology experts at the hands-on Discovery Lagoon, or take a tour of the turtle rehabilitation centre. Hold their hands (or let them squeeze yours) to watch the shark feeding and see their little eyes light up as you wander through a glass tunnel buzzing with marine life. For some more ideas for what to do with kids in Queensland, head here.

Toddler taming tip: Children under five are free, so treat them to an ice cream after as their “best behaviour” award without even being out of pocket.

Islands for all ages

Magnetic Island

Day-tripping to the reef doesn’t always mean checking out the colourful coral. Island hopping is a fun way to explore the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and some of its 900 islands too. And magical Magnetic Island is a firm family favourite when it comes to doing the Great Barrier Reef with your toddler.

A 25-minute ferry ride from Townsville, “Maggie” is where you can snorkel in clear, shallow waters on fringing island reefs. A DIY beginners’ snorkel trail is about 100 metres from the shore at Nelly Bay if your water babies are confident. If that’s a stretch, get them to hold Dad’s hand and go rock-hopping around the giant granite boulders the size of elephants fringing azure-blue water bays.

With one of the largest populations of koalas in the wild, keep an eye out for sleepy marsupials in the treetops and shy echidnas along the trails. Learn more about these endangered Australian icons by visiting eco-accredited Bungalow Bay Koala Village.

Toddler taming tip: Here’s seven more reasons why ‘Maggie’ offers one of the best holidays for kids.

Whitehaven Beach | How to see the GBR with a toddler

The Whitsundays

If there’s one beach that already has your family’s name on it, it has to be Whitehaven Beach.

Expect a sweeping stretch of white silica sand, shallow turquoise waters for the kids to splash and play, and epic photos to etch into your favourite holiday memories. Nestled into Whitsunday Island, the largest of the 74 emerald-dotted islands in the Whitsundays, this playground is a World Heritage site and serves as the perfect entree to doing the Great Barrier Reef with your toddler.

Consider the half-day trip with Cruise Whitsundays for an early start (they’re awake anyway, right?) and be rewarded with a lovely early afternoon return. Depart from Airlie Beach, Hamilton Island or Daydream Island, and then onto Whitehaven for plenty of time to relax, play and bask at the beach that really has to be seen to be believed.

Cruise Whitsundays’ advanced eco accreditation means they’re helping to preserve this area for all future generations (not just yours). So jump on board by packing your reef-safe sunscreen and pop any waste into the recycle bins provided on board.

Toddler taming tip: Pack a bucket and spade for sandcastles and a light umbrella for shade. The white sand is reflective, so baby sunglasses would also be a great idea.

Let’s nest

Heron Island

Heron Island is a small coral cay off the coast of Gladstone, on the Southern Great Barrier Reef, and a hive of marine and bird life. Toddlers will be in awe of the up-close bird life, nesting just steps from where they sleep (earplugs are provided). They’ll easily spot rays, turtles and reef sharks in the shallow waters just off the shore.

Clear waters make learning to snorkel much more rewarding, and with the reef straight off the beach, an easy way to encourage little kids to have a try without feeling like they’re lost at sea.

Older siblings will love to snorkel the shipwreck with you. If they’re aged between seven and 17, can join the Heron Island Junior Reef Rangers Program for some hands-on learning beside real-life marine biologists. From November to January, turtles nest or hatch on the beaches, turning Heron Island into the coolest classroom for kids of all ages.

Lady Elliot Island

The Southern Great Barrier Reef is home to a family-friendly favourite – turtles. At Lady Elliot Eco Resort they’re quite accustomed to being adored, so will glide in close and like to hang around the shallow lagoons, making them much easier to spot for kids.

Just a short flight from Bundaberg, but a whole world away when it comes to an eco-family-friendly holiday, Lady Elliot sits right in the protected Green Zone of the Great Barrier Reef. There’s room for the whole family in suites, cabins or eco-tents, and marine biologists are on hand to explain all the nesting, scrambling, splashing and gliding going on.

In season (November to March), turtles come ashore at night to nest and can often be spotted still laying by sunrise. Make the most of your toddler’s early rising habits and watch them making their way back to the sea. From January to April, turtle hatchlings make their dash for the sea and, with your kids nestled right in beside you, there really is no greater natural sight to witness.

Join a glass-bottomed boat tour to see coral, turtles, fish and manta rays (in season) and from July to November, humpback whales pass by too. This is one place that will guide your little ones into taking their first baby steps towards developing a connection with their incredible natural environment.

Toddler taming tip: A cute little pair of reef booties are essential for beach combing,and a torch equipped with red light bulbs for turtle spotting. We like to keep the locals happy around here and not just any flashlight will do.

Here are a few more tips for surviving your first trip with a toddler, and 32 of Queensland’s best family-friendly accommodation options.

If you have older kids, check out our other family guide to the Great Barrier Reef here, and head over here for more spectacular ways to experience the Great Barrier Reef.