Great Barrier Reef Snorkeling Trips: What to Expect
There are many Great Barrier Reef snorkeling trips available from various places along the North Queensland coast and you don’t need to be an Olympic swimmer to be able to enjoy them.
While scuba diving is obviously the best way to experience the reef, for most people snorkeling is just as good because the waters are shallow enough that you can easily get a good look at the coral and fish from the ocean’s surface.
Before we go into some of the details of what you can expect from your snorkeling trip to the reef, here’s a video of our recent trip to the reef to show you what a typical day looks like:
getting to the reef
The Great Barrier Reef is actually a series of about 3000 separate reefs all stretched out along the coast of North Queensland. There are several places where you can take trips from including Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays, Magnetic Island near Townsville, Mission Beach, Cairns, Port Douglas and the Daintree.
The travelling times vary according to where you go from (the reef is closer to the coast the further north you go) and the type of vessel you travel on. The big modern motorboats from Cairns for example take about 90 minutes whereas sailing boats will take longer.
what to take
All operators will provide you with snorkeling equipment including snorkel, mask, fins and stinger suits (although some of them may charge an extra fee for stinger suits – have one anyway). This includes children.
You will need to take a hat and sunglasses, plenty of sunscreen, swimming gear, a towel and a change of dry clothes. I like to take an extra layer for warmth too because it can get chilly when you get out of the water and its windy or you’re sitting inside in the air-conditioning (especially on rainy days).
Trips to the outer reefs take a full day and check-in times are generally around 8-8.30am.
Some trips will take you out to a moored pontoon where you spend the day, which will include having lunch on the pontoon and just hopping in for a snorkel as often as you want. They will also offer intro dives for anyone who’s interested in giving it a go plus guided snorkel tours and even glass bottom boat tours for something different.
For those operators who don’t have a pontoon, the day will involve being on the boat all day but they will usually moor at a couple of different reefs. You’ll stop at one in the morning, then have some lunch before moving on to another reef for the afternoon.
When you get to the reef the staff on the boat will generally give you a quick guide about how to snorkel so listen carefully if you haven’t snorkeled before.
When it comes to getting into the water, all the boats have a back deck which is low to the water so you can slide in easily.
If it’s your first time at the reef or you’re not particularly confident about the water we would recommend waiting till everyone else has entered the water. There’s usually a mad rush to get in when you first get there but there’s plenty of time so you won’t be missing out if you take your time.
With lots of people jumping off the boat into the ocean, there are obviously a lot of safety measures that the operators have in place to make sure everybody stays safe.
Lifejackets and floaties are available to use so if you’re not very confident in the water, make sure you take these because it will make your time more enjoyable if you are not worrying about sinking.
You are expected to swim from the back of the boat and not go around the sides or front so that the look-outs can keep an eye on where everybody is.
Before leaving each snorkel site the crew will do a head count and at the end of the day everybody has to sign their names so they know that everybody is back onboard.
If you end up swimming too far away and you’re struggling to get back to the boat you can signal to the crew and they will come and get you.
climate & water temperature
The Great Barrier Reef is located within the tropical zone of Northern Australia so the weather is warm all year round.
This means that water temperatures are also warm, in fact it is almost like bathwater (25-29 degrees celsius) in the summer months (October-May). However if you’re visiting between June-August when it’s cooler you might feel chilly when you get out of the water.
While beautiful sunny days at the reef are ideal, the reality is that it does sometimes rain (shock, horror). If the weather is overcast with showers in the morning, don’t be put off going, you can still have a perfectly nice day on the reef and you’ll be wet most of the day anyway.
If torrential rain is forecast for the whole day you should be able to change your days.
what you’ll see
Lots of different types of coral and colourful fish of various varieties. If you’re really lucky you might spot a turtle or a very timid reef shark (these are not dangerous).
Sometimes people wonder why the reef doesn’t look how they expected and there are many reasons for this – read more here
travel nq faq’s
- Children: Yes, you can take children to the reef but babysitters are not provided if you have young ones.
- Seasickness: If you are susceptible to seasickness take TravelCalm before you go.
- Glasses: If you wear glasses you won’t be able to wear them with your mask on so take contact lenses. Remember that objects are magnified when they’re underwater so if you’re eyesight isn’t too bad you might be okay.
- Coral bleaching: Read more here