Great Barrier Reef
As one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Great Barrier Reef holds a spot on every traveler’s bucket list. Hugging the east coast of Queensland, Australia, the Great Barrier Reef extends from Cape York in the north all the way to Bundaberg in the south — a total of 1,250 miles. With roughly 3,000 coral reefs, 600 islands and 1,625 species of fish, the reef leaves its 1.6 million annual visitors enchanted.
But before diving in, it’s important to get your bearings. The northern half of the reef runs from the Cape York Peninsula to Cairns, a popular home base for many reef visitors. Not only does Cairns provide the closest reef access from the mainland, but it also boasts a few attractions of its own, like the Kuranda Scenic Railway and the Wildlife Habitat Port Douglas. Travel farther down the coast and you’ll run into the southern half of the reef, which stretches from the Capricorn Coast (along the Tropic of Capricorn) to Gladstone and Fraser Island. Airlie Beach is a favored hub for travelers in the south thanks to its array of stylish resorts and its close proximity to a cluster of 74 islands known as the Whitsundays.
Wherever you decide to hang your hat, the Great Barrier Reef is a treasure trove of once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Whether you’re gazing at marine life through a scuba mask, letting the tropical breeze unfurl your sail, or in a plane gliding high above it all, the possibilities for exploration are nearly limitless.
Protecting the Great Barrier Reef and all its inhabitants is as much a part of the region’s culture as it is the law. For the Indigenous Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander communities, the Great Barrier Reef is home to significant cultural and spiritual sites, meaning respect for the land is essential. More than 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional Owner clan groups are situated along the Queensland coast, from the northern Torres Strait Islands to southern Bundaberg. Because each group values the land for different reasons, be it cultural, spiritual, economic or social, it’s important for visitors to follow responsible reef practices. In other words, heed the “take only pictures and memories, and leave only bubbles” eco-tourism mentality.
By adhering to responsible reef practices you can also avoid some of the common dangers associated with exploring the Great Barrier Reef. If you’re swimming or diving near the Queensland mainland during the reef’s rainy season (November through March), be aware of deadly box jellyfish — wear a stinger wet suit to avoid any jellyfish stings. And always remember that you’re entering an animal’s natural habitat, so try not to disturb its environment. Also, it’s against the law to damage or collect coral, alive or not. But that’s not the only reason you should avoid coral’s sharp polyps: cuts can quickly turn into infections due to the Great Barrier Reef’s thermal climate.
When you’re not sporting your wetsuit, feel free to embrace the region’s casual seaside disposition by wearing loose, comfortable clothing (and don’t forget the SPF!). While you won’t have to worry about a language barrier here (English is the primary language) or differences in gratuity expectations (10 to 15 percent is acceptable), there are a few key characteristics to keep in mind: The official currency is the Australian dollar (AUD), which is roughly equivalent to the U.S. dollar (USD). And when driving on the mainland, remember that Aussies drive on the left side of the road.