Reef divers have their pick of islands boasting sprawling resorts or tranquil, pristine areas. Lonely Planet’s experts have picked out the top dive spots on the Great Barrier Reef.
ON THE MAINLAND
Access point for Lizard Island and the northern waters.
2: Port Douglas
A swanky resort town and a gateway to the Low Isles and Agincourt Reef, an outer ribbon reef featuring crystal-clear water and stunning corals. Although Port Douglas is smaller than Cairns it has many tour operators. Tends to be classier, pricier and less crowded than in Cairns.
The main launching pad for Reef tours, from relatively inexpensive day trips on large boats to intimate five-day luxury charters. Cheaper tours go to inner reefs, ie, those close to the mainland. Busier than other launch points.
4: Mission Beach
Closer to the Reef than any other mainland destination and quieter than most other towns.
A renowned gateway among divers. Kelso Reef and the wreck of the SS Yongala are teeming with marine life. There are also day-trip options on glass-bottomed boats, but for more choice you’re better off heading to Cairns. It’s home to Reef HQ, a version of the Reef in an aquarium.
6: Airlie Beach
Small town with many sailing outfits. The big attraction here is spending two or more days on board a boat, and seeing some of the Whitsunday Islands’ coral reefs.
Closest access point to the Southern or Capricorn reef islands, and Lady Elliot Island.
8: Agnes Water and town of 1770
Small towns and good choices if you want to escape the crowds. From here tours head to Fitzroy Reef Lagoon, one of the most pristine sections of the Reef, where visitor numbers are still limited.
ON THE ISLANDS
9: Lizard Island
Stunning beaches and fringing reef is relatively untouched for snorkelling and diving. There’s a luxury resort and the rest of the island is a national park, so it’s open to anyone who makes the effort to get there.
11: Orpheus Island
A national park and one of the Reef’s most exclusive, tranquil and romantic hideaways. This island is particularly good for snorkelling – you can step right off the beach and be surrounded by marine life.
12: Hook Island
An outer Whitsunday Island surrounded by reefs. There is excellent swimming and snorkelling here, and the island’s sizeable bulk provides plenty of good bush-walking. Affordable accommodation and easy access from Airlie Beach makes it a top choice for those on a modest budget.
13: Hamilton Island
The daddy of the Whitsundays, this is a sprawling resort laden with infrastructure. While this doesn’t create the most intimate atmosphere, there is a wealth of tours going to the outer reef. Families are extremely well catered for.
14: Heron Island
A tiny coral cay sitting amid a huge spread of reef. It’s a diving mecca, but the snorkelling is also good and it’s possible to do a reef walk. Exclusive and tranquil, with just one resort on the island.
15: Lady Elliot Island
The most southerly of the Reef islands is fabulous for bird-watchers, and sea turtles also nest here. Possibly the best location on the Reef to see manta rays. There’s a simple, pricey camping resort but you can also visit Lady Elliot on a day trip from Bundaberg.