Snorkeling The Great Barrier Reef: Reefs, Islands and Marine Life

impression of the great barrier reef


The 1,429 miles long Great Barrier Reef in Australia is the most expansive coral reef system in the entire world. It includes 2,900 individual reef formations, and it has a vast array of marine life that you can explore when snorkeling. There are many different boat tours and coastal beaches in order to enjoy everything this reef has to offer. Read on to discover some of the best ways to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef.

Best Great Barrier Reef Snorkel Locations

Michaelmas Cay

If you are visiting Cairns, you can take a boat excursion to Michaelmas Cay. This is an unforgettable reef sand island. You can snorkel and see colorful fish and sea turtles. Not only that, but you can go on a glass bottom boat tour as well. In addition to the marine life, Michaelmas Cay has more than 23 different species of sea birds. In fact, it’s a huge bird sanctuary.

Some tours include presentations on the Great Barrier Reef and all of it’s marine life. Some feed fish to draw them closer, which is unfortunate in our opinion like we once explained in our article about snorkel fish food. Michaelmas Cay is on the western tip of the Michaelmas Reef. It was formed by the accumulation of broken coral, shells, and calcareous algae that were washed over the reef over time.

You will spot some sea turtles. They love the coral reef and make their way to the ocean surface regularly. This is where they lay their eggs as well. You’ll also find tropical fish like the Humphead Maori Wrasse, or huge giant clams weighing up to 440 pounds.

Norman Reef

You can also go from Cairns to the Norman Reef, which is approximately 43 miles off the east coast of Australia. You will find crystal clear waters with incredible visibility of up to 100 feet. There are shallow coral gardens, walls, drop-off’s, and caves. You can also snorkel through a small wreck. 

In addition to the many sites, you will see a lot of marine life, including the following:

  • Anemones
  • Nudibranchs
  • Reef sharks
  • Bronze whalers
  • Giant clams
  • Moray eels
  • Spangled emperors
  • Red bass
  • Drummers
  • Garden eels
  • Fusiliers
  • Blue spotted rays
  • Sea turtles
  • Giant Maori (can be up to 5 feet long)
  • Coral

The best way to experience this reef is by taking a day trip from Cairns. Snorkeling Norman Reef really is an amazing experience.

Saxon Reef

Saxon Reef is a patch reef about 34 miles northeast of Cairns. It’s a smaller reef, but it has a diverse marine life community. You will find microscopic plankton and algae that attract many species of smaller fish. The smaller fish draw larger fish and marine mammals. The Saxon Reef is a Green Zone reef, which keeps it protected. 

It’s status has allowed many endangered species to thrive, including Maori wrasse, barramundi cod, and green sea turtles. In addition, you can find white-tip reef sharks, diagonally banded sweetlips, butterfly fish, parrot fish, and more. One side of the reef has a sheltered lagoon that has shallow pools with amazing coral and tropical fish. This is the best spot for snorkeling.

If you like to snorkel with sea turtles, well, Saxon Reef could just be what you’ve been looking for. The video below is a good example of what to expect. In only lasts for 2 minutes and provides a clear impression of the location.

Hastings Reef

Hastings Reef is about 31 miles northeast of Cairns. It’s shaped similar to a horseshoe. It’s one of the more shallow reefs, with an average depth of 40 feet. This makes it a very popular spot for people who love to snorkel. The reef is in the shape of a well-defined wall, with numerous cracks where fish and other marine life hide. It’s easy to get close to the fish because the reef is right below you. 

When you snorkel in Hastings Reef, you might see the following marine life:

  • Steephead parrot fish
  • Surgeon fish
  • Rabbit fish
  • Reef squid
  • Drummerfish
  • Black snapper
  • Giant clams
  • Angelfish
  • Coral trout
  • Green sea turtles
  • Tawny nurse shark

Breaking Patches Reef

Breaking patches Reef is a shallow reef west of Michaelmas Cay, and about 26 miles northeast of Cairns. It has a beautiful coral garden with a depth of approximately 45 feet. This reef is a lovely place to snorkel and to observe some sea turtles.

You will see massive soft corals, including spaghetti coral, elephant ear coral, and leather mushroom corals. You will also find hard corals, including the giant boulder coral. It’s also possible to spot sleeping reef sharks and lagoon rays in the sandy patches.

In addition, look for the following species:

  • Giant clams
  • Butterfly fish
  • Parrot fish
  • Blue spotted lagoon ray
  • White-tip reef sharks
  • Sea cucumbers
  • Hydroids
  • Angelfish
  • Christmas tree worms
  • Spaghetti coral
  • Elephant ear coral
  • Boulder coral

Lady Elliot Island, Bundaberg

Lady Elliot Island is in Bundaberg, on the edge of the Southern Great Barrier Reef. It’s an eco-friendly place with it’s own hybrid solar power station, wastewater treatment, and more. It’s a very remote location, but definitely worth the trip. The water is crystal clear with a 100 feet visibility. You can walk straight off the beach to snorkel in the coral gardens and protected lagoons. 

There is a sanctuary underwater for over 1,200 species of marine life. The most famous are the manta rays. You’ll also find loggerhead, green, and Hawksbill sea turtles, and many different species of fish. You can have an all-inclusive stay in one of the five different types of accommodation, a few steps from the beach.

You can also take a day trip to this spot. It’s big fun if you’re up for an adventure! Planes depart daily from Harvey Bay. The flight to the island takes about 40 minutes. If you’re interested, visit the Lady Elliot official website. Here’s a video to get you started.

Tip: Snorkeling is fine before or after flying. This is not the case for scuba diving! Make sure to understand the details in our article about snorkeling and flying. Another helpful article we suggest is “Can you bring snorkel gear on a plane?“.

Lady Musgrave Island

You will find a protected lagoon on this incredible coral cay island which is part of the Southern Great Barrier Reef. Only 40 people are allowed to enter the island at the same time. You can stay longer by using on the campground, or simply take a day trip.

You can view the reef through a glass bottom boat, or head out in your snorkeling gear and get up close to manta rays and sea turtles. One thing you want to avoid on a boat is motion sickness. If it helps, feel free to read our guide about snorkeling and seasickness.

There are many different species of tropical fish and sea mammals living in this protected area. You will see many of them as you snorkel through the incredible coral formations. You might see any of the following marine creatures:

  • Giant Queensland groper
  • Moray eels
  • Green sea turtles
  • Pacific loggerhead turtles
  • Hawksbill turtles
  • Large pelagics
  • Black tip reef sharks
  • Anemones and anemone fish
  • Lion fish
  • Manta rays
  • Eagle rays
  • Sting rays
  • White tip reef sharks
  • Tiger sharks
  • Hammerhead sharks
  • Tawny sharks
  • Lemon sharks
  • Thousands of species of reef fish

Magnetic Island Snorkel Trails

You can take a ferry ride from Townsville to Magnetic Island, where you’ll find Nelly Bay. The Nelly Bay snorkel trail starts about 300 feet off the beach. You can follow yellow surface floats to see amazing coral, including Lettuce Coral, Cauliflower Coral, Boulder Coral, and Staghorn Coral. You will also see all of the fish that live in this coral reef. This is a great place for beginners because the reef is quite close to the shore.

The Geoffrey Bay snorkel trail is about 1250 feet from the beach by the Hotel Arcadia. If you are a more advanced swimmer, this is a great place to see coral and numerous species of tropical fish. In addition, you can see the fish that live in the Moltke Wreck. This is an old German ship that wrecked in 1911. The video below gives you an idea of how it looks like nowadays.

It’s important to follow the inner yellow surface floats that mark the trail. There are outer yellow buoys that function as shark bait. However, their efficiency has been a debate for years and don’t guarantee your safety. Besides that, they’re cruel. Best to do some more research yourself, or simply skip any area that doesn’t feel good. Remember, you’re responsible for your own safety.

More information about the trails can be found here on Between November and April there could be a good number of jellyfish. Tour operators advise you to wear a snorkel rash guard in order to protect yourself from stings. Other helpful gear includes:

Some people prefer to protect their face one way or the other. One possibility would be the full face snorkel mask.

Orpheus Island

Orpheus Island is a secluded Great Barrier Reef island with pristine coastlines. It’s just off the coast of Ingham in North Queensland, and the island is mostly a National Park. You can get there by helicopter or by private charter. There are three camping spots to be found. 

There are over 1,500 species of fish on this reef. The best places to snorkel are the southern tip of Pioneer Bay, or on the point near the Research Station. The entire island has incredible snorkeling. The water is crystal clear, and you will see manta rays, sea turtles, and many different fish. The Research Center replants damaged coral, so the coral is thriving and diverse.

Green Island

Green Island is only about 45 minutes from Cairns by boat. It has coral gardens with hard and soft corals, and there is a great deal of marine life. You might find any of the following:

  • Giant clams
  • Anemones
  • Sea cucumbers
  • Coral trout
  • Butterfly fish
  • Fusiliers
  • Chromis
  • Angelfish
  • Clownfish
  • Parrot fish
  • Wrasse
  • Sea turtles
  • Reef sharks
  • Different rays

If you want the best possible snorkeling experience, you should go to the offshore fringing reefs, about 1 mile off shore. You can easily find boats to take you there. They are in shallow water, and you will find a combination of coral gardens, coral walls, and bommies. At low tides, the reefs are just a few inches below water. You can also snorkel off the beach and head out under the jetty. You will find a number of different fish here.

Thanks to snorkeling with a GoPro, many videos have been published online. Here’s one that shows how lovely Green Island can be.

Final Words

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest reef in the world, and includes many different places to snorkel. There is an abundance of different types of coral, which attracts many different species of fish.

The extreme beauty of the Great Barrier Reef needs to be respected. We always advise people to use marine life friendly sunscreen. But there’s more to understand in our article called “Is snorkeling bad for the environment?“.

Do your own research about shark species and the possible dangers. More information about the Australian sharks can be found here.

If you ever get the chance to visit this reef, we hope that by now you have a better understanding of what to expect when snorkeling. Make sure to take some pictures or who knows even videos. A true snorkelers paradise!

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