In a marine park bigger than many countries, there’s something for everyone.

By G. S. McClure
January 01, 2017
Guide to the Great Barrier Reef
Credit: Ippei Naoi / Getty

If you’re headed to Australia, there’s no shortage of attractions to compete for your attention.

Whether you’re watching the sun set over the Sydney Opera House, visiting Uluru, the gigantic sandstone smack in the middle of the country, or weaving through Melbourne’s restaurant-packed laneways, you can’t go too far wrong. But if there’s one thing you can’t miss, it’s the Great Barrier Reef.

Australia is famous for its wildlife: It’s the only place on Earth where you can see a kangaroo or koala (or, if you’re really lucky and very quiet, a duck-billed platypus) in the wild. But beyond mammals, Australia hosts an incredible variety of sea life, and there’s no better place to get close to it than the Great Barrier Reef.

The reef is home to over 1,500 species of fish, 400 types of coral and over 200 species of birds. About 30 species of whales and dolphins also live there, along with a large population of dugong, a threatened sea cow that look like a manatee with a whale’s tail.

The reef has been growing on a continental shelf in Australia’s Coral Sea for 15,000 years. Traditionally, the reef was home to more than 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait groups, though now the area is overseen by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and has a place on both the UNESCO World Heritage List and Australia’s National Heritage List.

In fact, the reef isn’t actually one reef. It comprises some 2,500 reefs to make up the world’s largest coral reef, and the world’s largest living structure. If that sounds big, it is. The reef stretches over 1,400 miles up the coast of Queensland—that’s about the same distance as the drive between San Diego, California, and Seattle, Washington—and it covers an area about the same size as Japan.

So how do you go about tackling a region that size? First, decide how you want to see it—on the water, under it, or from above. Glass bottomed boats let travelers stay above the surface while peering down at the fascinating marine life, or you can book overnight stays on sailboats and cruise around to several islands. If you’d rather spend time up close with the fish, you can snorkel, scuba dive, or even take a trip in a submarine.

Prefer to see the reef from above? Seaplane and helicopter trips give you the best view of the heart-shaped reef near the white sand of Whitsunday Island. In fact, the Great Barrier Reef is also visible from space—but until the cost of space travel drops a bit, we suggest seeing it from earth.