How to Visit the Great Barrier Reef — and Help Preserve It While You're There

A hidden universe of spectacular marine life awaits under the surface and above a 1,400-mile stretch of Australia's northeastern coastline. Listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO since 1981, the Great Barrier Reef is an awe-inspiring destination that offers visitors a profound connection to nature.

Despite mass coral bleaching events in the summers of 2016 and 2017 that badly damaged parts of the reef, much of the marine park — roughly the size of Japan — continues to thrive. Alarming headlines across the globe may have deterred tourism, but with over 2,900 individual coral reefs and 300 continental islands, a visit to the largest living structure on Earth remains an experience of a lifetime.

Over the past couple of years, coral has regenerated and local scientists have developed innovative ways to foster coral growth both in and out of the water. But the fragile ecosystem needs human help to maintain its current beauty, and experts are calling for an all-hands-on-deck approach to facing the challenges of the reef, largely caused by climate change. That means tourists visiting the area must make some well-informed choices, without missing out on any of the reef's stunning attractions.

Choosing a responsible tour operator should be at the top of your list. The simplest way to do this is to look for a business that's independently certified by Ecotourism Australia.

The organization's Green Travel Guide makes finding environmentally minded companies a breeze. From breathtaking Air Whitsundays scenic flights, where you'll spot iconic Heart Reef and the turquoise swirls of Hill Inlet, to Adrenaline Diving day trips to SS Yongala, where you can take a thrilling dive among manta rays and schools of barracuda at a 108-year-old shipwreck, travelers can enjoy unforgettable experiences while being assured their presence is a positive one.

But what does it actually mean for a company to have eco certification? "The certification program is quite comprehensive, where each business needs to go through a sustainability matrix," said Ecotourism Australia chief executive Rod Hillman. "In ecotourism, it's not enough just to do no harm. It's really by you being there, you are making the environment better."

This is proven by a range of environmental plans demonstrating not just how the company minimizes damage, but how it contributes to conservation. Other factors, Hillman added, include how a business integrates with the local community and their engagement with the traditional owners of the land and the sea.

Those eager to go further in their contribution towards the reef's health during their visit will find many tourist activities designed around citizen science — a crucial aspect to coral restoration projects along the reef.

"The citizen science effort is paramount," said Johnny Gaskell, a marine biologist at Daydream Island. Gaskell and his team have been propagating coral in nurseries built within the marine park, and also in custom-built tanks where the corals spend four to five months growing before being planted back into damaged reef sites. "We want people to come to the region, go to the sites that we've recovered, take photos, send them to us, upload them, and then hopefully over time you get an indication on how it's recovering," Gaskell said.

Further south, at Lady Musgrave Island, tourists can sign up to be a marine biologist for a day. "[Island guests] learn about the reef, how to identify certain species, why they're important to reef health, and they collect information on them through the Eye on the Reef and the Coral Watch program," explained marine biologist and master reef guide Natalie Lobartolo.

That's just one of the activities on offer by Lady Musgrave Experience, an eco-certified tour operator that also hosts guided island walks, snorkeling, and the chance to swim with turtles. "It's really the most amazing spot for the turtles," Lobartolo said. "Lady Musgrave is really unique because it has a very large lagoon, it's like a massive natural swimming pool. I'm talking 3000-acre swimming pool, with reefs all the way around."

A school of Blue Green Reef Chromis at Rib Reef, off the coast of Orpheus Island in the central Great Barrier Reef
Sean Fennessy

The calm, protected lagoon is the ideal environment for marine animals to reproduce and have their babies. "If nature was to create the perfect nursery in the ocean, it would be Lady Musgrave lagoon," Lobartolo said.

The young stay in the protected area until they're strong enough to face the challenges of the open ocean.

"In between those nesting periods, the females are quite tired. It's a really big, energetic investment for them, so they love hanging out in the lagoon," Lobartolo said. "There are also cleaning stations." And no, these cleaning stations aren't run by humans with scrubbing brushes: Picture an underwater beauty salon run by tiny fish.

"The cleaning stations are big outcrops of live coral," Lobartolo explained. "Inside this live coral, there live lots of little fish — the main type is called a 'cleaner wrasse'. And the cleaner wrasse pick all of the algae and parasites off the turtle's skin and shells for the turtles."

Luckily for these turtles, and the fish at the cleaning station, the coral at Lady Musgrave is in good health, Lobartolo said. "The Southern Great Barrier Reef is pretty special and it managed to escape a lot of the bleaching in 2016 and '17," she said.

Another notable spot in the southern part of the reef is Heron Island. Here you'll find an eco-certified hotel in which guests can enjoy the island's natural wonders without giving up any home comforts. The University of Queensland's Heron Island Research Station also occupies the coral cay and offers tours to island guests.

Looking for a vacation with a touch more indulgence? You can still be eco-friendly while luxuriating at an all-inclusive resort. Nestled on an island off the coast between Townsville and Cairns, Orpheus Island Lodge offers understated extravagance. Featuring meals from award-winning chef Sam Moore and a day spa to recover from all that snorkeling and sailing, the high-end, solar-powered resort is eco-certified, too. It also donates $50 AUD per guest to its Reef Keepers Fund, which supports regional environment initiatives.

With a well-researched itinerary to this beautiful corner of the world, tourism itself can help fight the challenges the region continues to face. Every person who visits pays a small $6.50 AUD environmental management charge, which goes directly to managing the reef. In this sense, visitors are helping the reef just by being there.

"You can see signs of the reef bouncing back," Lobartolo said. "It's really resilient and it really wants to keep growing … but we have to give it the right conditions."

Getting There

Cairns is regarded as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. Some international airlines fly directly into the city; it is a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Brisbane, the Queensland capital.

Daydream Island and the Whitsundays can be reached via Hamilton Island, a one-and-a-half-hour flight from Brisbane.

Lady Musgrave Island experience leaves from Bundaberg, a one-hour flight from Brisbane.

Heron Island can be reached from Gladstone, a one-and-a-half-hour flight from Brisbane.

Orpheus Island is accessed via helicopter from Townsville, a two-hour flight from Brisbane.

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