The Great Barrier Reef is closer to the coast here than it is further south, making Cairns the unofficial scuba capital of Oz. The reefs just offshore are excellent, with Green and Fitzroy Island having excellent fringing reefs. There are lots of species of wildlife to see on this part of the coast. Here are just a few examples of the weirdly-named marine life and coral you can expect to see off the Cairns coast: brain coral, gorgonian fans, nudibranch, blue spotted lagoon rays, winkle suckers and parrot fish (we made one of those up). In the winter months, you can see migrating humpback, pilot and minke whales.
Bundaberg is where the Great Barrier Reef officially begins in the south, and the area offers some great dive deals, without the crowds of some of the more popular venues. The Capricorn and Bunker Group dive sites include Lady Elliot Island and Lady Musgrave Island, both with gorgeous reef and stunning sea life. This area is famous for spotting manta rays, Maori wrasse, wobbegong sharks and turtles – it’s the largest turtle hatchery in the southern hemisphere, fact fans.
Airlie Beach & The Whitsundays, QLD
This area offers everything that scuba divers want to see, as well as being home to the beautiful Whitsunday Islands. Bait Reef has a world-class diving area called The Stepping Stones, a series of 17 flat-topped bommies which are exposed at low tide, while seven more are submerged. This area has a number of dive sites and you can dive here every day for a week and still not see it all. Another beautiful reef is Little Black Reef, where you can see manta rays and huge amounts of fish life, including parrot fish and stingrays. The north end of Hook Island and Blue Pearl Bay, off Hayman Island, also boast an array of marine critters. The special thing about the reef around the Whitsundays is that there is something new and beautiful to see with every changing season. Depending on the time of year, you could find yourself face-to-face with anything from a humpback whale to a turtle.
Ayr, Townsville & Magnetic Island, QLD
The Yongala Wreck is renowned as one of the best dive sites in the world and is only 40 minutes from Ayr. Yongala, a 3664-tonne passenger/cargo steamer, was lost in a cyclone in 1911. All 121 crew and passengers died. Toilet bowls, dinner plates, bed frames and human bones are still scattered in and around the wreck and the coral build-up on the boat and fish life are incredible. Huge schools of kingfish, trevally, turrum, barracudas and enormous gropers are seen regularly. Nearby Magnetic Island also has some brilliant diving.
Heron Island, QLD
A simple boat trip from Rockhampton, Heron Island is one of the best snorkel and dive sites in Australia. With acres of coral and sea life stretching from the shore, you would have to stay in the water for months to see everything. Take your pick of 22 dive sites, including: the Coral Cascades, with football trout and anemones; the Blue Pools, favored by octopus, turtles, and sharks (yes, sharks); Heron Bommie, with its rays and eels; and more.
Ningaloo Reef, WA
The Ningaloo Reef is the closest fringing coral reef in Australia and WA’s answer to the Great Barrier. It runs 260 kilometres on the western side of West Cape, but although smaller than it’s east coast counterpart, it is more accessible – you can simply walk out to it and see over 250 corals, 500 species of fish, manta rays, turtles, dugongs and the placid, toothless, whale shark (April-July). At around the size of a small bus, the whale shark is the largest fish in the world and won’t bite a huge chunk out of you when becoming swim buddies.
Coral Bay provides the best access to the Ningaloo Reef. There you’ll find stunning snorkelling and diving, with camping facilities and a 120-bed hostel.