It’s the only living structure on Earth visible from the moon; it’s bigger than the United Kingdom; it’s home to 1,500 kinds of fish, 400 species of corals, 4,000 kinds of clams and snails, and who knows how many sponges, starfish, and sea urchins. And snorkelers are in a prime position to see the Great Barrier Reef at its best—the rich colors of the coral depend on lots of light, so staying close to the surface maximizes your view of the brightest and richest marine life. Staring through your mask at green and purple clams, pink sponges, red starfish, purple sea urchins, and fish from electric blue to neon yellow to lime is truly a magical experience.
Even if the kids have never gone snorkeling before, there’s no more rewarding place to start. Outfitters and resorts all along the Reef coast make it easy for you. Day trips on motorized catamarans head out from Cairns, Port Douglas, Townsville, Mission Beach, and the Whitsunday mainland and islands, with snorkel gear provided and marine biologists on board to explain all about the Reef. Each boat ties up at its own private permanent pontoon, anchored to a platform reef. The pontoons have glass-bottom boats for passengers who don’t want to get wet, but there’s lots of instruction to ease novices into the water.
If a long boat ride puts you off, the coral cay of Green Island lies less than an hour from the city wharf at Cairns, the town with the most direct air connections. The closest Reef site off Port Douglas, an hour north of Cairns, is the Low Isles, two tiny lushly vegetated coral cays where you can wade out to the coral right from the beach. The coral is not quite as dazzling as the outer Reef’s, but the fish life here is rich, there are lots of seabirds, and you may spot sea turtles. From the lovely rainforest town of Mission Beach, south of Cairns, it only takes an hour to get to the Outer Reef, where shallow waters full of vibrant marine life surround the sandy coral cay, Beaver Cay.
If you base yourselves in the Whitsun-day Islands, of course, you’re already out in the Outer Reef, on rainforested islands surrounded by the waters of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Just about any Whitsunday island has fringing reef around its shores, and there are good snorkeling reefs between the islands, a quick boat ride away. Most folks’ favorite is Blue Pearl Bay, off Hayman Island; it has loads of corals and some gorgonian fans in its gullies, and heaps of reef fish, including Maori wrasse and sometimes even manta rays—and you can walk right in off the beach.