The Great Barrier Reef-World’s Biggest Marine Park

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.