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A snorkeler exploring Queensland's Great Barrier Reef (Photograph by Gary Bell, Oceanwide Images)

Adventure 101: Great Barrier Reef

“Immersing yourself in the Great Barrier Reef is the best way to see how fragile it is,” says Ben Southall, who has served as the reef’s honorary “caretaker of islands” and retraced Captain Cook’s route of discovery there, by kayak.

The largest coral reef ecosystem in the world, it stretches for 1,430 miles off the Queensland coast and contains 2,000 individual reefs. “It’s the vastness and marine life that draws people in,” says Southall.

Approximately one million visitors dive or snorkel the Great Barrier Reef each year. While there are many access points, Southall has three favorites that show the reef’s diversity:

  • From Port Douglas: Head to the Low Isles, about 15 miles away by boat. The coral cays sheltered by reef are home to schools of angelfish and clownfish, and branching soft corals.
  • From Cairns: Visit the Agincourt Reef, part of the ribbonlike coral reefs in the outer edge, with sea turtles, stands of elkhorn coral, 
and a wealth of color due to the clarity of the water.
  • In the Whitsunday Islands: Langford Reef is easy to get to from the beach. During an hour-long snorkel, you can see up to 
50 different types of coral and creatures like the hump-headed Maori wrasse, the green turtle, 
and enormous parrotfish.

For guided reef day-trips (from beginner to advanced), often with a marine biologist on board to offer tips and answer questions, book a boat tour from Cairns or Port Douglas. Outfitters provide snorkeling instruction, gear, and reef access (from $95).

What you’ll need: Outfitters and rental shops provide equipment (mask, snorkel, and fins) in a variety of sizes. Southall suggests trying the mask on in the water to make sure there are no leaks. If you’re spending more than two days snorkeling, you may want to pack your own mask, snorkel, fins, and sun shirt (to keep from getting sunburned) for comfort.

What you’ll want to have: Bring a waterproof camera to capture the underwater views. “The warm, shallow water has more clarity, so even with an inexpensive camera, you’re likely to get good shots. Most aquatic life congregates around structures. Sea turtles and Queensland groupers are curious and will often get up close for a photo.” Purchase and study fish identification cards so you know what you’re seeing.

When to go: October through November are 
considered the best months for sunny days, warm water, and calm seas. Catch a snippet of whale song underwater between mid-June and late October, when humpback whales migrate along the Queensland coast.

If you’re on the other side of the world and can’t make it all the way to Australia, consider these other underwater hot spots in the Americas:

This piece, written by Jill Robinson, appeared in the April 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.