A vast alien landscape of interlocking staghorns, oversized lettuces and exposed brains covering more than a 130,000 square miles, Australia's Great Barrier Reef is a major attraction for visitors. Home to thousands of marine species, there's always something interesting to see. Coral reefs are made of colonies of polyps, tiny animals (relatives of jellyfish) enveloped in a hard exoskeleton. Although they are animals, polyps contain algae which allows them to feed through photosynthesis. There are over 350 coral species on the reef growing in a myriad of shapes, and literally alive with colour.
Anna's Magnificent Sea Slug
No dive or snorkel on the reef would be complete without the distinct grinding sound as parrotfish chomp voraciously on the coral to consume the polyps within. Their parrot like beak is perfect for this purpose but their bright colours make their name even more fitting. Parrotfish can't digest the hard coral skeleton so they excrete this as sand. After a hard day of munching coral and pooping sand it's time for a well earned nap. Parrotfish blow a bubble of snot around themselves which is believed to protect them from parasites while they slumber. When they wake the next morning this mucus shield doubles as a hearty breakfast.
Turtle Mania on the Great Barrier Reef
Of the seven species of turtle in the world, six can be found on the Great Barrier Reef. Green and hawksbill turtles are most common and you can often spot them on the surface when they come up for air. They are particularly fond of a brown algae, which apparently has a narcotic effect on them; they certainly seem less bothered by divers when they are eating it. You will get much closer to turtles if you approach slowly and calmly and avoid distressing them.
Brian the Turtle
Wally, The Friendliest Fish in Australia
Wally the Napoleon Wrasse (or Maori Wrasse) is one of the largest fish on the reef so you'll definitely know him when you see him. He visits hundreds of divers and snorkellers across the Great Barrier Reef every day posing for photos or sneaking up behind unsuspecting snorkellers. Either he zips around at high speed like Santa Claus, magically being everywhere at once or, more likely, there are many Napoleon Wrasse on the reef that all happen to be called Wally. Napoleon Wrasse are not afraid of people and will come very close, a habit that has its downsides in regions where they are not protected from spear fishing. They have strong stomachs and are one of the few predators that can eat the highly toxic and destructive crown of thorns starfish.
The Best Way to See the Great Barrier Reef
The best way to get up close and personal with the inhabitants of the reef is to dive or snorkel with them. There are many options for snorkellers, certified divers and those who want to give diving a try. If you prefer to keep your hair dry, there are several other ways to see beneath the surface. The Seawalker and Scuba Doo systems give non divers a chance to admire the underwater world through a bubble like diving helmet; you will still get wet but there is no swimming required. If you would rather stay out of the water, a glass bottom boat or semi sub trip might be a better choice.
Great Barrier Reef Travel Tips
The Great Barrier Reef is best enjoyed on a sunny day when the corals appear most colourful. It's a good idea to check the weather forecast before booking your trip.
June to October is the dry season and the daytime temperatures are comfortable both in and out of the water. This is the best time to visit.
Humpback whales pass by during July and August. If you're lucky you may see some from your boat.
How to Get to the Great Barrier Reef
The main points of access for the reef are Cairns, Port Douglas and the Whitsunday Islands. Of the three, Cairns probably has the best range of reef viewing options with everything from Seawalker experiences to scuba diving.