Like many families, visiting the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia was high on our family’s bucket list. We hear so much about the bleaching of coral reefs that we decided this is an item we needed to tick off our list soon.
So we recently paid a visit to the largest coral reef in the world (the Reef stretches 2,300 km down the east coast of Australia). We learned you don’t have to be a scuba diver to enjoy this marine wonderland. Kids from toddlers to teenagers can find an age-appropriate way to explore the reef’s sea life. (Read about bicycling in Australia with kids, too.)
Great Barrier Reef: Tips For Taking Kids
Where to Stay
There are a few key places where you can easily access the Reef. We chose to base ourselves in Cairns in far north Queensland, where we had our choice of *tour operators for a full-day boat trip out to the Reef.
Choosing a Great Barrier Reef Tour
We looked for tour companies that cater to families and less experienced swimmers. We found plenty of options including Great Barrier Reef tours that include snorkelling as well as glass bottom and semi-submersible boat excursions and underwater pontoon observatories. Regardless of which you choose, look for an operator that visits the Outer Reef, which has the healthiest coral and most marine life.
There are also many different styles of boats that go out. We have tried both a small sailing catamaran and a larger boat that travels to a moored pontoon at the Reef. Each has its advantages, but I would recommend a pontoon tour if you have younger children or less experienced snorkelers. The pontoons usually have an enclosed snorkelling area and offer options like the glass-bottom boat rides and underwater observatories. We went out with Sunlover Reef Cruises and our kids loved all the features of the pontoon, like the two-story waterslide into the ocean.
Note: A day out on this type of tour will run you about $400 for a family of four or five, but it really includes a lot.
Water temperatures at the Outer Reef are relatively warm, 75° -85° but most tour companies will offer wetsuit rentals, which are really helpful to keep kids from getting cold too quickly on a long day out. Also November to May is stinger season so the tour operators provide stinger suits (sort of like a full-body rash guard) to protect against box jellyfish and other stingers. Both tours that we did had lifeguards positioned to watch over the snorkelers.
The Reef Experience
It takes 90 minutes to two hours to get to the Outer Reef and it can be a rocky ride. I recommend taking a tablet for seasickness before departing, even if you don’t usually get sick. I saw quite a few people get sick on the way out and it doesn’t trip very enjoyable.
If you are on a pontoon tour, you’ll plenty of time at the pontoon to snorkel, dive, take glass-bottom and semi-sub tours, eat a buffet lunch, and do add-ons like a snorkel tour, helmet diving or even a helicopter tour over the Reef. Our pontoon had easy entry platforms where you could put your snorkel gear on and even a small, enclosed area where young children could stand in waist deep water and see the fish.
We have snorkelled in many places all over the world and we thought the part of the Reef we saw looked healthy and vibrant. We saw lots of different species of fish, a shark, a few large sea turtles and many different types of coral.
In addition to getting up close and personal with the diverse marine wildlife, our visit to the Great Barrier Reef prompted lots of discussions in our family about global warming, plastics in our oceans and the need to protect ocean life. Our kids learned how plastics kill sea turtles, and saw for themselves the detrimental effects of coalmines on our oceans and how ocean acidification bleaches coral reefs.
Note: Families that have older children or that know how to SCUBA dive can do multi-day Reef trips that are quite incredible.
Things to do back on land
Before or after your Great Barrier Reef trip, explore the rest of the Cairns area. There are enough things to do to keep you busy for a longer weekend or even a few days more. The waterfront Esplanade is a great place to watch the sun go down. The Esplanade Lagoon is a huge beach style swimming pool where tourists and locals congregate to cool down from the tropical heat.
The privately owned Daintree Rainforest is the world’s oldest rain forest and a UNESCO world heritage site (the Great Barrier Reef is a heritage site, too). We spent a few days around Cape Tribulation in the rainforest and it was really special. We enjoyed adventure activities like ziplining, swimming in fresh-water swimming holes in the jungle and walking on the beach and boardwalk trails.
Note: The beaches in this part of Australia are off limits for swimming because they’re home to several fresh types of crocodiles. But you can learn about these amazing animals safely at wildlife centres or on a river cruise.
There are also opportunities to learn about the Aboriginal culture and way of life through several interpretive centers and Dream Time walks.
Cairns is a great destination for families visiting Australia and the idea jumping off point for a visit with kids to the Great Barrier Reef.
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Dawn Nicholson loves traveling and blogging about her adventures traveling and living overseas with her three kids (ages 5, 7 and 9 years old) at 5 Lost Together. Dawn has visited over 50 countries and believes strongly in traveling now with kids by whatever and any means possible – backpacking, sailing or living as expats overseas. You can follow her adventures and musing at: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Photos Courtesy of Dawn Nicholson except where noted