Ultimate guide to things to do in The Great Barrier Reef with kids
With its beautiful beaches, stunning islands and a host of child-friendly reef tours, The Great Barrier Reef is an unbeatable destination for a family holiday. The largest coral reef system in the world, The Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven wonders of the natural world and a World Heritage Listed site.
A network of over 2,900 individual reefs that runs a staggering 2,300 kilometres along the Queensland coast, the Great Barrier Reef is home to thousands of species of fish, as well as turtles, dolphins, sharks and whales and is so huge it can be seen from space.
At its northernmost tip are Cairns and Port Douglas, both excellent gateways for touring the reef. The Whitsundays are a group of islands off the coast of Airlie Beach and home to the iconic Whitehaven Beach and Heart Reef, and another popular gateway to exploring the reef with loads of family friendly tours and activities to choose from. The Southern Great Barrier Reef runs from Bundaberg to Rockhampton and out to Lady Elliot, Heron and Great Keppel Island and is packed with marine life and spoilt with incredible natural beauty.
Visiting families can snorkel or dive the reef on a choice of age appropriate island, outer barrier reef boat or sea plane tours. Visiting a permanent pontoon out in the ocean is a great idea for families as besides snorkeling and scuba diving, they offer glass bottom boats, semi-submersibles and underwater observation decks making the reef more accessible for younger kids.
Top things to do in The Great Barrier Reef
Stretching 2300 kilometres, the Great Barrier Reef and its surrounding islands offer countless activities for all the family. Here are 10 of our favourites.
- Take a day trip to swim, snorkel or dive the Reef.
- Spend a night sleeping under the stars on a moored pontoon on Hardy Reef.
- Enjoy a Scenic Flight over Heart Reef.
- Try the Seawalker helmet dive at Green Island.
- Bounce on the ocean trampoline at Fitzroy Island.
- Explore the islands by Jet Ski.
- Watch the turtles hatching on Heron Island, between November and March.
- Explore the length of lovely Whitehaven Beach.
- Visit Bungalow Bay Koala Village on Magnetic Island.
- Take a ride on the wild side with Ocean Rafting tours.
Things to do in The Great Barrier Reef with…
While very young ones may not be old enough to snorkel, or explore the underwater world of the Great Barrier Reef, they certainly don’t have to miss out. Green and Fitzroy Islands near Cairns and the Low Isles off Port Douglas are perfectly set up for families, with shallow waters, long stretches of sand and other activities for little ones including glass-bottom boat tours so they can see the coral and marine life without getting wet. Green Island also has Marineland Melanesia, home to Cassius, the largest captive crocodile in Australia, there’s also a chance for the kids to hold or pat a baby croc. And Fitzroy has a fun Ocean Trampoline as well as a Turtle Rehabilitation Centre dedicated to the rescue and care of sick and injured turtles. And if you do head out to the outer reef, The Agincourt Reef pontoon has a kid-friendly underwater observatory and semi-submersibles for little ones to enjoy.
Hamilton Island’s incredible location, at the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, and direct flights from most capital cities, make it one of Australia’s best family holiday havens. Water babies will love the range of activities on the water. Hire a catamaran or take sailing lessons in the pristine waters around the Island. Kayaking and stand up paddle boarding are another great way to explore.
Spend a day exploring the magical Great Barrier Reef by boat or by air, and don’t miss the opportunity to snorkel in what is one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
Above the water you can tee off at Hamilton Island Mini Golf course, trek through the bush trails to spot the hidden coves and pretty picnic spots dotted throughout the bushland, get up close with iconic Australian animals and birds at Wild Life Hamilton Island, and enjoy all the fun to enjoy kids only activities at the Clownfish Club.
Airlie Beach is the ultimate gateway for Great Barrier reef adventures for kids. Fly around Airlie Beach’s picturesque harbor on a jet boat or paddle along the shores by stand up paddle board with Whitsunday Stand Up Paddle Board. Take a wild and windy ride to explore world famous Whitehaven Beach, hike up Hill Inlet Beach and Lookout, and visit pristine snorkelling reefs on a super speedy semi rigid inflatable with Ocean Rafting tours. Learn to sail at the Whitsunday’s Sailing Club or climb aboard a historic tall ship to sail the high seas and explore the reef like a pirate.
Head to Heron Island for their school holiday Junior Rangers programme which offers a range of nature-based eco activities, visit the island’s research station and, from September to March each year, watch nature at its greatest as baby turtles hatch on the island.
Though a visit to Cruise Whitsundays’ permanently moored Reef Magic pontoon on Hardy Reef is suitable for kids of all ages, you’ll find some extra incredible activities for teens. Not only can kids 12 and over try an introductory scuba dive, they can watch as the sun sets over the reef and gaze up at a gazillion stars from a comfy swag set as you sleep overnight on the pontoon.
Ride on an underwater scooter with a reef tour from Cairns with Scuba Doo. Or to get an above the water perspective of the reef and its islands, whiz around the islands on a Jet Ski Tour. Or head off on an Offroad Adventure Tour around Hamilton Island, a one-hour quad bike tour along the island’s fire trails. Still on Hamilton, you can get your motor running as you speed around the island’s Go Kart Track at speeds of up 45 kilometres per hour. Or grab your snorkelling gear and take to the fringing reefs around Hamilton to swim with turtles on a Deep Water Turtle Discovery tour.
Best time to visit The Great Barrier Reef as a family
Experiencing only two seasons: the wet and dry, it is an area that allows for special experiences all year round. Summer is the wet season and when most rain falls. Tours from the mainland may be disrupted if there is unsettled weather. Consider an island escape: you are closer to the reef, they have plenty of good deals (especially from September to May) but don’t overlook the mainland which has the best selection of all-weather options for visitors.
The best time to visit the islands of the Great Barrier Reef are from May to October, though peak season is from June to October. The days are usually clear and the rainfall minimal which allows for a full day of activities on and above the water as well as clearer viewing underwater. Along with ideal weather there are often good deals with accommodation venues for all budgets in the shoulder month of May.
Family-friendly places to eat in The Great Barrier Reef
Amazing food is part of the experience in this region. With the sea on one hand and a lush hinterland on the other, good food is guaranteed on the Great Barrier Reef’s islands and mainland. The freshest local seafood and produce feature on most menus, as does luscious fruits like mangos and pineapples literally bursting with flavor, as one would expect of the tropics.
On many islands, such as Hamilton, resorts and restaurants offer deals where kids up to 12 can eat free – so it is worth checking out deals being offered before you go. And Airlie Beach on the Mainland is heaving with kid friendly cafes and restaurants serving fresh seafood, Mexican, Italian, Asian, European and modern Australian delights. The Little Vegas Burger Bar, Mr Bones Pizza and The Fat Frog Café are just three that are bona fide favourites with kids.
Things to do for free in The Great Barrier Reef
- On the mainland, most towns and cities offer a host of free family fun along their waterfront esplanades, especially those in Townsville, Airlie Beach, Mackay and Cairns, where amongst parklands and playgrounds you’ll find man made lagoon pools. Within the hinterland there are tracks and trails along with lookouts offering million dollar views for free. Sunset from Castle Hill in Townsville is worthy of a consideration with Magnetic Island only a mere 8km offshore.
- Depending on where along the long coast line you are venturing, check out the local Visitor Information Centre online before you go for advice including the location of the area’s best safe swimming spots. The islands also often include free kids’ activities such as snorkeling, reef walking and kayaking to your accommodation deal. If you are staying on Heron Island, there is a research station, the longest operating on the reef, with a free cool touchy feely tank the kids will love.
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Janeece Keller is the founder and editor of Family Travel. She mostly travels with her husband and two young kids. She has a large blended family that lives in Australia and Europe. She has visited 52 countries and lived on 3 continents. From camping to luxury resorts Janeece tries to make sure her family has diverse holiday experiences each year. She is an avid hiker and ocean swimmer who loves good food, margaritas and heading off the beaten path.