Great Barrier Reef

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.

Beach Snorkelling on Fitzroy Island. Picture: Fitzroy Island Resort

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.

  1. Take a day trip to swim, snorkel or dive the Reef.
  2. Spend a night sleeping under the stars on a moored pontoon on Hardy Reef.
  3. Enjoy a Scenic Flight over Heart Reef.
  4. Try the Seawalker helmet dive at Green Island.
  5. Bounce on the ocean trampoline at Fitzroy Island.
  6. Explore the islands by Jet Ski.
  7. Watch the turtles hatching on Heron Island, between November and March.
  8. Explore the length of lovely Whitehaven Beach.
  9. Visit Bungalow Bay Koala Village on Magnetic Island.
  10. Take a ride on the wild side with Ocean Rafting tours.

Things to do in The Great Barrier Reef with...

This beach gives Whitehaven in the Whitsundays a run for its money. Picture: Shutterstock

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.

dining at Sails, Hamilton Island
Dining at Sails you have a great view of the pool and beach. Credit: Hamilton Island

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.

Whitsundays Airlie Beach Bike Track Credit: Tourism Whitsundays

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.
What’s on?

Annual events for families in The Great Barrier Reef

May – Great Barrier Reef Master Games

Held every two years, a great family event while witnessing the masters.

May – 1770 Captain Cook Festival

Based on the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef at Gladstone, this family festival incorporates live music, entertainment and a parade.

May – Port Douglas Carnival

This festival includes cultural events such as the popular Family Beach Day and Carnivale. “Wonders of the Reef” Street Parade.

August – Airlie Beach Race Week

Raise those sails and watch this colourful week of sailing with events for all ages.

August – Whitsunday Reef Festival

Based in Airlie with massive street parties and live entertainment.

October – Palm Cove Reef Feast

This one is for food lovers of all ages.

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