3 Great Diving Barrier Reef tips, From Affordable to Epik

WAKING UP on the beach in classic Australian swag—a weatherized canvas bedroll unfurled on a cot on the sand—I was one of just 10 visitors on an otherwise deserted Queensland island. Butterflies and birds flitted overhead, but we hadn’t come to look up. We were here to dive. The day before, we’d submerged four times on the reef just off the coast, amid electric-blue Maori wrasse and shark-size giant clams.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is a conglomeration of 3,000 reefs longer than the Pacific coast from Vancouver to Tijuana. That’s a lot of territory to cover if you’re a vacationer looking for the ultimate diving experience in just a few short days. I visited during the height of its 2016-17 coral bleaching, when unusually high water temperatures were causing corals to expel from their tissues the zooxanthellae that provide their color and energy to survive. Still, given the 8,000-year-old reef’s enormous size—eight times that of our planet’s second-largest reef, off Belize—vivid sections still abound and I found myself overwhelmed with the options.

In the end, I opted to experience the reef in three distinct ways, setting up my home base at a campsite, on a resort island, and on a liveaboard cruise ship, around different parts of the reef. The only constant: access to the reef’s astounding variety of life (dive leaders naturally focus on the healthiest sections), which never failed to disappoint—and never failed to remind me how devastating its loss would be.

I started in Townsville, a seaside city in northern Queensland, with Remote Area Dive, a scuba operator that offers campsite-based dive experiences. This wasn’t glamping. Five other travelers, three divemasters, a boat captain and I pulled out from the dive shop at 5:45 a.m., hauling a trailer full of scuba and camping gear. We drove 1½ hours up the coast before boarding a boat for a 40-minute trip to tiny Pelorus Island. Shimmying cottonwood and beach almond trees lined the white coral beaches where we set up camp.

We made two dives later that morning, using the boat to explore the fringing reefs around the 1.5-square-mile island, then returned to land for turkey sandwiches and watermelon. We completed two more dives later that day, the last of them just after dusk. By day, we saw pink fire coral and clownfish darting among the undulating tentacles of anemones. At night, the beams of our lights revealed slithering sea snakes, translucent cuttlefish, and striped orange and yellow nudibranchs, slugs that looked like jewels. Back on land, there was less to see: a much-appreciated barbecue around a campfire and a starry sky.

Some in our group slept inside tents, but I opted for the outdoor swags and cots. We went to sleep slicked with salt and, in the morning, washed it off with two more dives.

Numerous resort islands dot the Queensland coast but few are as extravagant as 1,829-acre Hamilton Island in the Whitsunday chain, which offers a range of accommodations. The nicest is the Qualia resort (pictured), where it’s easy to want to stay in your room forever.

But since hibernation wasn’t the point of my visit, I spent my initial morning on a catamaran-sailing trip; we snorkeled around shallow corals and then lolled on Whitehaven Beach, often voted the best in all of Australia. It might have felt more indulgent had I not been lolling with the 30 other people on my excursion.

For each of the following two days, I boarded the island’s even larger dive boat for the two-hour ride to the closest section of outer reef, where the barrier-reef corals give way to continental slopes extending more than a mile down. We didn’t need to venture that deep at Bait Reef—75 feet was enough—to encounter a half-dozen whitetip reef sharks on every dive, along with scores of pineapple sea cucumbers (so-called for their pineapple-y armored skin), sea turtles, marble rays, hefty coral trout and 3-foot humphead parrotfish that reminded me of aquatic bulldogs.

Post-dive highlights at the resort included a hot shower in my comfortable hotel room, dining on local slipper lobsters and visits with the resident koalas, who snuggled and snoozed in the trees.

The acme of dive experiences is a liveaboard trip on a custom-fitted scuba yacht that allows passengers to reach distant sites while maximizing their number of dives. Most liveaboards in Australia are based in Cairns, including the 26-passenger, 122-foot Spirit of Freedom (pictured), which runs trips of three, four or seven nights. I opted for the shortest. We dived twice the first day, including at dusk, sighting painted crayfish and a carpet shark, named for its patterned skin and tasseled face.

Honeymooners took the tight but charming top-deck cabin; I shared windowless two-bunk quarters with the ship’s lone snorkeler, a retired financial software engineer from California who strapped a rechargeable shark deterrent to his ankle each time he entered the water.

We spent the next two days at the Ribbon Reefs, ¼-mile-wide strips of coral 60 miles from shore, focusing on their “bommies,” pinnacles that rise 100 feet from the reef. Some coral was bleached or phosphorescent, which meant it was fighting to survive. But the water clarity and the sea life we saw along the more distant reefs made liveaboard diving best. We ended our trip diving at Cod Hole, a site named for its massive potato cod, which can grow to 7 feet and 250 pounds. They counted among the biggest bony fish I’d seen—until 9-foot Queensland groupers began feeding in our stern lights that night.