Cruising the Great Barrier Reef

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is a place that is overflowing with superlatives, and then breaks a few more records: Rated as one of the seven wonders of the natural world, it stretches for 2,300 kilometers along the Queensland coast, from Bundaberg to the Torres Strait, and comprises around 2,800 individual reefs, continental islands, reef islands, and sand cays—it would be impossible to cover them all in a single trip, or even a single lifetime.

Due to time constraints many travelers choose one or two islands and enjoy those to the fullest. But if you want to try to see a few dozen islands and cays, even if only from the distance, then cruising is really the best option. And it doesn’t have to be a gigantic hotel-on-the-sea. In the Great Barrier Reef, cruising can be as individual as you are.

Organized Cruises of the Great Barrier Reef

There are organized cruises, usually on larger sailing or motor yachts, with often a dozen or more other people on board, and with set itineraries and scheduled stops and activities. You can book a cruise of two or three or more days in most of the towns along the coast—for example, with Whitsundays Sailing Adventures in Airlie Beach. With departures every few days, you are bound to find something that suits you. On these cruises you usually have the option to learn to dive or snorkel (they show you the best grounds, reefs, and beaches), and you get fed in regular intervals and don’t have to think at all. Just sit back and go with the flow, and you’ll meet a few like-minded people from around the world on your trip as well.

The selection of half-day to full-day cruises is amazing, with companies such as Ocean Freedom. Usual departure times are around 7:30am to 8am. Go to reefs and islands to snorkel, dive (or learn to do so), swim, and explore. Most of these trips come with lunch, drinks, even open bars, and have all the equipment you’ll need on board. They often stop at a purpose-built pontoon for a few hours, where you can be as active or lazy as you wish to be. There are plenty of activities for kids and they don’t get stuck on a boat for days on end.

A sailboat sits in beautiful turquoise water in Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
Sailing in the Great Barrier Reef. Photo © Michael James/123rf.

Bareboating and Private Charters

One of the most serene ways to cruise some of the islands is by bareboating—hiring a yacht and sailing it yourself. You will need to have sufficient experience and a large enough group to choose that option. Hiring a boat from an operator such as SailFree, you can anchor in secluded bays, camp on some of the designated islands, snorkel wherever takes your fancy, and make your own agenda.

If that sounds lovely, but alas, you cannot sail a boat by yourself, hire a sailing boat with a crew. Charter companies such as ISail Whitsundays allow you to choose from a variety of yachts that come with a crew. Obviously it’s not quite as private, but the crew does this for a living, and you can interact with them as much or as little as you wish.


If time and budget are issues, one of the easiest and cheapest ways to get out onto the water for a “cruise” is to hop on an island ferry. Take Cruise Whitsundays, a commuter ferry that has a daily schedule and at least once an hour sets off from Shute Harbour near Airlie Beach to sail to Hamilton Island and some other islands along the way. There are direct ferries, and others take in two or three islands along the way.

You can buy an island hopper ticket for the day and spend the day on the water, taking in the views and hopping on and off at various stops. It is a cheap, fun, and enjoyable way to see the Whitsundays on a budget.

Travel map of Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.
Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Sydney & the Great Barrier Reef.