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Mackay Reef and Coral Cay

Updated Fri 17 Nov 2023

Perched in the northern edges of the Great Barrier Reef, Mackay Reef and Coral Cay is an untouched and undisturbed underwater wonderland, as pure as they come! This fragile environment features vibrant coral gardens rising up from white sandy seabeds, where kaleidoscopes of tropical fish dance and play. It’s also home to 1 of only 300 sand islands amid the Great Barrier Reef’s 3800 reefs and islands! The island of crisp, pure white sand is contrasted against the cobalt-turquoise ocean, and is a great place to catch your breath, soak up the sun and lapse into a food coma after hours of snorkeling and exploring.

Schools of fish swimming through sloping coral gardens

How to Get to Mackay Reef and Coral Cay from Port Douglas

Mackay Reef and Coral Cay is around 97 kms north of Cairns, just off the coast of Cape Tribulation. The best way to see Mackay Reef is with Sailaway’s Day Sail, which departs daily from Wharf Street in Port Douglas. From there it’s a relaxing 2 hour sail on Sailaway’s deluxe eco-friendly catamaran, so kickback and let the sun and salt wash over you as the captain does the work.

As Mackay Reef and Coral Cay is a prime snorkeling location, the Sailaway Day Sail offers a two hour guided snorkel and swim session with knowledgeable marine biologists who will introduce reef guests to the friendly fish and marine life that call Mackay Reef home.

couple standing on a boat out at sea

Marine Life at Mackay Reef


The barracudas reputation precedes it, but don’t believe everything you hear! Whilst popular belief characterises these guys as being as mean and ferocious as their physical demeanour, they’re generally relatively indifferent to human snorkelers. Admire their torpedo shaped bodies and silvery scales — maybe you’ll even be lucky enough to see their large teeth in action as they launch at their prey.

Slender barracuda patrolling over hard coral

Image source: Wikipedia


Amongst the vast variety of fish that call Mackay Reef home you’ll find our familiar little friends the clownfish. After rising to international stardom with Finding Nemo, these little fellas love to attend meet and greets with curious snorkelers, they might even let you snap some underwater pics as they give you an exclusive tour of their anemones.

Clownfish cleaning purple anemone

Giant Clams

Get up close and personal with these big friendly giants. Did you know some giant clams are so gargantuous they can fit a whole human inside of them?! Don’t worry, their diets consist strictly of plankton and algae.

Giant clam perched on coral bed

Large Sweetlips

The big goofy sweetlips are typically found flying solo or travelling in pairs. The sweetlip is easily identified by its large lips, which — much like a Beverly Hills housewife — swell with age.

Giant sweetlip cursing through open blue waters

Image source: Wikipedia Commons


As many as three different species of rays can be seen gliding through the waters at Mackay Reef. The blue spotted stingray patrols the sandy seabeds and is easily recognisable by the vibrant electric blue dots that decorate its tan body. Another ray you’ll find flying through Mackay is the eagle ray, a large species with spotted wings that can span up to just over three metres — you can see why they’re called the eagle with a wingspan that impressive! Similar in size is the giant bull ray, whose wings are of a darker grey shade and without decoration. Whilst all three tend to flee under threat, exercise caution around these gliding beauties as they possess poisonous barbs capable of harming snorkelers.

Blue spotted ray gliding over white sands

Titan Triggerfish

Also known as the moustache triggerfish, the titan is the largest of the triggerfish species. They use their mighty teeth to break off pieces of coral and their big mouths to turn over rocks in search of crustaceans, mollusks, sea urchins and tube worms, all of which their diet consists. The titan triggerfish is a solitary traveler and rather territorial. It’s known to ‘trigger’ its dorsal fin when viciously defending its nest from other fish.

Titan triggerfish baring teeth

Image source: YouTube


Life can get lonely for these big boys out on the reef, and they love when visitors closer to their size come to play! Glide side by side with the graceful and incredibly hospitable sea turtles as you pass over radiant coral gardens teeming with marine life. Sea turtles are present on the reef throughout the year, though they become more active in the warmer months for mating season!

Large turtle floating through open blue water

Whitetip Reef Sharks 

Snorkelers need not be too intimidated by the whitetip reef shark as they feed primarily on bony fish (eels, parrotfish, triggerfish, etc.), though they might get territorial with you if you tried to steal their meal! Nobody likes sharing food. They are, however, curious creatures and have been known to investigate and swim alongside snorkeling visitors.

White tip reef shark patrolling coral gardens in shallow water

Read more about Sailaway’s Day Sail to Mackay Reef and Coral Cay, and chat to our friendly travel experts for more information on planning your trip to tropical paradise.

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