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How far is the Great Barrier Reef from the shore?

Updated Thu 01 Jun 2023

For those who have never dived into the Great Barrier Reef, it’s whereabouts can be a little confusing. As a huge and delightful 2,300 kilometre long formation consisting of clusters of 2900 reefs, 900 islands and numerable sand cays, the reef is located between 15 kilometres and 150 kilometres offshore, depending on the land points.

One of the first questions visitors want to know the answer to is ‘how far is the Great Barrier Reef from the shore?’. Due to its incredible expanse and the varying different reefs, there is no simple, overarching way to answer this question - there are 101 different answers depending on where you begin and whereabouts in the reef you’re looking to explore. Here are some helpful pointers on how long it should take you to get to the Great Barrier Reef depending on where you leave from, as well as an inside scoop into how to best explore the different areas of the reef.

Here are some of the most popular Great Barrier Reef day tours from Cairns!

Girl snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef, Cape Tribulation, Queensland, Australia

From Cairns to:

Outer Reefs (Norman, Moore, Thetford, Miln and Flynn Reefs)

How long it takes to get there:

For a modern and fully-sized catamaran to make its way to the Outer Reefs, you should expect the travel time to be around 90 minutes one way. Please note this can change due to various circumstances including the weather and your vessel.

How to explore the Outer Reef:

The Outer Reefs of the Cairns section of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is an absolute sight for sore eyes. These patch reefs make up most of the sites for tour operators around the region, due to its isolation from the mainland which brings with it incredible clarity and peace. There’s also an abundance of marine biodiversity in the Outer Reefs, which means you’re bound to rub shoulders with a school of colourful fish.. The depth of the Outer Reef gives way to the deeper water pelagic and reef sharks, which is something you can’t enjoy in the more shallow reefs.

There’s a myriad of ways to enjoy the Outer Reef: from scuba diving to snorkelling, take your pick! The average dive site in the Outer Reef is 15 metres, making it the perfect diving site for any skill level. 

Trips to the Outer Reef greatly differ depending on which operator you choose to go with. Some of the renowned diving sites include Norma and Saxon Reefs, and Thetford and Briggs Reef. The Outer Reef is also great for families - some operators make use of large and permanent pontoons, which provides a safe, secure and accessible way to enjoy the reef or take a dive.

Couple in a boat ready for snorkelling, Cairns, Queensland, Australia

From Cairns to:

Mid Reefs (Arlington, Saxon, Hastings, Upolo, Pinnacle Reefs & Michaelmas Cay)

How long it takes to get there:

Located halfway between the coastline and the Continental Shelf edge, getting to the Mid Reefs should take approximately 70 minutes. It’s very dependent on your vessel though - travelling via a sailing catamaran can take almost two hours!

How to explore the Mid Reefs:

Exploring the Mid Reefs is pretty similar to exploring the Outer Reefs: pick a vessel and jump on board! You can opt to scuba dive, snorkel or swim in the deep blue - just make sure to keep your eyes peeled for a beautiful display of marine life! 

Boy pointing giant clam, Cairns, Australia

From Cairns to:

Fitzroy Island

How long it takes to get there:

Most vessels take around 45 minutes to get to both Fitzroy and Green Island, but some can take 30 and some can take 60. 

How to explore Fitzroy Island and Green Island:

There are so many incredible activities to do on and around Fitzroy and Green Island. Begin with the obvious, and explore the extravagant fringe reef surrounding the island for an incredible glimpse into the world below. You’re bound to spot green turtles, clown fish and maybe even whales between July and September! The coral surrounding the islands are also spectacular, boasting an abundance of colours and textures.

If you’re short on time, heading to Fitzroy or Green Island is one of the best ways to get an all-round incredible reef and island experience! You can opt to swim, snorkel or dive around the island, but there’s also an abundance of other options to choose. Hire a kayak, jump on board a glass bottom boat or zoom around in your boat or yacht! 

Once you’re done with exploring the reef, there’s a lot to do back on shore. From kids groups to day tours and turtle rehabilitation tours, Fitzroy and Green Island is set to impress. 

Turtle in the Great Barrier Reef, Cape Tribulation, Australia

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