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Turtles On The Great Barrier Reef

Updated Wed 15 Feb 2023

Amongst the 9,000 species that call the Great Barrier Reef home, it’s the sea turtle that likely dominates the hearts of visitors. From watching them lay their eggs on the sandy shores of Tropical Far North Queensland to cruising the currents with them on a snorkeling safari, it’s a joy to witness these amazing creatures go about their day-to-day lives. 

No doubt turtles have crawled into the hearts of many through their animated depictions in pop culture cornerstones like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Franklin, and Finding Nemo, but nothing compares to seeing one in the flesh, either padding through the sand on land or gliding through the ocean. Better yet is the singular experience of swimming alongside them as you explore the reefs off of Cairns.

turtle in the ocean

Six Species of Turtles on the Great Barrier Reef

Did you know that out of the seven species of turtles in the world, six are found on the Great Barrier Reef? How lucky are we! Get to know them in our comprehensive list below.

Loggerhead Turtle

Loggerhead turtles are an endangered species and require serious protection. These guys are distinct due to their brown shells with a yellow underside and large heads. They also have bulky jaws genetically ideal for crunching crusty mollusks and crustaceans.

Hawksbill Turtle

Another species of turtle on the Great Barrier Reef is the hawksbill turtle. The hawksbill turtle gets its name from its beak-like mouth. The prominence of its birdy nose and its narrow head makes this species unique from its cousins. They also feature cream underbellies with speckles of black and brown, making them a true delight to behold as they soar over snorkellers.

Green Turtle

Before maturing into their beautiful olive green and high-domed shells, baby green turtles can be spotted by their infantile black shells with white margins. The green turtle is the only herbivore in its sea-faring species — green on the outside, green on the inside!

sea turtle

Flatback Turtle

You can probably already guess by their name what sets these guys apart from their cousins. The flatback turtle wears a flat and low shell with turned-up edges, where the underside is a clean rim of white that encompasses its body. Mature flatbacks can be identified by their olive-grey heads and flippers, whilst the younger ones are more greyish in colour with white underbellies.

Olive Ridley Turtle

The olive ridley is the smallest sea turtle in the world, measuring between just 60 and 70 centimeters and weighing no more than 45 kilos. Though petite, they have powerful chompers that can handle a diet of crunchy crustaceans and mollusks. Keep an eye out for their heart-shaped shells as you snorkel over them, or their soft creamy underbellies if you find yourself gliding below them.

Leatherback Turtle

The leatherback turtle, another endangered species, is the biggest species of turtle to grace the planet’s oceans. These gentle giants can grow up to 2.2 metres in length and weigh between 250 and a hefty 700 kilos! Their soft skin and pastel-pink dotted heads are protected by pointed ridges that run down the back of their shells, distinguishing them from other species.

snorkeling with a turtle

Where to See Turtles in Cairns

Raine Island

Wildlife fanatics will enjoy a Raine Island experience as it plays host to the world’s largest gathering of turtles. Located 620 kilometres offshore from Cairns, Raine Island hosts more than 60,000 green female turtles. The greenies migrate to Raine to lay eggs deep beneath the sand during the breeding season. You can imagine the island must look like a volcanic eruption of baby turtles come hatching time!

Fitzroy Island and Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre

Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre is one of the best in the world to witness both turtles in their natural habitats and turtles who need a little helping hand in rehabilitation. Located 45 minutes offshore from Cairns, the centre is accessible by boat. Cairns Tours can hook you up with offers on overnight stays and day trips, whichever suits you best! Embrace the laid-back nature of these beautiful sea creatures and this island oasis with some turtle time.

Established in 2013, The Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre is world-class and has been taking in injured and sick turtles regularly since then. The rehabilitation success rate of the centre is 85%, which is among the highest in terms of sea turtles worldwide.

Fitzroy Island

Turtle Bay at Agincourt Reef

90 minutes by boat from Port Douglas, Agincourt Reef features a protected turtle locale aptly named Turtle Bay. Hawksbill and green turtles are regularly spotted here from October to December, and according to locals, eight specific green turtles are considered residents of Agincourt. A few even have names, like Lucky and Friendly Girl. The occasional olive ridley or loggerhead sighting is not uncommon either!

Mojo, Opal Reef

Opal Reef is located just south of Agincourt Reef and is another hot spot for turtles, especially during the late spring and summer months. Expect to see loggerheads, green turtles, olive ridleys, and hawksbills around these waters.

Green Island

Green Island is one of the most popular islands with tourists in Queensland. The reef in this location is rich in marine biodiversity and is home to the likes of dugong, clownfish, butterflyfish, and over 290 species of coral. Even the turtles love to play here when the area is not too crowded. Green Island is just 45 minutes away from Cairns and is among the most incredible locations to spend a day sailing and snorkelling with turtles.

coral reefs

Book Your Turtle Experience Today with Cairns Tours!

Encounters with sea turtles on the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most special activities to experience while exploring the pristine waters of Australia. And luckily for you, Cairns Tours has all the best hook-ups for scoring you that very special intimate moment! Book a tour with us today and dive deep into the blue to meet our six beautiful species in person.


For help experiencing the best of what Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef have to offer, consult our knowledgeable travel experts today!

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