Australia’s Great Barrier Reef with Kids

I don’t subscribe to the “wait until they’re old enough to appreciate it” travel philosophy. Sure, the kids won’t remember everything, but it’s not just about them. My memory’s still pretty good. That said, I understand picking and choosing destinations. A family holiday in Australia’s been on my bucket list for a long time, and I’ll admit I’ve been waiting until my girls were old enough to scuba dive. Learn from my mistake. I could and should have taken a trip to the Great Barrier Reef with kids years ago.

Australia Great Barrier Reef
Turtle hiding among the coral in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

My first day in Port Douglas, even though the weather was far from ideal, I headed to the Outer Reef with Quicksilver. The massive multi-level boat can hold more than 400 excited people.

It’s the kind of boat you want to be on when the weather doesn’t cooperate with your dream trip to the reef. I didn’t notice the waves, but I did notice the kids, everywhere. Some of them weren’t old enough to walk, but that wasn’t stopping their parents from letting them get wet.

“Everybody knows Nemo, because Nemo’s a movie star,” says John Scotese, a Quicksilver Reef Biosearch Biologist.

Great Barrier Reef Introduction

The Great Barrier Reef is actually a series of about 2,900 individual reefs. Stretching almost 1,500 miles along the north-eastern coast of Australia, it covers an immense area half the size of Texas. It’s said to be home to more than 1,500 species of fish and 350 different corals.

Different operators go to different sections of the reef. Quicksilver goes to Agincourt Reef, at the very outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef and the edge of the continental shelf of Australia. It takes a little more than an hour, but there’s plenty going on aboard the boat to keep the family busy. Dive briefings, reef videos, information about helicopter tours and marine biologists educating folks about what’s waiting for them in the depths below.

Agincourt Reef with Quicksilver

Quicksilver has a floating platform at Agincourt Reef where it docks when it arrives at the reef. Along with doubling the space to move around in, it creates an immediate sense of organization when you arrive.

Those going for a helicopter ride over the Great Barrier Reef board a second, smaller boat and are whisked off to yet another floating platform. Divers go to one spot, snorkelers another, all while lifeguards and safety supervisors keep a watchful eye.

Having floating platforms changes everything. Snorkeling with the kids becomes doable and enjoyable, not overwhelming. You don’t have to jump off the side of a boat to get into the water.

A metal framework with stairs and a series of benches that drop into the water give parents and kids an easy place to sit while putting gear on. Once wet, floating lines create clear boundaries for snorkeling and exploring while keeping everyone where the lifeguard can see them.

If you have older kids, tweens and teens, consider going on a snorkeling tour of sorts with a biologist. (There’s a beginner and advanced tour if swimming is a concern.) You’ll leave the floating boundaries behind and see things you might have missed on your own, like the chance to swim with a shark out cruising the reef. It’s more fun than it sounds!

Australia Great Barrier Reef
Bright blue star of Agincourt Reef

There are also a couple options for those looking to see the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef without getting wet. The underwater viewing platform is popular with swimmers and non-swimmers alike. Boats shaped like submarines with sides made of glass leave regularly for reef tours.

Exploring the Low Isles

If the thought of venturing to the Outer Edge of the Great Barrier Reef with kids still seems a bit overwhelming, consider a sailing trip to Low Isles. It’s still the Great Barrier Reef, just a softer, gentler version on the Inner Edge, complete with sand.

At Low Isles you snorkel right from the beach. Being able to simply walk into the water makes getting the entire family ready to go a much easier task. The water is often so shallow, everyone is encouraged to use a noodle to keep floating high atop the water and prevent damage to the reef. The coral is that close. At many points, if you reach out, you’ll touch it, but you’ll also do incredible damage.

Australia Great Barrier Reef
Parrot fish are a common sight at Low Isles

The delicate reef around Low Isles is home to 150 species of hard corals, but is dominated by 15 species of soft corals. Along with a colorful variety of fish, it’s a favorite spot for green turtles.

Sailaway is one of only four reef tour companies allowed to moor at Low Isles, keeping crowds at a minimum. There are actually two small islands that share the same reef. Woody Island is uninhabited except for a large bird population. The smaller island is a coral cay with a tiny operating lighthouse just steps away from the beach where you’ll enter the water to snorkel.

Australia Great Barrier Reef Low Isles
Low Isles equally stunning from a distance

“The beach was really good. I wish I’d brought a cricket bat and ball,” says 11 year-old Hari Kukreja from Singapore. It was his family’s second trip to Australia this year.

The Sailaway catamaran was the first boat to arrive and our group of about 30, a good half of which were kids, had the place to ourselves for the beginning of the morning. If you can tear yourself away from the turtles and coral, do some exploring on land. You don’t need much time. You can check out the lighthouse and do a loop of the island in a matter of minutes. What it lacks in size, it makes up with in charm.

Sailaway does things slightly different than other providers at Low Isles. After a morning of snorkeling, lunch is served aboard the catamaran. After lunch instead of returning to the beach, passengers are encouraged to snorkel in a deeper, lesser known area off the coral cay. Don’t let the comfortable, warm, dry feeling created by the afternoon sun sway you from taking another plunge. The day I was at Low Isles, getting back in the water meant swimming through a few small sharks circling the back of the boat. Admittedly the thought was initially a little un-nerving, but once in, I hung out with the sharks, enjoying the company before swimming off to take in the coral.

Sails Up

Heading home is not a rushed affair. Sails go up and the true benefit of being aboard a catamaran begins. Our captain was quick to enlist the help of the many kids on board and by the time we arrived in Port Douglas close to a dozen kids had enjoyed time behind the wheel and navigated their way through the waters of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

“I thought it was really fun and I can’t believe that I got to drive a boat,” says 9-year-old Molly Jackson from Australia’s Gold Coast.

Sounds like a vacation the family will be talking about … actually bragging about for years to come.

Editorial Note: Dana’s trip to Australia was hosted by Tourism Queensland, but as always Dana’s thoughts and opinions are her own. Photos by Dana Rebmann

Relevant Links:

Australia Dream Becomes Reality

Australia with kids road trip through Southern Australia

Top things to do in Sydney with kids

Christmas on the Great Barrier Reef

Start a Discussion

  • Hola! I’ve been reading your web site for a while
    now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from New
    Caney Tx! Just wanted to say keep up the good job!

  • This is definitely on our bucket list, and I love your point about ‘waiting ‘tiil they’re old enough’. Our kids are always learning, and why not give them that lifelong gift of a love of travel?
    Amazing photos and stories as usual! Thanks!

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