Australia is world-renowned as an outdoor and adventure destination—and for good reason. The island-continent has been isolated from other major landmasses for so long that its flora and fauna have evolved in isolation, producing a wealth of organisms found nowhere else in the world. It also features diverse scenery—from ancient rainforest highlands to stark arid plains—and many remote quarters. Some of its most evocative scenery and diversity is found along the coast and below the surface: wild marine gardens open for exploration by snorkelers. Here are five of the best spots to don snorkel, mask, and fins Down Under.
THE GREAT BARRIER REEF
The following sites all belong to the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral system—famously, it’s clearly discernible from outer space—and one of Australia’s defining landmarks. The 1,600-mile-long reef sprawls off the northeastern coast of Queensland in the Coral Sea, stretching from the Torres Strait—which separates Australia’s Cape York Peninsula from New Guinea—to Lady Elliot Island. Composed of a variety of reef types—ribbon, fringing, deltaic, and platform—and a true bastion of biodiversity, it’s no surprise the Great Barrier ranks as Australia’s most popular snorkeling destination.
Frommer’s calls Heron Island, in the southern Great Barrier Reef, the “number-one snorkel and dive site in Australia.” The reef buttressing this forested coral cay provides an excellent representation of the Great Barrier’s biological splendors.
This island in the northern Great Barrier Reef is another fine snorkeling destination. Supporting a national park, a major coral-reef research station, and a luxury resort, Lizard Island has fabulous fringing reefs for the snorkeler to cruise over. Among the highlights are massive (and docile) giant clams—biggest bivalve on Earth—which stud the coral gardens.
Lady Elliot Island
Blessed with waters of stunning clarity and included in one of the rigorously protected “Green Zones” of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Lady Elliot Island is another mecca for snorkelers. This coral cay offers wonderful opportunities to get an up-close look at the diversity of corals that construct the reef, as well as look for barracudas, sea turtles, sharks, and other denizens. You’ll also get perspective on Great Barrier geography, snorkeling at its southernmost frontier.
This is the lesser-known, west-coast counterpart of the Great Barrier Reef. The Ningaloo is a fringing reef—Australia’s longest, in fact—stretching 160 miles along the semi-arid North West Cape of Western Australia. It is most famous for the enormous whale sharks that visit the reef in the austral autumn; these wide-mouthed, heavily spotted creatures, which feed on plankton and other small creatures, are the world’s largest fish, occasionally reaching lengths of 50 feet. Despite their imposing size, whale sharks are harmless to human beings—though anything of such bulk must be treated with respect, of course. Another filter-feeding gentle giant common to the Ningaloo is the manta ray, an enormous, black-and-white beast that often feasts on its miniscule prey in swooping loops, and sometimes leaps dramatically from the water.
These and other big creatures—like the dugong (an elephantine underwater grazer), humpback whales, sea turtles, and tiger sharks—may attract the most attention, but the Ningaloo Reef is also a place of wrasses, shrimp, and eels. It’s an excellent destination for the snorkeler, considering the coral shelves often begin quite close to the shore.
One attraction of Rottnest Island—which formerly housed an Aboriginal prison and internment camps from the two World Wars—is its close proximity to Western Australia’s big, vibrant capital of Perth: The Island is but 12 miles offshore. It supports rich coral and seagrass habitat, as well as a full roster of marine organisms: from tailors, butterfly fish, and western rock lobsters to Australian sea lions, bottlenose dolphins, and humpback whales.
Cars are prohibited on Rottnest Island; snorkelers can travel between the prime sites by bicycle or foot, which makes this destination a particularly refreshing and vigorous one—above and below the water.
This post was submitted by Gemma Hobbs.