see + do
Concierge.com's insider take:
A diver's heaven, the reef is one of the world's biggest underwater preserves, and home to 1,500 varieties of fish and 400 types of coral—not to mention dolphins, dugongs, sea turtles, rays, whales, sea snakes…the list goes on and on. There are more than 5,000 different dive sites spread across the reef's various islets and cays.
Island and beach resorts all provide equipment and lessons for a fee and run daily diving and snorkeling trips to various reef sites. Serious divers often forgo the resort experience entirely and instead spend two to ten days on a live-aboard dive boat. This allows them to make several dives per day and visit the farther-flung sites. One of the best live-aboard dive operators is Mike Ball Dive Expeditions. Ball, a Brit who's been in the scuba business for 30-odd years, runs multiday excursions from Cairns on his state-of-the-art, 100-foot twin-hulled boat (for up to 29 passengers at a time). Divers visit sites like Cod Hole (where they can have close encounters with potato cod the size of small cars); Osprey's Reef (famous for its underwater walls and resident hammerhead and grey whaler sharks); Ribbon Reef (home to the beautiful but deadly scorpion fish and, in June and July, minke whales); and dozens of other sites. Prices start at about $1,000 per person for a three-night, 12-dive trip; all meals, snacks, nonalcoholic drinks, and tanks and weight belts are included (61-74-053-0500 or, in the U.S., 888-645-3225; www.mikeball.com).
If one day of underwater sightseeing is enough for you, there are tons of exceptional sites in easy day-trip distance from the mainland coast. One of the most reputable day-trip operators is Tusa Dive, in Cairns, whose fully equipped boats can accommodate up to 60 divers. Day trips include two or three dives (with all the necessary gear), snorkeling for nondivers, and the optional services of a professional underwater photographer—to show the folks at home you really did encounter that giant manta ray or moray eel (61-7-4047-9100; www.tusadive.com).
For more information about diving and snorkeling on the reef, check out www.barrierreefaustralia.com.