Hoping to visit the Great Barrier Reef during your big trip to Sydney? The world’s largest coral reef is located far from this exciting Australian city — but don’t throw in the (beach) towel quite yet! Here’s what you need to know before making your way there.

The Great Barrier Reef lives up to its distinction as one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Comprised of 2,900 coral reefs and hundreds of islands, and home to more than 1,500 fish species, the Reef is visible from outer space, and it wows everyone who visits.

What to do on the Reef

When it comes to visiting the Great Barrier Reef, travelers can choose between dozens of locations and activities. Although the sheer number of possibilities might feel overwhelming, you can’t go wrong when visiting this beauty.

Cairns, in northern Queensland, is often referred to as the gateway of the Reef. This city is easily accessible from Sydney, and it offers a wide variety of options to travelers. Whether you choose to scuba dive, snorkel, swim, join a whale-watching expedition, spend a night on a sailboat, or take a sightseeing flight over the ocean, you won’t believe how clear the water is. Back on land, you can explore the nearby Daintree Rainforest or get to know the local Aborigines through a cultural tour.

A few hours southeast of Cairns, Townsville is another popular hub for visitors to the Great Barrier Reef. Take a ferry to Magnetic Island, home to a large colony of koalas, or trek the Thorsborne Trail on remote Hinchinbrook Island, which only 40 people can visit at any given time. For experienced scuba divers, the nearby SS Yongala shipwreck is considered one of the best dive sites in the world. The ship lies isolated on a sandy bottom, so its hulk has become a thriving artificial reef.

The Fraser Coast, not far from Brisbane, is one of the southernmost regions along the Great Barrier Reef. This stretch of coastline is less touristy than either Cairns or Townsville, but it’s just as lovely. Here, travelers can take a glass-bottomed boat tour around Lady Elliot Island, encounter humpback whales during their long migration, do a little more diving, or even explore Fraser (the world’s largest sand island).

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How to get there

For most travelers, driving from Sydney to the Great Barrier Reef isn’t a great option, especially on a short vacation to Australia. The drive takes anywhere from 14 to 27 hours, depending on the final destination, and bus and train options aren’t much faster.

Fortunately, you can fly to cities located along the Reef without too much hassle. From Sydney, it’s possible to catch a direct flight to Cairns Airport. Plan on spending three hours on the plane, as well as $150-300 (USD) for round-trip airfare.

If you’d prefer to explore Townsville, you can fly into that city too, although direct flights from Sydney are less common. You’ll need to shell out $200-400 (USD) for round-trip airfare to Townsville. And if you’d rather spend your time on the Fraser Coast, you can catch a direct flight from Sydney to Hervey Bay Airport for about $300 (USD) round trip.

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How to protect the Great Barrier Reef

Since coral bleaching (the expulsion of symbiotic algae organisms from coral polyps) threatens the Great Barrier Reef’s survival, it’s extremely important to practice sustainable travel while visiting. The Reef is divided into several different zones that dictate the activities allowed in a given area, and these regulations are more than just good guidelines — they’re essential to the Reef’s future.

As a traveler, you’re allowed to swim, snorkel, and dive in most zones, but you should never touch the coral or marine life. Always avoid making sudden movements in the water, and keep clear of animals swimming nearby. Never remove any coral from the water, and only collect shells after making sure that nothing lives inside them.

Of course, you can (and should) protect the Great Barrier Reef before and after your visit, too. Most scientists agree that reducing your carbon footprint is the best way to help this fragile ecosystem, as well as others around the world. Why? Because climate change stresses the corals and leads to bleaching. Since algae produces the polyps’ favorite food — carbohydrates — during photosynthesis, bleaching events ultimately lead to coral starvation and death. Around the world, bleaching events are becoming more devastating, and about 50 percent of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef have died since 2016.

Don’t lose hope yet, though. Research teams are actively looking for solutions and silver linings — last year, the Great Barrier Reef Legacy project even helped marine biologists discover a new type of coral and identify an extremely resilient coral species. Furthermore, the world is becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of climate change, and more and more people are making eco-friendly lifestyle changes. In fact, seeing the Great Barrier Reef for yourself might be one of the best ways to understand the importance of sustainable living — so get going!

Cover photo by Alexandra Baeva

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Whitney Brown
Whitney Brown is a recent journalism graduate and travel writer based in Utah. She has lived in France and Ireland, and she's always planning her next big adventure. In addition to her passion for travel, Whitney loves archaeology, photography and floral design.