When recently asked to pick a place he'd love to revisit, Sir David Attenborough replied: "A coral reef, with its sheer magnitude of different, wonderful, beautiful things."
Reefs weave through oceans across our globe, but there is no system more famous than Australia's Great Barrier Reef, a natural phenomenon so vast and dramatic, it can be seen from space. A collection of 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands stretching for more than 1,400 miles along the east coast of Queensland, it's a spectacle of colourful critters, mighty marine mammals and curious deep-sea organisms.
Of course, the opportunities for snorkelling and scuba are outstanding, but, as Attenborough points out, "You don't need to be a great underwater swimmer to see the miracle of a flourishing coral reef."
There are alternative options for underwater sleeps, walk-though observatories and aerial tours for a bird's-eye view. Spend time planning a perfect trip by diving in to some of these suggestions.
How can I see the reef without getting wet?
From glass-bottomed boats to underwater galleries and even bedrooms, there are many ways to marvel at marine life without getting even slightly soaked. Located on the Great Barrier Reef, close to the Whitsundays, the Reefsuites pontoon features two submerged rooms with floor to ceiling windows, providing views of tropical fish, turtles and manta rays. All-inclusive stays cost from £415 per person per night. There's also an option to sleep out under the stars on deck, in several comfortable pods.
Nearby, the split-level Heart Island pontoon provides an opportunity for guests to explore the Instagram-favourite Heart Reef lagoon. The two-and-a-half-hour-trip is available to guests staying on Hamilton Island. From £615 per person. Visit hamiltonisland.com.au.
Further south, off the coast of Bundaberg, the new Lady Musgrave Experience pontoon (opening in the next few months) will also feature underwater accommodation for up to 24 people, and an underwater observatory. Visit ladymusgraveexperience.com.au.
Which are the best islands for a remote, rustic experience?
Imagine days spent swinging on hammocks, listening to surf rhythmically lap sandy shores. Desert island paradise is summed up perfectly on Pumpkin Island, a low-key 6.1-hectare patch of land set along the Capricorn Coast in the southern part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Reserve, just off the coast of Yeppoon. Stay overnight (or longer) in five cottages and two beach bungalows, where electricity is provided by wind and solar power, and rainwater is filtered for drinking.
Gather enough friends and family together and it's possible to rent the whole place for a reasonable rate; split between 34 people, a seven-night stay works out at £46 per night. Visit pumpkinisland.com.au.
There are nine luxury Reef Safari Tents hidden in an ancient Pisonia forest, with meals served in a central dining area. Along with following nature trails or exploring on a SUP, activities include a chance to see turtles nesting and hatching. The island closes every year from February to April, to allow the resident bird population the peace and quiet they need to nest. A two-night all-inclusive stay costs £1,224 (two sharing). Visit wilsonisland.com.
What about a high-end option?
Describing her family's elite hideaway, hotelier Anna Turner refers to Haggerstone Island as the "best place to shake the world out of people". A two-hour flight north from Cairns, and a 40-minute flight from the nearest town, it features five high-end beachfront huts, inspired by a mixture of African and Papua New Guinean themes.
To hire the island exclusively costs £3,857 a night (minimum four nights) for 12 guests. Visit haggerstoneisland.com.au.
Equally intimate but a little more affordable, Elysian Retreat in the Whitsundays is the first fully solar powered resort on the Reef, with 10 bungalows dotted along the beach. Meals are prepared with a focus on health and nutrition, while wellbeing treats come in the form of daily yoga classes and massage treatments. All-inclusive stays from £355 per night. Visit elysianretreat.com.au.
Where can I get a glimpse of research work in action?
Long-regarded as one of Australia's most idyllic tropical island retreats, Lizard Island is also home to an acclaimed research station, attracting coral reef researchers from around the globe. Approximately 100 different projects are now conducted annually, generating more than 1,200 scientific publications since 1973. Guests staying in the island's 40 beach-house suites can visit the Research Station on a guided tour, to find out about the work being done. Visit lizardisland.com.au.
For a more hands-on experience, Daydream Island Resort in the Whitsundays has a man-made Living Reef, ideal for families to learn about what happens beneath the waves. A coral lagoon wrapping 200m around the resort, it hosts more than 100 species of local marine life. Resident marine biologists lead a range of activities, including tours of an underwater observatory and an interactive touch pool. A collection of new raceways, tanks with an inlet and outlet enabling a simulation of tides, are also used for coral propagation. Visit daydreamisland.com