Which Great Barrier Reef Is Best?

What is the difference Between Outer Great Barrier Reefs And Inner Great Barrier Reefs?

Many ask us to define the difference between the ‘inner’  and ‘outer’  Reefs.

Here we discuss which Reef is best. And why.

We hope this page will give you insight into the difference between inner and outer Reefs.

This page discusses the best starting points for tours and marine life.  We will also cover exciting facts about these locations.

The Outer Great Barrier Reef

When you visit, you will want to ensure you see the best of the GBR.

We conjure picture-perfect postcard shots when we think of the Great Barrier Reef best collected on trips to the outer barrier reef.

For the best Great Barrier Reef experience, it is well known that the outer reefs have the most beautiful aquatic life.

You will find more fish, marine mammals and coral on the outer reefs during your visit.  As the name suggests, outer reefs lie further away from shore, with inner reefs closer to the  Australian coast.

The outer Great Barrier Reefs boast far superior water clarity than the inner reef. With average visibility ranging from 10 – 40 meters.  While the islands and inner reefs  average 5-meter visibility

There is a remarkable diversity of marine creatures that live on the outer Great Barrier Reef systems.

This region is home to 1400 types of fish, 130 varieties of sharks and rays and over 600 types of hard and soft corals.

Water nutrients are excellent here, resulting in mass fish congregating to feed in the affluent oceanic areas.

Outer Great Barrier Reefs offer fantastic, protected, shallow lagoons appropriate for all levels of diving and snorkelling activities.

While some outer reefs offer dramatic drop-off vistas, these are usually a short distance from the main vessel.

All our tours that market themselves as trips to ‘outer Great Barrier Reef locations’ ensure the best locations are visited.

Unless we advertise as suitable only to advanced scuba divers, our outer reef tours offer excellent snorkelling and diving opportunities. So, again, catering to all levels of swimming ability and in-water experience.

Underwater Photography

Photography lovers adore the underwater vistas beneath the surface as well as the sheer beauty of the expansive Coral Sea.

Dusk and dawn boast spectacular sunset and sunrise opportunities to capture the perfect shot.

Underwater photographers enjoy the choice of many colourful fish and coral on the outer reefs.

Where is the best place to visit the Outer Great Barrier Reef?

There is a big difference between visiting the outer reef, with a starting point of Far North Queensland, and a starting point of Southern Queensland.


Starting from Cairns is arguably the best place to begin your outer Great Barrier Reef liveaboard tour.

Cairns is the closest City to the outer Great Barrier Reefs, making the journey time to reach each location ideal.

Most tours depart from Cairns for the outer Great Barrier Reef and take approximately 90 minutes to reach their first reef location.

This ease of access and short distances between the different northerly reef sites means you spend longer at each spectacular location.

Boat tours that visit the outer Great Barrier locations are usually higher-speed catamaran vessels – designed to give guests stability and comfort on outer Reef voyages.

While Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays are perfect for inner Reef sailing liveaboards – the distance to the outer reefs makes them less appealing from these starting points.

Most vessels in these areas are designed as sailing vessels – catering to beach and island Reef cruises.

The Inner  Reefs and Islands

Which Reef Is Best? Outer Great Barrier Reef vs Inner Great Barrier Reef tours
Fitzroy Island on the Inner Great Barrier Reef

Along the Queensland coastline, the inner systems comprise fringing reefs and pristine and idyllic sand islands.

Inner reefs are often home to various soft corals and are a nursery for smaller fish before they mature and venture further.

The inner ecosystems also have seagrass meadows, which form an important breeding ground for many species of aquatic life.

Islands are safe havens that protect from weather and larger predators to small fish and juvenile mammals.

While fringing reefs provide excellent snorkelling and swimming opportunities.  Boats will source sheltered bays with calm swimming areas.

Access to snorkelling and swimming is usually directly off the beach, making easy entry and exit points.

Water visibility at inner locations is not as straightforward as in outer areas, with an average visibility of around five meters (or sixteen feet).

Primarily because of the amount of sand in the water from the nearby coast and islands.

That offsets the lesser visibility because inner reefs are in much shallower depths than the outer reefs.

As you are snorkelling relatively closer to the ocean bed, there’s still plenty to see as you enjoy your time in the water.

Inner reefs are ideal destinations for beginner snorkelers and non-swimmers or for a relaxing beach getaway.

Shallow, calm, protected water with easy beach access is optimal for those who want the best of both worlds.

Glass-boat and semi-submarine tours are popular options for those who don’t want to get their toes wet.

Where is the best place to visit the Inner Great Barrier Reef?

Whitsundays Islands

The picturesque Whitsundays Islands are home to some of the best fringing reefs throughout the Great Barrier Reef.

Inner Coastal Reef systems surround the Whitsunday Islands, and many provide ideal shallow snorkelling and swimming areas.

If you embark on a Whitsunday overnight tour, we recommend that you enjoy a sailing liveaboard around the inner reefs and islands.

As most liveaboards in the Whitsundays are sailing boats, they are ideal for well-sheltered island cruising.

The extended journey time from the Whitsundays to the outer reefs makes them less accessible than from more convenient departure points, such as Cairns.

Cairns Islands

Green Island, Fitzroy Island, and the Frankland Islands. These spectacular destinations are accessible by fast island ferries and are predominantly day tours.

Green Island Resort provides an outstanding option for those who want the overnight island experience.

Adding an inner reef island day tour to your itinerary is also excellent. Again, you’ll get an enjoyable experience of a different GBR ecosystem.

What animals are here, and where?

Some larger mammals, such as dugongs, inhabit the inner reefs and warm coastal waters.

As the only marine mammal 100% herbivore, dugongs feed on the seagrass floor.

However, sightings are rare as their numbers in the wild are low.

Fish congregate in large numbers on the outer reefs, where water nutrients are optimal and life is plentiful.

Some of our favourites include schools of oriental sweetlips, red bass, paddle tail snapper and Maori wrasse.

Outer reefs are known for abundant marine life.

Here you will find tropical fish of every colour, size and shape amidst the myriad of hard and soft corals.

While the entire Great Barrier Reef has excellent marine life, the northern reefs have more marine life to encounter.

Our advice to encounter these incredible animals is to spend as much time in the water snorkelling and scuba diving!

Glass bottom boat tours are another way to see the reef without getting wet.

There are also optimal times of the day for chance encounters with certain species of marine life.

A Great Barrier Reef liveaboard tour beats a day tour, hands down, for animal encounters.

Sharks are more commonly seen at night and also at dusk and dawn.

Scuba divers can go night diving,  one of the most incredible experiences.

Turtles are most active at dawn and in the earlier hours of daylight. However, they may also be seen during the day and even sleeping during the night!

Humpback whales are seasonal to the GBR.

Humpback whales travel up the eastern Queensland coast of Australia to mate and give birth.   This migration happens between April and November each year.

With a cruising speed of 7 kilometres an hour,  humpbacks visit the Great Barrier Reef between June to September.

Which Is Best?

When choosing your GBR tour, consider which option will suit you best.

An adventure to see the best fish, coral and marine life.

Or An idyllic, relaxing beach/island getaway in a tropical paradise.

The inner  Reefs offer impressive encounters with this famous natural wonder.

We hope we’ve provided you with a clear overview of the differences and similarities between these two ecosystems.


Which Reef Is Best? Outer Great Barrier Reef vs Inner Great Barrier Reef tours
Eastern Clownfish