Which Great Barrier Reef Is Best?

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

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

We’re also asked which reef is best?

Here, we’ll try to insight into the difference between inner and outer Reefs.  This is done to help you decide which is the right option for you.

We’ll discuss the best starting points for the different tours and marine life.  We will also cover other interesting facts about these locations.

The Outer Great Barrier Reef

When you are visiting, you will really want to make sure you see the best of the GBR.

Picture-perfect postcard shots that we conjure when we think of the Great Barrier Reef are found when snorkelling or scuba diving on the outer Great Barrier Reefs.

Outer Great Barrier Reefs are widely acknowledged as having the most beautiful aquatic life.

Fish, marine mammals and coral thrive on the outer reefs.  As the name suggests, outer reefs lie further away from shore. At the same time, the inner reefs are nearer to the Australian coast.

While outer Great Barrier Reefs boast far superior water clarity than the inner reef. With average visibility ranging from 10 – 40 meters.  This is compared to an average of 5 meters around coastal equivalents.

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

With over 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 numbers congregating to feed in the rich 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 away 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 – all of 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 are spoilt for choice with so many colourful fish and coral.

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, compared to a starting point of Southern Queensland.


Cairns is arguably the best place to begin your outer 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 that depart from Cairns for the outer Great Barrier Reef take approximately 90 minutes to reach their first reef location.

This ease of access and short distances between the different northerly reef sites means that you get to 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 of the 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

The inner systems lie close to the coastline of Queensland Australia and comprise fringing reefs and pristine, idyllic sand islands.

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

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

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

Fringing reefs provide excellent snorkelling and swimming opportunities, with sheltered bays often having 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 clear as outer areas, with an average visibility of around five meters (or sixteen feet).

This is mostly because of the amount of sand in the water from the nearby coast and islands.

That offsets the lesser visibility’s because inner reefs are located 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 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 tours 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 that are well protected from the weather by the islands.

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 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.

For those who want the overnight island experience from Cairns Green Island Resort provides an outstanding option.

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

What animals can be found, and where?

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

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

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

You will find fish congregating 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.

Generally speaking, the further north your departure point, the more marine life you are likely to come encounter.

Our advice to encounter these incredible animals is to spend as much time as you can snorkelling or 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.

This is why 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 be also be seen during the day and even sleeping during the night!

Humpback whales are seasonal to the GBR.


To catch a sighting. This is generally when these beautiful creatures are migrating into warmer waters along the east coast of Australia.

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 of the Whitsunday Islands and the Outer Reefs from Cairns 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