Best time of year to visit the Great Barrier Reef?

Posted by barbara on June 26, 2016


Far North Queensland's World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef and Wet Tropics rainforests famously meet at Cape Tribulation (pictured above), named by James Cook after his ship 'Endeavour' came to grief on a nearby reef.


During the 1980s, the defining Queensland marketing slogan was ‘Beautiful one day, perfect the next’.

This winning campaign was no doubt partly responsible for luring large numbers of southerners, especially from Victoria, to a warmer ‘beachier’ climate.

Years later the slogan was, and remains, a misleadingly simplistic assertion, capable of creating a lingering false sense of security for visitors. ‘Beautiful one day, perfect the next’ may apply in the Dry Season of old, but certainly doesn't year round, and not under a shifting climate.

So when do most tourists head to the reef?

The majority of tourists to the reef, mostly from overseas countries, arrive between June to November. That's because temperatures are milder during the winter, autumn and spring months and the rainy season should be well and truly over.  The other factor that can impact reef visits is overly windy weather, with blowy days generally uncommon by August.


Every day during the tourist season, convoys of boats depart Cairns and Port Douglas, not to mention southern cities, for the Great Barrier Reef. The shipping route out of Cairns is well marked for vessels departing and returning.

It's no surprise that most visitors avoid the hotter December-March Wet Season. The tropical downpours increase water turbidity, reducing underwater visibility, not great for reef viewing. And the warmer ocean temperatures increase the small but very real risk of encountering fatal ‘stingers’.

All of which puts the spotlight on the cheaper less crowded autumn shoulder season for travellers seeking a 'less touristy' experience. Fewer tourists on the reef mean fewer tourists on the road, including to the Wet Tropics 'beauty spots' of Mossman Gorge and the beaches running up to Cape Tribulation.

There were lessons to be learnt, however, from our late April 2016 visit, leaving aside the widely reported coral bleaching.


Flying into Cairns in late April, it was clear that siltation and turbidity, the results of unseasonal heavy rains, were impacting the onshore waters of the Coral Sea.

As we experienced first hand, the 2015/16 Wet Season was wasn't over by the end of April. Anything but as we discovered.

Such was the concern about the unusual weather that Cairns and the elevated Atherton Tablelands hinterland were said to be experiencing a so-called ‘Green Drought’ during April 2016.


It's early May, the shoulder season, and tourists are queuing to board one of the many catamarans travelling out to various reefs and islands off Cairns. 

The Green Drought broke, sure enough, just as we arrived in Cairns in late April, ordinarily when the ‘Wet’ should have been well and truly over.

So what exactly did a delayed 'Wet' mean for tourists like us who'd taken advantage of cost-effective shoulder flights in the expectation that the tourist numbers would be down and the weather conducive for reef going?

In short, autumn visitors can’t assume that every day will be a good reef day, as in worth paying money well in advance to go out on the reef in a boat, light plane or helicopter.  Delays to the Wet Season mean that you can't exclude rainy days, accelerated run off following downpours, high winds and the even the possibility of tail end cyclones. And the increased turbidity alone impacts underwater visibility for anyone venturing out on the reef.


Late Wet Season heavy rains not only impact the experience of boats travelling out to the reef. They also impact anyone heading north to the Daintree and Cape Tribulation or sightseeing in the Atherton Tablelands hinterland.

If good reef-going days get whittled down to one good day in five or so, tourists who allow one to two days on the reef max have to head out, whatever the weather?

If the late April weather was unseasonally wet, spare a thought for the mid July 2016 weather patterns in Queensland. Central Queensland experienced record breaking drenching rainfalls more reminiscent of the Spring and Summer Wet.

Showers were also falling in Cairns in July as the Weatherzone charts below demonstrates. 


Beautiful one day, perfect the next? Not necessarily in mid Winter!


And then there’s the Box Jelly Fish and Irekandji 'stingers' to consider for anyone contemplating taking a dip.


Far North Queensland's beaches have a lot more than sharks to be concerned about.

If the 'Wet' gets pushed back and the warmer onshore waters linger, the stinger season will surely extend, not only well into autumn but possibly into early winter.

All of which means that visitors intent on swimming in the balmy waters of the Wet Tropics' Coral Sea may have to resign themselves to stinger net enclosures or the swimming pools and spas provided by their accommodation.


Stinger net enclosures on a number of popular Far North Queensland beaches offer a measure of security against swimming into a lethal jellyfish.


The changes in seasonal weather are surely a wake up call, for tourist operators and reef visitors alike. 

If the reef continues to be impacted by warmer sea temperatures (eg coral bleaching and an extended stinger season), the overall tourist experience may also be in need of protection. 

Is it not time to do everything possible to protect the reef, be that locally (controlling run off) and nationally (reducing green house emissions)?  The Great Barrier Reef is, after all, for Far North Queenslanders the 'goose that laid the golden egg'.

PS Coral bleaching aside, the elephant in the room continues to be the increasing numbers of salt water crocodiles in northern waters, a year round threat as the death of a night swimmer on the Daintree's Thornton Beach in June 2016 attested.

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