Diving and snorkeling from Airlie Beach, party town, gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. Some background information.
Australia's Great Barrier Reef extends north from around Gladstone and the Tropic of Capricorn for about 2000 kilometres along the coast. At the Tropic, it is a scattering of individual reefs about 200 to 300 kilometres off shore. The reefs generally get closer to shore as you head north. North of Cairns, the reef makes an almost continuous barrier to the Coral Sea, and can be up to 80 kilometres wide.
There are around 600 islands in the area, around 250 continental islands (not coral islands), at least 2500 named reefs and 70 named coral cays. You don't see the Great Barrier Reef. You see a small part of it. There are resorts on about 20 islands, and camping on some others.
Most of the Barrier Reef is part of a National Park, and there are restrictions on permitted activities, especially those that might damage the reef. The area is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Some areas can not be entered except in emergencies or for scientific study, some are available for viewing but no fishing or collecting is premitted. Maritime National Park A zone allows recreational fishing (single line and single hook), General Use B zone allows recreational and commercial use but not trawling or shipping. General Use A zone allows all reasonable usses, including shipping and trawling. Commercial spearfishing or spearfishing with SCUBA is not allowed anywhere within the 344,000 square kilomtres of the Marine Park.
A reef tax of A$4 or A$5 per day per person is charged for entry to the Marine Park. This will normally be collected when you board your boat. Funds gathered are used to help preserve the reef. Pretty much any trip in the area will involve entering the park.
The Whitsunday Islands, near Airlie Beach, like almost all the larger islands, are simply the tops of mountains, and are therefore hilly, with vegetation very similar to the nearby mainland. Only a very few islands are actually on the reef. There are also low lying coral cays, some with vegetation, and some simply coral sand. Coral cays may shift over time, and may not survive cyclones. The islands all suffer from water shortages. If camping, you usually have to bring your own water (and everything else).
Most boat trips to the islands or the reef cater for both snorkellers and for divers. Divers generally pay a premium of around $50 a day to cover use of tanks, air, weights, torches, etc. You can usually combine a dive training course and pleasure diving on a single trip, and this can be a real bargain for anyone wanting more than a short glimpse of the reef.
If doing an Open Water diving course, you must have a diving medical test to Australian Standard 4005.1 within the past three months. Your diving course can arrange this for you, at a cost of approximately $40. You will also need to bring at least two passport sized photos for your diving logbook. Most courses will arrange appropriate photos at around $8 for a set of four.
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