Lady Musgrave Island Hayley Andersen

How to explore the Great Barrier Reef if you’ve never snorkelled before

Snorkelling is one of life’s great joys. Especially when you’re swimming among a World Heritage-listed site like the Great Barrier Reef. Witnessing the colourful marine life and vibrant coral from inside a boat just isn’t the same as dipping your head below the surface and immersing yourself in all the action.

But snorkelling for the first time can be a daunting experience. Luckily, it’s an easy technique to master. Follow these top tips on how to explore the Great Barrier Reef if you’re a first-time snorkeller.

1. Buy a Fish ID Guide

Before you head out to explore this majestic wonderland, invest in a fish identification guide. These waterproof cards will help you get to know the spectacular species you’re about to swim with. Knowing what you’re looking at will not only give you peace of mind; it will make your snorkelling adventure more memorable as you’ll be able to put a name to each face you encounter along the way.

You can pick up a fish identification guide from most scuba diving centres.

The Reef Teach facility in Cairns is another great way to get to know the reef before you dive in. Their Reef Teach Talks run for two hours on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights and are led by qualified marine biologists who will acquaint you with the Great Barrier Reef’s most common fish, marine life and corals, while also teaching you about the threats to the Great Barrier Reef. It’s the perfect introduction to understanding how to explore the Great Barrier Reef while keeping it and its inhabitants safe.

2. Join a guided snorkelling tour

First-time snorkellers should consider joining a guided tour. You’ll have a pro close by to show you the ropes and point out all the best things to see on the Great Barrier Reef.

Tours also provide all the essentials – mask, fins and wetsuits – so you don’t need to stress about what you need and can just focus on having a good time.

Your experienced tour guide will also be aware of the tides and currents in the area, and can tailor your snorkel accordingly. (Hint: It’s best to start your snorkel session swimming into the current so that when you get tired you can drift back to the boat with the current).

There are plenty of places to try your first snorkel session, with operators leaving daily from Port Douglas, Cairns, the Whitsundays and 1770 to visit perfectly safe, perfectly set up pontoons that are right on the edge of the reef so you don’t need to swim far.

3. Snorkel off a beach

Snorkelling off the beach

If you’re not on a tour, venturing off a beach is a good option for easing yourself into snorkelling. You can gradually reach the reef and choose a depth you’re comfortable with. If you are snorkelling from the beach, heading out one hour before high tide offers better visibility and gives you enough time to snorkel before the currents change.

The good news is there are plenty of spectacular reefs off equally stunning beaches on the Great Barrier Reef. Lady Elliot Island, Fitzroy Island and Pumpkin Island are all excellent choices (and perfect places to stay a night or two).

4. Wear the correct equipment and make sure it fits

Wetsuit or stinger suit

Make sure your wetsuit is the right size – you don’t want it to be skin-tight or too baggy. A wetsuit is designed to trap a layer of water between you and the suit that heats up, insulating you from the colder water outside. While far from freezing, the water temperature can drop to 23oC during winter. If you’re snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef during the warmer months, trade in your wetsuit for a stinger suit. Wearing a protective suit between November and March is recommended as there may be tiny jellyfish in the water.

Snorkelling mask

Test your mask before you get in the water. The easiest way to size it up? Hold it against your face without the strap on, breath in through your nose and make sure it sucks against your face without any leaks.

When using a brand-new mask for the first time, make sure you’ve washed off the protective film inside it. Use a pea-sized blob of toothpaste and rub thoroughly on both sides of the glass to ensure your view into Nemo’s world is clear and unobstructed.

Before you jump in the water to go snorkelling, spray your mask with an anti-fog spray (spitting in your mask works too). Give it a rinse, then you’re good to go.

Flotation device

Using a flotation device makes snorkelling stress-free and easy. If you’re not a confident swimmer then ask for a buoyancy vest or noodle (a brightly coloured floating device). It’ll save you from getting into difficulties and allow you to relax.


Fins make gliding over the reef effortless and help you conserve energy. Get fins that fit snugly, but not too tight.

5. Prepare to jump in

Snorkelling Great Barrier Reef

To ensure your mask doesn’t come off when you jump off the boat, use one hand to hold your index and middle fingers against the mask with your thumb pressed against your snorkel. It’ll ensure everything that’s meant to be against you stays that way. If you’re entering the water from a pontoon, you should be able to just slip in.

6. The Basics of using a snorkel

Adjust your snorkel so that when you’re looking down at the coral reef below you, it sits vertically upright. You may need a friend to help you adjust this as it’s crucial to keeping water out of the pipe, and ultimately your lungs.

Once you’re swimming across the surface, just breathe normal, slow deep breaths but with a little more ‘oomph’ than normal on your ‘out’ breath, just in case any water has found its way in.

Obviously, if you dive underwater, the snorkel will fill with water. As you make your way back to the surface, blow your used air out, saving some for a final blast to clear the tube as you break the surface.

7. Take a friend along for the ride

Sunlover Pontoon, Moore Reef | Snorkelling

Going snorkelling with a friend or buddy is a good idea to be safe and share the experience, too.

If you cramp up when you’re swimming, there’s always someone looking out for you. You’ll also have shared memories you can rave about forever.

Be aware of your surroundings: As you become entranced with what’s going on below, it can be easy to veer off course. Look up every once in a while to see where your buddy and boat are.

Why not turn that snorkelling experience into a week-long adventure on an island in the Southern Great Barrier Reef.

8. Don’t touch marine life

One of THE most important rules when snorkelling or diving on the Great Barrier Reef is to look but don’t touch. In order to protect our World Heritage Site, we all need to look after it and that means taking photos but nothing else.

The moment you touch coral you damage it, and you may hurt yourself, too. The slime over coral protects it from the sun’s rays, or in some instances, releases stinging nematodes into your skin. Not nice for either party!

9. Wear a reef-friendly sunscreen

Sunlover Pontoon, Moore Reef | Snorkelling

You may be semi-underwater when snorkelling, but unless you have a full stinger or wetsuit on, there’s a chance you will get sunburnt. The sun’s rays reflect on the surface of the water so even on overcast days, you need to apply sun protection.

Besides remembering to apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before you get in the water, it’s also important that you choose the right sunscreen. Look for a natural sunscreen that is reef-friendly. Oxybenzone – a chemical found in many sunscreens – is harmful to reefs so make sure you check the ingredients list of your sunscreen.

For more ways to help save the Great Barrier Reef, read this guide.

10. Relax

Once you get the hang of it, snorkelling is a peaceful activity and is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace. Remember to relax, tilt your head forwards, breathe slowly and watch the world below you in wonder as fish swim past and anemones wave at you.

Ready to dive in and give snorkelling a go? Here are 8 of the best snorkelling sites for you to explore.

For more ideas on how to explore the Great Barrier Reef, check out these epic Great Barrier Reef experiences and our top tips for planning your ultimate Great Barrier Reef holiday.