Skip to Content

Is the Great Barrier Reef Safe to Visit in 2023? | Safety Tips

Is the Great Barrier Reef Safe to Visit in 2023? | Safety Tips

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the natural wonders of the world and a UNESCO world heritage site. Millions of people visit the reef each year, hoping to get a glimpse of this special attraction.

The Great Barrier Reef is special because it is not just the largest coral reef in the world, but it is also the largest structure made by living organisms.

Tiny coral built over 133,000 square miles of reef, a structure that is even visible from space. Visitors can marvel at the elaborate, delicate coral structures and teeming fish life on snorkel trips, diving trips, and boat excursions.

For many people, the Great Barrier Reef is a bucket list destination. However, before you make your dream of visiting this natural wonder a reality, it is important to look into practical concerns, such as safety.

But don’t worry — our travel experts have done the hard work for you by rounding up the all you need to know to help you figure out how to travel to the Great Barrier Reef safely. Let us be your guide!

Is the Great Barrier Reef Safe to Visit in 2023?

Tropical North Queensland road with a single car on it driving by the ocean for a piece titled Is the Great Barrier Reef Safe to Visit

Visual Collective/Shutterstock

Visiting the Great Barrier Reef is a safe experience. However, keep in mind that whenever you get out in nature, including by visiting the reef, you put yourself at risk to unpredictable elements.

Make sure you take good precautions when you visit the area. Many people visit the Great Barrier Reef with the goal of engaging in water sports such as swimming, snorkeling, or diving.

Whenever you go into the water, take precautions that you would when swimming anywhere else. Keep your limits in mind and don’t venture too far or too deep if you are not a strong swimmer.

Use sun protection to protect yourself from UV rays. There are some dangers inherent to swimming in the Great Barrier Reef. Some beaches around the reef have no lifeguards, so exercise your best judgment.

If there are lifeguards on duty, only swim between the red and yellow flags and follow posted instructions. Many visitors like to engage in other types of water activities at the Great Barrier Reef, such as diving.

If you want to go on deeper dives, you will need certification. Be mindful that some health conditions may prevent you from participating in diving. Tour operators will ask you about preexisting conditions and assess you for diving fitness.

After diving, be mindful of decompression sickness. Don’t fly the day after you dive as the change in pressure is dangerous. Don’t come up too fast when you are returning from the sea floor.

The Great Barrier Reef is home to a wide variety of animals. This wildlife is one of the primary draws for people visiting the reef, but it can also be dangerous.

In the shallow areas of the reef close to the shore, crocodiles often lurk. Obey any crocodile warning signs — if there is a sign mentioning a recent crocodile sighting, avoid the water at all costs.

The waters of the Great Barrier Reef are home to beautiful tropical fish, but also jellyfish, stinging rays, and sharks. Some coral species also sting. If you venture into the water, make sure you are taking precautions to protect yourself.

Two boats moored over the Great Barrier Reef to illustrate that commercial boats pollute the waters

GREAT BARRIER REEF, AUSTRALIA – October 14,2013: Staff perform end-of-day tasks on the Reefworld pontoon. Visitors can snorkel, dive, ride a semi-submersible or stay overnight under the stars/PomInOz/Shutterstock

Most tour operators offer stinger suits to protect you while snorkeling. Avoid traveling during the off season, which is from December to February, as that is when more jellyfish come out.

Fish around the Great Barrier Reef are sometimes aggressive. The Queensland State Government advises visitors to the Great Barrier Reef not to feed the fish as that motivates aggressive behavior in some species.

Fish know that the reef attracts tourists and will swarm boats looking for food. Plus, the food tourists feed fish is often bad for them. The Great Barrier Reef attracts a shark population.

The Australian government put together a page dedicated to protecting visitors from shark attacks called SharkSmart. Be sure to follow the tips there, including only swimming at patrolled beaches and never swimming alone.

Avoid times and locations that attract sharks such as dawn and dusk or near swarms of fishes that are the shark’s prey. Don’t swim in designated fishing areas of the Great Barrier Reef as sharks often trail fishing boats looking for scraps.

Besides thinking about your safety when visiting the Great Barrier Reef, think about the safety of your destination. The reef is massive yet fragile and dying every day due to climate change and pollution.

The Australian tourism board has advice for sustainable travel to the Great Barrier Reef, including not touching the coral with your fins while snorkeling, not taking any coral, and supporting local businesses that invest in sustainability.

Crime in the Great Barrier Reef

Lone woman walking along the boardwalk in Cairns, the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef

Cairns, Queensland, Australia – October 2022: The boardwalk and foreshore at low tide along the Cairns Esplanade park with the Reef Eye ferris wheel in the background/Paulharding00/Shutterstock

Crime in the Great Barrier Reef is not much of a problem. After all, what can anyone do when you are floating on a boat hundreds of feet away from shore, only surrounded by your fellow tourists? Sharks are a far bigger worry.

However, all tours to the Great Barrier Reef have to start somewhere, and most leave from the Australian city of Cairns.

Cairns is a popular tourist destination that is nicknamed “The Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef” because most boat tours use it as a departure point.

As such, you should probably look into its safety, as well as the safety of any towns you might visit along the way. As it’s the most popular, we’ll focus on Cairns, which has a fairly high property crime rate.

According to local news, a whopping 25% of residences in the Cairns area were impacted by burglaries or other property crimes in 2020. The good news is that most break-ins are concentrated in suburbs, where tourists rarely venture.

Plus, although the rate of burglaries is still high, the crime rate is declining. Overall, crime reported a slight increase in Cairns in 2022.

However, this increase in crime can partially be attributed to the end of Australia’s strict COVID-19 lockdowns, which played a role in limiting crime in 2020 and into 2021. The most common crime was theft.

The good news is that you don’t really have to worry about your personal safety in Cairns. According to Queensland Police data for the Far North, the vast majority of crimes that occur here are property crimes.

Like elsewhere in Australia, the rate of violent crime in the area around the Great Barrier Reef is very low. That said, I’ve been to Cairns, and while I stayed at a hostel, the only time I felt unsafe was at a self-serve laundromat.

My wife and I were washing clothes at 9pm and were approached by a man who appeared to be on drugs and was acting irradically. We left and watched from a distance until he left, then ran in and grabbed our stuff.

However, keep in mind that we stayed on the outskirts of town, and aside from the incident, we never felt unsafe in, around, or near the hostel or any other tourist areas, during any time of day or night.


As with any tourist destination, you might encounter pickpocketing in Cairns or the other towns along the coast that serve as a starting point for tours to the Great Barrier Reef.

Petty theft is not extensive, so you don’t need to be on your guard constantly, but it’s still good to keep an eye out for potential problems.

The same basic precautions you would use anywhere else will serve you well in Queensland’s Far North (the region closest to the Great Barrier Reef).

Since most thefts here are crimes of opportunity, don’t do anything that singles you out as a potential opportunity. Always keep a close eye on your valuables and never leave bags unattended.

Many people get taken in by the low crime rate in Australia and the laid-back atmosphere of Cairns and other coastal towns and get lax in their personal safety. Try not to hang bags off of the back of chairs in restaurants or leave them out of your sight.

You don’t have to worry about blending in with the locals as Cairns is a tourist town and people are used to visitors. However, try not to stick out from the crowd too much by wearing expensive jewelry or flashing a lot of cash.


The city of Cairns and its suburbs have an above average rate of burglaries. While these burglaries mostly affect residential homes belonging to locals, thieves may target hotel rooms, guest houses, or AirBnbs.

It’s good to take some precautions just in case. If you are staying in a hotel, make sure that you put all valuables in a room safe. If there is no room safe, put expensive items in a lobby safe and ask for a receipt.

Never leave valuables lying out in the open in your room. Take precautions to secure your hotel room.

Never leave windows or balcony doors open when you are not in the room or are sleeping. Make sure that you lock your room thoroughly. If you are staying in a guest house or AirBnb, ask your host what safety precautions they have in place.

Secure homes have sturdy doors, windows, security cameras, and even an alarm system. Also ask if the neighborhood is prone to burglaries and do your own research.

Avoiding Bad Areas

Yellow sign showing a person being stung by a jellyfish for a piece on whether or not the Great Barrier Reef is safe to visit

PORT DOUGLAS, AUSTRALIA -4 AUG 2017- Sign warning tourists about the dangers of Marine Stingers jellyfish in Port Douglas located north of the city of Cairns in Far North Queensland, Australia/EQRoy/Shutterstock

There are no bad areas necessarily in the Great Barrier Reef. Avoid swimming in designated fishing areas as those attract sharks.

Avoid swimming without protection during the summer as that is when the highest number of jellyfish swarm the reef. Always follow posted warnings about swimming and diving.

In the city of Cairns, some of the suburbs have higher property crime rates. The southern Cairns suburbs tend to have higher rates of crime.

Things to Consider

Here are a few additional safety tips that will protect both you and the local environment when traveling to the Great Barrier Reef:

  • Never, ever stand on the reef. Divers and snorkelers sometimes try to stand on the reef to gain their bearings, which is a massive mistake. Standing on the reef or hitting it with your fins causes damage to a very fragile ecosystem. Plus, coral is sharp and can cut you, and some species of coral even have sharp stings. You don’t want to come in contact with it if you can help it.
  • Protect yourself from the sun — but without sunscreen. Most sunscreen has harmful chemicals that washes off when you go into the water. These chemicals cause coral bleaching and other forms of irreversible damage to the Great Barrier Reef. A better choice is to wear a UV safe sting suit or a natural, reef-safe sunscreen.
  • Rays are a less known danger. Never touch them as they have a strong sting. When you go swimming in the beaches near the reef, shuffle your feet as you wade into the water to allow rays resting at the bottom to get away.
  • Listen to your tour operator. Tour operators giving excursions to the Great Barrier Reef are professionals that know tips to help you stay safe. Always obey their warnings. Talk to them with any concerns, such as chronic health conditions that might prevent you from going on a diving excursion or a lack of confidence in your swimming ability. They can reassure you or provide accommodations that still allow you to enjoy the reef.

Frequently Asked Questions

Whitsunday park pictured with the boardwalk running along the reef for a piece titled Is the Great Barrier Reef Safe to Visit This Year

Christopher Meder/Shutterstock

Here are some common questions you might want to answer before heading to the Great Barrier Reef:

What is the biggest risk to the Great Barrier Reef?

The biggest threat to the Great Barrier Reef is climate change. Warming air and water temperatures are creating a bad environment for coral, leading to coral bleaching and other problems that threaten the survival of the reef.

Is it still worth visiting the Great Barrier Reef?

The Great Barrier Reef is definitely in danger, but it is not dead yet. The vast majority of the reef is still vibrant and thriving. If anything, visiting the Great Barrier Reef now is crucial to inspire people to fight climate change and preserve such a beautiful location.

When should you not go to the Great Barrier Reef?

November to May, or summer and fall in Australia, is the off season for the Great Barrier Reef. The warm water attracts jellyfish and other stingers, especially lethal species such as box jellyfish.

How can we stay safe in the Great Barrier Reef?

You can stay safe when visiting the Great Barrier Reef by respecting nature and keeping a healthy distance. Don’t touch the coral and don’t try to feed or pet the fish.

What happens if you touch the Great Barrier Reef?

If you touch the Great Barrier Reef, you damage and even kill the coral organisms that make up the reef. Plus, touching coral is dangerous for you as well as you can cut yourself.

So, Should You Visit the Great Barrier Reef?

As long as you interact with the reef and its ecosystem with respect and follow instructions from lifeguards and tour guides, you will have a safe time visiting the Great Barrier Reef. Happy travels!