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What is the difference between the Outer Great Barrier Reef and the Inner Fringing Reef?

Types of Reefs

The Outer Great Barrier Reef and Inner Fringing Reefs are both part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park off the east coast of Northern Queensland in Australia. The reef stretches over 2,300km and is home to thousands of species of coral, fish, sharks, whales and other marine life. While the two types of reefs are similar, they also host an abundance of differences that make them both unique and beautiful in their own way.

Outer Reef Vs Fringing Reef

The Inner Fringing Reef

The inner fringing reefs of the Great Barrier Reef are the reefs you find around the islands, such as those found in the Whitsunday Islands. They often have a lot of soft corals and provide nursery conditions for small juvenile fish and have a huge variety of marine life. They usually have 5 meters of visibility on average and have mostly smaller fish species, with some larger marine species such as trevallies, Maori Wrasse, green turtles and reef sharks. The fringing reefs are often much closer to the mainland, and grow out from the islands rather than growing up from the ocean floor, making them more accessible and easier to reach - Perfect for day trips or overnight boat trips.

Fringing Reef Near Dumbell Island

Many of the tours in the Whitsundays visit the inner fringing reefs, rather than the further outer Great Barrier Reef. The inner reefs have beautiful snorkelling and take much less time to get to, meaning tours can actually spend more time exploring them! Because the fringing reefs are so protected by the islands, they tend to be ideal for beginners or for those looking for relaxed diving or snorkelling, since they have calm waters and accessible beaches. They range from shallow to deep, and some boat tours even offer an underwater viewThere is an increased chance of seeing wildlife like turtles, dugongs and stingrays since they have less space to swim away!

A majority of tours in the Whitsundays stay in the inner reef. Here are a few of our favourites:

  • Whitsunday Adventurer: Snorkelling, family friendly - 2 days, 2 nights
  • New Horizon: Snorkelling, scuba diving, party boat - 2 days, 2 nights
  • Solway Lass: Snorkelling, rope swing, family friendly, private cabins - 2 days, 2 nights
  • Condor: Ex-racing maxi yacht, backpacker, snorkelling - 2 days, 2 nights
  • Whitsunday Getaway: Luxury cat, snorkelling, stand-up paddleboards - 2 days, 2 nights

Heart Reef Outer Reef

Outer Great Barrier Reef

On the other hand, we have the Outer Great Barrier Reef, which is a few hours offshore and is isolated from the mainland. The "outer reef," as it is commonly referred to, grows from the ocean floor up, instead of out from a land base. The visibility is generally a little better than the fringing reefs since they don't have as much runoff from the islands with average visibility reaching 15 metres. They have a lot of the same fish, with some larger species, and have a lot more hard corals than soft corals. The downside is how far they are from the mainland, so aren't ideal if you're short on time or wish to spend an extended time snorkelling or diving. While some boat trips do venture to the Outer Reef from the Whitsundays, the commute is a much longer time commitment. The upside is that there are no islands, and it is all open ocean so you get a completely different experience than snorkelling or diving at the inner fringing reefs. From the Whitsundays, you will visit Bait Reef or Hardy Reef during your boat tour, which both are stunning places to dive or snorkel. Most boat tours also visit the iconic Whitehaven Beach, so be sure to check with our friendly travel experts to find out what tours include both!

Here are some tours that visit the Outer Reef from the Whitsundays: 

  • Kiana: Sailing yacht, snorkelling and scuba diving - 3 days, 2 nights
  • Reefworld: Outer Reef pontoon, snorkelling, scuba diving, family friendly - 1 day
  • Reefsleep: Sleep on the reef in swag accommodation, fun activities - 2 days, 1 night
  • Scenic Flight: Grab amazing photos, see Outer Reef from above - 1-hour aerial tour

All parts of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park are unique and beautiful in their own way and all are worth visiting - it just depends on what you want to achieve during your visit to the Whitsundays and what kind of boat tour you are hoping to have that will influence where you go. Make sure you're picking the right tour for you and know that no matter which type of reef you snorkel or dive in, you will see beautiful and unique marine life and get the best Whitsundays experience possible.

How to see the reef

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