African safaris may have their flashy Big Five, but the Great Eight of Australia easily give those land mammals a run for their money. The Great Eight are the living icons of Great Barrier Reef marine life. These creatures—clownfish, whales, manta rays, sharks, turtles, potato cod, giant clams, and the Maori wrasse—reflect the impressive diversity of life on the reef and understandably top the list of what wildlife enthusiasts wish to see on an Australia nature adventure. The best way to see these animals is in their own natural marine environment, so immerse yourself in the crystalline waters of the Great Barrier Reef and get ready to be absolutely wowed.

Spotting the Great Eight is a doable goal for one trip, but do not rush through the Great Barrier Reef. An ideal trip exploring the Queensland coast should take a minimum of two weeks, which will allow ample time not only to see some amazingly diverse wildlife, but to relax into Australia’s laid-back rhythm. 

Know that the area is mind-bendingly huge and saturated with wildlife to see 

Getting to Australia means there is no getting around a long flight (19.5 hours from Los Angeles to Brisbane or 27 hours from New York to Brisbane), but once you arrive, the sunny blue skies and slow, casual charm of life Down Under start to ease any jet lag. Many travelers underestimate how vast the distances in Australia can be. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park itself stretches almost 1,500 miles along the coast of Queensland in northeastern Australia—about the same length as the west coast of the U.S. from Vancouver to the Mexican border! To give an example of just how dominant in size this reef system is, the Belize Reef off the Caribbean coast of Belize is the second longest barrier reef in the world. It comes in at a mere 180 miles long. The area of the Great Barrier Reef is bigger than the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Holland combined. It includes some 3,000 coral reefs, 600 continental islands, 300 coral cays and about 150 inshore mangrove islands. Those who travel to Australia to see the Great Barrier Reef animals should minimize trip logistics headaches and maximize efficiency by joining a well-organized, nature-based tour led by skilled guides. 

The breathtaking array of Great Barrier Reef marine animals includes 600 types of soft and hard corals, more than 100 species of jellyfish, 3,000 varieties of mollusks, 500 species of worms, 1,625 types of fish and more than 30 species of dolphins and whales. Fun fact: Australia’s eastern seaboard is affectionately known as the “Humpback Highway” because it’s the route whales take when making their way between their feeding and breeding grounds. There are also more than 400 shark species in the world and about 50 of them can be found along the Queensland coast. Some animals here, such as Kakadu’s giant crocodiles, have thrived unchanged for nearly 200 million years. The mind-boggling amount of Great Barrier Reef animals to see can be overwhelming, so having a game plan of spotting the Great Eight is a great way to focus and structure your trip.

Manta Ray Great Barrier Reef

The southern introduction to the reef

A perfect place to begin from Brisbane is to board a small plane to nearby Lady Elliot Island, directly located at the southern tip of the world’s largest and most biodiverse coral ecosystem. The reef holds designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (it was granted this distinction in 1981) and is one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World. Lady Elliot is a coral cay lying within the reef’s most highly protected Green Zone, and the island’s sole accommodation is an award-winning, family-run ecolodge focused on reef health and environmental sustainability. Within this protected sanctuary, visitors can scuba or snorkel directly from the hotel to see sea turtles (between November and February, green and loggerhead turtles return here to nest), gentle reef sharks and more than 1,500 species of tropical fish. Lady Elliot Island is known as the home of the manta ray, with as many as 450 inquisitive rays congregating regularly—even a quick snorkel is likely to include a sighting.  Humpback whales migrate northward from June to September. Lady Elliot Island is also home to the second-highest diversity of seabirds on the barrier reef, making interesting wildlife sightings easy both underwater and on land.

Heading north: Cairns and the Daintree rain forest

While Lady Elliot marks the southern end of the reef system, no Australia adventure would be complete without heading north to Cairns, where two World Heritage Sites and distinct ecosystems—the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree rain forest—converge. Here, you can explore the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area, a region of jaw-dropping scenery and rugged topography that includes rivers, gorges, waterfalls and mountains draped in 135-million-year-old tropical rain forest—the ancient ferns, emerald vines and dense canopy found here is said to have inspired the film Avatar.  The reef around Cairns is perfect for sighting the showy giant clams. Giant clams grow up to almost 5 feet in length and can weigh up to 440 pounds. It’s said that, like a human fingerprint, no two clams have the same mantle pattern or colors. Clownfish also hang out in droves here. They have a symbiotic relationship with sea anemones, creatures that require sunlight for photosynthesis (meaning they are generally found in the clear, shallow waters perfect for snorkeling).  Experienced divers (those with 20 or more dives under their belt) should head to the famous Cod Hole for a once-in-a-lifetime dive to see the potato cod.

 Throughout the entire Great Barrier Reef you can spot the Maori wrasse on steep outer reef slopes at depths of between 30-300 feet. More than just a funky, pouty-lipped face with a distinguished bump on its head, these cool creatures work hard to protect the reef, as they eat sea hares, boxfish and the crown of thorns starfish that attack the corals.

In the past three decades, this magnificent reef system has lost half its coral cover due to rising water temperatures and poorer water quality from sediment runoff and pollution. To see the Great Barrier Reef and the vast and unique marine life it hosts is something that future generations may not have the luxury of doing. So if you are feeling the itch for an adventure based on wildlife, plan your trip to Australia and explore this world-famous marine playground in search of the Great Eight and more.

Australia North Great Barrier Reef