Far out Far North
I was lucky (or "inspired" if I'm taking full credit) to spend my quarter-life crisis diving the Great Barrier Reef for two and a half years.
I needed to make a big shift in careers. So for the first six months I was a diving instructor out of Airlie Beach and then Cairns, followed by a two-year stint working as an underwater videographer and photographer out of Port Douglas.
Starting with my first stop, Airlie Beach, this is a very different way to see the reef. The outer reef is a long haul from the marina (roughly 90 kilometres, depending on which reef you visit), so many trips only go as far as the inner islands.
This is fantastic for people who enjoy sailing (many of the vessels doing commercial tours run under sail the whole day if conditions permit). The scenery is amazing and Whitehaven Beach is spectacular. But it isn't so good for the divers. Any rain or wind can put a lot of runoff from the islands into the bays where the best diving is, reducing visibility severely.
The worst I saw in Blue Pearl Bay (on the famous and expensive Hayman Island) was two metres visibility - worse than most days in Wellington. While I think the Whitsundays are well worth a trip, don't make diving your focus. Soak up the sun, slow down, do a bit of snorkelling and head further north for the serious diving. The trips to the outer reef are generally multi-day and I've often seen them lead to disappointment for customers as weather prevented the very exposed crossing from the islands to the Outer Reef, meaning the trip was stuck with poor visibility around the islands.
Further north, Cairns is a different story altogether. The outer reef at the northern end is closer to the mainland than at any other point, so there is a wide variety of day and multi-day trips on offer.
For people who aren't confident in the water some of the companies offer day trips to permanent pontoons. These large platforms make getting in the water very easy and offer underwater viewing platforms and semi-submersible boat rides so you can see the reef without getting your feet wet.
People with snorkeling or diving experience would do well to look at the smaller vessels that visit a number of dive sites each day. Up to three sites are visited in a day, with the chance to dive at each. Often these are very different dives both in terms of the geography and the life that can be seen. Visibility is generally good at more than 20 metres, even when conditions are a little rough.
My personal favourite site out of Cairns was the Three Sisters on Milne Reef, with three spectacular bommies (coral pinnacles) in close proximity to each other offering lionfish, sharks, turtles, barracuda and a huge variety of other fish to be seen.
Port Douglas would have to be my favourite leaping off point for day trips - the Agincourt Reefs have so many great dive sites (Nursery, Castle Rock and Barracuda being the best of the best) and Low Isles with brilliant family snorkeling and huge numbers of turtles was always a great day to relax - even when working. The town has a very different feel to Cairns, but being only a bit over an hour's drive away from downtown Cairns it doesn't really matter where you stay - you can pick your trips from either starting point.
For the ultimate Great Barrier Reef experience, get at least your Advanced Open Water qualification and book a liveaboard trip heading north from Cairns. The best trips steam up to the Cod Hole overnight on departure then head to Osprey Reef after dives among the nearly two-metre-long potato cod and friends.
Osprey Reef is the highlight of any trip - it is an old underwater volcano some 70 nautical miles out from the outer reef (so getting there requires good weather - choose your time of year carefully) that rises up from a kilometre below the surface.
The shark feeds that are done there will never be forgotten, with dozens of sharks attracted in a range of sizes from less than a metre to the odd tiger shark or hammerhead that shows up.
The dives I've had there are still the best I've experienced to this day, with unbelievably clear water offering 60 meters of visibility and the area chock-full of every form of tropical marine life.
My favourite time of year in Far North Queensland was always August-November. The wet season kicks off as early as December some years, the wind can be a problem from March through to July, but in those blissful months in the second half of the year you have the best chance of good conditions as well as the migration of humpback whales up the east coast.
The Great Barrier Reef makes every list of things to do before you die and with good reason - with it being this close, why haven't you gone yet?! Though there's plenty of time - my father dived there for the first time at the age of 67.