Understanding the Climate and Seasons of the Great Barrier Reef

If you’re planning a trip to see the Great Barrier Reef – and why wouldn’t you? – then you might be wondering when the best time is to go. The short answer to this is that north Queensland never really gets too chilly, so you don’t have to worry about it ever being too cold. It can be the perfect place to beat the winter blues. The further north you go, the less there is a variation in temperature and the more it just stays hot all year around. There are, however, some pronounced differences in rainfall throughout the year.

Before we delve into this topic any further, we need to get one thing out of the way: the Great Barrier Reef is huge. End to end, it goes for 2,300 kilometres. At it’s northernmost point it reaches Papua New Guinea, and stretches all the way down to Fraser Island.. which is nearly all the way to Brisbane! This is longer than the entire mainland coastline of New South Wales. For this reason, it’s important not to speak about it as though there was single climate. Different spots along the reef see different weather conditions.

Here is a brief overview of the seasons and climate in several of the places you might tour the Great Barrier Reef from:

Torres Strait

Right up where Australia touches Papua New Guinea are the Torres Strait Islands. This is well and truly a tropical part of the world, meaning that the four seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter simply don’t exist here. Instead there are two distinct seasons: the wet and the dry.

The wet season lasts from December through to April or May, and is marked by daily rainfall and a lush and green landscape. On average, these months see between 200 and 430 mm of rain. The dry season goes from April or May through to December, and see comparitively little rain: September averages about 3mm of rain for the month. It is a pleasant temperature all year around: Average highs of 30 degrees all year around, with overnight lows averaging in the mid-twenties.

Cape Tribulation

Going further south quite some way we find ourselves at Cape Tribulation. Located within the Daintree National Park, it is a brilliant place from which to explore the remarkable rainforest that surrounds it. The Great Barrier Reef also lies just off the coast here. Snorkelling or Sea Kayaking to the reef is a popular activity in Cape Tribulation.

There is some, but not a lot of variation in temperature through the year here. June and July see an average temperature of 25 or 26, while December and January see an average temperature of 32. Total annual rainfall in Cape Tribulation varies between 2 and 7 metres, and averages a whopping 4 metres every year. When it rains here, it really rains! You can expect the most rainfall between February and April, with October and November being the dry months where the sea tends be calmer. That said, there is no guaranteed dry season at all here, and for that reason nothing stops for the rain.

Cairns

About two and a half hours drive south of Cape Tribulation is the much larger city of Cairns. Tourism is thriving in Cairns and there’s no shortage of places to stay and things to see and do, so no wonder it’s such a popular launching point for tours of the Great Barrier Reef. Other exciting things to see and do around Cairns include visiting the island rainforest on Green Island and journeying into the Atherton Tablelands.

The temperature range in Cairns is similar to what you’ll find in Cape Trib: it’s pleasant all year around. What passes for winter here is a mild mid-twenties, while the average day in December or January is not a lot hotter, in the low thirties. Cairns has a definite wet and dry season. The wet season lasts from December through to April, with January, February and March bringing the heaviest rain. The remaining months are much dryer but still offer the odd day of light rain to contend with.

Townsville

Keep driving another 347 kilometres down the highway from Cairns and you’ll get to Townsville. Contained within the dry tropics region of Queensland, this city combines gorgeous beaches and riverfront with easy access to Magnetic Island, a large island which is mostly national park. There is also a maritime museum and an aquarium that lets you view the reef from dry land.

As with Cairns, it does get a little cooler in June or July as compared to December or January, but only by a couple of degrees. Average daily maximum temperatures in “winter” are in the mid-twenties. The main seasonal variation is between a wet season and a dry season: from December through to April, it buckets down! Unlike Cairns or Cape Tribulation, the dry season offers barely any rain at all: these months average just 3 or 4 days of very light rain.

Mackay

Mackay is the sugar capital of Australia and home to a small but developing tourism industry. As well as being right next the Great Barrier Reef, it is situated close to the Whitsunday Islands, the Eungella National Park and many splendid beaches. It is also the gateway to the Pioneer Valley.

Mackay is in a humid subtropical climate. Here the variations in temperature between summer and winter start to get a bit more pronounced. Record high temperatures in summer are in the high 30s, while on a cloudy day in winter it might stay below 20 degrees all day. Mackay also has a pronounced wet season/dry season pattern. December through to April get heavy rains, while the rest of the year has fewer days of rain, with much lighter rain falling on those days.

Rockhampton

We’re well and truly in central Queensland now! Lying on the banks of the Fitzroy River, Rockhampton is close by Great Keppel Island and the Capricorn Coast, and is home to the Rockhampton Zoo and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

Rockhampton gets over 300 days of sunshine every year. It averages a little over 800 millimetres of rain every year, making it dryer than most other places from which you might visit the Great Barrier Reef. The wet season last from December through to March, but is not as torrential as the wet season in the more northern cities listed above.

Fraser Island

Right at the very southern end of the Great Barrier Reef is Fraser Island. This is the largest sand island in the world, and Australia’s sixth largest island. This island is part of the Great Sandy National Park and contains rainforests and mangroves.

Fraser Island averages over 100mm of rain per month from January through to June. The rest of the year is somewhat dryer. The contrast between the wet season and the dry season is not as marked as elsewhere along the Great Barrier Reef. Summer is relatively mild, with temperatures rarely rising higher than the low 30s, while winter is also comfortable, with temperatures hitting the low twenties during the day and overnight lows averaging around 14 degrees.

Check out the popular Great Barrier Reef Tour today!