Top 10 water-based activities in Australia
Given that much of life in Australia revolves around its 30,000 kilometres of dazzling coastline, it’s no surprise that there’s a staggering amount of aquatic adventures on offer. We check out the most exciting activities above and below the water, all of which will inspire experienced adrenaline junkies, wildlife lovers, and thrill-seeking newbies alike.
Swim in a historic ocean pool
It may be the driest inhabited continent on Earth, but Australia is big on ocean pools - many of which date back to the 1930’s. Like the sea only much safer, these wild swimming spots that are man-made or naturally shaped by beaches, rocks, and cliffsides are ideal for those wanting to make a splash without worrying about sharks, the ebb and flow of tides, and the pong of chlorine. Of the 100-plus salty treasures located in Sydney and along the New South Wales coast, Bondi Icebergs gets most of the Insta-fame for its Olympic-size lap pool and smaller kids’ pool (both are patrolled by lifeguards year-round). Also deserving of a dip are the Bronte Baths for its safe and shallow pool area, the Fairy Bower Pool for its fabulous views over the famous surf break, and the Wylie’s Baths for its poolside yoga, pilates, and meditation classes.
The best bit: Just a short walk from the northern end of Maroubra Beach, the ruggedly beautiful Mahon Pool has been a firm favourite with ocean pool-goers since 1932. Not only does it wow with a Pacific setting in a rock flat at the base of a hill, but it also offers decent sunbathing spaces (beach or grass), plenty of nooks and crannies for critter-hunters, and a wealth of sealife after a high tide. It’s also free to swim here, but aim to visit at low tide when the water is at its calmest.
Try stand-up paddle boarding (SUP)
One of Australia’s fastest-growing watersports, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) means lying, kneeling or standing on a board of 30 inches or greater to swim and propel forward in a lake, river, or ocean (for newbies, it’s a combo of surfing and kayaking that’s only possible if you’ve grasped the concept of balancing before moving). Some of Australia’s most iconic SUP spots include Sydney’s Balmoral, Malabar, and Manly Beach for their clear waters, Byron Bay for its superb marine life (colourful fish, dolphins, sea turtles), Hobart for its serene inlets and exposed water runs, and the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Lord Howe Island for its calm lagoon that overlooks Mount Gower and Mount Lidgbird. All offer tuition centres with wetsuit and board rentals as well as one-to-one or group lessons in paddling techniques and water safety.
The best bit: Located between Noosa North Shore and Rainbow Beach, Queensland’s Noosa Everglades tempts with a 37-mile-long river and lake system with numerous waterways leading to the Pacific Ocean. Beginners can paddle past the glamorous mansions and waterfront restaurants of Noosaville, Noosa Marina and Tewantin into the Upper Noosa River, while the more skilful boarders can venture towards the lakes of Cooroibah and Cootharaba.
Take a river cruise on a paddlewheeler
The third longest navigable river in the world after the Amazon and Nile, the Murray flows between Mount Kosciuszko in the Australian Alps and Goolwa as it passes through three states: New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia. Named after 19th-century British colonial secretary, Sir George Murray, it’s Australia’s most iconic waterway; not least for its magnificent ancient forests, sandy beaches, lakes, locks, lush vineyards, famous golf courses, and plentiful wildlife (sightings of Western Grey kangaroos as well as 350 species of bird are guaranteed). Most river cruises stop at the region’s historic towns and cities, including Mannum where the Murray’s first paddle steamer was launched in 1862. Don’t leave without visiting Arnold Park Wharf for its dock museum housed in the restored 1897 vessel known as PS Marion.
The best bit: To discover the river’s maze of backwaters, creeks, and lagoons, nothing beats a three, four, or seven-night cruise on the 120-passenger stern PS Murray Princess - an authentic-looking paddlewheeler complete with polished woods, gold trimmings, a winding staircase, and all the charm of yesteryear. There’s also a dining room, two bars, cabins and staterooms with private bathrooms, a small spa and gym, and a thoughtful cultural and nature-based itinerary.
Marvel at cascades and waterfalls
Australia is home to some of the most awe-inspiring waterfalls on the planet, all of which can be viewed while bushwalking, swimming, flying, or cruising. Some of the big names include Wangi Falls in Litchfield National Park, Wollomombi Waterfall in Oxley Wild Rivers National Pak, and Jim Jim Falls and its sister waterfall, Twin Falls, in Kakadu National Park. Further swoonworthy spots include the 262-foot-high cliff faces of the twin King George Falls in the Kimberley region (accessed by expedition cruisers only), the 115-feet-high MacKenzie Falls in Grampians National Park, and Ebor Falls in Guy Fawkes River National Park (the combined height of the two sections measures approximately 377-feet). Equally impressive is Wooroonnooran National Park’s Josephine Falls for its natural waterslide leading to a crystal-clear pool below.
The best bit: Located along the Jatbula Trail in the Northern Territory’s Nitmiluk National Park, Biddlecombe Cascade is fed by a permanently flowing creek that drops into a waterfall with a series of small steps (the water hits each rock to create wonderful curtains of spray). There are also spectacular gorges, plunging escarpments, interesting hiking trails, rock pools, rapids, and swimming holes nearby. Crocodiles inhabit the area, so pay attention to warning signs.
Take a guided whale watching tour
With over 30,000 kilometres of coastline, Australia has no shortage of places to spot the many species of whale that inhabit its waters (the seasons differ throughout the country, but are usually from June until November). Some of the best sightings of humpback whales and southern right whales making their annual migrations are in Tasmania (Great Oyster Bay, Adventure Bay, Mercury Passage off Maria Island, Freycinet Peninsula), New South Wales (Jervis Bay, Merimbula, Watsons Bay, Byron Bay), and South Australia (Encounter Bay, Granite Island Causeway, Ceduna). Further close-up encounters with these magnificent marine mammals are promised along the rugged Great Ocean Road, especially from the viewing platform at Warrnambool’s Logan’s Beach (also known as Victoria's southern right whale nursery).
The best bit: Western Australia’s whale-watching season officially runs from June to November, with humpbacks and southern rights frolicking in Flinders Bay from early June and rare blue whales and calves frequenting Geographe Bay in September. There’s more action further south, especially around Albany’s sheltered harbours that are a prolific breeding ground for these ocean giants (head to any of the vantage spots around the coastline - or book a guided cruise).
Wriggle into a wetsuit and learn to surf
As one of the world’s legendary surfing destinations, Australia rewards beginners, intermediates, and professional riders with excellent waves and glittering beaches. Those looking to have a good time in the swells should head to Lorne Beach on the Great Ocean Road, The Pass at the end of Clarkes Beach in New South Wales, Cactus Beach in South Australia, Margaret River in Western Australia, or South Cape Bay in Tasmania. Another epic destination is the Gold Coast - Queensland’s seaside city set on the edge of the Asia-Pacific rim and stretching along 44 miles of coastline. There’s some outstanding surfing spots here, including Snapper Rocks for its annual Quicksilver Pro competition, Currumbin Alley for its consistent waves, Burleigh Heads for its long rides and deep barrels, and Rainbow Bay for its right-hander (one of the longest in the world).
The best bit: While there’s a string of surfing beaches dotted along the Gold Coast, it’s the aptly-named Surfer’s Paradise between the suburb of Surfers Paradise and the Pacific Ocean that gets all the love from boarders. Head here for a three-kilometre-long stretch of sun-kissed sands, crashing waves, and a $25-million beachfront esplanade. It’s also one of the best places for beginners to learn basic techniques in waist-deep warm waters with no currents or rips.
Island hop on a private yacht or charter
Australia is blessed with 8,222 islands, all with their own unique character and charm. Some of the most visit-worthy include Rottnest Island for its white-sand beaches, hidden bays, coral reefs, and quokka population, Fitzroy Island for its rainforest adventures, Fraser Island for its bountiful wildlife and sand dunes, and the Whitsundays for its 74 islands (69 of which are uninhabited) and showstopping Whitehaven Beach. Also consider Phillip Island for its famous Penguin Parade and international motor sports, Lord Howe Island for its mountain peaks, coral pools, and walking trails, and Cockatoo Island for its panoramic harbour views, peaceful picnic spots, waterfront cafés, and rich convict history. Another must-see is Kangaroo Island; not least for its dizzying array of Aussie wildlife such as swans, seals, koalas, wombats, and of course, kangaroos.
The best bit: The isolated island state of Tasmania does sweeping beaches, dramatic coastlines, wild rivers, abundant wildlife, and flora and fauna on a grand scale. Visit any of its five offshore islands (Flinders, Macquarie, Bruny, Maria, and King) before spending time in the capital of Hobart, wandering the white sands of Wineglass Bay, feeding a Tasmanian devil at a wildlife park, and exploring the UNESCO World Heritage-listed mountain areas.
Snorkel beneath the coastal waters
Seasoned snorkellers and absolute beginners are spoiled with an eclectic underwater world filled with brightly-coloured corals, massive rock formations, historic shipwrecks, and over 5,000 species of fish (a quarter of which are endemic). The best spots include the Low Isles, Green Island, Michaelmans Cay, Heron Island, Lady Elliot Island and Moreton Island in Queensland, Julian Rocks and Shelly Beach in New South Wales, Ningaloo Reef, Rottnest Island and Busselton Jetty in Western Australia, and Port Noarlunga, Stony Point and Baird Bay in South Australia. Also factor in a trip to Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula to snorkel the 200-metre long Octopuses’ Garden trail and to spot weedy seadragons, rays, cuttlefish and crabs (head to Rye and Portsea piers for sightings of delicate dumpling squid, octopus, and garfish).
The best bit: Only 400 tourists are allowed on Lord Howe Island at any one time, meaning that snorkelling here is even more of a big deal. Just a two-hour flight from Sydney, this slice of paradise is home to approximately 500 species of fish and 90 coral species, all of which inhabit the UNESCO World Heritage-protected marine park. Don’t miss the luxuriant garden of Staghorn coral at the iconic Erscotts Hole, a natural wonder within a protected intertidal groyne.
Get up-close with bottlenose dolphins
While direct contact with dolphins is always memorable, swimming with them in the wild is next-level awesome. Some of the best places to float, glide, and safely interact with Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins include Port Stephens, Port Phillip Bay, and the Gulf St Vincent on the southern coast. There’s also plenty of opportunity for play in the open waters of Koombana Bay; not least because dolphins choose to approach swimmers (not the other way around). Equally magical is the award-winning Swim with Wild Dolphins Cruise operated by Rockingham Wild Encounters since 1989. Not only can visitors enjoy the scenic highlights of the rugged Shoalwater Islands Marine Park from September to early June, but there’s also opportunities to swim with the 200 friendly dolphins that live in the area's sheltered bays and islands.
The best bit: Located in the 5.4 million acre Shark Bay World Heritage Area on the Peron Peninsula, Monkey Mia offers unique encounters with Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (this is the only place in Australia where dolphins visit up to three times daily). Lucky visitors may be selected to stand knee-deep on the water’s edge and feed them under ranger supervision - or even fill one of the volunteer roles (the maximum time you can work here is two weeks).
Discover the best scuba diving spots
Stretching for 2,300 kilometres along the northeast coast of Australia and encompassing 2,900 reef systems, 600 islands, and 300 coral cays, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef tops every diver’s bucket list. But beyond Queensland’s natural wonder, there’s plenty of places that promise prolific marine life (think humpback whales, manta rays, dugongs, dolphins, marine turtles, molluscs, and 5,000 species of fish). For offbeat diving experiences, make a beeline for the group of three ring-shaped reefs known as Rowley Shoals, try cage diving with Great White Sharks in Port Lincoln, or visit the Solitary Islands off the coast of Coffs Harbour (South Solitary Island is the most popular spot for its total of nine dive sites). Equally appealing is Darwin Harbour for its 90-plus shipwrecks, many of which were sunk during WWII.
The best bit: The 300-kilometre-long reef Ningaloo Reef is one of the few places in the world where whale sharks regularly aggregate in large numbers. Head here to swim with these 40-feet-long gentle giants between March to August (tours depart daily from Exmouth and Coral Bay) - or glide under the water to marvel at four species of turtle (loggerhead, green, hawksbill, and leatherback), six species of toothed whale, and eight species of baleen whale.