Surface chlorophyll a concentrations in the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) lagoon were monitored at individual stations for periods of 6 to 12 years. The monitoring program was established to detect spatial and temporal changes in water quality resulting from increased loads of nutrients exported from the catchments adjoining the GBR. Sampling occurred monthly at up to 86 sites that were located in transects across the width of the continental shelf. In the central and southern GBR (16–21°S), there was a persistent cross-shelf chlorophyll a gradient, with higher concentrations near the coast. No cross-shelf gradient was observed in the far northern GBR (12–15°S). Mean chlorophyll a concentrations in the far northern GBR (0.23 µg L–1) were less than half those in the south and central GBR (0.54 µg L–1). Chlorophyll a varied seasonally within regions, with mean summer-wet season (December–April) concentrations ~50% greater than those in the winter-dry season (May–November). Sub-annual, inter-annual and event-related variations in chlorophyll a concentrations were observed in several zones. Multi-year patterns in concentrations suggest that relatively short (5–8 years) time series may give spurious estimates of secular trends. Higher chlorophyll a concentrations in inshore waters south of 16°S were most likely related to the levels of river nutrient delivery associated with agricultural development on adjacent catchments.