Natural and anthropogenic impacts such as terrestrial runoff, influence the water quality along the coast of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) and may in turn affect coral reef communities. Associated bacterial biofilms respond rapidly to environmental conditions and are potential bioindicators for changes in water quality. As a prerequisite to study the effects of water quality on biofilm communities, appropriate biofilm substrates for deployment in the field must be developed and evaluated. This study investigates the effect of different settlement substrates (i.e. glass slides, ceramic tiles, coral skeletons and reef sediments) on bacterial biofilm communities grown in situ for 48 days at two locations in the Whitsunday Island Group (Central GBR) during two sampling times. Bacterial communities associated with the biofilms were analysed using terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism (T-RFLP) and clone library analyses of 16S rRNA genes. Findings revealed that substrate type had little influence on bacterial community composition. Of particular relevance, glass slides and coral skeletons exhibited very similar communities during both sampling times, suggesting the suitability of standardized glass slides for long-term biofilm indicator studies in tropical coral reef ecosystems.