Coral reef environments support high levels of marine biodiversity, they are important sites for coastal habitation and they provide a range of goods and ecosystem services such as nearshore fisheries, economic revenue from tourism and breeding sites for seabirds and turtles. Mapping is a fundamental activity that underpins our understanding of coral reef environments and helps to shape policies in resource management and conservation. This is particularly the case for quantifying the area of landcover types associated with reef environments, including coral patches, seagrasses and mangroves, but also for monitoring how these change over time and modelling how spatial patterns apparent on reefs are related to environmental drivers. Field techniques and aerial photography have historically played a crucial role in mapping coral reef environments, which has recently seen a transition toward the processing of satellite remote sensing images. This paper examines a series of maps produced of Low Isles, the most mapped island on the Great Barrier Reef, to review historical methods for mapping coral reefs because of the critical importance of understanding how past maps were made, which determines appropriate uses to which they can be put. Recent advances and future opportunities for the application of mapping technologies to coral reefs are also evaluated, including the use of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) platforms for airborne surveys, delivery of information through web-based platforms and improvements in the quality of information for making and presenting maps. Maps have transformed the way we have responded to both historic and contemporary coral reef problems. This timely review communicates how maps, and the fast growing technologies that are employed to produce them, are central to our understanding of coral reef environments. Recent advances that may drive exciting new environmental management tools are identified.