The gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.
Cairns captured my heart. So much so, that I ended up living here for several months. Surrounded by rainforests, fields of sugar cane and bananas, and enveloped in a tropical atmosphere, the area itself is a beauty, access to the reef is just the cherry on top.
With many other ports and harbours along the east Australian coast offering trips to the Great Barrier Reef, from Cooktown in the far North, to Gladstone at the centre of the Southern Great Barrier Reef. Cairns provides the greatest variety in tours.
As a town, Cairns itself is fairly small, and it’s definitely received a bit of a reputation as a party town, with weary backpackers reaching here after months traipsing up the east Australian coastline. It has an impressive market, a great art gallery, an expansive and well maintained waterfront, and is surrounded by waterfall laden country and forest, each meandering river, gorge or forest holding a story, and deeply spiritual meaning for local aboriginals.
Unfortunately the shoreline and waterways, particularly the rivers, are not suitable for swimming. Crocodiles galore. Cairns is situated at a river mouth, and the shoreline was originally a tangle of mangrove forests. So aside from the hotel or public lagoon pool, your next best option is to hop onto a trip to the Great Barrier Reef.
Beginner or Advanced?
From short snorkelling trips to a week long live-aboard, there are plenty of options, whether you’re going on your first ever dive or you’re a seasoned master scuba diver.
I spent a lot of time in Cairns. Completely addicted to having the reef on my doorstep. Through volunteering and gaining dive certifications, I was able to dive on a variety of different boats. So I’ve reviewed the boats and dive shops that I used, to give you a good overview, and perhaps help you decide which one to choose!
I had never dived before I met the team at Prodive, a complete newbie, and they are single-handedly responsible for my love of diving. Effortlessly efficient, professional, and the type of laid-back, welcoming casual that you would expect from Australia.
They’re a PADI dive shop, and offer courses ranging from Introductory dives and Open Water, to Instructor Training and Nitrox.
I completed my Open Water Course with them, with two days pool training at their training centre, and then 3 days out on the reef. We visited the Flynn and Miln Reefs, with some night dives thrown in for good measure. My first night dive was the most thrilling and chilling experience ever. I had a moments pause before jumping into that inky water…
If you’re travelling solo you’ll likely be paired up in a cabin with someone else. I was roommates with a girl who I ended up travelling the Australian outback with, and who is now one of my closest friends! Our boat was full of incredible people with incredible stories from all over the world, and it holds some great memories.
Reefs visited: Flynn and Miln.
Liveaboard?: You can day trip on their boat ‘Silver swift’ or choose an overnight trip!
PADI courses: Open Water, Adventure, Advanced, Nitrox, Rescue Diver, Dive Master and Instructor Training.
I completed my Advanced course with Down Under Dive, aboard the rather fancy boat Evolution, which was a recent upgrade to their fleet. I accidentally left my Advanced Textbook at my flat and a new one was actually flown out to me on the boat by helicopter. As extravagant as that sounds, it wasn’t just for me… They have a floating landing pad and offer helicopter tours over the reef and luckily happened to be heading out that morning!
It’s a big boat, so expect to be in the water with a large group of people, it’s usually best to get in the water first if you can before the site becomes busy.
They offer day trips as the boat doesn’t have cabins, and the food and hot drinks on offer are high quality. Again, they are professional and incredibly passionate about the reef, and usually have a marine biologist on board that you can chat to!
Reefs visited: Saxon, Hastings.
Liveaboard?: Day trips only!
PADI courses: Open Water, Adventure, Advanced (check their website for any course changes!)
I dived with Divers Den as a volunteer only. Scrubbing and sanitising dishes, making beds, cleaning toilets (yep), all in record time so we could spend longer underwater diving together as a buddy team of volunteers. Forever covered in dish and salt water, I wonder if the kitchen smells in my hair attracted the high number of wildlife we happened to see…
The boats (Oceanquest: The live aboard, Reef Quest and Sea Quest: for day trips) aren’t as shiny and new as the Down Under Dive boat, but they’re kept in good shape and are a great middle range option. Whether you choose the day trips, or head out to the live aboard, permenantly moored at the reefs, you’ll be treated to wholesome food, endless hot drinks, a passionate crew and access to some of their beautiful moorings and dive sites. Divers Den actually have a boat that runs from Port Douglas further up the coast too!
Reefs visited: Norman, Saxon.
Liveaboard?: You can day trip or choose an overnight trip.
PADI courses: Open Water, Adventure, Advanced, Nitrox, Rescue Diver, Dive Master, Instructor Training and Dwarf Minke whale awareness speciality.
A beautiful little catamaran that glides out to the Upolu Reef, one of the closest reefs to the mainland. So many tour companies offer claims such as, “we offer super fast excursions to the pristine outer reef!” filling your head with ideas that its better out there. Whilst the ‘outer’ reef may be less visited by tourists, and the chance of seeing bigger animals might be slightly increased, I think Upolu was my second favourite reef, out of all 7 that I was able to visit on this section of the Great Barrier Reef. It’s beautiful.
It’s definitely a more eco-friendly option as well, with the boat using much less fuel, and having the ability to use the sail. With a smaller boat you have a much more personal experience too, with space to lounge out in the sun or seek shade. As the name suggests, it’s a day trip boat! So you’ll head out early morning and be back in the afternoon.
Reefs visited: Upolu.
Liveaboard?: Day trips only!
PADI courses: Not currently. Certified dives and ‘Discover Scuba diving’ only.
Mike Ball Dive Expeditions
Perhaps the top dog of the dive boats that depart from Cairns. Mike Ball creates tours and trips that take you a little bit further…
I joined the live-aboard trip on the ‘Far North Coral Sea Exploratory’ expedition (as a volunteer). Whilst the liveaboards of ProDive and Divers Den do feel like an adventure, the Mike Ball trip does literally feel like an expedition. You’ll visit reefs in the Northern Great Barrier reef, the Coral Sea and stop at moorings owned by Mike Ball themselves, that are visited once in a blue moon.
Because you’re really out at sea, weather conditions will determine which reefs are visited, or where you might land to stretch your legs. We visited Stanley island, but the boat frequently stops at Lizard island too.
We saw hundreds of sharks (including whale sharks!), spinner dolphins, manta rays, as well as every magical reef creature you can think of. Depending on which season you visit, you might spot hammer head sharks or even whales. As is always the case with any dive trip, you really don’t know what you’ll find.
The team are incredibly professional, but down to earth and fun. The food is amazing, and they’ll happily arrange to cater for any requirements you may have, from Kosher to gluten free.
The prices seem steep, but it really is one of those once in a life time trips that is definitely worth every penny.
Reefs visited: Bougainville, Osprey (Coral Sea). A number of reefs on the Northern Great Barrier Reef.
Liveaboard?: Yes! Only overnight tours available.
PADI courses: Discover Scuba, Open Water, Advanced, Deep Diver, Nitrox, Self-Reliant Diver, Underwater Naturalist and Underwater Photography.
Top tips for visiting the Great Barrier Reef
When is it best to go? | It’s possible to dive from Cairns all year round. The water temperature ranges from about 23-30 degrees celsius. Depending on the season there might be a few things to bear in mind, like stinger season (Oct-May) you’ll be wearing full length wetsuits, or the Minke whale season (July-Oct), or coral spawning in November!
Gear Hire | All companies will provide you with all the necessary gear (you might even get a reduced price if you bring your own, but check the details!). But if you have your own snorkel/mask, flippers, wetsuit or even regulator, and you have room in your case, bring them!
How to book | All companies take online or over the phone bookings, lot’s of travel shops in Cairns will try and entice you into buying their package deals, but make sure you compare prices on the actual dive operators website.
Where to go | With most of the larger boats, you’ll likely be directed to the reef fleet terminal and efficiently organised on board. Most other operators and dive shops will give you directions to their shop where you’ll be taken by bus to the harbour, or you’ll be given the harbour number, and can wander down that morning to find your boat.
If it’s raining | The wet season in Cairns is between November and March, but don’t be put off if its raining or cloudy in Cairns, often the weather is completely different when you head out to the reef! And even if its tipping down with rain, you’re about to enter a different underwater world anyway. Turtles don’t hide from rain!
Stay over night! | If you’re able, I would really recommend staying overnight on the reef. There’s nothing quite like sleeping on a boat, with the waves lulling you to sleep, and waking up at dawn for a sunrise dive.
The Great Barrier reef is a beautiful place, and one that we must fiercely protect. When you’re in Cairns I would really recommend attending a talk at Reef Teach (possibly before you head to the reef), to learn about the health of the reef, the science being conducted, and for a glimmer of future hope. You can also look up more tips on protecting the ocean in my post here.
Have fun, stay safe, keep the reef safe, don’t be scared of sharks, and enjoy the sunsets.