The best ways to explore the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns
Cairns is the Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, an eco-system that spans 2,300kms along the north-east coast of Australia and is roughly the size of 70 million football fields. On any one of the 2,900 separate coral reef systems, you can snorkel and scuba dive amongst 600 different types of soft and hard corals, with six of the world’s seven species of marine turtles, and over the top of giant clams that can live up to 120 years old. Here are seven ways to dive into the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns.
Get below the surface on a scuba dive
With world renowned dive sites on its doorstep, Cairns is a playground for anyone interested in scuba diving. Dive boats that venture to the Outer Barrier Reef, at the edge of the continental shelf, or a visit to a floating pontoon are the best options for first-time divers. You'll complete your introductory dive with a fully qualified dive instructor ensuring you’re well briefed and guided through the process. More advanced divers can visit other dives sites on the same reef system that require a little more skill to explore.
For the most immersive experience, jump on a live-aboard dive boat bound for famous dive sites in the northern-most Ribbon Reef systems and the depths of the Coral Sea. While scuba diving, you’re likely to see deep-water marine animals like Reef Sharks, Giant Potato Cods, Nudibranchs, Barracuda, Eagle Rays and an incredible variety of soft and hard corals.
Expect to set aside a full day for a trip to the Outer Barrier Reef. Boats depart from the Reef Fleet Terminal, just a short walk from deluxe accommodation at the Pullman Reef Hotel Casino or Pullman Cairns International and family-friendly properties like Novotel Cairns Oasis Resort. A range of live-aboard vessels depart Cairns offering packages between one and seven nights on the Great Barrier Reef.
Float above coral gardens while snorkelling
Whether you're a seasoned snorkeler or popping your mask and flippers on for the very first time, a trip to the colourful coral gardens that line the Great Barrier Reef is sure to conjure up excitement. Get ready to check those famous Disney characters off your bucket-list! If it’s your first time snorkelling, don’t fret, onboard snorkel presentations will provide helpful tips and tricks on how to master the art of breathing.
You’ll also find Marine Biologists onboard so listen carefully as they share photos and information on the types of marine life and corals you're likely spot. Put your name down for a snorkel safari and grab a water noodle or life jacket as you're guided around the reef by those who know it best. They’ll point out Sea Cucumber, Clownfish, Turtles, Parrotfish and extensive number of small, and brightly coloured marine fish.
Relax with a bit of island time
A holiday in Tropical North Queensland wouldn't be complete without factoring in a little island time. Just 45 minutes from Cairns is Fitzroy Island, or a little further afield will land you on Green Island, both perfect options for day trips from the city. A smidge further south is the Frankland Island Group with pick ups available from most accommodation in Cairns or the Northern Beaches.
Fringing reef systems skirt the islands, creating shallow pools to explore without losing site of land. Green Island is well known for its perfect turtle spotting conditions. Seagrass beds grow just offshore so you'll often spot turtles munching away, an exciting discovery for any snorkeler. Fitzroy Island is home to Nudey Beach; recently named Australia's best beach, it is a beautiful reward after a short 20 minute nature walk. This secluded enclave is one of the most photographed beaches in Queensland and it's not hard to see why.
Admire the world from above on a scenic helicopter flight
By now, you may have been swimming in the Great Barrier Reef but have you seen it from above? Scenic helicopter flights from Cairns loop over the expansive reef systems, circle the emerald green waters surrounding local islands and dip low enough to spot turtles and manta rays swimming through the water. To see where the rainforest meets the reef, opt for a rainforest package – you’ll fly through deep, rainforest gorges and over the thunderous Barron Falls before heading towards the ancient Daintree Rainforest.
For an extra special occasion, the chefs at Pullman Reef Hotel Casino or Pullman Cairns International can arrange 5-star, tropical picnics and bubbles for your high-flying rendezvous to a remote sand cay in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef. Pack your swimmers and dive right in on this memorable moment for two.
Walk under water with Seawalker
If you’d rather keep your hair dry, then Seawalker Helmet Diving at Green Island is for you. No prior experience is necessary so after a short safety briefing and introduction to your helmet, you’ll be walking on the sandy seafloor amongst schools of colourful fish and beautiful corals in no time. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot Gavin, the photobombing Parrot Fish, who definitely isn’t camera shy.
Seawalker Helmet Diving is also available on Sunlover Reef Cruises pontoon at Moore Reef. Unlike traditional scuba diving, Seawalker allows you to breathe naturally as you would above the water. It’s also a great activity for non-swimmers and children over the age of 12 years.
Explore reef systems on a semi-submersible or glass bottom boat
At most pontoons, reef sites and islands, non-swimmers can still get in on the underwater action. Semi-submersibles can be likened to an iceberg, with a section of the vessel sitting above the water and a large viewing platform underneath. Large windows provide visitors an insight into the world of a scuba diver as the semi-sub skirts the boundaries of reef walls. It’s not uncommon to see turtles, giant Maori Wrasse and large schools of fish as they dart in and out of deep crevices and caverns.
Similar to snorkelling, glass bottom boats hover over reef systems showcasing a birdseye view to the world below. Tours normally run for about 30 minutes with running commentary from on board marine biologists.
Learn to love at Reef Teach
With learning comes appreciation and an evening spent at Reef Teach in Cairns CBD will leave you with a level of appreciation for the Great Barrier Reef deeper than you’d probably expected.
Marine Biologist, Gareth Phillips, is known for his sell out crowds and not even the lure of nearby nightlife hubs can keep people away from his classroom. The highly-entertaining, two-hour workshops are packed full of colourful visuals as he presents facts about the reef in a way that’s easily digested by the most novice of reef goers.
Gareth and his passionate team suggest Reef Teach as a prelude to your trip on the Great Barrier Reef so they can point out those intricate details you’d most likely whizz past without Reef 101.