Cairns Reef Tours: Tips on Choosing Your Trip to the Great Barrier Reef

picture of great barrier reef corals
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A Great Barrier Reef Tour is top of most peoples ‘must-do’ list when they visit North Queensland and there is a multitude of different tours and experiences to choose from.

They cover the full spectrum from budget trips for backpackers, luxury sailboat trips, 4-5 day ‘liveaboard’ dive trips, helicopter rides, glass bottom boat tours – you name it, they’ve got it.

So how do you go about choosing the best Cairns reef tour for your trip to the Great Barrier Reef?

wet or dry?

The first question you need to decide is whether or not you want to get wet.

Even though the Great Barrier Reef is in the middle of the ocean there are several options for experiencing it for people who don’t like getting wet.

piicture of pontoon on the great barrier reefSome of the bigger Cairns operators have pontoons where they moor their boats, which are great for people who suffer from seasickness because you can get off the boat for a few hours.

The pontoons also have a viewing deck below water that you can walk down in to as well as glass bottom boats and semi-submersible vessels.

Glass bottom boats are shallow and able to move across the top of the corals so you can observe the reef from above, whereas semi-subs enable you to sit below the waterline so you can look directly across at them.

Personally we prefer the semi-subs because you get a really good sense of what the reef is like from under the water and you can also get a good view of the marine life living amongst the coral such as plenty of fish, sea cucumbers and sometimes sea turtles.

island or open water?

snorkeling great barrier reef green islandIf you don’t like the idea of spending the whole day out on the ocean, another alternative is to take a day tour to one of the islands in the reef.

Green Island and Fitzroy are both close to Cairns.

Green Island is probably slightly better if you want to go snorkeling.

snorkeling or diving?

All of the Cairns reef tour operators offer both scuba diving and snorkeling. However, in practice they all tend to cater to one or the other so some operators are better if you want to dive, others if you want to snorkel.

While the dive operators also take snorkelers out on their boats, most of their service is geared towards the divers. This means most of the customers on the boat will be divers and most of the conversations and briefing sessions will be geared towards divers.

snorkeling the great barrier reef on a cairns reef tourHowever, some of the other operators like Great Adventures, Passions of Paradise or Reef Magic, specifically cater for snorkelers.

These trips have snorkel guides who will take you around and show you things of interest, a marine biologist on board and lots of support for less confident swimmers.

In fact, it really won’t matter if you’re a poor swimmer because they have plenty of floatation devices and ropes off the boat to help you enjoy your day.

Unless you are part of a mixed group, we would recommend going with an operator that caters for what you want.

scuba diving the great barrier reef

Pretty much all of the Cairns reef tour operators offer scuba dives, even for people who haven’t done it before. So, if you get out there and suddenly fancy giving it a go, you can pay extra for an Intro Dive, which means that you will be teamed up with an instructor.

picture of scuba divers on great barrier reefIf you decide you want to learn how to scuba dive, there are several companies in Cairns who offer courses.

They usually run across four days with a couple of days in the classroom to cover the theory, followed by skills training in a pool and then a trip to the reef to dive in the open water.

If you are already a certified diver, there are some great Cairns reef tours such as Mike Ball and Spirit of Freedom that take you further out into the Coral Sea to see the more pristine reefs away from the crowds. Night diving is also available for those wishing to see the reef after dark.

travel nq fast facts:

  • Most Cairns reef tours can be booked the day before but Learn to Dive courses are best booked in advance.
  • Tours can be booked directly online
  • If you’re snorkeling or diving, all equipment is provided

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