The ultimate guide to Reef Trips from Cairns

Researching Cairns reef trips and feeling a little overwhelmed? I’m here to help you!

I don’t like to use the word lucky too often, but I can use it in the context of what my jobs in Cairns allowed me to do. Sure for years I worked every weekend, but I did get to do some pretty amazing things with my days off!

Being the dive junkie that I am, most of those ‘weekends’ involved getting wet and looking for nemo in some form or another. Which means that after over four years of trying out almost every reef trip out of Cairns (and working for two different operators) I am in an excellent position to be offering you some advice.

I always repeat this to people: there is no such thing as the best reef trip, only the best reef trip for you.

There are so many different options out there and one of them will be the perfect fit. Whatever your requirement there’s going to be a trip to suit you.

great barrier reef

The reef is big – and there are a lot of boats that will take you to explore it

For young families

If you’ve got little ones then Green Island is a safe bet. It’s a low cost option and, if all else fails, can basically be a lovely day at the beach. The snorkelling area is sheltered and patrolled by a lifeguard, and the price includes a ride on the glass bottom boat.

It’s worth bearing in mind that the coral is a way off the beach so if you do want your kids to join in the water activities this may not be as good. But it’s perfect for a place to play baby-tag-team while the other person goes off in search of turtles. There is also the option of a half day which might be good if you suspect someone might get tired and grizzly(and I’m not talking about Dad).

Both Great Adventures and Big Cat run ferries regularly. They’re the same price but have different schedules – choose the one with timing that works for you.

Book here for Big Cat / Book here for Great Adventures
green island turtle snorkel female selfie go pro

Go to Green Island and you too could see a turtle!

For not quite as young families

I guess this really depends on how much your kids and yourself are water babies. I know that if my parents had taken me to the reef aged 4 (not an option on camping holidays to Cornwall) I would have been in with the fishes before you could say ‘nemo’.

Sunlover is an awesome option for families. Not only is the reef beautiful, but they have options like a touch tank and kids pool. Although the water out here is deeper the access area to get in and out is a partially submerged step meaning that you can sit in the water and try out your mask. They have ‘rest stations’ around for people to hold on to and coral metres from where you jump in, meaning you don’t need to swim far to see the good stuff.

After all that activity you’re sure to wear them out, so enjoy an early night afterwards!

Book here for Sunlover
sunlover pontoon moore reef helicopter flight

The Sunlover pontoon from the air

For nervous snorkellers

My absolute favourite boat for those a little worried about their reef trip is Ocean Freedom. They have fantastic staff (I mean, they hired me!) and really take care of those who feel a bit worried about jumping on in. I can speak from personal experience when I say that the staff are actively encouraged to spend time with anyone who’s feeling wary. There were many scared faces that turned into smiles after personal snorkel tours, and I don’t think it was from my punny tour commentary…

Book here for Ocean Freedom
ocean freedom upolu cay

The warm, shallow waters around Upolu Cay

For VERY nervous snorkellers

If you are really very scared of strapping on that mask and jumping into deep water then book yourself on Ocean Spirit. They travel out to the shallow waters of Michaelmas cay where you snorkel directly from the beach. This means that you don’t have to go far to see coral and you can completely choose how deep you go. Gaining in confidence? Then swim out further! Or simply just stand in the water and pop your face in. You don’t even need to swim to see things! Ocean Spirit also has a semi-submersible trip included in the price which is akin to scuba diving without getting wet. And if all else fails, lying on the blinding white sands of Michaelmas Cay isn’t exactly a hardship…

Book here for Ocean Spirit

For confident snorkellers

Confident snorkelers should definitely choose Deep Sea Divers Den. Their brand new boat ReefQuest is absolutely amazing and will whisk you out to the reef in under 90 minutes, leaving you with over 4 hours of water time. With 17 reef sites to choose from the skipper can choose where to go based on the conditions on the day, dodging bad weather. They run snorkel tours free of charge if you’d like to tag along with a staff member who can tell you all about what you’re seeing.

Book here for Deep Sea Divers Den

For non-swimmers

Yes – it really is possible to see the reef if you can’t swim! Any of the large ‘pontoons’ are a good option, but I do have a big soft spot for Sunlover as I mentioned above. If you’re not going to get wet then steer clear of any trips that don’t have a pontoon – otherwise you’ve just paid for a very expensive boat ride! Try ReefMagic from Cairns if Sunlover isn’t your thing, it’s a very similar trip and the staff are fantastic. Of course you can always take a scenic flight over the reef to see it from above too!

Book here for Sunlover / Book here for Reef Magic
sunlover underwater observatory

Looking out at the reef from the Sunlover pontoon

For introductory divers

Many of the boats from Cairns cap the time of an intro dive at 20 minutes – but not Deep Sea Divers Den! You’re only limited by how fast you breathe, so it’s not uncommon for dive to last for 30-40 minutes (or almost as long as a certified dive!). Get more bubbles for your buck and go with them.

Book here for Deep Sea Divers Den

For very nervous intro divers

Most companies in Cairns follow the PADI standards of 4 divers to each instructor. OceanFreedom buck this trend sending a Divemaster along so each staff member has only 2 divers to look after – great if you need a little more time. They will also happily send you back in as a one on one if you’re too nervous to dive the first time! That being said they are very busy, and a friend of mine confessed that knowing how many divers were waiting after her added a lot of pressure.

You can also dive on OceanSpirit from the beach, allowing you to slowly increase your depth and practice skills in very shallow water. If you’re feeling especially nervous this might be a good option – but it is quite pricey.

Book here for Ocean Spirit / Book here for Ocean Freedom
ocean spirit michaelmas cay

A nice easy entry from Michaelmas Cay

For certified divers

If you’re a certified diver then the only three companies to consider are Tusa, Silverswift and Deep Sea Divers Den. There are pros and cons to all three, but I guarantee you’ll have a great day on any of them. Bear in mind that Silverswift doesn’t allow you to go unguided, so if you and your buddy prefer to cruise along at your own pace maybe give them a miss.

There’s so much to say about certified diving that I’ll be writing a separate post – this one is long enough already!

Book here for Tusa / Book here for Silverswift / Book here for Deep Sea Divers Den

For people wanting an overnight trip

If you’d like an overnight trip with smaller numbers than I can’t recommend Coral Sea Dreaming enough. I loved my trip with them, and although the company has changed hands since I travelled out I’ve only heard positive reviews. Because it’s a small sailboat the journey out does take a while and you end up with around 24 hours at the reef.

Looking for something bigger? The liveaboard OceanQuest is a fantastic choice. More of a floating hotel than a boat, you have all of the benefits of a liveaboard with none of the drawbacks. They also run a ‘sharks in the dark’ experience which both snorkellers and divers can experience for free!

Book here for Coral Sea Dreaming / Book here for OceanQuest
ocean quest sunrise

You see some awesome sunrises out on the reef

For people wanting low numbers

Low numbers and reef boats in Cairns don’t go hand in hand! Much of the reef is located tens of kilometres from land, and bigger boats get you there faster. There are exceptions though, with Reef Daytripper travelling to Upolu Reef with only 20 passengers, and OceanFree sailing to Green island with only 25. Both are lovely tours, but do bear in mind that they have a much longer travel time than other companies which means less time at the reef.

Tusa only carry 60 passengers and so are on the smaller side compared to some boats. Their boat T6 is super fast though, so might be a nice compromise between size and speed!

Book here for Reef Daytripper / Book here for Ocean Free / Book here for Tusa
ocean free green island sailing trip

Small numbers and an island adventure on OceanFree

Phew, there you have it! A by no means exhaustive list however, although with almost 30 boats heading out from Cairns it’s hard to narrow them down.

Want more advice? Ask away in the comments and I’ll be sure to answer!



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  • Reply Ngaire

    This is AWESOME! Thank you for your help! I can’t wait to plan my Easter reef trips!

    March 5, 2017 at 5:53 am
    • Reply Cheskie

      So glad you liked it! Let me know if you want any specific advice, I love helping people plan their trips in Cairns!

      March 17, 2017 at 2:13 pm

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