So, you have made it to Cairns – The Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, but what trip do you choose? You have the option of day or overnight trips, but we will cover those in a separate article.??? The Great Barrier Reef consists of 2900 individual reefs and 900 islands that span over 23,000 kilometres of the North-eastern coast of Australia
There are numerous day trip operators out of Cairns that vary in price a lot. So first you need to understand where the boats take you and what they can offer. Remember to check with us prior to booking as we offer discounts on all of the trips on our web site and monthly specials are often available as well.
The Great Barrier Reef is basically described as Inner Reef, Outer Reef and the Ribbon Reef areas. The far northern areas that run up the coast just north of Cairns, past the tip of Queensland towards New Guinea, are the Ribbon Reefs (called due to the elongated Reef bodies than run in line up the coast parallel to the Continental Shelf).
The Outer Reef is generally the smaller Reef patches close to Cairns that are numerous and offer a wide selection of diving with minimal travel. Beyond the Outer Reef the Continental slope drops off and you have the Coral Sea.
Reef areas inside the Outer Reef are called Inner Reef and include smaller areas and sand cays with fringing reef around them.
Generally, the further away from the main land and city areas are less affected by urban development and run off, so have better visibility and greatest marine diversity.
It’s important to consider how much time you have to spend at the Great Barrier Reef before choosing the boat tour that is right for you. You may also want to consider your swimming abilities and the type of aquatic experience that will make you feel most comfortable.
These locations are closest to the coast so take less travel time. These are generally sites visited by slower vessels and offer a good variety for beginners. Visibility will generally be lower than the Outer Reef but still can offer some good snorkelling and shallow diving Recommended for inexperienced snorkelers and first-time divers. Sites include Michaelmas Cay, Upolu Cay, Green Island Lowe Isles.
They usually have 5 – 10 meters of visibility on average and have a lot of soft corals and smaller fish species, but you will also find larger marine species such as Trevallies, Maori Wrasse, green turtles and reef sharks.
Reef Day Tripper is a one of the best trips visiting the Inner Reef and is a small sail boat offering a very personalised experience with low passenger numbers. A great option for a day less rushed and mixes sailing with diving and snorkelling. Trips depart daily and some like Green Island or Fitzroy Island make 2 trips daily to the Islands.
These patch reef areas make up the majority of sites for the operators out of Cairns. Only a few hours offshore (most high-speed boats travel 90 mins to get to their sites). Being isolated from the mainland the visibility is a lot better here and averages 15m.
There is a far higher degree of biodiversity here with schools of coral dwelling fish (Anthias , butterfly fish etc.) as well as the deeper water pelagic and Reef sharks. Maori Wrasse (affectionally known as Wally the resident on many a dive charters site).
Tusa, Reef Quest and Silverswift all travel around 90 mins to get to their destinations, and offer 3 dives a day on 2 different Reefs. Details of these Reef and dive sites can be found on their individual pages.
These trips are suitable for all levels of snorkeler and diver. The trips offer the chance to take a dive for first time as well as deeper more adventurous certified diving. The average dive site depth here is 15m.
The overnight / live aboard operators also come to the Outer Reef sites. Boats like Ocean Quest and Reef Encounter are like floating hotels that move form Reef to Reef so offer 2-day 1-night, or 3-day 2-night options as standard. However, you could stay as many days as you wanted.
Other overnight trips like Scubapro go out and return after 3 days with the same passengers.
Some of the more well-known dive sites include Norma and Saxon Reefs. Hastings, Thetford, and Briggs Reefs. All very similar and each company has its own moorings just for its guests.
Some operators have large permanent pontoons (Reef Magic for example) at Outer Reef sites like Moore Reef where you can get off of the boat and enjoy snorkelling, glass bottom boats plus introductory and certified diving. Great for families.
Trips to the Outer Reef go every day.
Starting to the north of Cairns, and finishing to the east of Lizard Island, the Ribbon Reefs are a stunning chain of 10 individual reefs. Fringing the edge of the continental shelf, this 200km stretch of the Great Barrier Reef lies in a remote region of North Queensland and is only accessible by a few liveaboards. The best known ones are Mike Ball and Spirit of Freedom both of whom depart on Mondays and Thursdays (the Thursday trip includes a day outside the Reef to the Coral Sea visiting Osprey Reef where the visibility is over 30m and has huge drop offs around 1,000m. Large pelagic fish can be found here, and its famous for the shark feed dives).
Adjacent to the Coral Sea trench, these ribbon reefs are recognised as the most pristine eco-systems in the reef’s environment, encouraging rich coral growth and supporting spectacular marine life. Some of the best dive sites on the Great Barrier Reef are her and arguably the most famous. They include Steve’s Bommie and The Cod Hole to name but 2.
These trips offer the chance to dive and swim with Minke Whales during the breeding season migration during June to September.
The dive trips are generally for more experienced divers and most sites are not suitable for snorkelers. They are generally 30m limit but drop off to considerably deeper. The best life is generally 20m or shallower though.
Again, we have links to details of the individual dive sites on Spirit of Freedom and Mike Balls pages linked to above.
Open Water certified divers would be fine but its recommended they take their Advanced course or at the very least the Deep Dive part as their diving would be too restricted and they do need more knowledge to enjoy these dive sites.
The southernmost Ribbon Reef is Agincourt and this can actually be reached from Port Douglas. Aqua Quest and Poseidon run out of Port Douglas as day trips and Agincourt does offer some spectacular dive sites for a day trip option.
The diversify of life here on the Ribbon Reefs is huge, and throughout the year special Exploration trips often are available.
These trips do book out well in advance and we are happy to offer discounts on all trips here and advise of availability.