The Great Barrier Reef. A vibrant and thriving, living landscape consisting of over 3,000 coral reefs, 600 continental islands and 300 coral cays. It extends along Queensland’s coastline for over 2,000km and the best place to visit it – is right here from Cairns. We’ve been on every boat and know there is a tour for everyone, from swimmers and non-swimmers to snorkelers and scuba divers. To help you choose the best reef adventure for you, we’re prepared the Ultimate Visitor Guide for Cairns Reef Tours, based on our local knowledge and experience.
Cairns’ Great Barrier Reef is a simply stunning destination. People come from around the world to see it. People of all ages, traveling by themselves, with friends or in family groups. For most it is a ‘bucket list’ trip, but with over 20 different Cairns reef tours departing the city each and every day, it can be hard to know which one is the ‘best one’ for you. Get it ‘right’ and everyone will maximise their time and experience on the Great Barrier Reef. Get it ‘wrong’ and you could spend the day wishing there was more you could do.
To explain, the Cairns reef tours and operators go to different destinations and provide a range of different activities and experiences. If you can swim, then the pool is open and all of the options and destinations are suitable for you. However, if you or any of your travelling companions cannot swim, or are not comfortable in the open ocean, then you need to be more selective when choosing which Cairns Reef Tour to take. The trick is to book the right tour to maximise your experience, with your abilities.
The outer reef offers the most abundant coral cover, diversity and underwater visibility. Here you can snorkel or scuba dive, exploring coral gardens, walls and bommies, on a range of Cairns reef tours. However, please note, the outer reef is an ‘open ocean’ destination, so there might be waves and current pending weather conditions at the time of travel. As such, the outer reef destinations and tours are suitable for people confident at swimming in the ocean. Reef pontoons are permanently moored in sheltered coral lagoons. They offer a range of activities including snorkelling, scuba diving, glass bottom boat tours, underwater observatories, scenic heli rides and more. They are (usually) more expensive than other Carins reef tours, but lots of the activities are included in the price. Reef pontoon tours are a great option for families and those not confident in exposed, open water.
Cairns has two tropical islands for reef day tours, Green Island and Fitzroy Island. You can snorkel at both and enjoy time in and out of the water, combining your reef tour with land-based activities. Scuba diving can be booked at Green Island, Fitzroy Island does not provide scuba diving tours.
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YES the Great Barrier Reef is worth it! Despite what you may have read about coral bleaching and the Great Barrier Reef, the reef is very much alive and well worth visiting. In fact, the most overheard comment we hear on all the Cairns reef tours is – ‘this is just like an aquarium’. We often ask other guests on the way to the reef what their expectations are, and what they want to see during their visit. I’m often completely surprised to hear they are hoping to see coral. I can 100% guarantee that no matter what Cairns reef tour you go on, you will see coral. Other creatures they are hoping to see include turtles, manta rays and nemo. Obviously being in a natural environment means you are not guaranteed to see these on every reef tour. However, we see at least one species of anemonefish on every reef tour, and we usually see turtles. We are yet to personally see a manta ray on a Cairns reef tour – but others have.
On the homeward journey we always ask other guests what their reef experience was like. Every single person has always said the Great Barrier Reef was amazing and more than they were hoping or expecting to see.
So, is the Great Barrier Reef worth it? – Absolutely yes. Do not come all the way to Queensland or Australia and not see the Great Barrier Reef. It’s a place of astounding natural beauty with colourful coral gardens, thousands of tropical fish and just an abundance of life. Accessible for all ages. Come and create lifelong memories.
The Great Barrier Reef is located in Australia. It stretches for over 2,000km along the north-east coast of Queensland, from the most northern part of the country, down to just above Bundaberg and Fraser Island in the south. It covers over 344,000 square kilometers and is the world’s largest coral reef system. It incorporates 3,000 individual coral reefs, 600 continental islands and 300 coral cays. Its width ranges from 60-250 kilometers and the average depth on inshore reefs is around 35m. Offshore reefs – such as Osprey Reef – have coral walls that descend over 2,000m and can only be visited on liveaboard trips.
Cairns is the best place to visit the Great Barrier Reef. It is the closest township in proximity to the reef, which means when taking a tour, you spend less time travelling and more time enjoying the reef. There are numerous day tours and liveaboard tours available, which depart Cairns every day. Cairns reef tour operators are very experienced and passionate about preserving the reef, providing outstanding reef tours and making the reef accessible for people of all ages and abilities. So, whether you are a non-swimmer, a swimmer, snorkeler or scuba diver, there is a Great Barrier Reef tour for you, in Cairns.
Side note Cairns is also the gateway to the Daintree Rainforest and World Heritage listed Wet Tropics. So, as well as seeing the Great Barrier Reef during your stay, you can incorporate various other tours and natural destinations when visiting Cairns. This is a vibrant coastal city, its northern beaches face the Coral Sea and ‘behind’ is rainforest mountains with gorges, waterfalls, rivers and crater lakes. You can hike, raft, tube, swim, snorkel, SUP, kayak, jet boat or simply relax on the beach, enjoy one of the many resorts, shop in the boutiques, explore the gardens and visit the galleries and museum. There really is something for everyone in Cairns.
Other reef destinations include Townsville, Airlie Beach, the Whitsundays and the Bundaberg and Gladstone region. Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays is a great sailing destination, however the quantity of islands and sand can impact underwater visibility for reef tours. The Bundaberg and Gladstone region is home to Mon Repos, which is a nesting site for loggerhead turtles and provides the opportunity to see turtles laying eggs and/or hatching turtles, on guided tours. The turtle season is between November to March.
Cairns is the best place to visit the Great Barrier Reef, offering outer reef tours, pontoon tours and tropical islands, a diversity of reef experiences not available in any of the reef destinations.
Any time of year is a good time of year to visit the Great Barrier Reef. Tours depart Cairns every day, including Christmas Day and Easter. Whilst the underwater landscape remains unchanged throughout the year, the water temperature does fluctuate. In Spring and Summer – September to February – the water temperature is between 26-30 degrees Celsius. Coral spawning occurs in October and/or November, pending water temperatures and the lunar cycle. Summer – December to February – is when Cairns receives most of its annual rainfall, so this can sometimes impact visibility but usually not too much due to distance from the coast to the reef. In Winter and Autumn – March to August – the water temperature is between 23-26 degrees Celsius and there are sometimes strong trade winds. Whales migrate to and through the Cairns section of the Great Barrier Reef between June and July.
Regardless of what time of year you visit the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns’ reef tour operations can supply everything needed for a comfortable, enjoyable day. This includes sunsuits in summer, which provide UV protection to you and also minimize the need for sunscreen, which is good for the reef, and wetsuits in the cooler months.
No – you do not need to be able to swim to visit the Great Barrier Reef. Cairns reef tours are suitable for non-swimmers, who can visit reef pontoons and islands. The experience at each of these destinations is slightly different, so here is a quick snapshot of what you can expect.
Reef pontoons are permanently moored in coral lagoons, on the Great Barrier Reef. Travel time between Cairns and the reef pontoons is usually around 70 minutes, each way. The pontoons are multi-story providing shaded chairs and seating, with sundecks and lounges. For non-swimmers, the pontoons provide a range of Great Barrier Reef experiences and activities. As well as being able to admire the reef from above – and you will see coral gardens and fishes – there are glass bottom boat tours, semi-submersible tours, underwater observatories, touch tanks and scenic helicopter flights. Water access to and from the pontoons is on a platform which is lowered into the water. These platforms have bench seating (to enable snorkelers to fit their fins and masks in comfort), where you can rest with your feet in the water and see assorted tropical fish darting between your legs. If you are a non-swimmer travelling with swimming companions, then a pontoon tour will be great for your whole party.
Tropical islands allow guests to enjoy marine and land-based activities, which makes them another great choice for non-swimmers. Cairns reef tours visit to two island destinations, Green Island and Fitzroy Island. Green Island is a coral cay surrounded with fringing reefs. It also has a resort and bar, plus the Marineland Melanesia attraction, which has various wildlife displays including saltwater crocodiles. There are walking tracks on and through the island and all of Green Island’s beaches are sand. For non-swimmers visiting Green Island, you can view the reef from the jetty – where you can see tropical fish, sometimes turtles, coral and seagrass beds – and take a glass bottom boat ride. You can also hire a kayak and/or wade in the water from the beach, which is relatively shallow pending tides, or just relax enjoy the tropical surroundings.
Fitzroy Island is a continental island and has less fringing reef than Green Island. You can explore the island on walking tracks, with the Lighthouse and Summit tracks providing beautiful views over the Coral Sea. The main beach, adjacent to the jetty is coral rubble, but the second beach – Nudey Beach – is sand, which is more comfortable for non-swimmers to relax on. Fitzroy Island is also home to the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre, which you can visit on tours and see injured marine turtles being cared for. Please note there is limited numbers and tours at the centre and to avoid disappointment, you should pre-book. Other non-swimming activities at Fitzroy Island include glass bottom tours or you can rent a SUP and/or kayak. There is a resort on Fitzroy Island and bar.
Yes – there are lots of family tours to the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns. Which one is best for your family? That all depends on the ages of your children and their swimming capabilities. If your children are infants or non-swimmers, then we would suggest booking an island tour. If your children are a bit older and confident at swimming in a lifejacket, then have a look at the pontoon tours (which is swimming in the open ocean). The pontoon tours have lots of other activities – glass bottom boat tours, underwater observatory, semi-submersible tours – which are great for families. Pontoon tours are more expensive than island tours but the inclusions make them great value for money. Finally, if your children are confident swimmers then an outer reef tour is the best option for you. Both the outer reef and pontoon tours provide access to coral gardens, which are teeming with a diverse array of marine life. You will see more tropical fish and reef on these tours, than an island tour.
Yes – it is worth visiting the Great Barrier Reef – and it is accessible to people of all ages and abilities, including non-swimmers, young families and older visitors. We have written lots of content on the Great Barrier Reef and Cairns Reef Tours, to prepare our Ultimate Visitor Guide, which will help you find the best tour and destination for your needs.
Clear blue waters, coral gardens and a diverse array of tropical fish and marine life. This is guaranteed to be seen on any visit to the Great Barrier Reef.
If you are seeing the reef from above, on a glass bottom boat ride or semi-submersible tour, then you will see a range of hard and soft corals and clams, and you will usually see parrotfish, butterflyfish and sometimes anemonefish.
If you are snorkeling, then it’s likely you will see bat fish, colourful chromis, triggerfish, wrasse, rabbitfish, unicornfish and starfish, all living amongst a diverse range of hard and soft corals and clams. You may also see stingrays, turtles and reef sharks.
Scuba divers will see all of this and more, descending down the coral walls to seek out snapper and sweetlips, coral trout, feather stars, sea urchins, nudibranchs, cuttlefish, anemonefish, sea whips and fans and more.
Snorkelling on Cairns’ Great Barrier Reef is excellent, with clear waters home to a diverse array of corals, tropical fish and other marine life. If you are snorkelling, then you can choose from a range of reef tours and destinations, including outer reef trips, reef pontoons and tropical islands. There are differences in the reef and underwater conditions at each of these destinations, which are explained in our Cairns Snorkelling Guide.
Yes, you can learn to dive on the Great Barrier Reef and there are diving schools in Cairns and Port Douglas. When picking a dive course you can choose a range of options. You can complete your online theory before you arrive, opting for the in-water skills and testing to take place on the Great Barrier Reef, either on two consecutive day tours or a liveaboard trip. Or you can complete your theory in a classroom here with other students and then complete in-water skills on the Great Barrier Reef, again either on two consecutive day tours or a liveaboard trip.
Please note there are some age and medical restrictions that might prevent you from learning to dive on the Great Barrier Reef (and anywhere else in the world). The minimum age to learn to scuba dive is 10 years old. You will not be able to learn to scuba dive if you are pregnant, have asthma or a range of other health conditions, including diabetes, epilepsy and heart conditions. All people wanting to take a learn to dive course will need to complete a dive medical. This is for your own safety.
Yes – your child can learn to scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef – ours did when he was 10 years old. For comprehensive information surrounding Kids Learning to Dive on the Great Barrier Reef please see our review.
The minimum age to be a certified scuba diver is 10 years old. This makes you a Junior Open Water Diver (PADI) and able to dive on the Great Barrier Reef. Please check with your reef tour operator prior to booking though, as they sometimes have specific requirements surrounding this. If you are not certified, then you need to be aged at least 12 years old to take an Introductory Dive on the Great Barrier Reef. There is no experience necessary to take an Introductory Dive, with all equipment and instruction provided to you. For more information surrounding this, please see our Cairns Diving Guide.
Yes – you can spend the night on the Great Barrier Reef. There are two options which make this possible. Firstly, you can book a cabin on a liveaboard reef boat. There’s a few Cairns reef tours with liveaboard boats and cabins range from quad share, to twin share to doubles. Most of the liveaboard boats are suitable for snorkelers and divers. Some have preset departures days, while others can be booked for any day / night, thanks to the operation of day boats, which provide transfers to and from Cairns to the liveaboard boat. The rates are inclusive of transfers, accommodation, and meals.
The second option is to stay on one of the Great Barrier Reef’s tropical islands. When in Cairns, you can choose between Green Island and Fitzroy Island, both of which have resorts. Green Island (and its resort) are smaller than Fitzroy Island and provide guests the choice of 2 swimming pools, a bar and bistro, restaurant and ability to utilize kayaks. It’s the closest island to Cairns and its fringing reef (around the jetty) is home to turtles, stingrays, giant clams, sea cucumbers and a diverse array of other tropical fish.
Fitzroy Island is larger than Green Island and so is its resort. The resort is multi-story with a range of room types and price points, it has a swimming pool and bar / bistro and restaurant. Fitzroy Island is mountainous and you can explore it with walking tracks to the Lighthouse and Summit. There is some reef at either end of the ‘main’ beach (adjacent to the jetty) but we have always seen more marine life at Green Island. That being said, both islands are lovely and we have stayed at both resorts, many times.
No the Great Barrier Reef is not dying. This is a myth that has been overexaggerated by media reports around the world. Certainly the Great Barrier Reef – like many coral reefs around the world – has suffered several coral bleaching events in recent years and decades. This is a result of global warming and rising sea temperatures. While coral bleaching has occurred in several places along the Great Barrier Reef, it’s important to note that the Great Barrier Reef is resilient, and several affected areas have since regenerated.
Please note all of the reef images you see on our I Love Cairns website have been taken by us, on Cairns Reef Tours over the past 3 years. We also have videos in our trip reviews. So this is all recent and current imagery. Review for yourself and decide if you think the Great Barrier Reef dying.
Also, to provide some context to coral bleaching based on our own experiences, sometimes when you visit a reef you may see some coral bleaching. There may be patches or areas of that particular reef that have been impacted. However, on that same reef, there will be other areas which are completely unaffected by coral bleaching. Reef tours will take you to healthy reef locations, so you can see and enjoy the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef. While you may see some bleaching on your visit, you will also see healthy corals and an abundance of marine life.
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