Cairns snorkelling. Colourful corals, giant clams, bright butterflyfish and patterned parrotfish are all guaranteed to be seen, when you go on a Cairns snorkelling tour. We’ve seen them on every single snorkelling tour we’ve been on, and we’ve been on every boat, many times over many years. These tours bring you face to face with the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s most beautiful, natural aquarium, but with over 20 boats departing Cairns’ Marlin Marina every day, it can be hard to know which one to choose. We are here to help.
Each of the Cairns snorkelling boats offers something slightly different: which is usually regarding where they go, what you get in conjunction with your tour price and how long you are at the reef. Picking the ‘right’ Cairns snorkelling tour for you is often a difficult decision to make. That’s why we’ve written this page. Our guide to Cairns snorkelling tours, complete with personal tips, helpful information and some considerations – to try and ensure you pick the best trip, to give you the best time on your Great Barrier Reef adventure.
Cairns is the closest city to the Great Barrier Reef. Each day hundreds of excited people head out on boats to experience the reef for themselves. Some go to islands and sand cays; others go to outer reefs where you can snorkel directly from the boat, or moor up and spend the day on a reef pontoon. Everyone has expectations and aspirations for their day at the reef. What they want to see and do. The good news is, there are no bad Cairns snorkelling tours. Our city and its reef operators are tourism experts. They want you to have a good time. The bad news is it can be hard to know which boat / tour is the one for you – so let’s break it down, look at the options, considerations and different destinations.
This is a big one. If you are a confident, capable swimmer who is happy about the idea of snorkelling in the open ocean, which sometimes has waves and currents, then all of the Cairns snorkelling tours are open to you. Every boat provides life jackets and buoyancy devices. If this does not sound like you, and you have some concerns and/or fears about this – and don’t worry, you are not alone – then you should choose one of the Cairns snorkelling tours that visits an island or pontoon. More on this in the location section below. This will ensure you have a great day enjoying the reef, rather than (potentially) fighting your fears. A reef trip should be fun, not challenging.
Another big one. Especially for families. Just because you might be a confident and capable swimmer, who will make the most of their in-water snorkel time, does not mean everyone else in your group is. So, if your group has a combination of swimming skills, abilities and ages, then you should consider an outer reef pontoon or island tour, or pick a boat that includes glass bottom boat tours as a part of their experience. This will ensure everyone in your crew will be able to see and enjoy the reef. Side note – in doing this, you are not compromising on what you will see – all of the snorkelling sites are excellent, you are just ensuring everyone has the chance to experience the reef.
Cairns snorkelling tours depart from Marlin Marina, which is in the city itself – between the Pier Shopping Centre Complex, Harbour Lights and Cairns Hilton Hotel, walking distance from the Cairns Esplanade, Cruise Liner Terminal and Casino. If you are staying in Cairns city or on the northern beaches, including Trinity Beach and Plam Cove, then you have over 20 Cairns snorkelling tours to choose from. If you are staying in Port Douglas, then you should choose one of the 10 Port Douglas snorkelling tours. These tours visit a range of outer reef sites, where you can snorkel directly from the boat, or moor up and spend the day on a reef pontoon – some of them visit Low Isles. South of Cairns, you can visit Frankland Islands or Mission Beach for snorkelling tours.
This is less critical. The Great Barrier Reef is amazing at all times of the year. The one factor that does change is the water temperature. In Cairns’ cooler months – May to October – the water temps range between 23 degrees Celsius and 26 degrees Celsius. For Cairns divers this is cold, and the boats provide 3-5mm wetsuits for guests. From November to April the water is usually between 26 degrees Celsius and 30 degrees Celsius – so we swap wetsuits for sunsuits, which provide UV protection. You will generally see the same things no matter what time of year you visit, with the exception of the annual migration of Dwarf Minke Whales (June – July) and Coral Spawning (October / November).
This section relates to ‘what you get’ in conjunction with your tour price. All of the Cairns snorkelling tours include the boat ride to and from the reef / island, lunch, snorkelling equipment (mask, snorkel and fins) and buoyancy devices. Beyond that, some tours include other activities and inclusions in their tour price, such morning and afternoon tea, glass bottom boat rides, semi-submersible tours and marine biologist talks – and all of the pontoons have underwater observatories. Most tours also have other activities you can purchase in addition to your tour price: including introductory scuba diving (no experience necessary), certified scuba diving and guided snorkel tours. Make sure you look at all of these things, when selecting the Cairns snorkelling tour for you.
Tour price is always a consideration. Generally speaking the pontoon tours are more expensive than the boat and island tours, but they do have a lot more inclusions. Other than the boat ride and pontoon, there’s glass bottom boat tours, semi-submersible tours, underwater observatories and fish feeding. The snorkelling here is from the pontoon, using lowered steps to enter the water and snorkel over the adjacent coral gardens. Visibility is usually very good. The island tours are generally the cheapest and most of the snorkelling is done from the beach. The reef at the islands is fringing reef and underwater visibility can vary, with the tides and current. On the outer reef boats, you are snorkelling in the open ocean at various reef sites; the coral cover is diverse and visibility is usually very good.
These are the main things to consider when choosing which Cairns snorkelling tour you want to go on. The Great Barrier Reef is accessible to everyone. All ages and abilities can – and should – visit the reef, it’s just beautiful. Most overheard comment we hear on the boats is, ‘it’s like being in an aquarium’. We’ve taken our elderly relatives and our son, from when he was just 6 months old – well younger really, I snorkeled throughout my pregnancy with him. You can do it – we want you to do it – and more importantly, we want you to have best possible time. That’s why we’ve taken the time to write this page on all things Cairns snorkelling tours, to try and help you see the differences and make informed choices.
When I first started snorkelling, I was 4 years and 4 months old. My parents took me on Sunlover and we went to their reef pontoon. When I was snorkelling, I had to wear a life jacket (of course) and got a lot of saltwater in my eyes. I found it really difficult and I didn’t really enjoy the snorkelling, but I did enjoy everything else about my visit to the reef. I really enjoyed the glass bottom boat and just having fun on the boat. As I continued to go on more trips and got a bit older, the snorkelling got easier for me, because I knew how to keep the water out of my eyes and I was a better swimmer. My first big accomplishment was when I got to take my life jacket off, when I was a confident swimmer. This was much better, as I could move in the water more easily. As I got bigger, the boats had wetsuits to fit me, which was great as I used to get cold in the water and then I didn’t anymore. I really started to enjoy snorkelling when I was around 6 or 7 years of age and was jumping off the sides of the boats too, which was really fun. The favourite things I saw when snorkelling was spaghetti corals, turtles and nemos – I especially loved snorkelling with the reef sharks with ABC Snorkel Charters at Port Douglas. By the time I was 9 I loved snorkelling and diving down to get closer to the reef. My parents were scuba divers, so were really good in the water and were able to support me and show me the way to be in the water and on the reef. When I turned 10 I became one of the lucky kids who learned to dive on the Great Barrier Reef.
Cairns snorkelling locations, and we’re talking about Cairns’ Great Barrier Reef snorkel tour locations and destinations, include outer reefs, reef pontoons, islands and sand cays. If you are wondering about snorkelling from the beach in Cairns, at say Palm Cove or Trinity Beach, you can do it, but there is not much to see. All of Cairns’ snorkelling tours take you offshore to reef destinations. The outer reefs are so named for their proximity to the edge of the Continental Shelf. They take longer to get too, but the visibility is usually excellent with diverse corals and marine life. The pontoons are bit closer, most are located on Moore Reef, but again visibility is usually excellent as is coral cover and the marine life you will see. There’s two island destinations (more on this below) which allow you to combine snorkelling with land-based exploration and activities and two sand cays. All of these Cairns snorkelling locations offer different experiences, which we dive into below.
Cairns snorkelling tours visit a range of outer reefs, including Norman, Saxon, Hastings, Flynn, Milln, and Pellowe Reef. Each reef has a number of moorings and each tour operator is licensed to use specific moorings. They do not all go to the same reefs and moorings / sites, but all offer similar experiences. Snorkelers enter the water from lowered platforms / steps on the boat, swimming out into the open ocean to explore coral gardens that rise to within meters from the surface. Pending the tide, you will be swimming just above the reef and in some instances, the coral emerges from the water at low tide. Visibility is usually excellent, as is the diversity of coral and marine life. These destinations take longer to get too and being the open ocean, there are sometimes waves and currents. Boat capacity to the outer reef varies but is generally no more than 150 guests per boat.
Reef pontoons are also called activity platforms. These are large platforms which are permanently moored at the reef, most of them are located at Moore Reef. The platforms can have one or two levels, all have a combination of shaded seating and sundecks, as well as showers and change rooms. If you choose a reef pontoon as your preferred destination for a Cairns snorkel tour, then water entry is via submerged platforms and steps and while you are still swimming in the open ocean, you are in a protected lagoon-type area of the reef, which has less current and waves. There are also resting stations located across the snorkelling area. The reef pontoon tours include a range of additional activities in their tour price, including glass bottom boat tours, underwater observatories and semi-submersible tours. The pontoons accommodate a couple of hundred people.
Green and Fitzroy Islands are the main island destinations for Cairns snorkelling tours. Green Island has sandy beaches and rainforest growth, which you can explore on boardwalks. Snorkelling is directly off the beach. Most snorkelling tours to Green Island include a glass bottom boat tour. Many boats go to Green Island and during the day, several hundred people can be there. Fitzroy Island is a continental island. It has mountainous terrain which you can explore on the Lighthouse walk or Summit walk. Snorkelling is directly off the beach – its Nudey Beach was named Australia’s best beach in 2018 – the beaches near the jetty are made of coral rubble, which is hard underfoot. Less boats go here, so day visitors are usually a few hundred people. Both islands have resorts on them, with bar and bistro facilities. The islands are closer to Cairns, so you get there quicker than the pontoons and outer reef destinations.
Sand cays are ‘pretty as a picture’ – little beacons of white sand that emerge from the sea and are surrounded by azure waters. You can’t help but want to be on them, to sit in the shallows and have the waves lap at your feet. There are two sand cay destinations – Michaelmas Cay, which has lots of birdlife, and Upolu Cay which is only seen at low tide. In terms of ‘where do sand cays ‘sit’ in the scheme of Cairns snorkelling tours’, I would say they are in between the pontoons, islands and outer reefs. Like the islands, you are standing on firm ground and snorkelling off a beach. Like the pontoons, you are on the reef and the coral cover and marine life is more diverse. Like the outer reef sites, the boats that visit the sand cays carry less people (than pontoon and island boats).
Liveaboard boats provide you with the opportunity to extend your Cairns snorkelling tour over two or more days. The liveaboard boats traverse the waters of the outer reefs, taking you to several different moorings and reef sites during your time at sea with them. Regarding the pros and cons of the liveaboard boats as a destination, they are the same as the outer reef sites already covered above, except there are less people on them. Also, if you book 2 nights or more, you will have entire days where you can snorkel, eat, sleep and repeat, maximizing your time to experience and explore the reef. Accommodation on liveaboard boats is usually double, twin or quad share, all meals and snorkel equipment are included in the tour price.
As you can see, you are spoilt for choice when it comes to Cairns snorkelling tour locations and can pick one to best suit your interests. If it’s all about the reef, and you are a confident open water swimmer, then the outer reef is for you. If you want to add in extra activities and snorkel in a sheltered reef lagoon, then check out the reef pontoons. While if the idea of snorkelling off a beach is more appealing, then the islands and sand cays will tick your box. We’ve done all of these destinations and while each one is different they are all very good.
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Yes! Snorkelling in Cairns is definitely worth it – we are the closest city to the Great Barrier Reef, which means you spend less time travelling and more time snorkelling. The tour operators here are world class, with decades of experience showing the amazing Great Barrier Reef to guests. Fun fact – Green Island, off Cairns, is where the world’s first ever glass bottom boat tour was run. So yeah, we know how to show you the reef. Diverse array of boats and destinations.
There is no right or wrong answer here – the best place to snorkel in Cairns, is the place where you will have the best experience, paired with your swimming abilities. If you are not comfortable about swimming in the open ocean at home, that’s not going to change when you get here. So if that sounds like you, then snorkelling off Green or Fitzroy Island, or one of the outer reef pontoons is for you. If you are a confident swimmer, then you can choose these too, or pick a tour that takes you to some outer reef sites.
Yes, you can snorkel from the Cairns beaches, but it’s not really recommended. The Great Barrier Reef does not extend right to the coastline at Cairns. It does at Cape Tribulation – which is where the Reef meets the Rainforest – but not at Cairns. If your purpose of snorkelling is to see the reef, then you will need to book a tour which will take you to the outer reef, a reef pontoon, island or sand cay.
Yes, you can snorkel at Palm Cove, but it’s not really recommended. The Great Barrier Reef does not extend right to the beach at Palm Cove. If your purpose of snorkelling is to see the reef, then you will need to book a tour which will take you to the outer reef, a reef pontoon, island or sand cay.
Yes, you can snorkel at Trinity Beach, but it’s not really recommended. The Great Barrier Reef does not extend right to the beach at Trinity Beach (or any other Cairns beach). If your purpose of snorkelling is to see the reef, then you will need to book a tour which will take you to the outer reef, a reef pontoon, island or sand cay.
Again, there is no ‘best boat’ as such. There are several award winning boats and tour operators, there are family owned tours which pride themselves on customer service, there are boats that go to islands, pontoons and the outer reef. The question to ask is ‘what boat is best for me?’ and hopefully you can find that answer with our tips and information.
The best Cairns reef for snorkelling for us personally, are the outer reef destinations, Fynn, Milln, Moore, Pellowe and Thetford Reef. That being said, we are confident and experienced snorkelers in the open ocean. For the islands, the fringing reef around Green Island offers good snorkelling and the chance to see sea turtles, especially on the reef adjacent to the beach, next to the jetty. (The one without lifeguards). Fitzroy Island has good fringing reef too, especially at the ‘headlands’, either end of the beach facing towards Cairns.
Every month is a good month to go snorkelling in Cairns. The boats leave every day.
What you will see snorkelling from Cairns on the Great Barrier Reef includes colourful corals, giant clams, bright butterflyfish and patterned parrotfish. These are all guaranteed to be seen, when you go on a Cairns snorkelling tour. We’ve seen them on every single snorkelling tour we’ve been on, and we’ve been on every boat, many times over many years. Beyond that, it’s a natural environment, so things like turtles and reef sharks and Nemo are not always a given, but they are there and we do see them. Other reef fish you might see snorkelling from Cairns includes bat fish, barracuda, chromis, wrasse, Moorish idols, snapper, puffer fish, triggerfish, rabbitfish, scissor-tail sergeant, yellow tailed fusiliers and more. There’s also sea cucumbers, star fish, blue spotted stingrays and reef sharks.
If you are confident snorkelling in the open ocean, then snorkelling on a Cairns reef is better than an island, in our opinion. However, if you are not confident, then definitely choose a pontoon or island tour, because the snorkelling is still fantastic and you have the comfort of entering the water from the beach or on a lowered platform. We have seen people who are not confident, try to push themselves on outer reef sites and end up having a less than awesome day. Pick the location and conditions that match your confidence levels and you will have the best time.
Yes – Cairns snorkelling is safe for children and families, but pick your trip to suit your family too. We started snorkelling with our son when he was 4 years old. Obviously, life jacket, buoyancy device and around 2000% parent contribution, but we wanted to get him used to snorkelling on the reef, in saltwater, because we live here and love it. Heads up for parents – based on our experience – the first years / times (based on age and experience) are tough. All children – I think anywhere from 4 years to 10 years (pending experience) will find saltwater in the mouth and possibly eyes (from leaking mask) ‘difficult’. If they are not confident in the water to boot, then don’t push them. There are glass bottom boat tours, semi-submersible tours and island trips, where they can stand-up if they are having an problems. In terms of safety, the actual question should be ‘is swimming safe for children and families’ – because yes it is, if you do the lessons and gain the confidence and skills to be safe.
Honestly, no. In our opinion – and experience – having been on the boats and watched people try – if you can’t swim, you shouldn’t really snorkel. Yes, the boats have floatation devices. Yes, you can have in-water assistance. Some people are OK with that – lots of people are not. If you want to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef, then you should learn to swim (and swim in the ocean, with waves) before you come. If that is not an option, then there are other ways you can experience the reef. Glass bottom boat tours are great. So are semi-submersibles and underwater observatories. The islands provide the opportunity to enter the water to your own comfort levels. You can also see fish feeding and the marine life, from the jetty. Plan ahead and pick your trip / tour, based on realistic assessments of what you feel comfortable and confident doing.
There is no right or wrong answer here. The best Cairns snorkelling tour is the one that has the best destination and inclusions to deliver you the best experience, based on your individual skills, capabilities and interests. We’ve written our Cairns snorkelling tour page to provide people with helpful information and advice, based on our years of experience, to help you decide what the best Cairns snorkelling tour is, for you.
Yes – 100% yes – if it is raining in Cairns, snorkelling is still worth it. Here are the facts. Who cares if it is raining, you get wet when snorkelling anyway. The Great Barrier Reef is an aquatic environment, it thrives with the addition of water. The marine life do not change their behavior under the water, if it is raining above the surface. Finally, just because it is raining in Cairns, it does not mean it will be raining the reef. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t but irrespective you should still do it.
Honestly, it depends where you go and who you go with. There are excellent snorkelling trips from Cairns and Port Douglas – in fact Port Douglas has the best rated snorkel trip in Australia, based on Trip Advisor Reviews (ABC Snorkel Charters Port Douglas), based on the boat, tour and experience. We would say this, if you are staying in Port Douglas, go on a Port Douglas snorkelling tour. If you are staying in Cairns, go on a Cairns snorkelling tour. Both towns have fantastic Great Barrier Reef sites and better to spend your time travelling to the reef – rather than between towns and then the reef.
The worst Cairns snorkelling tour is the one you take, that doesn’t match your skills, experience and expectation levels. Do your research, be honest on your own comfort levels, skills and abilities – and that of your family / friends, if you are travelling with them – and book a Cairns snorkelling tour that ticks the right boxes, in regard to destination and inclusions, for you. Our advice and local knowledge is here to help.
No – snorkelling in Cairns is no more or less dangerous than snorkelling anywhere else. Cairns and Queensland, Australia have some of the most stringent and legislated safety standards in the world, when it comes to snorkelling and diving. Do it to your limits, medical and physical capabilities.
Cairns is the best place to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef. We have more boats, more experience and are closer to it. Our tourism operators pride themselves on customer service, safety and sustainability. Our reef sites have excellent coral cover and biodiversity. It’s all here, waiting for you.
Cairns is best city to visit to see the Great Barrier Reef. We say this having visited the reef from Cairns, Mission Beach, Townsville, Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays. Our reef sites are close to the coast and the Continental Shelf. The coral cover is excellent and marine life is abundant. You can do day trips, island trips and liveaboard trips. Experienced, award winning tourism operators, delivering reef experiences which will stay with you for a lifetime. If you want wonderful Great Barrier Reef snorkelling tours, book your plane, train or bus tickets to Cairns – we’ll see you on the reef.
When your crew is a combination of scuba divers and snorkelers, and you want the best Great Barrier Reef experience possible, an outer reef pontoon is the answer for you. Sunlover’s Moore Reef tour packs a good value punch, with diving, snorkeling, sliding and so much more. Great reef location. Lots of inclusions. Lets go!More
Ever wanted to snorkel with a turtle? We did that and discovered so much more when we went snorkelling on Green Island. Highlights included colourful clams, parrotfish, rabbitfish, fringing reef, a Moorish Idol, Eagle Ray, sunset fish feeding and sunrise jetty jumping.More
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