Unguided Diving in Cairns

Unguided diving in Cairns is possible, but you must book the ‘right’ boat to do it, as most reef operators insist on guided dives. We’ve done the research and found the tour for you, so step right up and stride right in, it’s dive time on the Great Barrier Reef with Divers Den. Divers Den is one of the operators that allow unguided diving for experienced, certified scuba divers and when we took their day trip for a test dive, it was awesome. The crew ran a tight dive deck and provided comprehensive site briefings. The reef sites had abundant, vibrant coral cover with a diverse array of marine life and there was plenty of time for diving and relaxing. So, if you’re a certified scuba diver wanting to explore the Great Barrier Reef at your own pace, then this might be the day tour for you. Maximum of 3 certified dives.

Norman Reef Unguided Diving

Unguided diving on Cairns’ Great Barrier Reef has many benefits, especially if you are an avid underwater photographer.

Great Barrier Reef Diving Without A Guide

Divers Den run unguided diving trips, to and from Cairns to the Great Barrier Reef, every day. The day starts with an 8am check in and returns around 4.30pm. Certified divers can choose up to 3 scuba dives during the day, which still provides time for snorkelling and relaxing. There is also the option for full equipment rental or tanks and weights only. Divers Den visit 2 different reef sites each day and have a wide array of moorings to choose from, which allows them to select the best ones on the day, to maximise your experience pending weather and conditions. On the day of our unguided Cairns diving trip with them, on 19 June 2023, we visited Norman Reef and Michaelmas Reef. But before we dive right in, let’s cover some more basic facts about your unguided diving Cairns day trip with Divers Den. Check-in is on their boat at Cairns Marlin Marina from 8am. Equipment is allocated on boarding and a complimentary morning tea, which consisted of tea, coffee and an array of muffins, was available for self-serve on board the boat. You depart Cairns around 8.30am and briefings are completed on the way to the reef. Divers Den takes snorkellers, introductory divers and certified scuba divers and the briefings for each group are provided separately. You arrive at the first site around 10am – which on our day of travel was at Norman Reef – and enjoy two dives here, before lunch. Being June (which is winter in Cairns) the water temp was around 23 degrees and 5mm shortie wetsuits were provided in conjunction with the dive price.

“Our first dive of the day was at a site called Troppo’s on Norman Reef – we stepped in at 10.37am and climbed out at 11.22am. From the moment we entered and descended, we were astounded at the abundance of marine life. The first photo stop was at a large anemone home to several pink anemonefish, before we cruised along the wall, surrounded by schools of fusiliers streaming through the water around us. There were lots of beautiful soft corals, which you don’t see at every site, as well as sea whips, sea fans, sea squirts and feather stars. The coral cover and diversity was excellent and after completing our safety stop under the boat, with a few big bat fish and red bass, we got out of the water with big smiles on our dials. This 45 minute dive had a maximum depth of 19m.” – Julie Johnston

Scuba Diving At Norman Reef

After a short surface interval, during which the dive crew refilled the tanks, it was straight back into the water for our second dive. This was at the same location, so we skipped the wall and explored the coral lagoon, gardens and bommies. While the bommies varied in size, they were all covered with an interesting array of marine life. Our first stop this time was at one particular bommie that had a healthy cover of branched finger coral, amongst which was a large entacmaea quadricolor anemone, home to lots of red and black anemonefish. Hovering above were several 3 spot black and white damselfish and headband humbugs, darting in and out of the corals. I always find this type of arrangement mesmerising, so we spent a little bit of time watching the unscripted underwater dance routine. Glancing left we saw some diagonal banded sweetlips, which is one of Richard’s favourites, so we made our way over there for a few photos, before continuing to explore – on the look out for some nudibranchs, which our dive buddy Suzanne was keen to find. That’s the beauty of unguided diving Cairns. You can take the time to seek out what interests you most and when you are taking underwater photos, that time is even more important. That’s one of the many reasons we love unguided diving in Cairns, on the Great Barrier Reef.

Continuing on we snapped a selfie and spent the rest of the dive exploring the bommies and swim throughs. There were lots of different types of chromis, in different colours and patterns, and amongst other things we saw a large coral trout, schools of yellow tailed fusiliers, sea cucumbers, fusiliers and butterflyfish. We stopped by the large anemone with the pink anemonefish on the way back to the boat, and shared our safety stop time with some dotted sweetlips and diagonal banded sweetlips. This was another 45 minute dive – in at 11.47am and out at 12.32pm – with a maximum depth of 12m.

Michaelmas Reef , Diving With Your Buddy

While the boat moved to the second reef location for the day, we enjoyed our buffet lunch in the sun on the boat’s second level. The Divers Den boat AquaQuest has 3 levels, the lower level has the main saloon, bar and dive deck, the second level has a combination of shaded and unshaded seating, while the top deck is a sundeck. The self-serve buffet included hot and cold dishes, chicken wings, salads, cold meats and bread. Being winter they also had soup available. Our dive buddy for the day and great mate Suzanne is a vegan and Divers Den were able to provide a separate meal for her, which was a large salad with chickpeas. We had almost an hour between the second and third dives of the day, which allowed us to warm up.

Dive 3 was at Breaking Patches on Michaelmas Reef. The underwater visibility was a little less here than at Norman Reef, but at 10m still provided great diving conditions. It was a day for anemonefish, as on this dive we descended straight on to a bommie with more branched finger coral, with entacmaea quadricolor anemone, which was this time providing ‘home’ for clark’s anemonefish. We explored the coral gardens before heading out along the wall, which again had excellent coral cover with hard and soft corals, feather stars and sea fans. A highlight of this dive was coming across a large school of bumphead parrotfish, and finally spotting one or two nudibranchs. So, we managed to tick off all the items on our ‘to see’ list during our unguided diving Cairns day trip, and in addition dived amongst schools of goldband fusiliers and yellowtail fusiliers, saw some more red and black anemonefish, large giant clams and six banded angelfish. Our dive at Michaelmas Reef lasted 30 minutes and had a maximum depth of 9m.

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Aqua Quest  Boat

With everyone back on board, the crew prepare the boat for departure and we had back to Cairns.

Questions About Unguided Diving From Cairns

Can you go unguided scuba diving in Cairns?

Yes, some boats – such as Divers Den, as featured in this story – do allow unguided scuba diving on their Cairns’ Great Barrier Reef day tours. This option is only available to experienced, certified divers who have dived recently. You will need to provide details of your dive history and experience.

What’s included in an unguided Cairns diving day tour?

Pretty much everything you need. When you book an unguided Cairns diving day tour with any of the local reef operators, standard inclusions are the boat ride to and from the reef, dive equipment rental (Divers Den has 2 options / price points – full equipment hire or tanks and weights only), dive site briefing, lunch and usually morning and afternoon tea.

How many dives can you do in an unguided day tour?

You can book up to 3 unguided scuba dives during a Cairns Great Barrier Reef day tour. You can book less of course, if you want to spend some time snorkelling or exploring with non-diving travel partners.

Where can I dive unguided from Cairns?

If you are travelling / scuba diving with a Cairns reef boat / operator, then you will be diving at their dive sites and destinations for the day. Rest assured all sites are chosen for their coral cover, diversity of life and dive conditions, so you will explore some amazing parts of the Great Barrier Reef.

What’s the benefit of unguided versus guided diving in Cairns, on the Great Barrier Reef?

For us the absolute benefit of unguided diving in Cairns, versus guided diving, is having that freedom and independence. You can dive as a group looking for the things that interest you most, whether that’s nudibranchs or turtles, anemonefish or swim throughs, you can make your own dive choices. We also love underwater photography, so again, the freedom of diving unguided gives you the time to play around with the camera and get the shots you want.

Are there any ‘downsides’ / negatives to diving unguided in Cairns?

I guess the only ‘downsides’ is navigation and confidence. If you are unsure of your navigating abilities and confidence in finding your way back to the boat, then perhaps a guided dive might be the best option for you.

Do I need to be certified to go unguided diving in Cairns, on the Great Barrier Reef?

Yes, you must be an experienced and certified scuba diver with recent dive experience to go unguided diving in Cairns on the Great Barrier Reef. This is for your safety. There is no unguided solo diving in Cairns. That means that while you can go unguided, you must always be in a buddy group, whether that is guided or unguided.

Do I need to be certified to go scuba diving in Cairns?

No, you do not need to be certified to go scuba diving in Cairns. If you are uncertified, aged 12 years and above and fit and healthy, you might like to try scuba diving on an introductory dive. These are all guided and a great way to experience scuba diving for the first time, on the Great Barrier Reef.

What’s the maximum group size for unguided diving in Cairns?

This all depends on the boat and the dive instructors. I would think the maximum group size, for certified, unguided scuba diving in Cairns would be 4 people, but if you have any concerns you should definitely ask this question at the time of booking.

What’s the maximum dive depth for Cairns unguided diving?

The maximum dive depth for Cairns unguided diving would be to your dive limits and certification levels. Generally speaking, the majority of Cairns Great Barrier Reef dive sites have a maximum depth of 20m – with many more shallow than this. Again, if depth is a factor for you, then you should definitely ask this question at the time of booking.

Do I have to pre-book my unguided Cairns diving day tour?

Yes, unguided Cairns scuba diving trips [and all scuba diving trips to the Great Barrier Reef] should be pre-booked to avoid disappointment. Any dietary preferences should also be advised at the time of booking.

Unguided Cairns Diving What You Need To Know

Not all Cairns reef boats offer unguided diving trips. Most require you to be on a guided dive. While there are some benefits to this, mostly being the dive crew know where to find anemones and anemonefish on particular dive sites and will always get you back to the boat, we enjoy the freedom of unguided diving. Divers Den provided a great unguided Cairns diving day tour when we travelled with them. The dive crew were helpful and efficient and the dive deck was run smoothly. You will need to show proof of your dive certification and details of recent dive experience. All Cairns scuba diving trips to the Great Barrier Reef – unguided and guided – should be pre-booked to avoid disappointment.

  • Dive equipment provided
  • Dive site briefings included
  • Wear sunscreen and sun smart clothes
  • Daily departures from Cairns
  • Meals are included
  • Additional beverages and snacks can be purchased
  • Digital photos can be purchased

About the Author

Julie was born in Cairns and grew up running around in the cane fields south of the city. She has explored, breathed and loved everything about our amazing Cairns region her whole life. Excited to be able share this wonderful place with our son and see it all again through ‘new’ eyes. Watch this space for more info on the people, places, destinations and things you can do up here.

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