Upolu Reef Diving & Snorkelling Review

Do you want to find Nemo? We’ll give you our top tip – we went to Upolu Reef and Upolu Cay with Ocean Freedom on the weekend and saw at least six different anemone, each home to a healthy population of resident clownfish. This is more than we’ve ever seen at any other local reef, located along the coast between Mission Beach and Port Douglas. Other highlights of our Upolu Reef diving and Cairns snorkeling trip, includes swimming amongst a school of hundreds of twinstripe fusiliers as they streamed around the shallows, chilling with white tipped reef sharks and hanging out with the biggest barracuda we’ve ever seen.

Clown Fish Photo

Finding Nemo is easier than you might think. We found lots living in the anemones at Upolu Reef and Cay.

Diving And Snorkeling At Upolu Reef And Upolu Cay

Upolu Reef is around 30km offshore from Cairns and is part of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and Michaelmas and Upolu Cays National Park. Upolu Cay used to be a pristine sand cay until early 2023, when a storm substantially shifted some of the sands and the ‘cay’ is now submerged again. On Upolu Reef you can scuba dive along the coral walls and explore bommies, while the shallow waters around Upolu Cay are perfect for clear water snorkelling. Both destinations are home to a diverse and plentiful array of marine life, which you can see and swim with, either scuba diving or snorkelling. If you don’t have your own boat (and we don’t), locally owned and family operated Ocean Freedom run daily tours to and from Cairns to Upolu Reef and Upolu Cay, which are suitable for people of all ages. Departing Cairns at 7.30am and returning around 4.15pm.

“We count ourselves so very lucky to have dived and snorkeled most of the Cairns reefs. While we don’t have a favourite – it’s the Great Barrier Reef, they are all great – we have never seen as many clownfish at any other local reef, so that was amazing! We had an awesome day with Ocean Freedom, diving and snorkelling Upolu Reef And Upolu Cay. Our dives were guided and there was the option for a guided snorkel tour, but we chose to explore the waters around Upolu Cay as a family and swam amongst literally hundreds of twinstripe fusiliers and glass fish, which was a fabulous experience. (See video below).” – Julie Johnston

Upolu Reef Diving Review Wonderwall And Jawz

Scuba diving at Upolu Reef off Cairns allows you to do wall dives and explore bommies. Our first dive was at a site called Wonder Wall, so as the name suggests, this was a wall dive. There was great coral cover with a diverse array of corals present, including but not limited to brain coral, spaghetti coral, elephant ear coral, mushroom coral, lunar coral and staghorn coral. We saw lots of sea fans, with feather stars and sea whips. The marine life was abundant too with lots of fusiliers, glass fish, dotted sweet lips, clownfish, snappers, butterflyfish and coral trout, while white tipped reef sharks rested on the sandy sea floor.

The second site we dove at Upolu Reef was Jawz, which being adjacent to Wonder Wall, had similar coral cover. On this dive we explored some bommies and saw a few different fish from the first dive, including a large Maori Wrasse, blue spotted stingray and diagonal banded sweet lips, which is another favourite reef fish of ours. We also saw bannerfish, yellow tailed fusiliers, chocolate dip damsel, moon wrasse, unicornfish, fiveline snapper, sea cucumbers, parrotfish, red bass, sea squirts and giant clams. Not to mention a few more beautiful anemones, with clownfish. We didn’t snorkel here, but some of the other guests on Ocean Freedom did and said they saw a Green Sea Turtle – everyone loves to see turtles.

Upolu Cay Snorkelling Review Barracuda!

I’ve got one word – Barracuda! As the crew were mooring Ocean Freedom at Uplou Cay, they pointed out one of the biggest barracudas we’ve ever seen. This one was around 1m in length and was just ‘sitting’ about 0.5m under the surface. Seemingly not fussed by the arrival of the boat, the barracuda remained present during the duration of our stay at the Cay, which was about 1.5hours. While it was the only one of its kind we saw, there were lots of other underwater ‘attractions’ waiting to be discovered – including, you guessed it – even more nemos / clownfish. Giant clams were plentiful, as were stingrays, sea cucumbers, starfish, glass fish and hundreds (if not thousands) of tiny, silver fusiliers. On the coral bommies we saw a range of hard and soft corals, Christmas tree worms and a huge array of fish.

As already mentioned, the ‘cay’ itself was no longer present, but the water was shallow and you can still comfortably stand-up in places, with the water about waist height. In addition to being shallow, the blue waters were very clear providing perfect conditions for snorkelling, which most people did. Once we finished snorkelling, it was time for some boat jumping – what can I say, our son loves jumping off things (jettys, boats, trees pretty much anything) and the back deck was the place to be. We definitely felt like the Ocean Freedom tour provided us with lots of time at the Great Barrier Reef, with the option for diving, snorkelling and swimming at Upolu Reef and Upolu Cay. A great range of food was included and on the way back to Cairns there were three different platters; delicious fresh fruit, cheese crackers and dried fruit and finally cakes. So good!

Here Are Ethan's Thoughts Of It All

I was excited to go scuba diving, not on the course, but for real. I loved seeing all of the clownfish in their homes and seeing what they do in their everyday lives. It was fun getting to see the clownfish up close, without having to duck down and hold my breath. I also saw lots of reef sharks and a blue dotted stingray. The crew members were very nice and understanding and they, and my parents, helped me lots going into the water and getting out the water. We also snorkeled around the cay, in the sand area where the clownfish and the glass fish were. Jumping off the boat was lots of fun, doing summersaults from the back deck. On the way home they brought out some chocolate mud cake, for all the passengers. It was so good. I had an amazing day out on the reef. Diving.

Photo with Nemo Cairns

Questions About Diving and Snorkelling At Upolu Reef

Can you scuba dive on Ocean Freedom without a diving certificate?

Yes you can. If you want to try an introductory scuba dive on Ocean Freedom, then this can be booked and is in addition to the tour price.

Can you scuba dive in Cairns if it's raining?

Yes again, of course you can scuba dive if it’s raining – you will be getting wet anyway, as you are under the water.

Is it worth going on Ocean Freedom without a scuba certification?

Absolutely! On Ocean Freedom you can snorkel, swim and scuba dive. There is also a glass bottom boat tour. The snorkeling is excellent, so is the diving – and if you are a snorkeler who wants to try scuba diving, then book yourself an introductory dive.

Is Upolu Reef part of the Great Barrier Reef?

Yes – Upolu Reef is a part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and World Heritage Area.

How far is Upulo Reef from Cairns?

Upulo Reef is about 30km offshore from Cairns.

How long does it take to get to the reef on Ocean Freedom?

Travel time from Cairns to the Great Barrier Reef on Ocean Freedom takes about 80-90 minutes.

Can I fly my drone on Ocean Freedom?

No you can’t fly your drone on Ocean Freedom.

Does Ocean Freedom hire underwater cameras?

No, you can not hire an underwater camera on Ocean Freedom. However, you can hire underwater cameras in Cairns and conveniently, you can do this in the Reef Fleet Terminal – which is where you get your boarding passes for Ocean Freedom.

Does Ocean Freedom sell underwater photos?

No, Ocean Freedom does not sell underwater photos.

Does Ocean Freedom offer any activities for people not wanting to get in the water?

Yes, Ocean Freedom does glass bottom boat tours at Upolu Reef.

Do you need to be able to swim to go to Upolu Reef and Cay?

No, you don’t, because the boat takes you there, but to ‘see’ Upolu Reef and Cay (beyond a glass bottom boat tour) then it’s helpful if you can swim – enabling you to get in the water and explore. However, Ocean Freedom does have life rings, life jackets and buoyancy devices, so if you are confident, you can use these to get into the water and support you as you explore.

Do you get to go to the Upolu Cay sand island?

Yes, Ocean Freedom does visit the Upolu Cay. Please note that as written earlier in this story, recent storm activity has substantially shifted some sand around and at the time of our visit (February 2023) the sand did not rise above the water line. However, it was shallow and you could stand-up on the sand and be about waist-height in the water.

How deep is the water at the Upolu Reef and Upolu Cay?

The water depth varies across different locations at Upolu Reef and Upolu Cay. From a scuba diver’s perspective, the maximum water depth at the sites we visited at Upolu Reef, was around 15-18m. However, for the purpose of snorkellers, the coral walls did rise up to be within meters of the surface providing excellent viewing. By the very nature of a cay, the water depth surrounding Upolu Cay was shallower than at Upolu Reef. Please note: All of these depths are indicative only. The sea bed varies in terrain with troughs and gullies and the coral walls and bommies are also varying heights. As such, the above is just a guide stating the depths of the sites we visited.

How many people go on Ocean Freedom?

Ocean Freedom is surveyed to carry 105. However, to maximise guest experience, space and comfort they limit their tour numbers to just 75.

Can you see sharks on Ocean Freedom?

Yes – we saw quite a few white tipped reef sharks on our tour with Ocean Freedom. However, as it is a natural environment and all of the marine life is ‘wild’, you can not guarantee what specific creatures you will and will not see on any given day.

Diving and Snorkelling on Upolu Reef and Upolu Cay, What You Need To Know

Ocean Freedom do tours to and from Cairns and Upolu Reef and Upolu Cay every day. It’s a full day tour offering lots of time at the Great Barrier Reef, with snorkelling, certified and introductory diving and a glass bottom boat tour. The crew are great and the boat is spacious and comfortable. There are lots of inclusions such as: tea, coffee and milo, pastries and fruit on boarding, a lovely buffet lunch with cold meats and salads, smoked salmon and prawns and then the three platters on the way home – fruit, cheese and crackers and cakes. This tour is suitable for people of all ages, looking to get in the water and explore and experience the Great Barrier Reef.

  • Snorkel equipment included
  • Dive equipment included (if diving)
  • Wear sunscreen and sun smart clothes
  • Meals are included
  • Additional beverages and snacks 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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