Last updated on June 12, 2023
It’s been a whirlwind couple of months and I am wrapping up my time in Australia. I started my round the world trip here because I knew it was beautiful, English-speaking, and full of adventures. That plan panned out and I realized a dream here of scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef. Cairns is the launching spot for scuba diving, and this East Coast Australian city reminded me a lot of my childhood. I spent every summer of my childhood running around the Florida Keys with my brothers. This place has a similar vibe—it’s a city shaped by beach culture and a love of the water.
Things to Do Cairns, Australia
Immediately upon arrival just smells of sun, sand, and tourism riding on the salty, ocean-scented. There’s just no escaping the realization that Cairns is launching point for the majority of the Great Barrier Reef activities. Snorkeling and scuba diving are tops on the list of activities to do, and I am down with both of those things. I spent my first days visiting the different dive shops and looking for a multi-day live-aboard that looked good. It was an abundance of choice, which made it hard to pick one! Dive shops and travel agents liter Cairns’ city center like Christmas ornaments on a very ornate tree.
And there’s more than just diving; if you can dream it, you can do it. Form helicopter rides over the reef to visits to the nearby Daintree Rainforest. Suffice to say, there are ample opportunities to blow through your cash. I was a bit overzealous when I first sat down with the travel agent. With just three weeks left in Australia, I had booked four separate tours. And between those tours, I had a greyhound ticket down the coast back to Sydney. Backpacking is big business in Australia, so I had given the agent free reign to arrange my remaining weeks. She did! I have jam-packed schedule of the East Coast’s most adventurous activities.
But if you’re wondering what else you can do just in or from Cairns, here’s a quick rundown:
- Explore the Daintree Rainforest: The Daintree Rainforest is the oldest living rainforest in the world and is located just north of Cairns. Guided tours are easily booked in Cairns and they take you through the rainforest and show you the unique plants and animals that live there.
- Take a trip to Kuranda: Kuranda is a small village located in the mountains near Cairns. Reach it by a scenic train ride, or by taking the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. Kuranda is known for its markets, where you can buy handmade crafts and souvenirs.
- Go on a wildlife tour: Cairns is home to many species of Australian wildlife, including koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, and crocodiles. Several tour operators in Cairns offer wildlife watching tours, where you can see these animals in their natural habitat.
- Visit the Cairns Esplanade: The Cairns Esplanade is a popular spot for travelers and locals alike. It is a long, landscaped waterfront area with a swimming lagoon, playgrounds, and BBQ facilities. Plan an evening relaxing here and watching the sunset.
How to Pick a Dive Center in Cairns
I ruthlessly researched scuba diving companies before I arrived and I had a good idea of what they all offered. Once I landed in Cairns, I visited each one in person so I could gauge the vibe. Then, I picked the best one for availability and reputation—and I looked for dive shops that are upholding the highest standards for eco-tourism behavior, so I was limiting my eco-footprint on the reef as much as possible. The best tour companies should have independent certification that indicate they meet environmental protection and sustainability standards—certification from either Ecotourism Australia or EarthCheck ECO is a good start. Passions of Paradise is great for those wanting to snorkel near Cairns or a single-day tour, and Spirit Dive Cairns is certified and offers multi-day liveaboards.
Diving isn’t an activity where it’s wise to skimp, you’ll also want a dive shop with a strong reputation, reliable gear, and knowledgeable staff. And though all of the dive boats will offer vegetarian food, I appreciated that they assured me I would have just as many snacks and food options as the other passengers. There are cheaper options, but I went with the one that had the best combination of all the big factors.
Landing in Cairns at the beginning of the summer season guaranteed me a quick turnaround time on booking a dive trip. All the shops have dive boats leaving from Cairns daily. Once I had picked my dive shop, the Ocean Quest liveaboard left the very next morning. The trip I picked left in the early morning and sped away from Cairns so that we could dive the more distant parts of the Great Barrier Reef.
I laid down a pretty penny for this trip, so I didn’t partake in the hostel party scene that night. Instead, I was well-rested and waiting for the boat at 7:15 am the next day. My dive trip included two days and one overnight. We would have the chance for seven dives in total, including a night dive. The company was prompt in picking me up from my hostel, which boded well for the trip.
Scuba Diving the Great Barrier Reef
Interestingly, the big live-aboard boats mostly stay in the outer reefs. If you are just doing a night or two, you will take one of the day-trip boats out to the reef and then transfer over to the live-aboard. This process allows the larger vessel to stay stationed on the outer reef for longer. I found my friendly dive partner, Bruno, on our two-hour trip to the dive spots. He lives in San Francisco, works for Apple, and originally hails from France. This was my first dive trip after receiving my PADI certification, so I was happy to find a smiling, confident, and seasoned friend willing to explore with me.
Before each dive, the dive master on the boat drew a picture of the reef. He then detailed the layout of the dive site, ocean currents, and recommended paths to explore.
I managed some spectacular day dives, but I the underwater night dive was spectacular. Part of the thrill of a night dive is the adrenaline from knowing a shark could swim within a couple of meters of you, and you might never know it! Even with the adrenaline though, it was freaky to float along in a dark ocean, shifting and swaying with the current. I was glad to have a guide as we used our flashlights to shine under the coral and find sleeping fish. My dive guide pointed out what he later noted was one of the biggest parrot fish he had ever seen; the melted rainbow colors glistened as the parrot fish perched for the night at about 14 meters below and under a huge piece of coral.
I cracked up at my dive instructors warning on our night dive right as we bobbed in the water before descending. He had cautioned about using our flashlight as a spotlight on the small darting fish we would encounter. You see, if you focus the flashlight beam on a small fish, a larger fish will dart over and dispatch the small fish in a matter of seconds. You have God-like powers under there, and our guides begged us not to get carried away and execute a little fishy massacre. One creepy realization, however, is that as the huge fishes dart into view, that means they’ve been following me. … :-/
Living aboard the boat, even for just one night, gave me an educational sampling of varied spots on the Great Barrier Reef. Coral was the focus on some dives, fish another, turtles (my favorite) still another.
Our second dive site stood out from the rest for me. I have those dives imprinted in my brain. Just like in Finding Nemo, our dive site featured a huge drop-off, which is common on the outer reef edge. The drop-off is a is an endless wall of coral extending downward into dense blue openness. On the other side sleeps an impenetrable wall of blue ocean.
I missed the turtle sightings on the first day of scuba diving, so I was thrilled to see Mr. Turtle cruise along beside us for several minutes during my second day of diving. There were also a good deal of sharks too, for the shark-lovers out there. Several white-tip reef sharks hovered near the bottom during my dives.
The sharks are non-aggressive and quite small. Even so, that pointed tip sent small palpitations into my heart for the briefest flash of a moment no matter how harmless! As soon as we approached, they would take just a minor offense and cruise away from us at a clipped pace.
Though I am sure that I could have enjoyed another day of scuba diving on the reef, I was exhausted after two days in the sun and water. It was the perfect amount of time to see a variety of coral and fish. There is no doubting why this is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a massive reef system with pretty coral, unique fish, and an fascinating underwater environment.
How to Volunteer to Prevent Coral Bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef
Coral bleaching is a process that occurs when the coral expels the algae that lives inside its tissues, turning it white. This can be caused by a variety of factors, including warmer water temperatures and pollution. If you’re interested in volunteering to help with coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, here are a few things you can do:
- Get involved with a local conservation group: There are many organizations in Australia that work to protect the Great Barrier Reef and other marine environments. You can contact these groups and ask if they have any volunteer opportunities available. Start your search at GreatBarrierReef.og.
- Participate in beach cleanups: Many conservation groups and local councils hold beach cleanups to remove trash and debris from the shoreline. This can help to reduce the amount of pollution that enters the ocean, which can contribute to coral bleaching.
- Support businesses that are environmentally friendly: Supporting businesses that are environmentally friendly contributes to the health of the Great Barrier Reef. This includes choosing eco-friendly accommodation and tour operators that minimize their impact on the reef.
- Donate to organizations that are working to protect the reef: If you are unable to volunteer your time, you can still make a difference by donating to organizations that are working to protect the Great Barrier Reef. Your contribution can help to fund research, conservation efforts, and education programs.
Quick Tips for Scuba Diving the Great Barrier Reef
Where to Dive
It’s easiest to arrange a dive trip from Cairns, this is the most popular spot and the plethora of dive shops keeps prices competitive. But other coastal cities like Port Douglas, Townsville, and Cape York have far fewer tourists, better preserved reefs, and a very different dive experience. In terms of which reefs to dive, check that your dive package includes at least one of these more notable reefs:
- Cod Hole: Located on the Ribbon Reefs, Cod Hole is known for its friendly potato cod, which are often curious and will swim up to divers to investigate. This is essentially the most famous dive on the Great Barrier Reef.
- SS Yongala: The SS Yongala is a 110-meter long passenger steamer that sank in a cyclone in 1911. It is now one of the most popular wrecks to dive on the Great Barrier Reef, and is the perfect spot to guarantee sightings of the most popular marine life in the area.
- Flynn Reef: Located just off the coast of Cairns, Flynn Reef is ideal for novice diverse, and is notable for its beautiful coral formations and diverse marine life, including sharks, rays, and the incredible maori wrasse.
- Lighthouse Bommie: Located on the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef, Lighthouse Bommie is known for its clear waters and diverse marine life, including sharks, rays, and a wide variety of colorful fish.
- Osprey Reef: Located in the Coral Sea, Osprey Reef is known for its clear waters and diverse marine life, including sharks, rays, and a wide variety of colorful fish.
- Wolf Rock: Located off the coast of Fraser Island, Wolf Rock is a large granite outcropping that rises up from the ocean floor, covered in colorful coral and home to a variety of marine life. Grey nurse sharks are the main reason to dive this site, and it’s a great spot for both beginner and experienced divers, with a variety of dive sites suitable for all skill levels..
- Steve’s Bommie: Located on the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, Steve’s Bommie is known for its beautiful coral formations and diverse marine life, including sharks, rays, and a wide variety of colorful fish.
- Lady Elliot Island: Located on the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, Lady Elliot Island is known for its beautiful coral gardens and diverse marine life, including turtles, manta rays, and a wide variety of colorful fish. This is a family-friendly area, with great snorkeling and many amazing reefs just offshore.
- Thetford Reef: Located in the far north of the Great Barrier Reef, Thetford Reef is made up of a series of coral cays, or small sandy islands, surrounded by coral reefs. It is a great spot for both beginner and experienced divers, with a variety of dive sites suitable for all skill levels.
Best Time to Dive the Reef
You can dive year-round, but the visibility changes with the seasons. December to March, Australia’s summer, is also wet season, which means stinger season. Australia’s two most dangerous jellyfish are actually coastal dwelling and rarely spotted on the reefs where you’ll be diving. Even so, divers wear thin full-body wetsuits and stinger suits while scuba diving. Winter months are still warm enough for dives and have calm, cool waters and the bonus of seeing whale migrations.
What to Pack for a Dive
Remember your sunscreen, sun glasses, hat, and dive gear. Forgetting any of these makes it all just a little miserable. Although I had packed for a round the world trip—and thus didn’t have dive gear, I picked up things before our boat trip!
Check your travel insurance before your dive and make sure they cover scuba diving. This is considered an extreme sport by some insurance companies and you want to ensure medical evacuation is covered if needed. I use IMG Global, and you can add DAN divers insurance on top of it for extra safety. Additional safety tips include:
- Choose a reputable dive operator: There are many dive operators that offer tours to the Great Barrier Reef, so it is important to do your research and choose one that is reputable and has a good safety record.
- Get certified: Get your a scuba diving certification before diving on the Great Barrier Reef. This will ensure that you are able to dive safely and enjoy the experience to the fullest.
- Respect the reef: The Great Barrier Reef is a fragile ecosystem, so it is important to be mindful of your actions while diving. Avoid touching or standing on coral, and follow the guidelines set by your dive operator to ensure that you do not harm the reef or its inhabitants.
- Be prepared: Make sure you are comfortable in the water and have the necessary equipment, such as a dive mask, fins, and a wet suit. It is also a good idea to bring along some snacks and water to keep you hydrated during the dive.
- Stay safe: Always follow the safety guidelines set by your dive operator and pay attention to your divemaster. Dive within your limits and never hold your breath while diving.
Pick a Dive Shop
There are a lot of dive shops and it’s hard to pick the best. One option is to look at the best reefs and then find a dive shop with a permit to bring divers to that reef. Not all the dive shops can dive the best reefs, so if there is a particular reef you long to visit, shop around with that in mind. Passions of Paradise is great for those wanting to snorkel near Cairns or a single-day tour, and Spirit Dive Cairns is certified and offers multi-day liveaboards. Before booking with any others, ask them about their eco-tourism efforts and certifications.
Where to Stay in Cairns
I stayed at the Northern Greenhouse in Cairns and it was clean and helped me navigate the city. Consider Caravella Backpackers for a beachside hostel option, and Marlin Cove Holiday Resort is also quite nice, affordable, beachside too, but not backpackery.
A guide to everything I learned while backpacking Australia for more than two months. From Sydney to Melbourne to Cairns—and the good bits in between—here’s where to go, my favorite places, and everything you should know before you go.