Last updated on May 25, 2020
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.
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.
Picking 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 liveaboard 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 six months ago, 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.
Quick Tips for Scuba Diving the Great Barrier Reef
Where to Dive From
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.
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 World Nomads, and you can add DAN divers insurance on top of it for extra safety.
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
Airbnb has some good options if you are traveling with others. I was not, so I stayed at the Northern Greenhouse in Cairns and it was very 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.
Australia Travel Guide: I rounded up all of my Australia travel tips into a single page sharing everything you need to know before you go to. Complete with travel recommendations, book suggestions, and responsible travel ideas.
Don’t forget to book travel insurance for your trip—a great policy provides coverage in case of medical emergencies, lost or stolen gear, adventure sports riders, and more. I used World Nomads for this trip (and since 2008!) and highly recommend it! It also covers COVID—a very important consideration for travel in 2021 and beyond.