Diving the Great Barrier Reef, the longest coral reef in the world is an experience of a lifetime. We’re lucky to live in Australia, only a weekend away from what’s a long journey from the rest of the world. A few times, we used a three-day weekend to plan a Cairns diving trip.
Some people wonder if Cairns is worth visiting. We always had an excellent time going to the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns. I’m not going to say that the Great Barrier Reef isn’t struggling. The impact of climate change on the ecosystem is concerning. It is facing threats and some parts of the Reef are unfortunately dying. But the Great Barrier Reef is big – as big as Japan or Italy actually. So many parts are still worth a visit to experience the amazing biodiversity and support the tourism economy around this icon to help its survival and, hopefully, recovery.
Responsible travel tip: The increase in greenhouse gas emissions are a threat to the oceans and the Great Barrier Reef. To mitigate a bit the negative impacts of your Cairns diving trip, you can choose to offset your flight. It’s often just a box to tick when you purchase your plane tickets. If you can’t find it, you can also use Atmosfair, for example.
Although some might argue Cairns may not be the best place to dive the Great Barrier Reef, it’s one of the easiest and most affordable ways. We had an amazing time exploring the different reefs nearby. The variety of fish, corals and reef formations is stunning. From nudibranch to sharks, from turtles to clownfish, we saw each time a full spectrum of marine life as we navigated around the bommies, the canyons and the big walls of corals.
Here are some tips and feedback to help you plan your Cairns diving trip to experience the Great Barrier Reef.
We’ll look at:
- The best time to go to Cairns
- Itinerary suggestions for a diving weekend in Cairns
- How to choose the length of your trip / the number of water sessions
- The reef you can access from Cairns
- Tips to choose a liveaboard company to dive the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns
- Tips to plan your dives on the Great Barrier Reef: level, guide and equipment
- When you should fly before and after your dives to maximise your weekend
- How to spend one day around Cairns not diving the Great Barrier Reef
- Where to stay in Cairns
Are you covered for scuba diving by your travel insurance? It’s worth double-checking. If not, I recommend DAN (Divers Alert Network) for those who dive regularly. WorldNomads* and Covermore* also make it easy to add adventurous activities like scuba diving to your plan.
1. The best time to go to Cairns
You can dive all year round near Cairns. But be aware that there are two seasons in the tropics: the wet season and the dry season.
If you don’t like the heat too much, the winter months will be better (June to August). The weather is usually calmer and more predictable.
Keep in mind that with summer comes warmer water but also the risk of a cyclone and jellyfish. The wet season usually starts in December and peaks at the start of the year. It’s hot and humid, and a perfect time to visit the rainforest and waterfalls.
I liked our visit at the end of November/start of December. The water was warm and it was the breeding season for fish and corals (we missed the coral spawning by a few days!). We had no wind, which makes the trip out to the Reef a lot more comfortable.
We also tried our luck once with a last-minute booking between Xmas and New Year. We could see many storms hitting Cairns. But on the reef, we only had one small shower. The weather was good and the boat wasn’t moving. However, it is also because we were protected. We went twice to the same sites because it was the best choice with the wind.
2. Itinerary suggestions for a diving weekend trip to Cairns
I’ve travelled to Cairns for scuba diving for a weekend a few times as the flight times are great to maximise your time up there and out on the reef. Here’s an example of an itinerary if you can go to Cairns for a long weekend:
- Thursday night: catch a flight after work for a late arrival in Cairns.
- Friday: day 1 of liveaboard
- Saturday: day 2 of liveaboard
- Sunday: day 3 of liveaboard (one early dive then snorkel) or day trip in the Cairns region
- Monday: early flight back to work!
But if you cannot take a day off, then you could look at these options:
- Friday night: catch a flight after work for a late arrival in Cairns.
- Saturday: day trip to the reef OR day 1 of liveaboard
- Sunday: day trip in the Cairns region OR day 2 of liveaboard (snorkelling)
- Monday: early flight back to work!
3. How to choose the length of your Cairns diving trip (and the number of water sessions)
Day trip to the Outer Reef
If your time is limited, you’ll be looking at a day tour to the Outer Great Barrier Reef. Most vessels for daily tours are quicker than liveaboard vessels, so they can take you to reefs that are quite far. When looking for Cairns diving trips, I highly recommend choosing a trip to the Outer Reef. As you go further from the coast, the water is clearer and the marine life more prominent. You will be closer to the deep ocean, with higher chances of spotting bigger species too!
When choosing a tour, I recommend looking at:
- The size of the boat: some vessels are huge with hundreds of passengers. It’s not the same experience than a small number. The number of staff (guide/passenger ratio) will also impact your experience.
- The number of in-water sessions and sites visited.
If you’re considering a day trip, I’ve heard fantastic reviews from friends about Passions of Paradise* and Ocean Freedom*. Silver Swift* is another great option as they will take you to three different sites in one day (that’s one more than most day tours). If you’re interested in also seeing the reef from above, Down Under Cruise and Dive* offers a package with helicopter flights.
Day trips are great if you’re a new snorkeller or scuba diver. But if you love being in the water and/or are interested in a scuba diving course, then you’ll find a day trip too short. Also, you would miss the night dive – a highlight – and the sunrise dive if you only go for a day trip. I highly recommend looking at joining a liveaboard.
Among the most famous liveaboard companies in Cairns, you’ll find Mike Ball, Ocean Quest (Divers Den)*, Reef Encounter and Pro-Dive Cairns. I’ve done trips with the last two on that list and detailed my experience below to help you choose your operator. One of the first questions to differentiate them is the length of the trip. Should you stay for one night? Two nights? Longer?
I used to think that two days out on the reef was a good length. A liveaboard experience isn’t cheap, and I feel like the extra dives I’d have by staying longer wouldn’t provide the same happiness vs value ratio. But as I got more experienced and less tired by scuba diving, I now really love going for three days. More than that would not fit anymore in a long weekend! Keep in mind that you have to wait for 24 hours before flying after repetitive dives. But we took once a longer break and spent for four days on the boat (14 dives)… and I still wanted to stay. Life underwater is addictive!
If you’re travelling for an extended period or/and are on a budget, you may consider Reef Encounter’s hostie program. I haven’t done it myself, but I met onboard a few travellers who took this opportunity to enjoy the reef a bit longer (and they loved it). You go there as a paid customer, and you then get extra days for free (accommodation, food and dives) by working on the boat. Read this article about it!
If you’re travelling for about a week and are not on a budget, have a look at Mike Ball Dive Expeditions. They are often booked out and the dates are not flexible, so we never managed to go on a trip with them. But all the lucky divers I know had a fantastic experience with them. They take you to less-visited reefs on the Great Barrier Reef.
4. The reefs you can access from Cairns
If your budget and planning allow, you may want to have a look at going to the Ribbon Reefs (especially during the Minke Whale season in winter), I was told it’s famous for a reason! Unfortunately, this cannot fit in one weekend and you’ll need to travel a bit north in the region to Port Douglas.
So what are the other options from Cairns? I’m not going to pretend I’ve dived all the reefs in the region (I wish I could!). I dived and snorkelled:
- The northern reefs near Cairns with Reef Encounters: Norman Reef (Tropos and Fingers – my favourite for the swim through and the small canyons to explore), Hastings Reef, Saxons Reef
- The southern reefs near Cairns with ProDive Cairns: Milln Reef (I really loved the Three Sisters dive site), Flynn Reef (Gordon Reef was my favourite there).
All had their surprises and special features; I wouldn’t be able to say that one was better than the other. It was good to see different reefs with different operators. They usually decide on the best dive site for the day according to the weather conditions and passengers don’t get to ask about a specific location.
5. Tips to choose a liveaboard company for your Cairns diving trip
I haven’t tried all the companies, but this comparative list of the ones that made it to our top selection for a weekend diving trip – leaving from Cairns. I hope it can help you with your research on the best liveaboard in Cairns.
Responsible travel tip: The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) has published a list of “high standard tourism operators“. These operators – who are are independently certified by a program recognised by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) – help maintain a consistently high standard in the region with many ecological and social commitments.
Length: Flexible (at least two days, daily transfer to the liveaboard boat)
Number of Dives: 6 when you stay one night (5 day dives + 1 night dive), then 4 per extra night
Price: $1090 for two people for one night (food, accommodation and dives included); no guide included for the dives (extra cost)
We went twice on the Reef Encounter liveaboard and loved both times the luxury experience. The transfer to the outer reef is shorter than on other liveaboards as they use their day trip fast catamaran. We had our en-suite room with ocean views: it was luxury and very comfortable. The food was great with various options to please everybody. There were many people on board, but it didn’t feel too much as I could recognise every face. However, as people join and leave every day or can have some quiet time in their comfortable room, it may be hard to connect with other travellers. You can easily organise a guided dive at an extra cost – which can help divers with limited navigation skills enjoy their trip a lot more. You can dive with Nitrox on Reef Encounter, but it’s pricey.
Unfortunately, Reef Encounter is not ECO Certified and not recognised by GBRMPA as a high standard tourism operator. So when they have availability, we look at other liveaboards for our next trips, which would also give us the opportunity to explore new dive sites.
Length: 3 days / 2 nights (not flexible)
Number of Dives: 11 unguided dives (9 day dives + 2 night dives)
Price: $1,640 for two people (food, accommodation and dives included); no guide included for the dives (extra cost)
The main purpose of Prodive Cairns liveaboard is scuba diving. If you and your dive buddy are experienced and like to do your own thing, this is a great option. If you want to join a course, it’s perfect too. Also, you can dive with Nitrox with Prodive (extra cost) and taking the course with your liveaboard package is a bargain. There are only 32 passengers on board for the entire trip so it’s easy to connect with other divers as most people spend time outside their cabins.
However, when you’re not underwater, Prodive Cairns can be compared to a backpacker (and Reef Encounter would be more like a hotel). The rooms are a lot less comfortable than on Reef Encounter (shared bathrooms with a shower in the toilets and smaller cabins) and the food isn’t as good as on Reef Encounter. Also, the time onboard is not flexible (3 days, 2 nights). Unless you are part of a course, dives are unguided which can be challenging for those not used to navigate by themselves – see below the chapter about guided or unguided dive. Unfortunately, the interactions with the staff are limited as they are busy with many tasks to run the boat and courses. The vessel is a monohull, so it moves more than Reef Encounter’s catamaran.
Prodive Cairns is ECO Certified and recognised as a high standard tourism operator by GBRMPA.
Length: 2 days / 1 night (not flexible)
Number of Dives: Flexible. Maximum of 5 (4 day dives + 1 night dive)
Price: $1,410 (estimation of accommodation, food and dives); no guide included for the dives (extra cost)
We didn’t pick the sailing option as we were lucky to go sailing just before. Twice, we had just rented a sailing boat in the Whitsundays or explored our backyard sailing Moreton Bay not long before. Our aim when we plan a Cairns diving trip is to focus on diving. Plus, the sailing option was a lot more expensive for fewer dives. But if you’re keen for a mix of diving and sailing with an experience on a smaller boat (12 passengers maximum!), this looks amazing and that’s why it’s listed as my third option.
6. Tips to plan your dives on the Great Barrier Reef: level, guide and equipment
What level do you need for diving on the Great Barrier Reef near Cairns?
Beginners will find many options to do an introductory dive or a full open-water certification.
Certified divers can dive by themselves or with a guide. Guided dives often come at an additional cost (that was the case on Reef Encounter) and sometimes it is not an option (like with Prodive, unless you were taking a course), so make sure you’re ready for that!
A liveaboard can be an excellent opportunity to obtain the Advanced Certification. On Reef Encounter, it only cost $90 extra for it (compared to the guided dive package), it’s a bargain!
Getting the Nitrox certification package was also a bargain compared to getting certified prior to the trip and paying for our Nitrox fill up when we dived with ProDive.
What if you don’t dive? We had snorkelling opportunities included during our trips and snorkelling was amazing. The visibility on the Outer Reef is good and there are shallow areas that actually make snorkelling sometimes as good as diving. The light gives stunning colours to the reef when you are in shallow waters.
Do you need a guide on your Cairns diving trip?
There’s an extra cost for diving with a guide on most liveaboards. Sometimes, it’s not even an option unless you are part of a course (like with Prodive). If you’re certified, you are allowed to dive with just your buddy after listening to a short briefing on the site. Should you pay for a guide or not?
If you’re a certified diver but don’t feel comfortable diving without a guide or if you haven’t dived in a while, make sure you clarify with the operator if guided dives are available before you place a booking. I did my first trip a few weeks after my certification and I really wanted to have a specialist with me as I was gaining experience. I wouldn’t have enjoyed the trip if I had been trying to navigate the dive sites.
The second time was very different. I was an Advanced Certified diver with nearly 50 dives logged in. I felt confident enough in my skills to dive without a specialist when the conditions and sites are good and easy to navigate. Still, we decided to take a guide. It’s always better to have a local showing you the best places, isn’t it? Initially, we wanted a guide for the first dive on each location to ensure we were going to the best spots. As the Guided Package on Reef Encounter ended up being as expensive as taking only a few guided dives, we ended up every time with a guide.
The third time, with Prodive, having a guide wasn’t an option. Staff would be busy teaching or dealing with other things on the boat and weren’t available for certified divers. It was a (bad) surprise for some passengers who had always had a guide. We had dived many times by ourselves at that stage, so we were confident in our navigation skills. However, we always feel a guide with experience on the sites would help to spot more creatures.
What equipment should you bring for your Cairns diving trip?
The entire diving gear was provided on all the Cairns diving trips I looked at. But the wetsuit seemed optional, as many apparently don’t need it in the 27-degree water. I’m always cold, so I always dive with the warmest wetsuit available, which was a shorty wetsuit on Reef Encounter. In summer, we had to wear a stinger suit to cover our full body. So now, I take my sharkskin* and find it perfect for the water temperature. I also always take my mask as I love it, but that wasn’t even a must-have.
You may want to take your fins or at least your boots. The closed-hill fins that are most of the time part of the package give me bad blisters and aren’t efficient if there is current. Although they try to take us to the best sites available for the day, we sometimes had quite a strong current to fight.
I love diving with a torch. They will provide one for the night dive but because they charge during the day, they aren’t available for hire. It’s great to show the colour of the corals when you’re deeper.
Although it’s Cairns and the tropics, I was cold on all liveaboard cruises. The boat temperature is kept low to avoid humidity damage on the boat. The wind was too refreshing to enjoy staying outside when wet, or the sun was too strong to be comfortable. I highly recommend taking some warm clothes for your Cairns diving trip. None of the liveaboards we joined offered a bathrobe. It’s super comfortable when you need to get changed on the deck and then go to your room with the aircon. My favourite after-scuba diving equipment is a towel with a hood*.
7. When you should fly before and after your dives to maximise your weekend in Cairns
The cruises leave early in the morning, so you have to arrive in Cairns the day before your diving trip.
For the return, you need to take into consideration when it is safe to fly after your dives. Flying after diving increases the risk of decompression sickness: because of the high concentration of nitrogen in your blood, gas bubbles can form within your body and cause health issues. The longer you wait between your last dive and your flight, the less risk of experiencing decompression sickness as the nitrogen in the body decreases during the surface time.
The most common recommended interval surface between diving and flying are:
- 12 hours for a single no-decompression dive
- 18 hours minimum for multiple no-decompression dives
- 24 hours for multiple dives over a few days (seen on most liveaboard websites I looked at)
After our six dives on the two-day liveaboard, my dive computer removed the no-fly warning around noon on the third day. I’m very conservative when it comes to diving, and an extra day in the region is always fun, so I’ve always planned a three-day weekend to Cairns. But I’ve met divers who fly the next morning, approximately 18 hours after their last dive. Most dives on the Great Barrier Reef are shallow. But it’s a big bet to play with the limits. You can also choose to snorkel instead of diving on your last day on the liveaboard.
With flights leaving Cairns early (before 6 am!), you can fully enjoy your last day and go straight back to work in the morning!
8. How to spend one day around Cairns not diving the Great Barrier Reef
If you decide to observe the 24 hour surface time before flying back home, you can make a day trip from Cairns to explore the region. There are many things to do in Cairns other than scuba diving on the Reef. Some options you can look at:
- Day trip snorkelling: if you haven’t had enough of the reef, there are fantastic opportunities for snorkelling too!
- Explore attractions in Cairns such as Skyrail and Kuranda Railway*. They are close to each other and can easily be combined.
- A day trip to the Atherton Tablelands: our choice for our first trip (Atherton Tablelands is in altitude so you may want to keep it for the afternoon if you have dived a lot) – rent a car or join a tour (you can book one online here*)
- A day trip to the Daintree Forest and Cape Tribulation: our choice for our second trip – rent a car or join a tour (you can book them online here*)
- Join a whitewater rafting adventure* or a canyoning adventure* just outside Cairns (check out my experience here)
Sustainable travel tip: if you hire a car, try to find a small one that is petrol efficient. You won’t need a big one or an SUV for just one day in this region!
Have you dived on the Great Barrier Reef? How was it? Share your experience in the comments below!
9. Where to stay in Cairns
When we had time for an extra day in the region, we opted for staying in Port Douglas instead with a fantastic deal at the Mantra Aqueous On Port*, with a private outside spa on our balcony.
When we only had short transit nights in Cairns – before boarding a boat or a plane – we often looked for cheap hotels or hostels. We stayed once at the Bohemian Resort*, which was the best deal we could get for a double room with a private bathroom. The Mad Monkey Backpackers* was even cheaper (shared bathroom) and had all we needed for our very short night before flying back early the next morning.
But if you have more time to spend in your room, you may want to upgrade.
For small groups and families, Hides Hotel* may offer one of the best deals in town. I found their king room quite basic (no open window) and the aircon blowing straight to the bed was too cold for me. But some will love that. I liked the central location.
If you’re after a large room with a spa bath to relax and spend more time in the water without breaking the bank, then have a look at Cairns City Sheridan*. It’s a short walk to the restaurants and the city centre.
Finally, the last hotel I tried in Cairns was the Rydges Esplanade*. A very good deal was offered on Booking.com*. It was a good hotel for the price we paid (good view, central location, ensuite with bath). However, I struggled again with the aircon and even caught a cold before going back home.
If you’re after an eco-friendly stay and don’t mind going up in price (and quality!), I recommend having a look at Cairns City Terraces*.
Where are the Outer Reefs near Cairns?
Cairns is located in North Queensland. It takes 2.5 hours to fly from Brisbane to Cairns, 3 hours from Sydney and 3.5 hours from Melbourne. The length of the trip to the Outer Reefs highly depends on the type of boat you’re on and may take from 90 minutes to three hours.
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