My recent article about diving the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns during a weekend received many visits and good feedback. I also received many questions from my friends who were planning a trip up there. Many of them were asking about the best place to dive the Great Barrier Reef. I travel to the Reef a few times in different ways and talk to people a lot about scuba diving. These tips are based on my personal experience and recommendations from fellow scuba divers.
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For many travellers, a scuba diving Great Barrier Reef holidays = Cairns. Although it is the main and most accessible gateway to the Reef, Cairns is not the only place from where you can scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef.
Indeed, the Great Barrier Reef is composed of 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands stretching for over 2,300 kilometres. So the area near Cairns is only a tiny portion of it! You can read more fun facts about the Great Barrier Reef here.
Based on personal experiences, this article aims to open more destinations to visitors organising a trip to the Great Barrier Reef, rather than just the usual Cairns or Port Douglas getaways. Here are some suggestions of a few destinations (from South to North) that are often mentioned as the best place to scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef. Jump to the end for the cost comparison.
Responsible travel tip: Did you know that your sunscreen could harm the fragile ecosystem of the coral reef? It’s essential to be mindful of what you’re applying to your skin when snorkelling or swimming near the reef. The best way to protect your skin from the sun is to cover up with long sleeves and pants. If you must use sunscreen, choose a mineral-based one to avoid harmful substances (see the full list here). Mineral ingredients are less harmful to the environment and provide excellent protection. Apply the sunscreen at least 20 minutes before entering the water to ensure maximum effectiveness.
Why Cairns is not the best place to dive the Great Barrier Reef
I’m not saying you shouldn’t travel to Cairns to scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef. I’ve been there a few times and enjoyed my trips. You’ll even find it on the list below.
However, it’s where most people go and you may want to escape the crowd and have a different experience. The Reef you’ll see in Cairns isn’t better than the one you can see elsewhere on the following list. And a trip to Cairns isn’t always the cheapest option to visit the Great Barrier Reef if you’re coming from Brisbane!
Scuba diving in Australia? Check out this awesome list of the best scuba diving sites on the East Coast!
Lady Elliott Island (from Hervey Bay or Brisbane)
The trip to this small private island is not for budget travellers, but it’s one of the best Great Barrier Reef scuba diving trips I’ve done.
The scenic flight, departing from Brisbane or Hervey Bay, will cost you more than a return flight to Cairns. Still, for those who can afford it, Lady Elliot Island marine attractions are hard to beat:
- the transparent lagoon is perfect for snorkelling
- the island welcomes turtles nesting and hatching
- in the deeper water, you can snorkel and dive with manta rays all year-round
Lady Musgrave Island (from the town of 1770 or Bundaberg)
You can only be mesmerised when you see a photo of Lady Musgrave Island and its 3,000 hectares of surrounding reefs. Plus, it’s easier to access than Lady Elliot as you can go there by boat, so the price for a day trip drops (but it’s still pricey).
Don’t expect to explore the entire lagoon during your day trip there. The area open to visitors coming with the commercial boats is very limited, and it’s good to protect the lagoon. If you choose to scuba dive Lady Musgrave Island – which I highly recommend, go to the outer reef. When we meet divers that were disappointed by Lady Musgrave Island, they stayed in the lagoon.
Heron Island (from Gladstone)
Heron Island is another pricey option to visit the reef, but it’s worth spending the extra dollars. Plus, if you drive up there from Brisbane instead of flying, it becomes really affordable.
I did my first dive ever on this island, on one of Cousteau’s favourite sites in the world (Cousteau invented scuba diving – view his top 10 dive sites here).
After a three-hour boat transfer, you’ll arrive on a small and cosy island. Scuba diving is fantastic. Plus, there is a wreck that you can access from the shore which makes a fun snorkelling spot! And if you visit it at the right time, it can even be a lot of fun and marine life encounters without getting wet! Turtles come to shore for nesting and baby sharks come in very shallow waters so you can spot them while walking on the beach or on the jetty.
During the peak season, Heron Island is often booked out. You can check availability here*, and make sure you book early!
SS Yongala (Townsville)
This dive is often on the list of the world’s best dives and some people state it’s the best wreck dive in the world.
The corals and the marine life that cover the shipwreck are incredible. It is one of my favourite dive sites in the world.
The wreck is 14-28m below the surface, so it’s better for Advanced divers and you’ll stay longer down there if you dive with Nitrox. Those who are only certified Open Water Divers will need to complete the Deep Dive training during their first dive on the wreck.
The boat trip from Townsville takes 3 hours but it is only a 30-minute boat ride from Ayr.
Most tours take you around the Whitsundays Islands and allow you to snorkel there. I did that, and the quality wasn’t comparable to the Great Barrier Reef level. If you want to experience the Great Barrier Reef while you’re in the Whitsundays, you need to go to the Outer Reef with a dedicated snorkelling and diving tour. That’s a great combo to enjoy the beauty of the Whitsundays and tick the Great Barrier Reef off the bucket list, in just one trip.
I made this trip during my first visit to Australia. The three-hour boat transfer to Reefworld pontoon was a beautiful journey sight-seeing the Whitsundays. I had a great day full of options to explore Hardy Reef: diving, snorkelling, semi-submersible cruising, flying (to see the famous heart reef!)… I wasn’t as experienced as nowadays so I stuck to snorkelling and saw my first turtle ever. The semi-submersible and the underwater observatory are awesome for those who want to stay dry.
However, Reefworld is massive and touristy. It was okay for a solo inexperienced traveller, but I would not do it again. I prefer a lot a more intimate experience on the Reef. Still, if you don’t hate mass tourism as much as I do, or if you don’t want to get wet to explore the Reef, you may have a good day.
The Whitsundays is the best place to dive the Great Barrier Reef only if you are already exploring the Whitsundays and are short on time to make it to another destination.
Read my article about the Whitsundays for more information (focused on sailing, not diving)
Cairns (or Port Douglas)
Although this article is about finding other places than Cairns to dive the Great Barrier Reef, I could not entirely remove it from the list. It stays a great destination for experiencing the Great Barrier Reef. Plus, you don’t need to book too long in advance, which can make it a good Plan C if Lady Eliott and Heron Island are not available.
I’ve always taken the liveaboard option to maximise time spent in the water, and never regretted that choice. If you go there, make sure you dive the Outer Reef. From what I’ve been told by other travellers, corals closer to the shore like around Green Island were, unfortunately, not that impressive.
Next time I’m in this region, I hope to have time to dive the famous Ribbons Reef!
Lizard Island and Far Northern Reefs
I have dreamt many times of going to Lizard Island, or more specifically of joining the Spirit of Freedom in June or July to dive with Minke Whales. In this area, Cod Hole and Osprey Reef are two bucket list items for the incredible marine life that lives there.
I read feedback from a scuba diver who joined the Spirit of Freedom in October 2017 to scuba dive the Far Northern Reefs (Mantis Reef and Raine Island) of the Great Barrier Reef. He described, with photos to prove it, beautiful hard corals that have not suffered from the recent bleaching events.
Where to dive the Great Barrier Reef to avoid coral bleaching
We see scary images of the Great Barrier Reef dying. Still, I had a good time scuba diving during my latest trip in 2020 near Cairns. The Great Barrier Reef is struggling, and the ecosystems are in danger, but it’s not dead!
There have been four severe coral bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef, in 1998, 2002, 2016, and again in 2017. Corals can recover from bleaching, but it takes years and they’re more fragile during that time (consider them sick).
If you want to see the healthiest parts of the Great Barrier Reef, the southern part is still hosting a large population of corals that haven’t been too affected by bleaching events.
It’s extremely sad to see such a wonder of Nature being destroyed by human activities. And coral bleaching isn’t even the only danger the Great Barrier Reef is facing at the moment. If you’re interested in this topic, check out the Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report.
A scuba dive Great Barrier Reef experience: what budget are we talking about?
I don’t recommend going for the cheapest option when planning a trip to dive the Great Barrier Reef.
There’s a big risk of being disappointed if you end up at a not-so-good site. I hope the Reef will be here for a long time, but we cannot ignore it is badly impacted by climate change. For many, a trip to the Great Barrier Reef will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience so it is worth spending a bit more to make it count.
This is a very rough attempt to give a budget idea and comparison of the different options listed above. It’s calculated for a couple travelling from Brisbane, for a long weekend (3 days), with snorkelling or four dives (when possible). Driving is preferred to flying when destinations are 6 hours away or less (economic and lower environmental impact). Liveaboard options include food, accommodation and transfers.
Many of these destinations also offer day trips (Lady Elliot, Lady Musgrave, Cairns, Whitsundays) that you may want to look into. Prices may have changed since I wrote the article.
If you’re travelling on a tight budget but you have time, you may be interested in getting extra days for free by being a hostie on Reef Encounter. Read this article for more details.
Lady Elliot Island
Lady Musgrave (day trip)
The Whitsundays (day trip)
Cairns Outer Reef (2-day liveaboard)
4 dives: approx. $905/p
2 dives: approx. $875/p
4 dives: approx. $1,085/p
Snorkelling (3 days):
Snorkelling (1 day): approx. $310/p
Snorkelling (3 days): approx. $505/p
Snorkelling (1 day): approx. $720/p
Snorkelling (2 days): approx. $700/p
3.5-hour drive from Brisbane to Hervey Bay: $30
Flight from Hervey Bay: $330/p
Two nights: $350/p
Snorkelling: from shore – no extra cost
Diving: $75/dive + $50/equipment per day
4-hour drive from Brisbane to Bundaberg: $40
Diving: $290 (double dive)
Diving equipment: $50/day
One night in Bundaberg*: from $50/p
6-hour drive from Brisbane to Gladstone: $55
One night in Gladstone*: $40/p
Boat transfer: $60/p
Two nights: $330/p
Snorkelling: from shore – no extra cost
Flight to Proserpine (return): $400
Day tour snorkelling: $245/day
Day tour diving: $400/double-dive
Two nights in Airlie Beach: many options, from $75/p
Flight to Cairns (return): $230/p
One night in Cairns*: from $25/p
Snorkelling: no extra cost
Diving: $95/dive (up to 6)
Have you dived the Great Barrier Reef? Where did you go? Leave a comment below to share your experience!
Map of the best places to dive the Great Barrier Reef
Here’s a quick map of all the Great Barrier Reef diving destinations mentioned in this article. The Great Barrier Reef stretches for over 2,300 km on Australia’s East Coast in Queensland – that’s the size of Japan or Italy!
If you’ve explored an area that isn’t listed here and you liked it, I’d love to hear about it! Please leave a comment below.
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