hoosing a gateway to the Great Barrier Reef can be a difficult choice as there are several places along the Queensland coast where the quality of the coral is equally good. With a population of more than 100,000, Cairns is now firmly established as one o Australia’s top travel destinations and is the main jumping-off port to the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea destinations.
Cairns is a great place from which to visit the Reef simply because of its easy international airport access. Due to its popularity with visitors to the Great Barrier Reef, there are several Reef tours that operate from Cairns making the diving and snorkeling options from Cairns impressive. Continue reading to find the most popular Cairns Great Barrier Reef dive and snorkel sites.
Top Tips for Cairns Great Barrier Reef Trips
- If you have limited time, it’s best to book before you leave home as it can sometimes be difficult to get the trip you want
- If you have more time to spare, you’ll have the opportunity to shop around for the trip that suits your needs
- Some of the best reef sites are located on the outer Great Barrier Reef and require a liveaboard trip over a few days
- Some tour operators allow you to go out on their day boat and then stay overnight on the reef on a ‘mother ship’, which may move daily from reef-to-reef
- Apart from diving and snorkeling trips, amphibious aircraft and helicopter options are also available to view the Great Barrier Reef
Diving Cairns – Best Great Barrier Reef Liveaboard Dive Sites
If you’re thinking of starting your diving vacation from Cairns, you’ll want to know which are the best dive sites in the waters surrounding Cairns. Most of the top dive sites are located at a distance from Cairns which requires a liveaboard trip to visit them. Below are the top Great Barrier Reef sites around Cairns.
1. Cod Hole
Cairns’s most famous dive site is Cod Hole, where your guide may hand-feed giant potato cod as big as you are. The site also has Maori wrasse, moray eels, and coral trout. Cod Hole is about 20km (13 miles) off Lizard Island and 240km (149 miles) north of Cairns, so it is not a day trip unless you are staying at exclusive Lizard Island. However, it is a popular stop with just about every live-aboard vessel, often combined in a trip to the Ribbon Reefs, lasting about 4 days, or in a trip to the Coral Sea, lasting between 4 and 7 days. Either itinerary makes an excellent dive vacation.
2. Ribbon Reefs
Some of the best diving anywhere on the Great Barrier Reef is on the Ribbon Reefs on the outer Reef edge, which fringes the continental shelf northward off Cairns and Port Douglas. Glorious coral walls, abundant fish, and pinnacles make these a rich, colourful dive area with lots of variety. The currents can be strong here, because the reefs force the tidal water flow into narrow channels into the open sea, so drift dives on a rising tide are a possibility. The Ribbon Reefs are beyond the reach of day boats, but are commonly visited by live-aboard boats.
For divers, experts recommend Steve’s Bommie and Dynamite Pass. Steve’s Bommie is a coral outcrop in 30m (98 ft.) of water, often topped with barracudas, and covered in colorful coral and small marine life. You can swim through a tunnel here amid crowds of fish. Dynamite Pass is a channel where barracuda, trevally, grouper, mackerel, and tuna often gather to feed in the current. Black coral trees and sea whips grow on the walls, patrolled by eagle rays and reef sharks.
3. Coral Sea
More than 100 to 200km (63–126 miles) east of the coast, out in the Coral Sea, isolated mountains covered in reefs rise more than a kilometre (half-mile) from the ocean floor to make excellent diving. Although not within the Great Barrier Reef
Marine Park, the Coral Sea is often combined into an extended live-aboard trip that also takes in Cod Hole and the Ribbon Reefs. The entire trip usually takes 4 to 7 days. In addition to showing you huge schools of pelagic and reef fish big and small, a wide range of corals, and gorgonian fans, the area is a prime place to spot sharks.
The most popular site is Osprey Reef, a 100-sq.-km (39-sq.-mile) reef with 1,000m (3,300-ft.) drop-offs, renowned for its year-round visibility of up to 70m (230 ft.).
White-tip reef sharks are common, but the area is also home to gray reef sharks, silvertips, and hammerheads. Green turtles, tuna, barracuda, potato cod, mantas, and grouper are also common.
Snorkeling Cairns – Best Reef Sites for Day Trips
If you’re considering a snorkeling or diving trip and prefer to do it within a day, there are some great spots to visit from Cairns. Below are some of the best snorkeling and diving sites in the Great Barrier Reef that are best accessed from Cairns.
1. Hastings, Saxon & Norman Reefs
Approximately 20 reefs lie within a 1½- to 2-hour boat ride from Cairns. These are the reefs most commonly visited by snorkelers and divers on day trips, because they are so close and so pretty. Some reefs are small coral “bommies,” or outcrops, that you can swim completely around in a matter of minutes, whereas others are miles wide. Some reefs have more than one good dive site; Norman Reef, for example, has at least four.
Three of the most popular reefs with snorkelers and divers are Hastings, Saxon, and Norman, which are all within a short boat ride of one another. Each has a wonderful array of coral, big colourful reef fish, schools of pretty rainbow-hued small reef fish, and the odd giant clam. Green sea turtles and white-tip reef sharks are common, especially at Saxon, though you will not necessarily spot one every day. Divers may see a moray eel and a grouper or two, barracuda, reef sharks, eagle and blue-spotted rays, and octopus. Norman is an especially lovely reef with several nice sites. South Norman has lovely sloping coral shelves. If you are an experienced diver and like swim-throughs, the Caves at Norman is a good spot; all have boulder and plate corals.
2. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
Closer to shore, Cairns has several coral cays and reef-fringed islands within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Less than an hour from the city wharf, Green Island is a 15-hectare (37-acre) coral cay with snorkeling equal to that of most other places on the Great Barrier Reef. It is also a popular diving spot. You can visit it in half a day if time is short. Fitzroy Island is a rainforest-covered national park, just 45 minutes by launch from Cairns, with a coral beach and great snorkeling right off the shore.
For more information, visit our Green Island and Fitzroy Island pages.
Cairns & Nearby Reef Sites
Tell us what you think. Are you planning a diving or snorkeling trip to the Great Barrier Reef? If you’ve been to the Reef before, which sites did you visit?
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