For starters, it may not be here much longer. This is super depressing, but Australian biologists have been saying for a while that the Reef is in a bad way, mostly because of bleaching caused by warmer sea temps, but also because of some starfish breed that is eating the coral? I’m not clear on the specifics, but they are always on the radio talking about it and it sounds serious.
There are so, so many tour companies operating on the Reef, and obviously I only know about the ones I’ve personally taken or received good second-hand advice on. Most of them will be pretty similar since they are all in fierce competition in a concentrated area, so the information I really want to give is on what city to base yourself in, what activities you can do to experience the Reef (i.e. cruising, snorkelling, diving, etc.), whether you should do a 1-day or multi-day liveaboard trip, and what you should bring for your trip.
What city should you stay in?
These are my top 3 picks, in order. To access any of these places, you should fly into Cairns airport. To get to Port Douglas, you can take a taxi or a shuttle bus (much cheaper) and it’s about 1hr. To get to Hamilton Island, you’ll actually take a super tiny flight (both tiny plane and tiny duration).
1. Port Douglas: My #1 pick for access to the Reef is Port Douglas, because it’s more upscale and less crowded than Cairns, but still has a heap of tour companies to choose from. When I went diving from Port Douglas, I went with
this company for a full day tour and was really happy. I especially liked diving from Port Douglas, because most tours will visit the Agincourt Reef (an amazing spot on the Outer GBR) that is really popular with Minke whales (yes, one swam up to our boat when I was in the water and I got so excited that I cried). I stayed in an apartment in Port Douglas, but there are also hostels here for a cheaper option and they are a bit more relaxed than the ones in Cairns.
2. Cairns: This is obviously the most popular place to stay, but I don’t really love Cairns itself. It’s incredibly touristy and there isn’t good access to the beach, so people mostly splash around in this gross man-made lagoon thing on the Esplanade. Ok, so it’s not actually gross, it’s perfectly clean, I just don’t like not being able to swim in the ocean. Without a doubt, the best company in Cairns is ProDive. It’s massive and world-known. When I was getting dive certified in Thailand, they told me that the only company in the world that certifies more divers than them (Ban’s Koh Tao) is ProDive in Cairns! I went on a 3-day liveaboard dive trip through ProDive in 2015 that was out of this world, super reasonably priced, and probably one of the highlights of my life. My stepbrother even got dive certified on the trip for an extra $150ish, so that’s a bonus.
3. Hamilton Island: This is one of the most beautiful places in the world, so you should visit for a few days even if you don’t base yourself here for seeing the reef. Google “the Whitsundays”. Seriously, right now. The only reason this is #3 and not #1 is that it’s really upscale and your options are pretty much an apartment or resort. BUT it is so worth it for the quiet, pristine beaches and views from your balcony that make you want to cry. Because it’s so small and ritzy, you have fewer companies to choose from for a visit to the Reef and they will be a lot more expensive. If you do spend time on Hamilton Island, I also really recommend taking a cruise to one of the other small islands or Whitehaven Beach. Perfection.
What activities are on offer to experience the Reef?
1. Diving: This is the undisputed BEST way to experience the Reef. I would go so far as to say that you can’t really get the full experience of the Great Barrier Reef without diving. I’ll talk about the 1-day vs. liveaboard options in the next section, but they are both awesome ways to see this magical underwater world. Never scuba’d before? Doesn’t matter, you can actually dive without certification and that’s what I did on my first trip to the Reef in 2013. Twice. (I actually also did it in Hawaii in 2012, so clearly it’s a thing.) They class it as “introductory diving”, which means that they’ll run you through all the equipment and you’ll dive as a group with an instructor who watches you pretty closely. Some certified divers still dove with the group on my 2015 trip, but the Advanced Certified divers were turned loose into the ocean with a compass and a dive buddy, and given the extremely challenging task (mostly just for me, because compasses are hard) of navigating ourselves around. Point being: doesn’t matter if you’re a dive virgin or an expert, anyone can dive the Reef!
2. Snorkelling: Still an awesome way to see the Reef, and much cheaper, but with the obvious downside of being farther away from the coral, which means you won’t see as many animals. Most dive tours will take both divers and snorkelers and travel to 2-3 different sites on the Outer Reef. This is awesome, because you can dive and your partner can snorkel and you’ll still be together on the boat. Usually, companies will give you the option to book 1 or 2 dives, and the 3rd time into the water will be snorkelling, so it’s a nice break if you’re tired after diving.
3. Cruising: I really don’t want to include this, even as a 3rd option, because I don’t personally believe that staying on a boat all day is a way to experience the Reef. Because the Reef is under water. But it is an option if you’ve already done your diving or snorkelling, and there are some really nice companies that will take you on boat trips around the Reef and out to beaches on the Whitsundays (yes please). There are even glass-bottom boats and stuff, but it’s pretty gimmicky and, if you really want to see under the water, you should physically get into the water. The cruise I went on from Hamilton Island to Whitehaven beach even included snorkelling, so there are no excuses for not getting into the water and seeing things up close.
1-day vs. Liveaboard dive trip
If you are interested in diving the Reef (which you should be), you’ll have to choose between a day trip and a multi-day trip. Most day trips (like this one I did through Poseidon in Port Douglas) will offer 1, 2, or 3 dives, and you’ll snorkel for any of the times you aren’t diving (i.e. buy 1 dive, snorkel twice; buy 3 dives, don’t snorkel at all), but it takes 2 hours to get to the Outer Reef, so there isn’t time for much more. This might be plenty for you.
If you want more, you should really go on a liveaboard trip, and I would recommend a 3-day trip like this one I did through ProDive in Cairns. You get to do 11 dives, including 2 night dives, and that is more than enough for 3 days (you’ll feel like a water-logged raisin by the 11th dive, but in a good way). You get fed awesome food, get to visit way more dive sites, and it’s surprisingly not that expensive. I paid around $700 for a double room and my stepbrother paid $900 for a single AND a full dive certification course while we were on the boat. Consider that it’s 2 night’s
accommodation, 3 days of food, and 11 dives. I paid almost $300 for 2 dives and lunch on a 1-day trip!
What to bring for your trip
· Swimsuit, obviously. They will provide wetsuits for you.
· Mask: not necessary, because they will give you masks, but some people have a hard time fitting their face to a mask and it means you’ll get water in there constantly and spend 90% of your time underwater trying to clear your mask so you can see. I have this issue, so I took advantage of the 15% discount most companies offer their tour groups on their dive shop and bought my own mask before my liveaboard trip. Expect to pay $100-$150 for a good one, but if you dive or snorkel often, it’s so worth it.
· Sea sickness medication: I don’t care if you think you never get seasick, you will get seasick on this trip. It’s upwards of 2 hours to the Outer Reef and it’s pretty bumpy, and if that’s not enough to get you, everyone else is vomiting on the deck and the smell will do it. I didn’t take anything for my first trip and was miserable for 2 hours, not an ideal way to start my dive, so I brought meds on the second trip and was so, so much happier. Just get something from any chemist on land before you leave.
· Towel: Don’t forget this, because you will be freezing when you come out of the water. It’s hot in northern QLD, but the water isn’t any warmer than usual
· Sunscreen: Especially important for snorkelers or anytime you’re on the boat deck. The sun is harsher in Australia, that’s a fact. We have a hole in the ozone layer above us, so you get burned heaps faster here. And so much more aggressively. If you have the backs of your pasty little thighs on the surface of the water while you’re snorkelling, they will be maroon after an hour.
· Underwater camera: I didn’t have a GoPro when I went on my first dive trip, I ended up swimming next to a giant whale, and I will regret my lack of photos until the day I die. Don’t share in my regret.
· Notebook/Log Book: Even if this is your first ever time diving, you should log all of your dives. You can see on the PADI website what information to include.
Hopefully this information is helpful in planning your trip to northern Queensland & the gorgeous Great Barrier Reef!
Make sure to check out my other City Guides for more must-sees when travelling around Australia!