Diving Cairns & Great Barrier Reef

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Cairns & Great Barrier Reef, Australia


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Country: Australia  Area: Queensland

Water Temp: 24 - 30°C (75 - 86°F)

Visibility: 10 - 40m (33 - 131 ft)

Depth Range: 10 - 40m (33 - 131 ft)

Green Turtle Mating – Late October to February, Hawksbill Nesting Season – November to February, Reef Spawning – Early November, approx six days after the full moon

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Cairns is located in Northern Queensland, Australia, and tourists flock to this tropical city to dive the Great Barrier Reef - the largest coral reef in the world, and the only single living structure on Earth that’s visible from space (not that this is overly relevant to those of us who are not astronauts).

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The Great Barrier Reef is on the bucket list of many highly experienced and novice divers, as it’s one of the seven natural wonders of the world, with more than 2900 individual reefs spread over 2600km. Here divers will find an enormous range of tropical fish, coral habitats, and the large amount of dive sites means they don't need to be bumping into other tourists underwater.

Cairns is popular with both short-term tourists, and long-term backpackers, many of whom stay and find work in the town, giving it a multi-cultural, and party-town feel. There are plenty of options for non-divers, snorkelers and divers to explore the reef, with day trips, non-dive cruises, and liveaboards available.

Eddy Reef Off Mission Beach Credit

Marine Conservation

While the Great Barrier Reef is a World Heritage Site, the Australian Government has allowed the dredging of up to 100 million tonnes of seabed in the waters, to make room for four large mega ports, and allow up to 7,000 industrial ships to cross the reef each year.

This has huge implications for the reef, as it could potentially become part of a shipping superhighway. There is also the fear that if a ship collides with the reef or spills oil, the entire reef may be put in grave danger.

The reef faced an invasion of crown-of-thorns starfish recently, and has also lost half of its coral cover in the last 27 years.

UNESCO has warned that it may be placed on the World Heritage in Danger list if Australia doesn’t choose to reduce pollution from farms, and goes ahead with the development of ports in the reef.

Many people have remarked that the reef is declining, and it would be wise to dive in the Great Barrier Reef sooner rather than later.


The Great Barrier Reef has a tropical climate, and has both a wet season and a dry season. This means humid and hot summers, and dry, mild winters.

The wet season is from November to May, when the reef is hit by monsoon rains, and is at risk of tropical cyclones. Although it’s during the wet season, summer is from December to February.

From June to October the weather is much drier, although there are still often a few rainy days, and it is technically “winter”.

People dive the reef year round, as the water temperature ranges from 24ºC (75ºF) in winter to 30ºC (86ºF) in winter. If diving in the wet season, keep in mind that trips may sometimes be cancelled due to storms.

Summer is the best time for diving in the Great Barrier Reef, as long as the winds are calm, since visibility will sometimes be more than 50m (164 ft).

Peak tourist season is from June to August, as the weather is a lot more comfortable, with less humidity and lower temperatures.

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The Diving

The diversity of the marine life in the Great Barrier Reef is a huge draw for many people. Divers will find 1500 species of fish, 4000 molluscs, and 400 types of coral, along with more than 30 species of dolphins, whales, and porpoises. Those wanting to dive in the Great Barrier Reef can expect to see hard and soft corals, sea turtles, sharks, dolphins, reef fish, and if you are lucky, migrating wales.


There are a many different dive companies available, with introductory dives, advanced training, and Learn to Dive courses on offer.

Day trips from Cairns will generally be diving the Inner Barrier Reef. The visibility isn’t as good here as the Great Barrier Reef, and the diving is also much better in the Outer Reef, which is 60km from Cairns.

Inner and Outer Barrier Reef is good for divers who are time-poor, however there is much less visibility here than further out on the reef towards the Coral Sea. Visibility is usually around 15-25m (50-80ft) in the Outer Reef, while the Ribbon Reefs and Osprey Reef are much more remote, less touristed, and have a much better visibility of 18-46m (60-150ft)

To make the most of the reef, divers can grab a liveaboard or small cruise which will take them to the ribbon reefs. The Ribbon Reefs are incredible, with brightly coloured coral, giant clams, Christmas tree worms, and a huge amount of different fish including lion fish, trumpet fish, and starfish.

The best visibility is from September to November, although the reefs can be dived throughout the year. It’s best to book a liveaboard for at least a week, as there are plenty of different reefs to dive, each unique and interesting.

Potato Cod at Cod Hole Credit

Cod Hole is the most famous dive site along these reefs. Here, divers will find potato cod weighing in at 150kg. Bring a camera, as dive masters will often bring food, and the cod are used to divers so will probably get up close.

The Osprey Reef is also very popular, especially with those wanting to see sharks. The best place to see them is at North Horn, where the famous shark feeds are centred, and divers will see White tip reef sharks, Grey Reef Sharks, and Silky Sharks, with the occasional Hammerhead. This area is also known for sea turtles, manta rays, and a rare Whale Shark or some Dolphins.

In June and July divers can swim with the Dwarf Minke Whale, as they often approach boats and snorkelers in the Ribbon Reefs.

Another popular spot is Snake Pit, in the Ribbon Reefs. While this reef is a bit isolated, it’s home to lots of olive sea snakes, along with interesting invertebrates like sea stars and giant clams. Divers interested in night diving should head to Challenger Bay, which is filled with surgeon fish and hard-coral gardens, with plenty of nocturnal activity.


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How to Get there

Cairns airport has both a Domestic and International Terminal. Domestic flights arrive from around Australia every day, and international flights arrive from Port Moresby, Auckland, Guam, Timika, and Hong Kong.

The airport is located just a 10 minute drive from the city centre, and shuttle bus transfers are available. The Sunbus is also an easy way to get around the city, and taxis are usually easy to find.


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Where to Eat & Drink

Liveaboards often have great food (as well as a bar). Often the food will be included in the price, and alcoholic drinks will be extra.

Cairns has plenty of food options available, from Subway and Mcdonalds, to cafes and 5-star restaurants. The Waterbar and Grill Steakhouse is popular with meat eaters, and is known for its good service. There are also a wide range of Italian options available, including 21st Century Pizzeria, Bellavista at the Marina, and Bella Baci.

Vegetarians and meat eaters will both love Grill’d Healthy Burgers, which although pricy, are some of the best burgers in town.

Marinades Indian Restaurant has excellent curries, and good value for money, while those with a sweet tooth will want to stop by Gelocchio, which serves up huge portions of delicious gelato.

Cairns has a huge range of bars and nightclubs, due to the large amount of backpackers and visitors to the area.

The Cape York Hotel is popular with the locals as well as tourists, and is known for its live bands, and relaxed atmosphere. For something a little more upbeat, The Pier Bar has a relatively young clientele, and has a deck which looks over the harbour and has excellent views.

Eddy Reef off Mission Beach Credit 

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Other activities

While the Great Barrier Reef is the biggest attraction in Cairns, it’s a good idea to stay a few extra days in the city, as there are so many other activities available.

For the adrenaline junkies, skydiving the reef is the best way to see just how big it is, and take in the incredible views, while bungy jumping and white water rafting are also popular.

Those who want to learn more about the native people of Australia can check out an Aboriginal cultural night, while the Cairns Botanic Gardens offer visitors the chance to get back to nature.

Family Friendly

Cairns is extremely family friendly, with activities on offer for both adults and children. Kids will love Muddy’s playground, which is open from 9am until 7pm Monday to Friday, and is ranked the #1 attraction in Cairns by Tripadvisor. The playground has water play areas, a flying fox (whatever this is!), rope bridge, playhouses, and puzzle games, as well as many other activities to keep small children busy.

The Kuranda Scenic Railway is a rail journey to Kuranda, which goes through Barron Gorge National Park-a World Heritage listed rainforest. This is one of the word’s great railway journeys, and a excellent way to spend the day.

Kids can dive and snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef, and there are plenty of Learn to Dive courses available for children. There are also a wide range of different tours aimed just at families, and most boats going to the reef will allow prams, have changing areas, and will heat baby food.

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Try to avoid diving just outside of Cairns, and aim to head either North or South along the reef for the best visibility and fewer crowds. When booking a SCUBA tour it can be tempting to choose the cheapest option, but always check exactly what is included in the tour.

The locals are friendly and used to tourists, and Cairns doesn’t have a big problem with crime. Always make sure you carry your valuables with you though, or lock them up, and never leave them in a hire car.

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Rating 10/10

Moore Reef Diving with Wally the Mauri Wrasse !

Cairns & Great Barrier Reef19 Sep 2014 - 19 Sep 2014

Aboard Reef Magic, my mum and I went to the Marine World platform, which is located approximately 45km's from offshore Cairns at a private Outer Reef Location on the pristine north eastern end of Moore Reef.

I did my 1st Introductory Dive, and then a 2nd dive and now I am studying to get my Open Water Licence (I am 15 years old). The dive company I am studying with is called Ambeau Sport & Recreation and they are fantastic (and pretty funny too).

We went down about 5 metres first, then about 20 metres on the 2nd dive. I absolutely love diving. Wally the Mauri Wrasse swam up to us and we had our photos taken with him. The dive master (Amanda) had to keep gently moving Wally along cause he was hogging all the camera time, lol.

There was so many different fish to see at Moore Reef - I saw a school of Barracuda, hundreds of Parrot Fish, a few "Nemo's", black tip and white tip reef sharks to name just a few.

You can also go snorkeling or go for a ride in the glass-bottom boat or the semi-sub. There is also an underwater observatory. These are all free activities. They have a delicious buffet lunch, which included curry dishes as well. Reef Magic is a beautiful vessel and had really comfy seats to sleep on on the way back.

I can't wait to complete my Open Water Licence and then get to the next level.

2014 09 19 13.18.2 2014 09 19 13.19.2 2014 09 19 13.19.08 2 2014 09 19 12.38.24 4 2014 09 19 12.38.24 5

Liam Parker

What a great first dive location! Mine was a murky quarry.. not quite as inspiring!

John Fry

John Fry

Excellent report! Got to love Wrasse - nice one. Good luck with your OW!


Rich Ward

Nice first dives and nicely written report!

We are going to Thailand in September

Any suggestions on resorts or dive companys?

Showing 3 of 4 comments. Show all

Steven Williams

1 vote

I can recommend Koh Tao, Koh Phra Nang and I particularly loved Koh Lipe.. plenty of Dive Centers to choose from at these locations. You generally pay for what you get - but Thailand is usally good value for money!


Nathan Murphy

1 vote

Check out the 'Find a Dive Center' search to find Thai locations - on the location pages there is a Dive Center tab which will give you a few to choose from for each location!

scuba diver 954785 m

Leon Dubose

1 vote

Khao Lak!!

Rating 8/10

CDC live on board Cairns

Cairns & Great Barrier Reef21 Oct 2013 - 24 Oct 2013

We arrived by tender and boarded the boat, given the breifing and went in for the first of 14 dives on the inner and outer great barrier reef. 31 degrees with water temp holding at 27 made diving in a shorty very comfortable.

The boat had double rooms with on suit and shared bunk rooms. During the dives we had green turtles reef sharks and lots of Maori Wrasse who were curious and freindly. Some loverly soft and hard corals. Deepest dive was at about 30 not much current would fit divers of all levels.


Steven Williams

Maori Wrasse - fantastic. Did you see any big ones?

Rating 10/10

This is an example report

Cairns & Great Barrier Reef28 Oct 2011 - 29 Oct 2011

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