I know, most of you probably don't need me to spell out why the Great Barrier Reef is a must dive. But, for travelers who are on the fence for whatever reason—the high cost, the long travel time, the fear you've missed the Great Barrier Reef at its best—let me just tell you... you should go.
Yes, it's expensive to dive the Great Barrier Reef but it's worth every penny.
Yes, getting to Australia requires many many flights but it's worth finding the time.
Yes, the reef is dying at a rapid rate but it's still beautiful.
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the original Seven Natural Wonders of the World, stretching over 1,800 miles with over 2,900 coral reefs, 600 islands and 1,500-plus species of fish. It sees over 2 million visitors a year and you need to be one of them. Planning a trip to the Great Barrier Reef can seem overwhelming, and I'm not going to lie, it is a lot to plan. But, I'm going to try and make this guide as detailed as possible so you have the best trip ever.
Where Exactly is The Great Barrier Reef
First things first. The location of the reef.... You can't just fly into Sydney and dive the reef immediately, it's nowhere near Sydney or Melbourne, or even Brisbane. The Great Barrier Reef is located off the coast of Queensland in the northern portion of Australia.
To get to the Great Barrier Reef the closest city is Cairns. You'll want to fly into Cairns International Airport (code: CNS). Luckily, it won't be hard, tons of domestic flights leave all of Australia's biggest cities hourly.
There are other coastal cities like Port Douglas, Townsville, and Cape York you can go to as well. These have far fewer tourists, better-preserved reefs, and simply a different dive experience. Cairns is just the easiest to arrange a dive trip from. It's a popular spot and the plethora of dive shops keeps prices competitive. Plus, Cairns isn't just a dive city, it also has some fabulous attractions of its own. Definitely try to fit in the Kuranda Scenic Railway, a trip to Daintree Rainforest or Aberlton Tablelands, and even local spots like the Cairns Botanic Gardens and the Wildlife Dome.
Day Trips vs Liveaboards
Casual Divers: Day Trips
If you aren't an extreme diver looking to do a liveaboard (more about liveaboards below) you will probably be booking day trips out to the reef. The two main cities you stay in to dive the Great Barrier Reef for day trips are going to be Cairns or Port Douglas. I've talked about Cairns a bit (and have a full guide to Cairns here)....
...so now I'll discuss Port Douglas. This small city, an hour north of Cairns, is the better option for casual divers who want to do multiple day trips out to the reef. Since Port Douglas is further north than Cairns, boats leaving here have tons more ribbon reefs accessible. It is possible to take boats out of Port Douglas and stay in Cairns, in fact, that is exactly what we did. We booked a tour with Silverswift/Silversonic (more on the Silver Series tour operator below) and added on the bus pick up from a Cairns hotel. The diving was way better when we left out of Port Douglas since we could visit more of the 'real' reef. But, it makes your day so much longer since you have to ride over an hour to just get to the boat.
If you want to stay in Port Douglas you will fly into Cairns and then book a shuttle service to get to your hotel in Port Douglas. A popular service I recommend is Coral Sea Coaches. They are easily available from the Cairns Airport and depart the airport hourly. Shuttles should be booked before you arrive in Cairns. One way cost per person: $85 Return: $120
Advanced or Extreme Divers: Liveaboards
Liveaboards are the next adventure I plan on taking. Basically, a liveaboard is a boat you live on, hence the name, and spend multiple days at sea diving from. They have cabins on board, a kitchen, and all your equipment.
You should definitely consider this if you’re a seasoned diver. Liveaboards are great because you get so much more time on the reef. Plus, you can visit more remote spots that are full of sea life and even participate in night dives. Expect to pay at least $500 AUD per person for a multi-day, liveaboard trip. The nicer the ship, and accommodations, the more expensive it will be.
Cost to Dive The Great Barrier Reef
You should know that while visiting Cairns most of your budget is going to be spent on activities and excursions. Accommodation and food/drinks prices in Cairns are all-around incredibly reasonable. But, diving, bungee jumps, day tours, and all the other activities Cairns offer add up quickly and are not cheap. If you are trying to visit Cairns on a budget you will need to keep this in mind.
Diving the reef will set you back. If you aren't certified you can participate in introductory dives (which are shorter in duration) for around $100-$200 AUD. The cost depends on where in the reef you go. Standard dives and dive packages will start around $200 AUD per person. The best way to save money is to book multi-dive packages. Discounts are also available if you travel with your own equipment.
Best Month to Visit The Great Barrier Reef
Diving the Great Barrier Reef is actually excellent year round. What you will find is different seasons offer different rewards. In general, visibility is great and the waters are especially warm from December through February. While June through November offers the unique chance to see humpback whales and coral spawning.
Low Season at The Great Barrier Reef
I visited the reef in February which is technically considered the low season. Locally they call the season between November to May the wet season or stinger season. Just like it sounds it was a bit wetter, we had rain in Cairns every day. But, out on the water, we didn't see a single storm. Although it was stinger/wet/low season (whatever you want to call it) I had a great experience diving and also had key advantages like lower hotel prices and less crowded tours.
High Seasons at The Great Barrier Reef
With that being said, the best time to visit the Great Barrier Reef is between June to October. This is considered peak season and has a couple of advantages for travelers: Temperatures stay around the low 60s to mid-80s, and it rains way less. This makes it less of risk when it comes to diving conditions and clear water. The downfall of visiting in peak season is, of course, the crowds. Accommodations and diving excursions to the Great Barrier Reef tend to fill up quickly.
Diving the Reef in Spring (September - November)
Spring is a great time of year to dive the Great Barrier Reef. In fact, starting in November the reef comes alive with annual coral spawning. The weather is not too bad also, Spring in Cairns is the end of the dry season and humidity will begin to build as you get closer to summers start. Temperatures typically range from 68 - 84°F (20 – 29°C).
Best Dive Center in Cairns and Port Douglas
Look, there are tons of operators that take literal boatloads of tourists on diving/snorkeling trips to the Great Barrier Reef each day. When I was researching I kept seeing the tour operator Silverswift being named as the best dive center in Cairns and Port Douglas. I decided to book with them and I'm so glad I did. They were amazing. One of the best things about the Silver series boats is they are a huge company with tons of dive permits. This is so important when picking a dive center in Australia. The more dive permits a company has means they have the flexibility to choose the best dive site based on the same conditions and change reefs if they find out a certain reef is too crowded.
I booked everything through their website and even emailed them a couple of questions as I was planning. They got back to me in only a couple hours each time and were super helpful. We booked two dives for each day and kept the option to add on a third if we had the energy (we did). I really liked that they do small groups and make it very flexible as you book. If you dive once and feel like you've had enough they will refund your money for the rest of the day. Or you can book one dive and add on the other two like we did.
Read on: Best Day Trips From Cairns
I mentioned they keep the diving groups extremely small, personally, I loved that aspect. Before each dive, our dive master drew a picture of the reef and explained where we would go and what we would see. He talked about currents and even recommended paths to explore. Each dive we took we were the only boat on the reef which means we didn’t have to worry about it being crowded. I think this was due to their abundance of dive permits for various reefs.
They also had an amazing staff. I didn't ever have to set up my gear or switch it over each dive. Let me be clear, I don't mind handling my own gear but with the days diving the reef being so long it was really nice to not have to worry about it. After every dive they had multiple staff members walking around with cookies, fruit, coffee, and tea. They also had a great lunch buffet and an additional 'tea time' (aka more food) on the two-hour drive home. I really can't recommend them enough.
A professional photographer also dives alongside you the entire day. You can rent a camera from him (cost was $60 AUD for the day) or you could buy photos he had taken during the dives on the ride back to the pier. We did both and now those pictures hang on our fridge. It was such an added bonus to have fantastic photos of us from this trip.
Also, I know many people read blogs and think I travel for free (I wish) and do all these excursions for free (nope) but let me just reiterate. I was not paid, nor this I receive a free dive day in exchange for a blog review. I paid a ton of money to dive with them and it was so worth every single penny.
Tip: If you aren't a certified diver (or don't want to dive) most dive companies will let you join and snorkel the reef. We had many snorkelers on our boat who couldn't stop talking about how amazing it was. Snorkeling day trips cost around $200 AUD per person.
What Does a Typical Day Diving The Great Barrier Reef Look Like?
Fucking fantastic. I can't recommend it enough and I'm already trying to figure out how to get back. Here is what our two days of diving looked like:
First day: Diving out of Cairns. Walked from our hotel to the pier in less than 10 minutes. Stood in line at the terminal to check in with our tour. Silverswift exchange our voucher for actual tickets. Board the boat around 8:00 AM. Start filling out forms and various information. Silverswift pushes off around 8:30 AM.
The drive to the reef takes a little over two hours. During this time we get our gear, meet our instructor, and get a briefing. Get to first dive site around X. First dive is 45 minutes. After the dive, various crew members had food, coffee, and tea waiting for us. They pass it around while we drive 10 minutes to another dive site. Our instructors also use this time to change out our tanks. We didn't have to set up or handle our gear at all between dives. Second site, dive again for 45 minutes. After this dive, we have a longer break for lunch while they drive to the next site. Third site, dive again for 45 minutes. Once we are all back on the boat, snorkelers included, we start to head back to Cairns. At this point, it is around 3 PM. The drive back takes another 2 hours. During the drive back we have a debriefing with our instructors and they help you fill out your log book. You can also buy photos on the way back. Dock and deboard around 5 PM.
Second Day: The second day looks basically exactly like the first day except we get picked up by the bus at 6:50 AM. We get to the Port Douglas pier around 8 AM and check in the same way, exchanging our voucher for a ticket to the boat, this time named the Silversonic. From here everything is the same. Board at 8:30, push off around 9 AM, get to first dive site around 11 AM. Although Port Douglas is further north than Cairns the boat ride out is still two hours. They are going further into the reef, an advantage of leaving from Port Douglas. Another three dives, exactly the same as day one. Last dive ends around 3 PM and the drive back to Port Douglas is another two hours. Dock and deboard at Port Douglas around 5 PM and then back on the bus for the journey back to Cairns. We got back to Cairns around 6:30 PM.
What to Pack For a Trip to the Great Barrier Reef
For a full guide on exactly what to pack for your trip to Cairns and your various dive trips check out this article. But I do want to talk really quick about the sun and importance of sunscreen in Australia. Local weather reports will advise you on the daily UV index, which represents the daily solar UV radiation intensity. It is imperative you protect yourself from the sun. Getting a sunburn anywhere is dangerous but even more so in Australia. You should be using strong SPF 30+ sunscreen (or more) every single day.
Sunscreen is available for purchase throughout Australia at various supermarkets, convenience stores and pharmacies. It won’t be hard to find. I also recommend wearing sun-smart clothing, including a hat and sunglasses. In general, look for the following things when picking out ‘sun-smart’ clothing:
Fabric structure: The more you can see through the fabric, the more UV can pass through it. The tighter the fabric structure, the better the sun protection. Look into packing clothes that have tightly woven, lightweight natural fabrics such as linen, cotton or hemp. These types of fabric also keep you cooler than synthetic equivalents.
Layering: an additional highly effective way of increasing protection from UV.
Color: Darker colors absorb UV rays better than white or pastel colors of the same fabric.
Sun-smart clothing isn’t simply a marketing gimmick—some clothing has an ultraviolet protection factor (or UPF rating) which is a rating of how much UV protection a fabric provides. Below are some great ‘sun-smart’ clothing items I recommend packing for any trip that involves lots of time in the sun.
Diving the Great Barrier Reef on a Budget
Purchase Diving or Excursion Packages: There is so much to see and do in the Cairns/Port Douglas area. You can get discounts if you book multiple diving trips or even different types of excursions with one company.
Eat Cheap: Most of your money is going to go to diving and other excursions so try and eat as cheap as possible. Avoid traditional sit-down restaurants and opt for sandwich shops or Asian/Indian restaurants (which tend to be cheaper). You can also hit up the supermarket and buy snacks, sandwich ingredients, and other food items much cheaper than at a convenience store.
Camping: Actually quite popular, roughing it on one of the Great Barrier Reef's secluded isles is a super affordable way to visit the area. You'll need to plan early to reserve your camping permit. Be sure to read all the camping guidelines on the Queensland government website.
Pick a Hotel on the Mainland: Island hotels are always going to be more expensive than hotels on the mainland. Plan early and book a budget-friendly hotel in Cairns or Port Douglas.
More tips on visiting Australia on a budget
I've done a bunch of diving. I grew up in the Florida Keys and have seen some amazing things. But, The Great Barrier Reef was like nothing I’ve ever seen or dove in before. Diving the Great Barrier Reef was one of the highlights of my entire trip to Australia. After hearing so many reports of coral bleaching increasing and huge portions of the reef dying I was nervous I had missed my chance. The reef I saw was so full of life and absolutely beautiful. I can only imagine what the reef looked like before it started dying. You should definitely try to visit, and dive, the reef as soon as possible before it all disappears. It’s worth the time and money to get there. Trust me!
One last thing... even though researching ahead of time is great, I definitely recommend bringing an Australian travel guide along with you. Here are some of the travel guides I used during my trip...
And of course, if you have any questions DO NOT hesitate to reach out to me via Instagram, Twitter, or just shoot me an email (tessajuliette at gmail dot com).