Where to Dive on the Great Barrier Reef: It’s Not Only About Cairns!

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. Although I am not an expert of the Great Barrier Reef (I wish!), I did travel there a few times in different ways. I also love to talk to and learn from people who share my passion for this world wonder, which is a great way to learn some tips.

For many travellers, a 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 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 Cairns is only a tiny portion of it!

I thought this article, based on personal experiences, could 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 (from South to North). Jump to the end for the price comparison.

Lady Elliott Island (from Hervey Bay or Brisbane)

Lady Elliot - Scenic flightThe trip to this small private island is not for the budget travellers, but it’s the best Great Barrier Reef trip I’ve done.

The scenic flight, departing from Brisbane or Hervey Bay, will cost you more than a return 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


Read my article about Lady Elliot Island for more information.


Lady Musgrave Island (from the town of 1770)

I haven’t been there myself, so I’ll base my comments on what I’ve been told about it.

As for Lady Elliot, you can only be mesmerised when you see a photo of Lady Musgrave Island and its 3,000 hectares of surrounding Reef. Plus, it’s easier to access than Lady Elliot as you can go there by boat, so the price for a day trip drops to around $200.

Unfortunately, I’ve heard some friends saying they were disappointed by their experience there. It wasn’t as good as other destinations they’ve visited. The lagoon is very protected, so snorkellers could only access a small area. I love that they’re protecting the site, but that’s not always good news for travellers. My friends reported they had to share the space with many other tourists, following the exact timetable from the boat tour and watching irresponsible tourists destroying the place.

This experience was for snorkelling. Diving boats can go to the outer reefs of the island. I haven’t heard many first-hand experiences about diving on Lady Musgrave Island. Although it was nice, I was told it’s nowhere as good as the two other islands listed in this article (Lady Eliott and Heron Islands) or Cairns. Corals were smaller and there was less variety.


Heron Island Wreck - Great Barrier ReefHeron 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).

After a three-hour boat transfer, you’ll arrive in the small and cosy island. Diving and snorkelling were both fantastic. It’s a place where I really want to go back. Plus, there is a wreck that you can access from the shore which makes a fun snorkelling spot!


Whitsundays - whitehaven bay lookout inletThe Whitsundays 

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 off the bucket list the Great Barrier Reef, in just one trip.

I made this trip during my first Australian visit. 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 is 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.

Read my article about the Whitsundays for more information (focused on sailing, not diving)


cairns great barrier reef divingCairns (or Port Douglas)

Although this article is about finding other places than Cairns, 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, bleached.

Read my article about diving the Great Barriere Reef from Cairns for more information


Lizard Island (Far North)

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. Unfortunately, I’ve been told the coral quality up there degraded a lot, and most corals are bleached. So it would not be the best option for a first trip to the Great Barrier Reef if you want to see beautiful lively corals.


Where to dive to avoid coral bleaching?

coral bleaching map great barrier reefThe southern part of the Great Barrier Reef is – so far! – not suffering too badly from coral bleaching.

There have been four severe coral bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef, in 1998, 2002, 2016, and now in 2017. When the bleaching is due to rising sea temperatures, corals can recover. But the recovery takes years.

“It takes at least a decade for a full recovery of even the fastest growing corals, so mass bleaching events 12 months apart offers zero prospect of recovery for reefs that were damaged in 2016.” reported Dr James Kerry.

It’s extremely sad to see such a wonder of Nature being destroyed. And coral bleaching isn’t even the only danger the Great Barrier Reef is facing at the moment.

Do you want to help save the Reef? You can! Visit Greenpeace website today.


A Great Barrier Reef experience, what budget are we talking about?

I don’t recommend going for the cheapest option when planning a trip to 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 long, 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 rough attempt to give a budget idea and comparison for 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 than 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.

If you’re travelling on a tight budget but you have time, you may be interested in getting extra days for free by being an hostie on the Reef Encounter. Read this article for more details.


Lady Elliot Island

Lady Musgrave (2-day liveaboard)

Heron Island

The Whitsundays (day trip)

Cairns Outer Reef (2-day liveaboard)

Lizard Island (3-day liveaboard)

(4 dives)
approx. $1,080/p

(4 dives)
approx.  $650/p

(4 dives)
approx. $850/p

(2 dives)
approx. $875/p

(4 dives)
approx. $1,085/p

(11 dives)
approx. $2,070/p

(3 days)
approx. $680/p
(3 days)
approx. $450/p

(2.5 days)
approx. $450/p

(1 day)
approx. $720

(2 days)
approx. $700/p


3.5-hour drive from Brisbane to Hervey Bay

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

Liveaboard: $410/p

Snorkelling: no extra cost

Diving: $30/dive (up to 6)

Diving equipment: $40/day

One night in Bundaberg: from $40/p


6-hour drive from Brisbane to Gladstone

One night in Gladstone: $40/p

Boat transfer: $60/p

Two nights: $330/p

Snorkelling: from shore – no extra cost

Diving: $75/dive + $50/equipment per day


Flight to Prosperpine (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

Liveaboard: $450/p

Snorkelling: no extra cost

Diving: $95/dive (up to 6)


Flight to Cairns (return): $230/p

Liveaboard (incl. dives): $1,720

Equipment: $120


Have you visited the Great Barrier Reef? Where did you go? Leave a comment below to share your experience!


Where are these places on the Great Barrier Reef?

Here’s a quick map with all the destinations mentioned in this article. The Great Barrier Reef stretches for over 2,300 km on Australia’s East Coast. If you’ve explored an area that isn’t listed here and you liked it, I’d love to hear about it! (leave a comment below)





I am a part-time traveler: I combine a full-time job with a passion for traveling. I love to share my trips and tips to inspire others to explore what’s around them. Before moving to Australia, I lived in France, England and Turkey. I’ve finally found my balance in Brisbane.

5 thoughts on “Where to Dive on the Great Barrier Reef: It’s Not Only About Cairns!

    1. Hello, Yana. I’m glad it helps :)

      For the liveaboard, if you don’t have date pressure and are already a certified diver, have a look at this option for Lady Elliot: http://www.professionaldiveservices.com.au/explore-the-tranquil-waters-of-lady-elliot-island-aboard-the-mv-adori/

      If you have more time pressure, the Outer Reef from Cairns could be the option. We went twice on Reef Encounter (one night) and had a great time (see blog article here: http://www.myfavouriteescapes.com/great-barrier-reef-cairns-weekend/)
      My friends went with ProDive – who are certified by EcoTourism Australia – and had a great time too! But they have a minimum of two nights.

      Don’t hesitate to come back here after your trip to share your experience :) Enjoy!

    1. Hello, Eryn. I hope you’ll make your dream come true! It’s really a beautiful place. Snorkelling there is amazing but if you feel like diving, it’s a fantastic place to try for the first time.

What do you think?