Diving the Great Barrier Reef, the longest coral reef in the world is an experience of a lifetime. We’re lucky to live in Australia, only a weekend away from what’s a long journey from the rest of the world.
Twice, we used a three-day weekend to fly to Cairns and dive the Great Barrier Reef.
Although it may not be the best place to dive the Great Barrier Reef, we had an amazing time exploring the different reefs near Cairns. The variety of fish, corals and reef formations is stunning. From nudibranch to sharks, from turtles to clownfish, we saw each time a full spectrum of marine life as we navigated around the bommies, the canyons and the big walls of corals.
Here are some tips and feedback to help you plan your diving trip to the Great Barrier Reef:
1. How to choose your cruise to dive the Great Barrier Reef
It can be overwhelming to see all the different cruises leaving Cairns or Port Douglas to dive or snorkel the Great Barrier Reef.
Choose the best reef for your trip to the Great Barrier Reef
Most importantly, I recommend picking a cruise that will take you to the outer reef. As you go further from the coast, the water is clearer and the marine life more prominent. You will be closer to the deep ocean, with higher chances of spotting bigger species too!
Obviously, there are many sites to explore on the Great Barrier Reef. This great website lists the many reefs to explore with their advantages and disadvantages. I never chose my cruise like that, but it’s a useful tool to check if the cruise you’re interested in will take you to a location you like. I have visited twice the same sites. Although it was a pleasure to go back as these locations are fantastic, I’d love to see somewhere new next time. I dived and snorkelled Norman Reef (Tropos and Fingers – my favourite for the swim through and the small canyons to explore), Hastings Reef and Saxons Reef.
Choose the length of your trip / the number of water sessions
If your time is limited, many companies organise day tour to the Reef. I’ve never tried this as the liveaboard option was a better option to maximise the number of dives or snorkelling spots and sessions during one weekend. Isn’t being under the water the best thing to do on the Great Barrier Reef?! I find two days is a good length. A liveaboard experience isn’t cheap, and I feel like the extra dives I’d have by staying longer wouldn’t provide the same happiness vs value ratio. You would miss the night dive – a highlight – if you only go for a day trip.
If you’re travelling for an extended period or/and are on a budget, you may consider Reef Encounter’s hostie program. I haven’t done it myself, but I met onboard a few travellers who took this opportunity to enjoy the reef a bit longer (and they loved it). You go there as a paid customer, and you then get extra days for free (accommodation, food and dives) by working on the boat. Read this article about it!
Choose the best liveaboard company to dive the Great Barrier Reef
I haven’t tried all the companies, but this comparative list of the ones that made it to our top selection – leaving from Cairns. I hope it can help you in your research:
Name: Reef Encounter
Length: Flexible (daily transfer to the liveaboard boat)
Number of Dives: 6 when you stay one night (5 day + 1 night), then 5 per day
Price: $1090 for two people (food, accommodation and dives included); no guide included for the dives (extra cost)
Comment: We booked there twice and loved it both times. We had our en-suite room with ocean views: it was dreamy. The food was great with various options to please everybody. The staff was always lovely, helpful and interesting to talk to. There were many people on board, but it didn’t feel too much as I could recognise every face.
Length: 3 days / 2 nights
Number of Dives: 11 unguided dives (9 day + 2 night)
Price: $1,640 for two people (food, accommodation and dives included); no guide included for the dives (extra cost)
Comment: A friend recommended it. He describes it as a great small boat, with a nice atmosphere and good food. We wanted only two days, and the rooms looked less good than Reef Encounter – for a very similar price – so we decided not to book with them.
Name: Coral Sea Dreaming (dive / snorkel / sail)
Length: 2 days / 1 night
Number of Dives: Flexible. Maximum of 5 (4 day + 1 night)
Price: $1,410 (estimation of accommodation, food and dives); no guide included for the dives (extra cost)
Comment: We didn’t pick the sailing option as we just rented a sailing boat in the Whitsundays the week before. Our aim for this trip was to focus on diving, and this option was a lot more expensive for fewer dives. But if you’re keen for a mix of diving and sailing with an experience on a smaller boat, this looks amazing!
I’m still dreaming of the Far North Expeditions from Spirit of Freedom, but it’s still out of our budget (and not suitable for just a weekend).
Would you like to see your tour listed here? Contact me!
2. Tips to plan your dives on the Great Barrier Reef: level, guide and equipment
What level do you need for diving on the Great Barrier Reef?
Beginners will find many options to do an introductory dive or a full open-water certification.
Certified divers can dive by themselves or with a guide (often at an additional cost). It can be an excellent opportunity to get the Advanced Certification. On Reef Encounter, it only cost $90 extra for it (compared to the guided dive package), it’s a bargain!
What if you don’t dive? We had snorkelling opportunities included during our trip and it was amazing. The visibility is good and there are shallow areas that actually make snorkelling sometimes as good as diving.
Do you need a guide to dive on the Great Barrier Reef?
There’s an extra cost for diving with a guide. If you’re certified, you are allowed to dive with just your buddy after listening to a short briefing on the site. Should you pay for a guide or not?
If you don’t feel comfortable or if you haven’t dived in a while, maybe. I did my first trip a few weeks after my certification and I really wanted to have a specialist with me as I was gaining experience.
The second time was very different. I was an Advanced Certified diver with nearly 50 dives logged in. I now feel confident enough in my skills to dive without a specialist, when the conditions are good and easy. Still, we decided to take a guide. It’s always better to have a local showing you the best places, isn’t it? Initially, we wanted a guide for the first dive on each location to ensure we were going to the best spots. As the Guided Package ended up being as expensive, we finally dived every time with a guide.
What equipment should you bring?
All the cruises I looked at provided the entire diving gear. But the wetsuit seemed optional, as many apparently don’t need it in the 27-degree water. I’m always cold, so I always dive with the warmest wetsuit available, which was a shorty wetsuit on Reef Encounter. I also always take my mask as I love it, but that wasn’t even a must-have. Although it’s Cairns and the tropics, I was cold both times. The boat temperature is kept low to avoid humidity damage, and the wind was too refreshing to enjoy staying outside when wet. I highly recommend taking some warm clothes.
3. When you should fly before and after your dives to maximise your weekend
The cruises leave early in the morning, so you have to arrive the day before.
For the return, you need to take into consideration when it is safe to fly after your dives. Flying after diving increases the risk of decompression sickness: because of the high concentration of nitrogen in your blood, gas bubbles can form within your body and generate health issues. The longer you wait between your last dive and your flight, the less risk of experiencing decompression sickness as the nitrogen in the body decreases during surface time.
The most common recommended interval surface between diving and flying are:
- 12 hours for a single no-decompression dive
- 18 hours minimum for multiple no-decompression dives
- 24 hours for multiple dives over a few days (seen on most liveaboard websites I looked at)
After our six dives on the two-day liveaboard, my dive computer removed the no-fly warning around noon on the third day. I’m very conservative when it comes to diving, and an extra day in the region is always fun, so I’ve always planned a three-day weekend to Cairns. But I’ve met divers who fly the next morning, approximately 18 hours after their last dive. Most dives on the Great Barrier Reef are shallow. It’s your call!
With flights leaving Cairns early (before 6 am!), you can fully enjoy your last day and go straight back to work in the morning!
4. Spend One Day around Cairns not diving the Great Barrier Reef
If you decide to observe the 24 hour surface time before flying back home, you can make a day trip from Cairns to explore the region. There are a few options you can look at:
- Day trip snorkelling: if you haven’t had enough of the reef, there are fantastic opportunities for snorkelling too!
- Port Douglas + Atherton Tablelands: our choice for our first trip (Atherton Tablelands is in altitude so you may want to keep it for the afternoon if you have dived a lot) – rent a car or join a tour (you can book one online here*)
- Daintree Forest + Cape Tribulation: our choice for our second trip – rent a car or join a tour (you can book them online here*)
Have you dived on the Great Barrier Reef? How was it? Share your experience in the comments below!
When we had time, we opted for staying in Port Douglas instead with a fantastic deal at the Mantra Aqueous On Port*, with a private outside spa on our balcony.
We only had short transit nights in Cairns – before boarding a boat or a plane. We stayed once at the Bohemian Resort*, which was the best deal we could get for a double room with private bathroom. The Mad Monkey Backpackers* was even cheaper (shared bathroom) and had all we needed for our very short night before flying back early the next morning.
Where is Cairns?
Cairns is located in North Queensland. It takes 2.5 hours to fly from Brisbane to Cairns, 3 hours from Sydney and 3.5 hours from Melbourne.
Eloise lives in Brisbane (Australia), but you won’t find her often in the city. When she is not disconnected underwater or in a national park, she loves sharing her travel tips and inspiring her readers to take care of our beautiful planet. She considers every weekend as a two-day holiday break. Her approach: you don’t always need to go far to travel. Still, she also enjoys exploring the world and discovering new cultures. Eloise is originally from France and, before moving to Brisbane, she lived in Sydney, Istanbul and England.