Great Barrier Reef: One Weekend of Awesome Diving from Cairns

cairns_-_diving_great_barrier_reef_-_coral_+_ben (c)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:

Are you covered for scuba diving by your travel insurance? I recommend double checking to avoid bad surprises if an incident happens. If you don’t have travel insurance, you may be interested in reading more about DAN and WorldNomads*.

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.

cairns_-_diving_great_barrier_reef_02Choose 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

cairns_-_diving_great_barrier_reef_-_turtle_01 (c)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!


 Your underwater pics don’t look that good? Check out my tips for beginners to take underwater photos that aren’t blue!


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.

NameCoral 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?

cairns_-_diving_great_barrier_reef_-_clownfishBeginners 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?

Coral polyps at night

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*)


Sustainable travel tip: if you hire a car, try to find a small one that is petrol efficient. You won’t need a big one or an SUV for just one day in this region!


Have you dived on the Great Barrier Reef? How was it? Share your experience in the comments below!


Planning a trip to Cairns?

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.

View more hotels*


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.




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GREAT BARRIER REEF - tips to organise a diving trip

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22 thoughts on “Great Barrier Reef: One Weekend of Awesome Diving from Cairns

  1. Beautiful photos!! Definitely something I must do! even though I’m scared of seeing a shark – the first time I went scuba diving was in Mexico and when we jumped into the water, I swore I was going to jump into the jaws of a shark haha. Hopefully, by the time I get around to the Great Reef, I’ll have a few more dives under my belt ;)

    1. Thank you, Bri. I used to stress a bit about sharks, but now I love to see them! They’re fascinating and actually quite shy! We only saw a couple on the Great Barrier Reef, and they left as we tried to get closer.

  2. Awesome pictures and information! I only snorkeled in Cairns, and it was just at green island rather than the Great Barrier Reef, but I did a day trip out to the reef later from Hamilton Island. I’d like to do it again and do a bigger trip like the ones you’ve talked about if I save up some money!

    1. Thank you for your feedback, Laura. If you’re on a budget but you have time, have a look at the hostie program from Reef Encounter. It looks like a great opportunity if you want to spend a few days on the reef without spending too much ;)

  3. Great post! I went to Australia recently and snorkeled on the reef. One of the best things I’ve ever done, it was incredible!! We used Compass Cruises. Only $109 for the day with a fruit platter breakfast, lunch and afternoon snacks included. Great crew and great value.

    1. Thank you for your feedback, Zara. It’s great to see that there are budget options that still give a great experience. I think I’ve seen the Compass boat during one of our trips, so I believe they took you to the outer reef – great call!

  4. Telma | Blank Canvas Voyage

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    Eloise, these are fantastic experiences! We don’t have many regrets from our travels, but when we were in Cairns, we chose a very cheap boat trip and end it up have a crappy experience. I definitely wish we had spent a little more money because it’s worth it!
    Look at those pictures!!! :)
    My friend is going to Australi later this year, I am going to share this article with her.

    Telma @ Blank Canvas Voyage

    1. Thank you for your honest feedback, Telma. I am sorry you didn’t have a good experience. Sometimes it is indeed worth spending the extra budget (and sometimes it’s not… hard choices ;). But I really recommend going to the outer reef. Although I haven’t tried the reefs closer to shore, I’ve always heard the outer reef is better. Or another option (but that’s definitely not the cheap way) could be an island, like Heron Island or Lady Eliott.

  5. Such a Little Dream for me… Diving Australia’s Great Barrier Reef :-) For sure, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the best dive sites in the world ! Under the sea, down where it’s wetter, you find coral reefs teeming with life, Nemo’s cousins, lots of fish, plants, and beautiful colours… It is so beautiful ! Definitively on my bucket list.

    1. Thank you for your dreamy comment! Yes, the Great Barrier Reef is indeed beautiful and full of life. I hope we’ll keep it that way ;)

  6. This looks amazing! The underwater photos are spectacular :) I have an irrational fear to the ocean, but I’ve decided I am going to overcome my fears and learn how to scuba dive. My classes start next month and I couldn’t be more excited (a little scared as well) Safe travels. – Mariella

    1. Thank you, Mariella. I was scared of the ocean before diving. The underwater world is so fascinating that it made me overcome and finally forget my fears. Although I’m still not a big fan of being at the surface, diving is one of the rare moments where I can really relax. I’m now an ocean addict. I hope you enjoy your time during your classes. Don’t give up too early, it’s worth making the effort to fight your fears. A whole new world will open to you :)

  7. Thanks for all the info! I’m going to be going to the Great Barrier Reef in the next year so it’s good to know all of this, especially because I’ve heard lots of people are disappointed by the reef now!

    1. Thank you, Claire. I’m glad it helps. Some reefs are better than others. We’ve always been to the Outer Reefs, and so far we haven’t been disappointed. But it’s true that we did see some coral bleach on our last trip although it was not major where we were. Nevertheless, we had very great dives. However, to be 100% honest – and it’s not even related to the coral bleach – there are other places in the word where you can see amazing corals. I found the reefs impressive in Cozumel (Mexico) and New Caledonia for example, perhaps better than on the Great Barrier Reef itself. Still, the Great Barrier Reef is a natural wonder that I wouldn’t want to miss (especially now that it is at risk :( )

  8. What a brilliant experience. Very much on the bucket list. Totally agree that it’s always good to have a guide showing you the underwater sights (although I don’t have nearly as many dives under my belt as you do).

  9. Meg | MeanderWithMeg

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    Wow, where was this guide when I was planning my Great Barrier Reef dive trip!? I only did a day trip from Cairns and it was the first time I tried scuba diving and I loved it. I ended up diving a second time that day because I enjoyed it so much. I’ve never tried an overnight trip, so next time I’d love to give that a go! A really useful article, thank you!

    1. I’m glad I can help so thank you for your sweet words, Meg. Diving is awesome, isn’t it?! As you may have read in the article, I highly recommend the overnight trip. If you haven’t done your certification yet, it’s a great opportunity for it. And night dives always amaze me!

  10. Such useful information. I learnt to dive in Cairns with Pro Dive and had a fantastic experience with them. We then went on a couple of liveaboards and found those fantastic too. The highlight for me was swimming with Minke whales and dolphins – incredible. I have never eaten so much as when we went on those trips. Diving makes you hungry!

    1. Thank you for your feedback, Katy. You’re the second one telling me ProDive was great so I’m glad I included them in my selection. Minke whales are still on my to-do list!! And yes, I agree… I ate A LOT during the two liveaboards!

  11. These photos are amazing. I was only able to do a day trip out to the reef. Was terribly sea sick but I still went snorkelling. It’s an amazing part of Australia to see and experience

    1. Thank you very much, Jean. I’m sorry you got sick. It’s true that the transfer from Cairns to the reef wasn’t very calm. Once on the liveaboard boat, there was a lot less movement and I don’t remember anyone feeling unwell. It’s awesome that you still went for snorkelling :)

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