Great Barrier Reef: Guide to Swimming, Snorkeling & Diving

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A wide variety of diving gear to choose from to dive into the great barrier reef.

On anyone’s list of Natural Wonders of the World, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is always in the Top 3. If traveling to the Australian continent, the Great Barrier Reef in the Northeast state of Queensland should be on the top of a must-see list.

“Great” is just one of the superlatives that describes a coral reef system in the Coral Sea, so large that it can be seen from outer space. It stretches for more than 14,000 miles from north of Brisbane in the center of the state all the way north to the tip of Cape York Peninsula. As the largest coral reef system on earth, there are over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands.

Fortunately, the breadth of the reef, the amount of wildlife and the stunning coral reefs at or just below the surface make it relatively easy to experience, so definitely spend time on the Great Barrier Reef once in your life.  With water temperatures often in the 80s, this is an ideal place to visit year-round for some of the best diving and snorkeling in the world..

SheBuysTravel Tip: Make sure to have Apple Pay, Google Pay or another similar service on your phone to pay electronically for goods, hotels, taxis, etc. Throughout our two-and-a-half-week stay, we used the phone to pay for everything including dive trips, gas stations and even the snack shop on the boat. The only need for cash is to tip diving and snorkeling instructors.

Cairns marina is a great start off point before scuba diving in the great Barrier Reef.
Cairns marina. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Head to Cairns, Popular Gateway to the Reef

While boat operators offer trips to the coral reefs from the Whitsundays, Townsville and ports near Brisbane, the tropical city of Cairns is considered the gateway to start exploring the Great Barrier Reef. There’s an international airport with frequent flights, an abundance of hotels, apartment rentals and hostels, a robust tourist industry full of fun and funky attractions and dozens of day cruise and liveaboard operators leaving from the marina. An hour north of Cairns, Port Douglas tour operators offer trips to a different section of the reef, but all roads and flights leave to and from Cairns.

Beyond the reef, Australia’s premier tourist destination has an embarrassment of eco-friendly adventures including two other UNESCO World Heritage sites – the lush rainforest of the Daintree River and the Wet Tropics of Queensland. Within 20 minutes of Cairns, there are quiet beach communities such as Palm Cove and Trinity Beach for visitors who want to access the reef from Cairns but like quieter beach vacations.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Taking even a one-day trip to the reef from Cairns or Port Douglas will typically cost $300 a person or more, even with Australian dollars relatively cheap against the American dollar. It’s best to check online first and reserve a space on a boat before arriving in Cairns.

Get assistance from the guides from Passions of Paradise.
Guides from Passions of Paradise. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Assess Your Abilities

For those anxious to see the reefs, take advice from our guides at Passions of Paradise – assess your abilities and your willingness to be on a boat in open water for hours. When people approach them to ask about seeing the reef, they ask customers:

  • Have you been snorkeling before?
  • What do you expect?
  • How comfortable are you in the water?
  • Do you get seasick?

Because the beach immediately off shore from Cairns is often filled with deadly box jellyfish and crocodiles, there is no viable option to swim from land to nearby reefs. Visitors to the reef will have to journey on a boat, usually a large, steady catamaran, typically for a full day, often traveling three hours out to a reef and three hours back.

As recent visitors to the reef, even with small groups, we saw snorkelers and experienced divers who overestimated their swimming abilities, especially with winds and rocky oceans that often occur in the area. On each trip from Cairns and Lizard Island, we had people who were seasick, snorkelers who returned to the boat after five minutes or divers who short-circuited their dive because they panicked.

SheBuysTravel Tip: At stand-alone buildings in Cairns and at hotels, there are travel agents and tour operators eager to book guided tours and water activities. Don’t let them mislead you. These third-party tour agents only represent select operators. If you have not booked a trip in advance, visit the Reef Fleet Terminal (see below) late morning or early afternoon to find a tour that suits your budget and, importantly, your comfort level at sea.

Take off from the shore of Cairns before heading to scuba dive in the Great Barrier Reef.
Off the shore of Cairns. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Safest Choice: Pontoon Boats Anchored at Sea

As our guide suggested for non-swimmers and first-time snorkelers,  pontoon boats – large platforms anchored in the water – are a great way to experience the reefs. Our guide said, “You don’t have to be in the water and you can still enjoy the reef.” Pontoon boats feature smaller glass bottom boats, semi-submersibles, underwater viewing windows and guided snorkeling. Plus there are often swimming pools, a sundeck, changing areas, a restaurant and even a bar for adults.

Among the operators are Sunlover Reef Cruises, Quicksilver’s Agincourt Reef Platform and Reef Magic. With Reef Magic, guides show examples of cyclone-damaged reefs that are healthy now thanks to an environmental program with which they participate. It is the only pontoon on the reef with a laboratory where scientists work.

Take a ferry to Green Island.
Ferry to Green Island. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Experience the Reef from Fitzroy or Green Island

From Cairns via a 45-minute ferry ride, there are two islands where snorkelers and swimmers can swim to see reefs directly from the beach.

Take the Fitzroy Flyer ferry to Fitzroy Island for a full-day trip away from the paved streets and muddy seaside of Cairns to pristine white sands. Where the ferry docks, snorkelers walk in from the beach to see marine life such as parrotfish, butterfly fish, anemones and giant clams. A 15-minute walk away is Nudey Beach, where snorkelers can see clownfish, angelfish and small coral gardens near the shore. For more experienced snorkelers, venturing further out from Welcome Bay to areas like White Rock and Shark Fin Rock increases chances of seeing turtles and more colorful coral formations. For overnight visits, stay at the 99-room Fitzroy Island Resort or book a much-more affordable campsite.

Another popular island destination reached by ferry is Green Island, where visitors can spend a half day or stay overnight at the 46-room Green Island Resort. Unlike the neighboring, rugged Fitzroy Island, Green Island is a 6,000-year-old coral cay with white sandy beaches and relatively flat walking trails through a tropical rainforest. Near the jetty, snorkelers can see coral, stingrays, sea turtles, schools of fish and large groupers. From a tender boat, there are trips about a mile off shore to reefs with excellent coral gardens, teeming with marine life such as turtles, white tip and black tip sharks and colorful fish species.

Take a boat from Cairns Marina to scuba dive in the greater barrier reef.
Boat leaving from Cairns marina. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Take a Day Trip to the Reef

Most visitors to Cairns intent on seeing the reef will elect at least one day trip on a large catamaran, typically stopping for an hour or more at two dive sites. On any given day, there are several thousand people venturing out on more than a dozen boats. They carry anywhere from 100 to 300 passengers each, so there’s not much opportunity for individual instruction or oversight.

For scuba divers only, boats for smaller groups are available, but that often means a more rocky ride on the ocean to get to the reefs.

For those seeking a one-on-one experience on a large boat, consider Passions of Paradise which has introduced a National Geographic Diver Program. This course program includes an introduction to the reef and discussion of what marine life divers and snorkelers are likely to see. With guides in the water, visitors take part in the Eye on the Reef Rapid Monitoring Survey which observes and counts fish species, information that is later uploaded to an international database for scientists. Although the presentation is for a young audience, the guides enthusiastically engage in conversations about reef life and threats to it.

To understand how the indigenous people experienced the reef, the Indigenous staff at Dreamtime Dive and Snorkel recounts the Dreamtime stories of the Gimuy Walubara Yidinji, Gunggandji, Mandingalbay and Yirrganydji people.

Book a liveboard with Pro Dive in Cairns in the Great Barrier Reef.
Pro Dive Cairns headquarters. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Book a Liveaboard

Most PADI divers will have investigated and booked a liveaboard adventure which varies from three nights at sea to more than two weeks. For serious divers, Cairns is the place to jump on a liveaboard and make the most of your front-row seat to the reef. Pro Dive Cairns offers a range of options with its three-day, two-night outer reef liveaboard where you’ll participate in nine day-dives and two night-dives to the world-famous Ribbon Reefs and dive sites including Cod Hole and Steve’s Bommie.

One knowledgeable operator. who books dive trips all around the world, wrote in an email, “We don’t work with any day-trip operators in Cairns. The reason being is that the inner reef of the GBR is still in pretty bad shape and doesn’t make for very good diving. We absolutely recommend a short liveaboard option to get to the outer reef and some of the better sites.” On the outer reef, one can drift to see exotic marine life such as any of the 15 species of sea snakes, a variety of reef sharks or, in winter months, experience sightings of dwarf minke whales.

Departure from the Reef Fleet Terminal at the Great Barrier Reef.
Reef Fleet Terminal. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Check In or Shop at Reef Fleet Terminal

As the pickup and drop off point in Cairns for most Great Barrier Reef tours, the Cairns Marina and surrounding wharf are the departure points for tours. The hub of water activity is the Reef Fleet Terminal across from the main pier. Looking very much like an airport check-in counter, the terminal buzzes each morning with scuba divers, snorkelers and day trippers checking in with tour operators before walking to their boats. There are also check-in booths for some multi-day live-aboard tours and the Spirit of Cairns Dinner Cruise.

For those who have not booked in advance, stop by after the morning rush to determine availability, and shop for a deal that suits your budget.

You can start by diving off from the Lizard Island.
Scuba diving off Lizard Island. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Experience the Reef at Lizard Island

For a once-in-a-lifetime experience at a luxury resort, visit Lizard Island Resort, part of Lizard Island National Park, the only continental island group close to the outer barrier reef. At the northern section of Great Barrier Reef and a few hundred miles south of Papua New Guinea, the reefs are rarely visited and as of 2024 in stellar condition.

At Anchor Bay in front of the hotel, guests can walk right into the water. On our first snorkel from the beach, we immediately saw two large turtles and manta rays. Via swimming, walking or a short dinghy ride is Watson’s Bay and the Clam Garden. Snorkel here to see dozens of large giant clams and maori wrasse in an area cordoned off from boats.

The resort staff tries hard to accommodate special requests, especially when dealing with small groups with varying skills levels and high expectations. Unfortunately for us, our long-planned trip to the Cod Hole to see large potato cod never materialized. Despite an unfavorable weather forecast, the captain gave it a go, but 15 minutes into the hour-long trek had to turn back because of fierce winds and rough seas. Nevertheless, the diving and snorkeling in the waters with warm temperatures reminded us of the reef we saw 30 years ago, but that has diminished due to storms and climate change in places closer to the mainland.

Get to the Palm Cove by The Reef House hotel after scuba diving the greater barrier reef.
Palm Cove by The Reef House hotel. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Practice Swimming at Beaches Near Cairns

Near Cairns, there are two small, quiet upscale communities – Trinity Beach and Palm Cove – that have netted off small sections of their beaches for swimming. Particularly between November and May, there is always a chance that a box jellyfish or crocodile might sneak in or around the nets. There’s free parking in each town and a surprisingly wide collection of sit-down restaurants at both beaches.

Both towns are a short drive from Cairns. Even though other transportation is available, renting a car is affordable and the drive from a rental office at the Cairns airport is easy and well marked. Be aware, however, you’ll be driving on “the wrong side of the road.”

SheBuysTravel Tip: Consider staying at Trinity Beach or Palm Cove, especially if your plans include snorkeling or diving trips from both Cairns and Port Douglas. These towns are halfway between those cities. Read our review of Palm Cove’s The Reef House, recent winner of Australian Tourist Awards 5 Star Luxury Accommodation.

You can also swim with Dolphins in Phillip Bay after scuba diving in the great barrier reef.
Dolphins in Phillip Bay. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

After the Reef, Head South to Swim with Dolphins

Nowhere in the continental United States is it permissible to swim in the wild with seals or dolphins. In Australia, swimming with these playful sea creatures is permitted under the watchful eye of licensed guides.

Should your Australia trip to the Great Barrier Reef also include spending a few days in Melbourne, consider driving about 90 minutes from the city to the very tip of the Mornington Peninsula. Leaving from the dock in Sorrento from November to April, Polperro Dolphin Swims offers daily tours of the bay, including Swim with Dolphins & Seals – Mornington Peninsula.

After climbing into wetsuits, swimmers jump aboard a small vessel with a crew of friendly boaters who have been escorting tourists for two generations. Once dolphins are spotted and appear friendly, swimmers jump in the water behind the boat, holding on to ropes and floats with dolphins cruising within feet. While dolphins can not always be spotted, seals and birds on outcroppings can be viewed on almost every voyage. Experienced snorkelers may enjoy the chance to dive below the surface with the seals who playfully interact with humans. For less experienced swimmers, guides hold a float in the water so snorkelers can float and see the seals and sea life by the outcroppings.

Cape Gannet birds usually are hanging around the seals and barely flinch until swimmers are very close. Keep an eye for these pelagic birds that gather in large groups.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Check out our Things to Do in Melbourne story which also includes information about surfing in Torquay and seeing the little penguins on Phillip Island.

R.C. Staab is a New York-based author, playwright, musical theater writer and lyricist. His latest book, New York City Scavenger: The Ultimate Search for New York City’s Hidden Treasures, was published in Spring 2023. His first book 100 Things to Do at the Jersey Shore Before You Die was published in 2020 and is now in its second printing. In 2021, he walked the entire 139-mile coastline of the Jersey Shore from Sandy Hook to Cape May the book, generating more than 200,000 views on social media. He frequently contributes to New Jersey Monthly magazine and online travel publications. He is long-time member of the Society of American Travel Writers having traveled to 49 of the 50 US States and more than 60 countries. He specializes in cultural tourism, adventure travel and historical sites. His off-Broadway musicals and plays have been produced in New York, San Francisco, England and the Midwest. He is a two-time nominee for England’s Best New Song competition. He lives in New York City with his wife, Valari, and his dog, Skye.
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