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Scuba Diving the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns – Is it worth it?
The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s most extensive grouping of coral reefs, consisting of nearly 3000 reefs and acting as the home for thousands more marine species.
This diverse array of coral and marine life means that scuba diving the Great Barrier Reefs is one of Australia’s most popular tourist activities, especially from the city of Cairns.
The reef is so famous that around three million people visit the site every year and is a significant contributor to the economy of the Queensland coast.
But the question remains: Is scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef actually worth the money?
Although thousands of scuba diving tours operate out of Cairns every day to support tourist demand, they usually have a hefty price tag to match.
Truth be told, scuba diving in itself is an expensive adventure sport.
Over the years, I have heard many mixed opinions about the Great Barrier Reef.
Especially when it comes to the bleaching of the coral and whether it has made this once-upon-a-time a “bucket list item”, no longer worth the money to see.
I have also scuba dived in the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns multiple times, so will share some of my own personal experiences as well.
But first, let’s cover off some of the basic facts you should know about the Great Barrier Reef.
- Scuba Diving for Beginners | My Top Tips & How to Dive Safely in Australia
- Adventure Travel to Queensland
All You Need to Know About the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns
The Great Barrier Reef is located in the aptly named Coral Sea found off the east coast of Australia. It was the first coral reef recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1981 and is one of the world’s most extensive ecosystems.
The reef stretches over 2,300 kilometres of coastline and can even be seen from space! However, the best way to view this natural marvel is strap on your scuba gear and descend under the waves.
The Great Barrier Reef is a vast composite reef that is made up of approximately 2,900 unique reef formations that can range in size from anywhere between 1 hectare to a staggering 100,000 hectares.
This is why I don’t believe anyone can truly say that as a whole, the Great Barrier Reef is not worth visiting. T
here are just so many different pockets and reefs to explore.
It is currently estimated that over 1,500 different species of fish have made their home in the Great Barrier Reef, representing at least 10% of the known species of fish in the world.
Other common marine animals found in the Great Barrier Reef include dolphins, whales, dugongs, manta rays, marine turtles and many more.
Thanks to its proximity to the Great Barrier Reef, the city of Cairns is one of the best cities in Australia to explore this fantastic underwater paradise.
Its location off the coast of Queensland, its fantastic marine tourism industry and its sheer size make it the perfect destination for adventurous scuba divers.
It is even a great place for beginner divers wanting to tick one of the world’s greatest dive sites off their bucket list.
Where is the Best Place to Dive the Great Barrier Reef?
Some of the best scuba diving spots in the world are around Australia.
Given the HUGE size of the Great Barrier Reef, it can be hard to narrow down where the best place to dive the Great Barrier Reef is.
Your experience can also depend on the time of year/season you go and the ocean currents. These factors can impact your visibility underwater as well as the types of marine life you see.
So in summary, the “awesomeness” of your scuba diving adventure could come down to good luck.
To help you improve your likelihood of having an amazing experience scuba diving, we have listed the top five dive spots in the Great Barrier Reef near Cairns.
- 33 Best Places to Go Scuba Diving in Australia (Outside of the Great Barrier Reef)
- Scuba Diving in Western Australia | The 6 Best Dive Sites Along the West Coast
5) Hasting Reefs
Located about 50 kilometres from Cairns, Hasting Reefs is set on the Outer Edge Reef, where the Great Barrier Reef began nearly 15,000 years ago.
Spanning a ten square kilometre patch of ocean, Hasting Reefs encompasses a breath-taking collection of corals and wildly exotic fish.
The average depth is around 13 meters deep and so it is the perfect location for both beginners and experts, with plenty of beautiful coral gardens as well as a network of cave systems that make the region feel diverse.
4) Flynn Reef
Flynn Reef is one of Australia’s most diverse dive locations and is home to many well-known dive sites, including Tracy’s Boomie, Tennis Court, Coral Gardens and Gordon’s Mooring.
It is located around 60km from Cairns and divers who visit this fantastic reef will discover an abundance of marine life including:
- Nemo-like clownfish
- Turtles and
- White-tip reef sharks
With an average dive depth of 13 meters, the site is also excellent for beginners, while the unique range of wall dives on the edge of the reef allows for some more advanced dive types.
Scuba divers to this site will be able to enjoy thousands of unique coral species spread across the ocean floor all year round.
However, when visiting the reef from November to December, you will see the corals during their annual spawning, a spectacular sight.
If you are a more experienced diver, you can visit Flynn Reef on a night dive when marine life is more active and you can see barracudas and sharks feeding.
3) Norman Reef
Located 80 kilometres from Cairns, Norman Reef is one of the most visited scuba diving destinations in the country.
The reef is well known for its crystal-clear blue waters and the coral gardens are home to a fascinating collection of colourful coral species and unique sea creatures.
The reef varies from a depth of 10 to 20 metres, with a sheltered western side that is great for beginners, while the extensive caves provide a more challenging experience for veterans.
Norman Reef is considered an excellent dive location because of its unique marine life including spot turtles, eels, manta rays and more.
2) Cod Hole
Located roughly 96 kilometres north of Cairns, the Cod Hole is part of the string of narrow reefs known as the Ribbon Reefs.
Cod Hole is one of the most famous dives in the world thanks to its population of enormous and curious potato cod, which can rival a person in size.
The Cod Hole is perfect for all levels of scuba divers and its depth varies from 10 to 30m with gentle currents, making it one of the Great Barrier Reefs best dive locations.
The variation in depths and unique current patterns means that visitors to Cod Hole can discover:
- Giant clams
- Moray eels
- Pygmy seahorses and even
- Minke whales in the winter months.
Heading to the edge of this reef will bring a diver to the start of the open ocean and is a great location to spot dolphins and even sharks.
1) Eddy Reef
One of the Great Barrier Reefs more challenging locations, Eddy Reef is found 118 kilometres from Cairns.
All dives to this site begin by dropping you off at the edge of the reef from where you will catch the powerful current that takes you on a whistle-stop tour of this fantastic site.
Admire some of the oceans most impressive fish species such as:
- Black-tip reef sharks
- Coral trout
- Cod, and
- Groupers (who will dash through the flowing current with you).
Once you have had enough of your current-propelled tour dip into the protected curve of this fantastic site and relax in gentler waters where you can spot sand sharks nestled among the coral.
Divers exploring this reef will find a maze of ridges that range in depths from 10 to 20 meters and are covered in beautiful colours and patterns.
The reefs strong current and significantly sized inhabitants make it a popular location for many who are hoping to enjoy scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef.
So, is it Worth Scuba Diving in the Great Barrier Reef?
In my opinion, the Great Barrier Reef is still 100% worth a visit, even if to just tick it off your bucket list.
Although it has received a bad rep globally for being impacted by coral bleaching and the crown-of-thorns starfish, your experience will really depend on when and where you go. After all, there are so many different reefs to explore!
Personally, I’ve had mixed experiences scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns.
I have had moments where I’ve been in complete “awe” swimming alongside graceful sea turtles, and others where I’ve felt extremely disappointed because the visibility was sh**.
Personally, I feel that you just have to go there to experience it yourself and with the intention of making the most of it – even if one or two dives don’t quite reach your expectations.
If you visit a dive site at the right time of the year, you could have the chance to see playful fish or even roaming pods of whales!!
The Best Tours for Discovering the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns
Given the size of the Great Barrier Reef, it’s almost impossible to know where to go and how to get to the most popular dive sites when on your own.
Thankfully there are a variety of excellent excursions and day tours that operate out of Cairns.
To help you find the perfect trip, we have compiled a list of the best tours to go snorkelling or scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef.
This full-day experience is designed for snorkelers and takes you on a fantastic tour of the Great Barrier Reef and Green Island.
Climb aboard the modern, air-conditioned catamaran the Reef Rocket and cruise out to a number of the Great Barrier Reefs best dive sites, where you can enjoy snorkelling amongst the lush coral reefs.
If you don’t desire getting wet, you can simply admire the view from the glass-bottomed catamaran or book a remarkable submersible tour.
Your tour will visit the lush tropical Green Island, which is located in the heart of the reef, and you can end your day relaxing on the idyllic beach after your day out over this stunning reef.
Time: 6 Hours
- Catamaran cruise
- Glass-bottom boat
- Snorkelling equipment
- Island rainforest boardwalk
- Lunch (if booked)
- Semi-sub tour (if booked)
NOTE: This tour does not include hotel pick up.
Price: $99 AUD p/p
The Green Island is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Barrier Reef because of its lush tropical rainforest, rich coral gardens and exceptional facilities.
This tour will take you out to the island on a modern air-conditioned boat for a combined reef and rainforest tour.
Enjoy the fantastic views as you sail out across the reef and listen to an informative coral viewing tour led by a local guide on your glass-bottomed boat.
If you prefer a more up-close experience, you can use the tour’s snorkelling equipment to explore the island’s unique coral gardens.
Whether you are looking for adventure or simply looking for some island relaxation, you’ll be spoilt for choice on the Green Island.
Take time to explore the island’s lush rainforest with a leisurely self-guided walk, relax on the beach or visit the islands unique crocodile habitat.
Visitors can take advantage of an abundance of optional activities including:
- Scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef
- Using a “Seawalker” helmet to walk on the ocean floor
- Kayaking around the island’s beaches or even
- Taking a scenic helicopter flight over the reef
The Green Island is one of the best places to spend a fantastic day out discovering the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns as it has superb facilities that include a pool bar, dive shop, restaurants and more!
Time: 5 to 7 hours
- Return transfers by air-conditioned catamaran from Cairns
- Morning tea and coffee served until departure from Cairns
- Choice of glass-bottomed coral reef viewing boat tour or snorkelling equipment
- Exclusive use of the island swimming pool for Great Adventures guests
- Self-guided eco island walk
- Use of Green Island Resort’s day visitor facilities
Price: $102 AUD p/p
**Note: This tour departs from Mission Beach NOT Cairns
This tour is perfect for those wanting to try scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef as you will get to discover two fantastic dive locations.
Start your tour by heading out on the stunning MV Reef Goddess and keep an eye out for pods of dolphins leaping from the surface of the water.
After you arrive at your first dive site, you will be able to enjoy an hour-long underwater experience with a seasoned dive instructor, where you can explore the vast coral landscapes of the Great Barrier Reef.
After your first dive, enjoy a BBQ style lunch that is served with fresh fish, shrimps, tropical fruits and more while lounging on the deck of your beautiful private ship.
Your final dive will take place at another unique coral garden in the Great Barrier Reef and will allow you to get up close with the thousands of marine species that call this vast ecosystem home.
On your return journey home, you can purchase drinks from the ships fully licensed bar and relax as the sun sets over the ocean.
Time: 8 hours
- Snorkel briefing, equipment, and a stinger suit in season
- Scuba instructor and equipment
- Tea and espresso coffee
- Fresh muffins in the morning
- Buffet lunch, BBQ, salads, prawns, bread rolls, fruit
- Kids club on the way home
NOTE: This tour does not cover the $8.00 Reef Tax, which is payable upon arrival.
Price: $190 AUD p/p
Scuba Diving the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns – Is it worth it?
In my opinion, yes. Although there are some parts of the reef which are said to be disappointing (due to coral bleaching etc), the Great Barrier Reef is HUGE!
There are still many great dive sites to enjoy along the Great Barrier Reef, especially off the coast of Cairns.
Each person’s experience will be unique and depends on seasonality, water currents, level of diving experience and the dive site visited.
If you do find yourself disappointed with your first dive (eg. coral not as colourful as you expected), I highly recommend doing a second and even third drive at a different location.