How To Visit The Great Barrier Reef From Cairns

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The Great Barrier Reef From Cairns or Port Douglas

Visiting the Great Barrier Reef is on the bucket list for most visitors to Australia. However, if you don’t know the details about how and where to best see the largest reef system in the world it can be hard to know exactly what to do.

I’ve lived in Cairns for 12 years of my life so I’m quite experienced in visiting the GBR and making the most of your day trip. Whether you are a diver or snorkeller, there is no doubt you will love your time on the reef.

Diving on the Great Barrier Reef Cairns
Diving on the Great Barrier Reef Cairns

About The Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef stretches for most of the Queensland coast. The more colorful and accessible parts of the reef are directly off Cairns and Port Douglas. Cairns is 2000 kms north of Brisbane which is in itself about 1000 kms north of Sydney. Port Douglas is another 45 minutes drive north of Cairns.

The common belief that The Great Barrier Reef is all one reef couldn’t be further from the truth. Each reef is different in size, depth, quality and marine life. A change in 1 degree Celsius can make a huge difference to the marine life you will see.

While some parts of the southern zone like Heron Island are truly amazing you need to scuba dive to fully appreciate them. The beauty of Cairns and Port Douglas is that snorkeling shows you just as much as diving can in a lot of spots.

Which Boat Company Should You Go To The Reef With?

Now before you get all crazy because I said boat ABC was awesome and you had a crap experience, remember that no-one can control the weather or the other guests on the boat.

I’ve tried to be as clear as I can on why each of these trips is worth the money.

Judge for yourself.

Please remember that we lived in Cairns for 12 years and had our own boat so most of these trips I’ve done because I’ve had too many people visiting to take out on our boat, or its since we left Cairns.

If nothing I’ve explained to you helps, check out Viator’s Great Barrier Reef options. If you can’t find something there, you won’t be going!

Quicksilver Cruises

Quicksilver runs from Port Douglas and if you get the boat from Cairns you get to do the run up along the coastline to Port Douglas in the morning. It is very cool sitting with your coffee cruising past some of the nicest tropical water ways on earth.

Quicksilver is very family oriented & has a large pontoon at their main site. The coral isn’t maybe as colourful as at other points, but the pontoon is good, its a fast trip out and back, the snorkel area is clearly marked and the food is great.

The cost is higher but the facilities are there if you should need them.

Quicksilver also offer smaller boats with Silversonic running from Port Douglas and during the high season they also run Silverswift from Cairns.

Tours To The Great Barrier Reef With Quicksilver.

Other Reef Operators with a Pontoon

If you have smaller children or family members that aren’t confident in the water, an operator that has a pontoon is probably the best bet. This will allow you to be off the boat and have access to a large flat platform and shade. Snorkelling off the platforms or pontoons is easier, however you do have to be aware that because it is less experienced snorkellers, the coral can not be as good as other sites.

Try Great Adventures or Sunlover Cruises

Reef Magic

Reef Magic also have a pontoon – Marine World – but the boat is smaller so less people and a more personal experience.

Wally has got to be the drawer card of Reef Magic. He’s a HUGE Mouri Wrass and is quite a character. He has an offsider now Rocky who is almost as big I think. Wally loves getting his photo taken and will gladly glide by for a snap shot while you are snorkeling past.

Update 2023: Wally has sadly passed away so will no longer be around. Talk to the crew on Reef Magic’s boat as I’m sure Rocky is still around.

The reef is decent and seems to be a bit deeper than some of the other pontoons so is less exposed to inexperienced snorkelers standing up on it.

Ocean Spirit

Ocean Spirit has the slogan “Sail away” and you do really feel like you are. The boat is lovely, the staff great and the visit to Michaelmas Cay is a great way to spend a day on the Great Barrier Reef.

You will be spending the day with less people than Quicksilver for example, however your trip to and from the reef will take longer. In saying that thought, getting there is half the fun.

The cay is lovely and if you want to spend some time relaxing on a white sand beach lazing in shallow tropical waters, Ocean Spirit is the trip for you.

Ocean Spirit Michaelmas Cay Trip

Wally - a humphead wrasse on the great barrier reef
My nephew Noah swimming with Wally – The Maori Wrass that used to live at Reef Magic’s pontoon on the Great Barrier Reef

Some Considerations For Your Reef Trip:

Cost: it will vary wildly and isn’t always indicative of a better trip.

Boat Size: how many people to you want to spend the experience with?

The trade off with smaller boats is no pontoon, so if you are the slightest bit concerned about sea sickness, the bigger boat and pontoon might mean you enjoy the experience a lot more than a smaller boat. On the other hand the smaller boats often go to the better reefs and are often dive based so that you don’t have to be so concerned about inexperienced snorkelers standing on the coral.

Safety: With Australian Dive regulations and guidelines you should be pretty safe on any boat, however diving is a unique experience and don’t be scare to ask beforehand about who would be your dive instructor. Their experience and definitely their personality could be a contributing factor in how well you enjoy your dive.

Language: if you are not English speaking there are specific tours and boats that cater to all kinds of language requirements. German, Swedish, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, French. If you are concerned about being understood – remember the golden rule: ASK!

Location: While if this is the only time you will get to swim on the Great Barrier Reef you will have no point of comparison, the locals all know that some reefs are much better than others. Traditionally the smaller boats often go to more colourful reefs. Sometimes this is because the reef is slightly deeper so its not had any damage from snorkelers standing up on the coral. Sometimes its luck of the drawer, and it will depend on whether you want to see color or fish.

Where Not To Go: Green Island. Don’t go on a trip to Green Island thinking you are going to see amazing reef. It’s not far from the coast, so its close to get to but the reef is not good. I’m sure it’s not true, but it feels like Green Island has been sacrificed to protect the outer reef. The reef has been trodden on by so many inexperienced snorkelers that its not good. Its a nice day trip but its not good reef.

It is a great way to spend a day if you just want to get in the water and are aware that this isn’t really the barrier reef. I’ve had friends and family who have loved their day at Green Island, but I find it just too damaged.

Green Island Day Tours

Upolo Reef, The Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Upolo Reef, The Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Update – 2020 Trip

We just spent another day out the reef (I know, I know – but I LOVE it!) with Silver Spirit. Quicksilver has two other boats that are smaller boats, Silver Sonic which runs from Port Douglas and Silver Swift that runs from Cairns.

Now technically in my experience trips from Port Douglas on the smaller boats are slightly better as they go out to the ribbon reefs which are absolutely spectacular. In saying that though, we were up for my nieces wedding and went out the day after (Oh god that could have been horrific but luckily wasn’t), so we didn’t really want to get up at 5am to have time to breakfast and pick up others and get to Port, so we opted for Silver Swift that runs from Cairns.

They go to 3 reefs all about 2 mins from each other and choose the best spots each day from Flynn, Pellowe, Milne and Thetford reefs. There were 5 of us, myself, Brad, my sister, niece (21) and nephew who is 11. Both my sister and niece hadn’t been to the reef before and neither had really snorkelled at all so it was really important that they were comfortable.

I couldn’t rave enough about the Silver Swift crew. Granted the day was spectacular (which always makes everything seem more impressive) but the day was great and I think my biggest comment would be that when we were getting off the boat we couldn’t believe how many people had been on board. We just hadn’t seen them. At all. It was like the tardis!

The snorkeling was spectacular at every location, the boat is super comfortable and rides really well, the team is great, there is a great variety of food and WE FOUND NEMO!

Silver Sonic Reef Trip

Best Reef Trip If You Are Short On Time

Low Isles off Port Douglas can be amazing. I’ve done maybe 3 trips to Low Isles, one was great, one was really great and one was amazing. The best one we saw sting rays, turtles and so many super colourful fish. If you take away the stingrays and turtles – that makes a great day still.

The main benefit is that you can snorkel off the sand which makes it easy if you aren’t super confident. It also means you can laze on the beach if you just don’t feel like snorkelling any more.

Day Trips to Low Isles

Jenny Marsden - Charge The Globe
About the author

Meet Jenny, a passionate Australian travel blogger who has explored 103 countries to date. With over 30 years of travel experience, Jenny has a wealth of knowledge to share with her readers about the cultures, landscapes, and people she has encountered on her journeys. She’s always battling unfashionably frizzy hair and you will never catch Jenny in anything but comfortable shoes. Learn more about Jenny and her travels.