How to visit the Great Barrier Reef – Tours from Cairns, Queensland

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How do you visit the Great Barrier Reef, a true wonder of the world that is 2,300km long?

That’s a natural wonder the same length from Vancouver to the Mexican border, consisting of 900 islands and 2,900 individual reefs. Yep, it’s the world’s largest coral reef and the largest living structure on the planet. So amazing it can be seen from outer space.

Yes. Any wonder it’s a wonder.

Considering all the travel Craig and I have done over the years it’s also a wonder it took us nearly 40 years to experience one of our country’s natural icons.

It’s been at the top of our bucket list for years and we were determined to experience it in the best way we could with our kids on this road trip around Australia.

I wasn’t sure if The Great Barrier Reef would match it’s hype, but it did, in a less glamorous but more curious and awe-inspiring way.

Moore Reef in the Outer Great Barrier Reef - Credit:
Moore Reef in the Outer Great Barrier Reef – photo by

Our day tour from Cairns pulled up in the middle of the ocean at Marine World on the Outer Great Barrier Reef. It was windy and choppy and there was a bit of a swell – not the calm, pristine conditions I’d seen in the brochure.

I felt a little sinking fear and disappointment thinking I wouldn’t even see this magical world under the ocean because there was no way I was getting in.

It all looked a little too out of my comfort zone.

Kalyra grabbed my hand, “Come on Mum, let’s go.“ She’s not even a confident or strong swimmer. Of course I could not let her go on her own, so on the count of three we held hands and slipped off the edge and onto the reef.

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia


We turned to each other under the water giving thumbs up, holding hands and pointing out parrot fish eating at the coral and giant purple clams.

It was a moment.

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef

Giant purple clam - Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia

It’s a good thing a snorkel was in my mouth as I had no words that could describe how wonderful it felt to be swimming above brightly coloured coral and rainbow coloured fish with stripes and spots, snouts and outs, beaks and flapping fins.

A great big Maori Wrasse called “Wally” swam right up to the snorkelers as soon as we dived in the water.

He was smiling to see the return of his daily friends and his body twisted and snaked between our legs, his big lips pouting in front of our faces as he came up for a peak.

Meet "Wally" the big Maori Wrasse we met on the Great Barrier Reef
“Wally” the big Maori Wrasse we met

Kalyra and I squealed as we saw him approach. At this stage I was still trying to get over the awe-struck feeling I had about my six-year-old daughter.

Then she pried herself away to snorkel on her own.

It blew me away how confident she was and I soon let go of my fear to just enjoy myself. Even when we swam on the outskirts of the reef over the deeper water she kept beaming and pointing and not letting the abyss scare her as much as it scared me.

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia
Kalyra snorkeling by herself

Which Great Barrier Reef tours are best?

There are many different options to experience the Great Barrier Reef and from various locations along the Queensland coast.

First, let’s talk about the main gateway to the reef – Cairns!

We’d been in Cairns for about a week and were researching day tours. We asked some locals at the Caravan Park we were staying at, checked in with our facebook community and jumped online to Trip Advisor do more research.

We’d always wanted to go to the Outer Reef, because that’s where the best snorkeling and diving is. You might only visit the Reef once, you will want to see it at it’s best!

Tours range from small boats where you dive or snorkel off the boat, to bigger tours where you moor at a pontoon and from there participate in many different activities.

The pontoon experience

Because we have two young kids, Kalyra was six at the time and Savannah only two, we decided the pontoon experience would be most practical. We didn’t fancy being stuck on a boat all day with our young ones, it would have been stressful and gaining access to the water would have been tricky.

We chose the pontoon experience at Marina World based out at Moore Reef with Reef Magic Tours. After researching, we’d heard they were probably the best for families. The family price was going to cost us $495, but hey it’s the Great Barrier Reef and it’s Australia.

You can book your tours here.

The pontoon was a great choice.

Marine World - Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia
Marine World at Moore Reef

After our 90-minute high-speed catamaran ride out from Cairns our vessel moored at Marine World and we jumped on the pontoon.

It gave us all room to move around without being confined to a boat. Plus the stairs that lead down from the main deck to a submerged snorkel platform allow you to sit down and put on your mask and fins, making it easy to slide into the water.

Great Barrier Reef Queensland Australia (1)

Marine World at Moore Reef

The all-weather Marine World platform caters for all activity levels and was a great base for the day.

We had our own table and chairs on the sundeck, use of fresh water showers and changing rooms and lockers, and a yummy morning/afternoon tea plus a full buffet lunch.

The best part was the confidence Kalyra got by snorkeling in the sheltered coral lagoon. The snorkel area is supervised at all times, they had snorkeler rest stations scattered around if you needed a break in the water, and we could clearly see the bottom at all times.

Marine World - Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia
Sheltered coral lagoon at Marine World

Introductory Scuba Dive

If’ you’re going to visit the Great Barrier Reef you’ve gotta do a dive right?!

Craig decided this was a once-in-a-lifetime moment and put his hand up for an introductory dive. This was going to be only his second time ever diving, his first being another introductory dive two years ago at Shelley Beach in Manly, Sydney.

On the way out to Marine World, his instructor introduced the equipment and briefed him on the basics of scuba diving.

For $125 he got a 30-minute dive with an instructor and just one other person. Intro dives have no more than 4 people per instructor making it reassuring for any first timers.

Craig ready to dive
Craig ready to dive

He loved it.

His dive reached a maximum of about 8 metres but was mostly hovering around the 4-5 metre level in the beautiful coral lagoon, a sheltered area with dense coral cover and a ton of fish life, including some time swimming with big WALLY!

“It’s another world down there, I can definitely see the addiction to diving” he beamed.

Of course he had to take the compulsory selfie:

Scuba Diving the Great Barrier Reef - Queensland, Australia
Craig with a big thumbs up!

Not only did we snorkel and dive, but we were able to see more of the reef on a glass bottom boat and a semi-sub.

The semi-sub gave me the closest thing to a dive experience. Getting closer to the outer part of the reef where all the big schools of fish were was awesome without me being in the water worried about the sharks waiting to eat the big schools of fish!

Great Barrier Reef - Queensland, Australia
semi-sub on the outer wall of Moore Reef – credit
Great Barrier Reef

We loved our family day out on the reef.

For those who want to stay dry Marine World also has an underwater observatory or you can kick back on the sundeck and maybe get a little pampering from the only reef-based massage therapist.

Even though little Savannah is too young to snorkel she had a little swim and could paddle in the purpose built toddler area attached to the side of Marine World.

If you or your family are heading to Cairns Marine World is a great option. Besides what we did, Reef Magic Cruises also have an adventure snorkel safari and certified diving packages.

You can also book some ReefQuest snorkeling and dive tours here. 

The other major tour operators out of Cairns include Quicksilver and Reef Experience.

The Great Barrier Reef Islands

It’s not just about the beauty of what’s under the water, but the islands that are a part of the Great Barrier Reef – many of which have been created by the coral itself.

It’s worth exploring some of the islands to get the whole experience. Here are a few other Great Barrier Reef Islands that we’ve explored.

Green Island

Green Island - Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Green Island – image by Great Adventures

We also spent the day on Green Island before doing the Marine World experience, located 45 minutes by boat from Cairns.

It’s a sand island and is great for a relaxing day and for families. This was the first place Kalyra snorkeled and she loved seeing a few fish and stingrays!

You can snorkel straight off the shore and we felt the area near the jetty was much better than snorkelling off the patrolled beach. There’s also a nice boardwalk through the forest to the other side of the island, and whilst the kiddies played in the water I enjoyed a massage.

There are three daily departure times and our family ticket cost us $215 and we went with Great Adventures.

Book your tour to Green Island here. 

Green Island - Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia

Snorkeling at Green Island - Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Whitsunday Islands

Hill Inlet - Whitehaven Beach, Queensland, Australia

I think the best islands of the Great Barrier Reef region are in the Whitsundays. How can you compete with world famous Whitehaven Beach which consistently ranks as one of the top 5 beaches in the world by TripAdvisor?

The photos don’t even really show how amazingly beautiful it is when you are standing in the softest, purest, whitest sand on the planet.

Whitehaven Beach - Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

There’s pretty good snorkelling around the islands as well at Langford IslandMaureens Cove and Manta-Ray Bay.

Manta Ray Bay
Manta Ray Bay

Read more – Exploring Whitehaven Beach and the Whitsunday Islands

Hayman Island

If you’ve got deep pockets and want a bit of rock star experience, stay at Hayman Island. Just ensure you arrive by helicopter via Whitehaven Beach, an unforgettable moment. You can also access famous “Heart Reef” from Hayman.

Hayman Island, Queensland, Australia
Hayman Island
Hayman Island Resort Pool, Queensland, Australia
Hayman Island

Book your stay at the Intercontinental Hayman Island Resort here.

Daydream Island

There is, of course, Daydream Island off Airlie Beach, which many consider a bit kitsch, but even though we only stayed for 24 hours I really liked it. It’s a definite family or couples resort holiday that will give you nothing but fun activities, beautiful scenery, and relaxation.

In just 24 hours we did snorkeling, paddle boarding, kayaking and got close up with stingrays and baby sharks at their education centre. The sunsets are pretty spectacular too!

I’m all for it.

Daydream Island - Queensland, Australia
Daydream Island
Daydream Island - Queensland, Australia
Kalyra on Daydream Island
Daydream Island - Queensland, Australia
Daydream Island sunset

If you’re looking to experience the Great Barrier Reef, don’t wait 40 years like we did. With the way the environment is going and the role of Governments, it may have already seen it’s best days.

We can’t wait to go back and do more diving and snorkeling.

Plan Your Trip to Cairns

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Tours from Cairns and the GBR

Have you visited the Great Barrier Reef? What are your best tips for tours from Cairns to the GBR?

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Need advice on how to visit the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns, or along the Queensland coast? Check out our 5 different experiences.

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31 thoughts on “How to visit the Great Barrier Reef – Tours from Cairns, Queensland”

  1. FUN! We were there over Easter and yeah, decided to splurge on a reef trip with one of the slightly pricier tour operators (didn’t want to be on one of those 150+ people boats). My husband also did an intro scuba dive and LOVED it. Only downside: was a little bit rough that day and a LOT of people were seasick. (Wrote about our experience here:

    1. It’s one of those activities that’s definitely worth splurging on. Especially if you’re going to make the effort to visit from overseas, you may as well go all in. And yeah, not a fan of overcrowded boats.

  2. I love the GBR! I haven’t been to any of the islands, though, and I’d love to spend a heap more time up there. I highly recommend taking a helicopter over the reef, too. It’s on the expensive side of things (obviously) but was 100% worth it for me. You get a totally different perspective of the reef from up there.

    1. Helicopter flights are always amazing. We did one over Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsunday Islands a few years ago. Incredible. Would love to do on over Heart Reef in the GBR!

  3. My wife and I love to snorkel. In Hawaii, you can just park your car, walk down the beach and enter the water where there are tons of fish and corral. We’ve snorkeled with sea turtles, manta rays, and a rainbow of fish and it’s all free. The GBR sounds amazing, but it seems like it is also and expensive way to see sea life. Still…you make it sound very appealing.

  4. People always ask me why I love Australia so much and there are so many reasons why. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to see the barrier reef as of yet – but I am hoping to see it the next time I come back to visit 🙂 It looks like you have had such an amazing family holiday though xo

  5. Kate (@AdventureMumma)

    We love having the Great Barrier Reef on our doorstep BUT like a lot of locals we don’t go out as often as we should. One trip you will always find a good mix of locals on is the Green Island tour (wrote about it here: – and i agree with you about the jetty area – it is definitely the best place to see underwater critters – 6 turtles was my son’s tally!!!

  6. Life Images by Jill

    Ok I’m sold. We have yet to visit Queensland, but it is on our must do list. Will get there sometime in the next couple of years I hope. Thanks for the great post.

  7. Love this blog! its great to hear people sharing their reef experiences, there are so many different tours out to the reef it can be confusing chosing one.
    The Reef Magic pontoon is great for families and the smallest of the pontoons (the others are about double the size!)
    Also a great budget option for families is Fitzroy Island. Its not as well know and not as commercialized, just natural beauty!
    If anyone needs help choosing a tour, we’ve written a blog “Cairns Tours – how to choose one that’s right for you”

      1. Hi Debbie, We’re not a booking or travel agent. This is just a personal blog where we share our experiences. You’d have to check with the tour operators.

  8. louisa klimentos

    Have you been to hinchenbrook island off the coast of far north queensland?It is the largest national park island in the world

  9. Thanks so much for your wonderful blog! What kind of camera did you use for your underwater photos? I’m trying to get one for my upcoming trip to the GBR and your photos are wonderful. Thanks!

  10. Kenneth Karl Nielsen

    Such great photos.
    During my last and only visit to Australia I never got to visit the Great Barrier Reef.
    Articles like this – makes me want to go back to Australia as soon as possible.

  11. Great guide =) and such amazing photos of hill inlet everytime ive been there it has been over cast and grey. reading this definitely makes me want to go back soon. I found some other good snorkeling ideas on this website i definitely thought it was worth checking out.

    1. I think you can still do it. They are very good at taking care of people and may have safety floatation devices you can use. I”d reach out and contact the tour company to see.

  12. Hi
    Excellent blog about GBR. We are planning to go there in ocotber school holidays (1/10/to 8/10), how warm is the water during october ?

  13. Hi
    Awesome blog, thank you for sharing your experience. What is the best month to visit Cairns and the GBR?

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