How to Visit The Great Barrier Reef From Cairns: Tours & Tips for 2023

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The Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven natural wonders of the world and one of the main reasons to visit Australia.

It’s the same length from Vancouver to the Mexican border, consisting of 900 islands and 2,900 individual reefs.

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.

But how do you visit the Great Barrier Reef? A true wonder of the world that is 2,300km long?

aerial view of the Great Barrier Reefs in the ocean
Moore Reef in the Outer Great Barrier Reef – photo by ReefMagicCruises.com

For us, and many other people, a visit to the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns has been a bucket list for years.

During our 18-month road trip around Australia, we were determined to experience it in the best way we could with our kids.

In this guide, we have shared our tips for visiting the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns in Tropical North Queensland, including the different tours you can take and how to get there.

How to Visit the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns

The Great Barrier Reef is located a short boat ride from Cairns and the number one day trip you can take.

The only way to see the GBR is by taking a boat, of course, it’s located out in the ocean. If you don’t have the luxury of your own boat, you’re going to need to find one.

Most people opt for a Great Barrier Reef tour from Cairns because it’s the cheapest and most convenient way to see it in a day.

It’s possible to charter your own boat and do it yourself. With this, you can reach the outer reef locations, choose your own cruise itinerary, and have all the crew working for you.

Sounds lovely, right? But it’s also expensive. Not only because it’s more luxurious but because most private boat charters can only be rented for week-long cruises (they need to make it worth their while).

You can charter a private boat from the Cairns Visitor Centre, which can help you organise Luxury Gameboats, Motor Yachts, and Sailing Yachts.

For the rest of us with a modest budget, the only other way to see the Barrier Reef is by taking one of the Great Barrier Reef tours from Cairns.

Our Experience Visiting The Great Barrier Reef from Cairns

mother and child with snorkels on head about to get in the water

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

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.

mother and daughter holding hands giving the camera the peace sign while snorkeling. Snorkeling

Wow.

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.

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.

young girl snorkeling above the water at the Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia
Kalyra snorkeling by herself

Which Great Barrier Reef Tours From Cairns Are Best?

There are many different ways to experience the Great Barrier Reef 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 to do more research.

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

Here are the best Great Barrier Reef tours from Cairns…

1. The Pontoon Experience

Marine World pontoon in the ocean surrounded by reef.
Marine World at Moore Reef

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.

The pontoon was a great choice.

young girl swimming in cage pool in the middle of the ocean

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.

2. Marine World at Moore Reef Tour

pontoon Marine World on the edge of the reef
The sheltered coral lagoon at Marine World

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

We had our own table and chairs on the sundeck, use of freshwater 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.

3. Introductory Scuba Dive Tour

Craig ready to dive in his gear
Craig ready to 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.

He got a 30-minute dive with a certified diver instructor and just one other person. Intro dives have no more than 4 people per instructor making it reassuring for any first-timers.

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:

man holding up cairns licencse plate while scuba diving
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 reef sharks waiting to eat the big schools of fish!

We didn’t see any sea turtles, but they are sometimes known to swim in these waters, too!

boat on the edge of the reef
Semi-sub on the outer wall of Moore Reef – credit ReefMagicCruises.com

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.

schools of small fish swimming over coral
credit: ReefMagicTours.com

4. Ocean Freedom Tour from Cairns + Glass Bottom Boat Tour

If you don’t want to get out of the boat and go swimming, and yet you want to see all the beautiful marine life of the GBR, then a glass-bottom boat tour might be for you.

You’ll travel on a fast and comfortable catamaran to one of the outer reefs, Upolu Reef. From here, you can look for marine life such as giant clams from a glass bottom boat.

The Upolu Cay area is highly protected and is one of the no-fishing zones on the reef, so you’ll be able to see lots of little fish happily swimming in the corals.

After that, the tour takes you to the natural Coral Cay, where you can get in the waters and snorkel or dive with the fish. Some former guests have said they were able to see turtles and reef sharks on this tour.

5. Scenic Helicopter Flight

aerial view of the great barrier reef

For all your non-swimmers out there, you can still experience the wonders of The Great Barrier Reef from Cairns by taking a scenic helicopter flight.

This is a great way to see the magnitude and enormity of the reef, and if you’re lucky, you might even get a glimpse of the ocean wildlife from above.

Soar above the turquoise blue waters, fly over the rainforest and be marveled at the scenes below.

Keep your eyes peeled for whales, dolphins and more!

6. Quicksilver Cruises

Quicksilver Cruises are one of the biggest and most highly-rated tour operators in Cairns. The offer the chance to cruise the GBR on a luxury 30-meter (99-foot) Wavedancer sailing catamaran, which takes you around the idyllic Great Barrier Reef island of Low Isles.

This is a more relaxing day trip on the GBR and is suitable for couples and families with older kids, who enjoy peace and quiet.

The Low Isles are an unspoiled coral cay island with calm waters, turquoise lagoons, and a thriving reef.

On this tour, you are also introduced to the reef by a marine biologist who will give you the information you need to visit the reef safely and see the reef with informed eyes. 

There’s also an option to see the turtles from a glass-bottomed boat.

This tour leaves from Port Douglas, but a luxury coach from Cairns can be provided at the time of booking.

7. Passions of Paradise Tours

side view of yacht on the ocean

Another popular Great Barrier Reef Tour from Cairns is by Passions of Paradise, a top-rated tour operator in Cairns.

This tour offers a chance to snorkel or scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef on a luxury catamaran.

POP has access to more than 26 areas on the outer Great Barrier Reef and so no two days are the same. Each day they will visit an area that is best suited to that day, based on the sea and weather conditions.

You’ll get the chance to dive with their experienced crew and view the reef that’s alive with marine life and corals.

8. Ocean Walker Helmet Dive Tour

Want to visit the Great Barrier Reef in style? Then how about a helmet dive tour?

Helmet diving is where you wear a specially designed helmet that allows you to breathe underwater by a tube with oxygen. This allows you to walk on the ocean floor and concentrate on the views, rather than breathing.

On this tour, you will visit the stunning Green Island, an island off the Great Barrier Reef. From here, you will be able to choose between a glass bottom boat coral viewing tour, snorkeling from the beaches, or scuba diving – as well as the helmet dive experience.

Make sure you spend some time exploring the island too. Visit the Marineland Melanesia crocodile habitat or head to one of the resorts to swim in the pool or eat at the restaurant.

9. Combo Tours of The Great Barrier Reef from Cairns

family looking out over ocean from the daintreerainforest at Alexandra Lookout

If you’re looking for more than a full-day tour of the barrier reef and want to see some other parts of Cairns, it’s possible to book a three-day tour that combines a visit to the GBR and some other popular attractions in Cairns.

On this three-day tour, you will experience the UNESCO Great Barrier Reef with an introductory dive. If you don’t want to dive, you can opt to snorkel instead.

On the second day, you’ll head over to another UNESCO heritage site and one of our favorite attractions in Cairns, the Daintree Rainforest, which is the world’s oldest continuously surviving rainforest.

The third and final day will take you above the forest floor and into the canopy, as you experience the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway before heading to the village of Kuranda and back on the historical Kuranda Scenic Railway.

This is a hassle-free way to explore some of the best nature spots of Cairns, which is great for families.

Other Places To Visit The Great Barrier Reef

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

aeiral view of Green Island
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.

sandy beach on Green Island with no one onit
woman and two girls posing with peace signs on a beach

Whitsunday Islands

the swriling white sand and green waters of Whitehaven Beach View from Hill Inlet -

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.

ripples in the white sand at Whitehaven Beach

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

peopel snorkeling Manta Ray Bay
Manta Ray Bay

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.

private beach with palm trees Hayman Island, Queensland, Australia
Hayman Island
luxurious swimming pool Hayman Island Resort Pool, Queensland, Australia
Hayman Island

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.

private beach on Daydream Island - Queensland, Australia
Daydream Island
young girl holding baby shark
Kalyra on Daydream Island
sunset on the beawch with sillouhette palm trees.
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.

FAQs About Visiting The Great Barrier Reef From Cairns

Here’s what people usually ask us about visiting The Great Barrier Reef from Cairns…

Can you get to the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns?

Yes, absolutely. Cairns is the best place to visit The Great Barrier Reef and is considered the gateway. There are many dive and snorkel tours leaving here each day, and you can also charter your own boats if you want to do it without a tour.

How long does it take to get to the Barrier Reef from Cairns?

It depends on where you visit on the reef, but generally, you can reach the reef within 30 minutes from Cairns.

Is it better to see the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns or Port Douglas?

This is the age-old question. The truth is, both places are great places to see The Great Barrier Reef from. Cairns is a bigger city and has more options in the way of tours, whereas Port Douglas is small and laid back and offers a more relaxing experience.

What city is closest to the Great Barrier Reef?

Cairns is the closest city to The Great Barrier Reef which is why it’s considered the gateway.

Before You Go

So there you have it, this is how you can visit the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns, and as you can see, there are a lot of tours available and each of them offers something different and unique.

We hope this guide has helped you narrow down your options and decide which is the best way to visit the GBR from Cairns for your trip.

Before you go, we just want to remind you to wear reef-safe suncream. Unfortunately, many sunscreens harm the coral reef and marine life, so if you plan to swim, please make sure you apply reef-safe sun cream to keep this thriving reef alive.

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

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