The stunning destinations of Cairns and Port Douglas are gateways to the northern reaches of the Great Barrier Reef. First-timers and divemasters alike are spoilt for choice when it comes to peeking below the surface of far north Queensland’s tropical waters.
Dive tours and trips leaving from these tourism hotspots visit four main locations:
This is a popular choice for visitors who are short on time, are trying Scuba diving for the first time, or would like to take part in activities as well as Scuba diving. Beautiful “gardens” of coral make up these accessible reefs which are scattered along the coastline, close to Cairns. They offer safe, shallow dive sites so are ideal if you’d like to try an Introductory or Discovery Scuba Dive or would like to snorkel between dives.
Top Inter-Reef Garden dive sites: Tongue Reef (from Port Douglas) and Upolu Cay (from Cairns).
Shallow water means coral will appear more vibrant and colourful and will, indeed, resemble a striking underwater garden. These gardens are also a hive of activity with brightly coloured tropical fish, giant clams and turtles. Keep an eye out for stingrays as they glide majestically over sandy patches of the ocean floor and dugongs have also been spotted feeding on the sea grass that grows in the shallow waters.
The geography of the Outer Reef varies wildly along the coastline and you’re guaranteed to see some truly dramatic seascapes. The water in the Outer Reef is deeper than the Inter-Reef Gardens and is home to hundreds more species of coral and marine life. In place of gentle gardens, expect to see mazes of canyons, towering walls of coral, deep gorges and theatrical and complex coral formations. Dive sites along the Outer Reef are favoured by experienced divers looking for diversity – in where they dive, how deep they can descend, what they’ll see and when they can dive with night diving a popular pursuit. However, the Outer Reef is still a safe and welcoming environment for newly-certified or beginner divers.
Top Outer Reef Dive sites: Agincourt Reef and Opal Reef (from Port Douglas), Michaelmas Reef and Sudbury Reef (from Cairns).
You will see a mix of reef and pelagic (deeper ocean-dwelling) fish depending on where you dive. Large Clown fish colonies populate this part of the reef and you may also spot beautify Angel and Butterfly fish as well as colourful Parrot fish and Maori Wrasse. Deeper out to sea, you may find yourself in the midst of a school of trevally.
The Far Northern Reefs take in the Ribbon Reef system which stretches along the Queensland coastline north of Port Douglas and ending at Cod Hole, home to a large family of Potato Cod. Due to the remote nature of these reefs, they are best visited as part of a liveaboard dive tour. The varied seascape of the Ribbon Reef system draws experienced divers from across the globe who are rewarded with spectacular wall dives, drift diving and exceptional underwater photography. Night dives are also a highlight with the chance to see sleeping green turtles as well as all manner of nocturnal marine life. Enormous hard coral formations rise from the ocean floor and house an abundance of coloured fish and sea creatures including giant clams that can grow to two metres across.
Top Far Northern Reef Dive sites: Ribbon Reef No. 1-10, Cobia Hole, Snake Pit and No Name Reef.
Huge schools of fish traverse the Far Northern Reefs from Big Eye Trevally and Barracuda to the famed Potato Cod. You may also witness Mackerel cutting swaths through schools of baitfish and Manta Rays gracefully arcing through the water.
If you are an experienced diver looking for a thrill, the Coral Sea is where you’ll find it. Dedicated dive boats depart Cairns and Port Douglas for five to seven-day adventures on the high seas, travelling as far as 230km from the coastline. Most tours cross the ocean at night so you wake up on your first morning in the vast Coral Sea, ready to dive. These are not tours for inexperienced divers with strong currents, deep drops, cave diving, night diving and some of the ocean’s largest creatures hallmarks of Coral Sea Scuba diving tours. You’ll dive over sheer reef drops of hundreds of metres.
Top Coral Sea Dive sites: Osprey Reef and Bougainville Reef (from Port Douglas) and Holmes Reef (from Cairns)
The Coral Sea is home to some of the oceans most majestic and fearsome creatures – sharks. You may see Grey Whalers, White Tips and Silver Tip Whalers while July is the best time to spot Hammerheads. Schools of Barracuda, Marlin and Dogtooth Tuna also populate the area. On a night dive, you may catch a glimpse of the rare Flashlight Fish as they dart between coral crevasses.
10 of the Best Scuba Diving Tours in Cairns and Port Douglas
Absolutely! There is plenty of time for you to squeeze one or two Scuba dives into most day trips departing Cairns and Port Douglas. If Scuba diving is your sole aim, consider booking a day trip on a dedicated dive boat or one best suited to experienced divers and confident swimmers. If you’re inexperienced or would like to try other activities while visiting the reef, we can help you book a tour that visits platforms or pontoons on the reef. Our aim is to help you find the most suitable day trip for maximising your time on the reef.
You certainly can! There are day trips and liveaboard tours to suit all levels of experience that depart Cairns and Port Douglas daily. Many offer Introductory or Discovery Scuba Diving for people with no experience, certification or equipment but would still like to try Scuba diving. Other tours incorporate Learn to Dive courses with guests given the chance to complete several open water dives and attain internationally-recognised diving certification. Many dive sites along the inner reef are calm, shallow and perfect for beginner divers.
We can help you tailor your Scuba diving tour according to how much time you have, what you’d like to see, whether you are an experienced or first-time diver and whether you’d like to try other activities while touring the Great Barrier Reef. Scuba diving tours fall into two categories:
A day trip usually departs Cairns or Port Douglas by 8am and visits one or two dive sites, returning to the marina by late afternoon. Some dive sites are marked by a permanent mooring which the boat ties up to – rather than drops anchor – and visitors remain on the boat unless they are diving, snorkelling or swimming. Other times, a tour boat may dock at a large permanent pontoon or platform and visitors can step off the boat and spend time on the pontoon. Often, other activities are included on the pontoon such as glass-bottom boat tours, snorkel safaris and talks by marine experts which makes them a great option for people who decide not to dive.
These overnight tours can vary in length from one night to one week and visit several different dive sites each day. The boat moors on the reef each night and visitors sleep onboard. Not only can you explore remote reefs and uncrowded dive sites but you have great flexibility to try night dives, cave dives, early morning dives and deep dives depending on your tour. These tours visit the Outer Reef, Ribbon Reef system or Coral Sea dive sites..
Port Douglas is a one-hour drive north of Cairns and Scuba diving tours depart daily from the marina, weather permitting, with most visiting the Agincourt Ribbon Reefs. These reefs are further from shore than the dive sites visited by Cairns-based tours so travel time is longer. However, the high-speed boats make short work of the journey and the destination is worth the extra travel time. The Agincourt Ribbon system comprises five individual reefs running parallel to the Continental shelf and are frequently flushed by the currents. This means you’ll enjoy clear visibility and enjoy the sensory experience of thermoclines: the feeling of both warm and cool currents washing over your body as you dive.
Cairns and Port Douglas have two distinct seasons:
However, Scuba diving in the region is still an enjoyable experience year-round. During the wet season, the water is warmer and the dive boats are less crowded. The drier months bring more tourists to the region as well as clearer water and more comfortable daytime conditions.
Water temperature along the northern stretch of the Great Barrier Reef varies throughout the year from 29 degrees Celsius in summer (December – February) to 22 degrees Celsius in winter (June – August).