About Cairns Reef Tours
Cairns is the Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef
Cairns is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. There are many ways to experience the Reef from Cairns, whether you're a swimmer or non-swimmer, diver or beginner snorkeller, travelling with family or looking for that perfect romantic escape, there's an experience to suit all budgets and requirements.
Most outer reef trips from Cairns are a full day experience including all snorkel/dive equipment and lunch plus morning/afternoon tea.
Reef Tour Family Pricing
We offer unique rates for families on all Cairns Great Barrier Reef tour experiences. Family rates are generally based on the following:
- Infants (3 Years & Under) travel free
- Children (4 - 14 years) Half Price
- Family (2 Adults & 2 Children) 1 Child travels free
Family pricing may change slightly depending on the tour options you choose. On Evolution 16 year olds are still considered children. Some dive operators do not have family rates. Please check the booking form for up to date family pricing for your group.
The Reef Fleet Terminal
The Reef Fleet Terminal is the main check-in point for all reef trips. Most Reef Operators will have a desk inside the terminal where you will check in and collect your boarding pass. The Terminal is located at 1 Spence Street Cairns, which is next to the Shangri-La Hotel at The Pier Shopping Centre.
Some reef trips board directly onto the vessel, you will be advised details on booking, along with your boarding/check in time.
Coach transfers from your accommodation can be arranged or if you're travelling with 3 or more people we recommend taking a taxi or uber as hotel transfers organised by the operators are charged per person.
Hotel Transfers & Parking
Accommodation Transfers are available for all Reef Tours. When booking you will be given the option to selct Self Drive or Select your property from a list. The prices for the transfers will vary depending on the location of your accommodation.
If you are staying at an Airbnb or private house find the closest holiday apartments or hotel and select it as your pickup point.
Parking for the Day
For self-drivers, Council parking is available at The Pier for about $10 for the day. There is also all day parking at the outdoor carparks located near the Cruise Liner Terminal on Wharf Street, about two blocks away. The price for the day is $4 and it is just a 2 minute walk along the Esplanade to the Reef Fleet Terminal & Marina.
Cairns Reef Tour Times
If you would like a later start, the latest departure from Cairns to the Outer Reef is the Great Adventures Pontoon experience departing at 10.30am with check-in at 9.45am. If you have a flight departing on the evening of your reef trip the earliest return into Cairns after an Outer Reef tour is 4.30pm with Evolution.
There is no half day outer Reef Tour option from Cairns as the closest Outer Reef is 90 minutes cruise.
When to Book
Book as early as you can. Pre-booking is essential. Cairns Reef Tours are frequently booked out. Please do not turn up without a booking on the day. Book early for school holidays and through winter as during peak times reef trips can be completely full for the next five days.
Date changes are fine as long as you give us at least 24 hours notice
Checking Availability & Booking
We offer a live connection to all the local Cairns Reef Operators. Your seat is instantly guaranteed when you book here.
Check-in & Mobile Tickets
On the day of the reef tour you will either check in at the Reef Fleet Terminal or make your way directly to the vessel at the Marlin Marina. In most cases you will not need a ticket as your name will be on the days manifest when you check in. If you need to show a ticket you can simply present the e-mail confirmation you received on your mobile device.
Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef
Snorkelling gear is included with all of our Reef Tours. Snorkeling is the best and easiest way to see the reef because 90% of its diversity occurs within 4 metres of the surface.
It doesn't take long to get the hang of it and for beginners a crew member is usually on hand to offer tuition on gear use and snorkel techniques.
Snorkelling offers all swimmers, regardless of their skill level, the opportunity to see this diverse eco-system of the Great Barrier Reef up close.
A selection of buoyancy aids (foam noodles, life jackets and wetsuits) allows you to float effortlessly over rich, colourful coral gardens, and snorkel guides are usually available to guide you through the natural maze of beautiful coral and fish and point out all the 'cool stuff'.
Introductory diving, also resort diving are dives where people without diver training or certification can experience scuba diving under the guidance of a diving instructor. Intro dives are offered on most reef tour from cairns and available anyone over 12 years. The dive usually has a duration of 20 minutes.
Participants are briefed on the way out to the reef site to ensure both an exciting and safe first dive.
Divers will love the dramatic drop offs, swim throughs and bommies. Buddy up with a dive partner, or tag along with a dive guide for a grand tour of all the best spots on the reef.
Great Barrier Reef Pontoons
There are 5 Reef Pontoons accessible from Cairns. Pontoons give you space and are suitable for all ages and especially ideal for families.
A pontoon is a spacious floating reef platform located at the outer barrier reef.
Pontoons Generally Feature, sundecks and undercover areas for relaxing and lunch, change rooms and snorkel access platforms. Glass Bottom Boat & Semi-Sub Tour departure points.
Some pontoons have built in under water observatories and special children's enclosed swimming areas. The Sunlover Moore Reef pontoon has a waterslide.
Pontoon Reef Tours offer a range of activities for swimmers and non-swimmers it means that everyone can experience the very best of the Great Barrier Reef.
Glass Bottom Boat Tours
Explore the wonders of the reef from the comfort of a glass bottom boat tour.
Hovering over beautiful coral gardens, giant clams and schools of colourful reef fish, a glass bottom boat is ideal for kids, non-swimmers and for those who are wanting to learn more about the reef.
Tours usually last around 30 minutes with a running commentary by a marine biologist. Most pontoon and island experiences include the option of taking a glass bottom boat tour.
A semi-submersible coral viewing tour treats passengers to a divers view of the coral reef and marine life.
Sitting 1m below the water level, passengers can enjoy gliding through coral gardens and along the edge of coral drop bommies spotting a huge array of colourful reef fish.
With large viewing windows and air conditioning, these semi-submersible tours provide a divers perspective of the reef in comfort and without getting wet!
Tours are usually take around 30 minutes and are fully guided by an on-board marine biologist.
Wheely Friendly Reef Tours
The Great Barrier Reef is wheely friendly from Cairns. Here are a few experiences that offer wheelchair access.
There is ramp access from the wharf to the vessel and vessel to the Marine World platform. However, passengers are required to negotiate at least one set of stairs on the vessel depending on tides and loading position so assistance may be required. The Reef Magic II catamaran has wide isles and a wheelchair accessible toilet & shower. Access to the water, coral viewing vessels, underwater observatory and sundeck all require stairs to be negotiated and would require a carer to be present if unable to walk unassisted.
Great Adventures Outer Reef
Great Adventures vessel "Reef King" does have a motorised chair lift to enable transfer between the upper and lower decks, however it is recommended that passengers have some mobility or assistance to transfer from their wheelchair. Toilets on the vessel and outer reef are not wheelchair accessible. There are ramp facilities from the vessel to the floating platform. There are no disabled facilities on the platform and the platform does have decking where wheelchair wheels may get stuck. Access to the underwater observatory, swim platforms and semi-submersible is by stairs only.
Quicksilver VIII is the most suitable vessel for wheelchair passengers, however there are occasions when this vessel may not operate which is often not known till 24 hours prior to departure, so it is recommended to reconfirm your booking prior to travel. On Quicksilver VIII there is an oversized toilet cubicle suitable for most wheelchair passengers. Quicksilver V also has a wheelchair accessible toilet. At the platform a chair lift enables disabled passengers to be lowered into the water to enjoy snorkelling. There are ramp facilities from the vessel to the floating platform, however access to the underwater observatory, swim platforms and semi-submersible coral viewing vessel is by stairs only.
Sunlover Cruises is very well set-up to accommodate wheelchairs. They have multiple entrance points onto the vessel, as well as a dedicated wheelchair table on the main deck, wheel chair ramps to get over door jams and very experienced and willing crew. In some circumstances, they may be able to offer glass bottom boat rides and even SCUBA Diving! but cannot guarantee this every time.
Reef Tours FAQ
Are there prescription lenses on boats?
Yes. Most boats have prescription lenses. Please let us know your prescription when booking so that we can make sure you have the best opportunity to see the reef.
How deep is the Great Barrier Reef?
The reef boats that you travel on will generally anchor in sheltered coral lagoons. The water on the Great Barrier Reef can be very deep however, your reef trip vessel will be moored in water up to 35 metres deep but, more likely to be about 15 metres deep.
Can I touch the bottom?
No. You will be moored in water that is too deep to stand in. Coral bommies will be close to the surface and in some cases above the surface depending on tides, however you cannot touch or stand on the Great Barrier Reef.
Do I need to be able to swim to snorkel?
All boats provide life jackets and flotation devices however it is important that you’re confident in the water. All boats do have life guards. Ideally it is best to have swimming skills to enjoy snorkelling.
When is the best time to visit the reef?
Fish and reef colours are much more vibrant on sunny days. The water in North Queensland is warm year round. Try to pick a day with low wind for the best visibility.
Can we still visit the reef when it’s raining?
Yes. The fish and coral continue to go about their daily lives. Once you are in the water you will not notice it’s raining. During wet season months between January and April we often wake up to a rain shower, or notice it rained overnight, but usually rain clears early in the day.
How long is the boat ride to the Great Barrier Reef?
Most tours to the Outer Reef from Cairns cruise for ninety minutes to get to their destination.
Do I need a wetsuit?
The waters off Cairns are quite warm. It is not necessary to wear a wetsuit when swimming and snorkelling. Water temperature is warm, between 23 and 29 degrees. Wetsuits are provided for divers on all boats.
Do I need to bring my own swimmers and towel?
Yes. The lycra suits and wetsuits are not swimsuits. Towels are not provided on any reef trips.
Can I bring my own underwater camera?
Yes. However, you cannot use it when you are doing an introductory dive.
Can I bring my drone?
No. Due to drone flight regulations you are unable to bring a drone.
Can I bring my own mask, snorkel and fins?
Yes. That’s no worries at all.
What is a pontoon?
A number of operators have a fixed steel platform that is anchored to the sea bed at their snorkel/dive site. Their boats moor up to the activity pontoon where there is usually an underwater observatory, wide stairs and lowered platforms for easy access into the water, undercover tables and chairs, changing rooms, marine life touch tank, in some cases…sunlounge on an upper floor and access to the glass bottom boat and semi-submarine tours. Pontoon trips are great for families with young children and non-swimmers. Pontoon trips only visit one destination at the outer reef.
What is a semi-submarine?
A semi-submersible or semi-submarine is a coral viewing vessel with stairs that go down into the hull where you will find seating and many windows. These semi-submersible tours usually run for around 25 minutes and cruise around bommies at the outer reef. It is an excellent insight into the underwater world without swimming or getting wet. All pontoon operators have a semi-submarine tour included in their day. Some also have a glass bottom boat additional to the semi-sub.
Is the Great Barrier Reef dead?
No. Sadly, there have been severe bleaching events on parts of the Great Barrier Reef especially in Northern areas of Cape York. However, thankfully the reefs off Cairns have been relatively lucky. Reef tour operators visit reefs that have not been damaged by bleaching events. We encourage all visitors to Australia and Australians to visit this spectacular natural beauty. After seeing the magnificent reef you will become an advocate for its diversity and beauty and only want the best for its future. The most recent bleaching was back in 2016, and the effected areas are recovering well.
Are there sharks on the Great Barrier Reef?
Yes. But they are the harmless. The sharks we see most commonly are black tip and white tip reef sharks. They are shy and harmless. These sharks will often swim away before you see them. Large sharks prefer cold water in the Southern Ocean and do not visit North Queensland.
Will I see turtles, dolphins or whales?
It is very likely you will see turtles. Dolphins are sometimes seen splashing behind the boats on the way back into Cairns. Humpback whales make an appearance in our waters between June and September. Whichever Outer Barrier Reef tour you decide to book, there is no doubt you will see a multitude of colourful marine life.
Can I swim with the dolphins?
No. We do not have a tour where you can swim with dolphins in North Queensland.
Where can I learn about the Great Barrier Reef before I go?
There is a small organisation called Reef Teach that runs talks on the reef 3 evenings a week. Many visitors highly recommend this as it gives them a richer experience once at the reef. The Cairns aquarium is also a great place to visit.
If the reef trip is cancelled due to bad weather do I get my money back?
Yes, if the reef trip is cancelled by the operator you are refunded in full.
If the weather is not good can I change the date of my trip?
Yes, but please make sure to confirm this with us the day prior. We are happy to change if there is availability and the operator is not going to penalise. It is not possible to change the date on the day unless it is at the operators suggestion.
Can I fly after diving?
It’s fine to fly in and do a dive straight away however you will need to allow 18 hours before flying after your dive.
What footwear should I wear?
Once you are on-board you will be asked to remove your shoes.
What’s included in reef trips?
All reef trips include snorkel gear, mask, fins, snorkel. A cup of tea or coffee in the morning. Lunch. Afternoon tea or coffee. The price of the trip will dictate the difference in the quality of the vessel, the quality of the gear, the quality and abundance of the lunch, morning and afternoon tea.
I get seasick. Is there a closer outer reef destination?
There are some beautiful islands with fringing reef only 45 minutes from Cairns.
Green Island is a beautiful small coral cay only a 45 minute cruise from Cairns. Formed approximately 6000 years ago by waves depositing sand onto its coral foundation, the island is protected and in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The beach is sandy and is surrounded by shallow waters. There are pretty coral gardens and sea grass beds surrounding Green Island however if you have flown to Australia to see the Great Barrier Reef in all its magnificence we do not suggest this daytrip as your only or best opportunity to view the Great Barrier Reef. However, we do suggest this is a wonderful island daytrip or holiday destination where you can soak up the magnificent tropical beauty in clean clear waters.
Fitzroy Island is only a 45 minute cruise from Cairns. Fitzroy Island is a continental island that separated from the Australian mainland about 8000 years ago. The island is surrounded by a reef system that forms part of the Great Barrier Reef. If you have flown to Australia to see the Great Barrier Reef Fitzroy Island would not be your best opportunity to see the Reef in all its magnificence. However, Fitzroy Island is a fabulous island to spend a day or a holiday in the pristine waters of the Great Barrier Reef.
Are there any half day outer reef trips?
No, but Great Adventures Outer Reef Trip that departs at 10.30am. This is the latest departure.
What does EMC stand for?
EMC is Environmental Management charge or reef tax. This charge is compulsory and paid by every visitor to the Great Barrier Reef.
Is there free parking in Cairns?
No. There is all day paid all day parking at the Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal. There is slightly cheaper all day paid parking near the Cairns Convention Centre. If you prefer convenience, there is more expensive undercover secure paid parking under the Pier Shopping Centre. Parking in Cairns is much cheaper than capital cities. Expect to pay around $10 for a day.
Will the bus pick me up from my Airbnb?
Tour coaches are unable to pick up from residential addresses. However, please let us know the address of your Airbnb and we will arrange a transfer from the nearest hotel or holiday resort.
Can I walk to the Reef Fleet Terminal/Cairns Marina from my hotel in Cairns City?
If you are staying within Cairns CBD it will be convenient to walk to the marina. Coach transfers are an additional cost and most CBD hotels are within walking distance to the Reef Fleet Terminal.
Will a dive guide dive with me? I have a dive certificate but I haven't dived in a long time.
Yes. A dive guide can be arranged if you are not feeling confident. Please let us know when booking so that we can arrange this.
Cairns Reef Tours
The Travstar Office is located just 2 minutes wald from the Reef Fleet Terminal in Cairns. Suite 101 | 27-29 Wharf St | Cairns, QLD, 4870 | Australia