Last Updated on March 17, 2021 by worldoftravelswithkids
If you are heading to Queensland, you are likely asking yourself, “how can I best experience the Great Barrier Reef”? Or if you are heading to Far North Queensland, you are likely asking, “where is the best snorkeling in Cairns” or “what are the best cruises to the Great Barrier Reef”?
Here we have tried to break down the Great Barrier Reef into two main areas:
(We know this is a bit simplistic, but hey, everyone has got to start somewhere!)
- Around Cairns (this includes Port Douglas and Cape Tribulation)
- South of Cairns (eg, from Townsville south)
Once you have picked your location, there are quite literally hundreds of Great Barrier Reef tours and excursions. Some of the best include snorkeling in Cairns!
This post may contain affiliate links, from which we would earn a small commission, at no extra cost to you. More info in my disclaimer.
Which Great Barrier Reef Tour Is For Me
Look at your traveling party and consider what will work for them. Have you got small kids, the grandparents, people who are not confident swimming – maybe someone who gets seas sick? Of course, if you are a couple who are both certified scuba divers it is going to make it much easier to decide which reef tours are for you!
If you are interested in why the Great Barrier Reef is so important, why not check out our fascinating Facts About The Great Barrier Reef.
Questions To Ask Your Tour Operator About Great Barrier Reef Tours
- What destinations / or locations does the tour travel to?
- What can you see at this destination? For example, the outer reefs are typically more colorful and less damaged than the closer reefs but require more time traveling on a boat.
- Will I be visiting an island or coral cay, or will I be visiting a pontoon?
- How will I be traveling to the reef? Catamarans, sailboats, and even helicopters are options.
- How long will be spent traveling? For example, some of the faster speed boats take just 15 minutes, the large high-speed catamarans 90 minutes, or sailing yacht several hours!
- How long will we able to spend snorkeling on the reef/doing activities at the reef?
- What activities do you offer? For example, if you are a non-swimmer, you would want to ensure that the tour has a glass-bottom boat so you can see what is underneath the surface.
Questions for families traveling with kids.
- What if I get seasick?
- Can my small children fall over the edge of the boat?
- Are there kids’ activities on board?
- Is there a minimum age for taking my child snorkeling?
What Do You Do To Protect The Reef
One of the most important ways we, as tourists, can ensure our impact is not negative is by insisting that we travel with ethical operators. When visiting, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park recommends choosing a High Standard Tourism Operator (HSTO) who operates in an ecologically sustainable manner, delivering high-quality reef experiences. These HSTO operators are recognized by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority for their commitment to preserving the reef and are independently certified by environmental certification schemes like Ecotourism Australia and Earth Check.
Ask the operator, “Do you give back to the reef conservation and how do you do it”? Eg, do you participate in reef restoration projects?
** Environmental Management Charge **
All people aged over 4 pay a $6.50 fee for entering the Great Barrier Reef Heritage Area. These funds are applied to the Marine Park for its day-to-day management and also its longevity. As ALL people entering pay this fee, regardless of the operator, payment of this fee should not be view as an environmental commitment! It is obligatory!
If you are interested in doing some of your own research into reef conservation, check out our section below which covers some of the projects you can investigate and be inspired by. If they go ahead the Great Barrier Reef will actually be in great shape!
The Different Types Of Great Barrier Experiences – Reef Tours Cairns
Island Day Tour
For many of us, our tropical fantasies involve sitting on the sand as turquoise waters lap at our feet, and the palm trees shade us. A day trip to an island is a fantastic option for families and non-swimmers because of the options you have once on the island. Possibly, best of all, is the feeling of being on a tropical island. Isn’t this what you have traveled to tropical North Queensland for?
For people wanting to snorkel, you can do so off the beach in the shallow waters. You can snorkel at both Green Island and Fitzroy Island as well as explore the beaches and island itself.
There are also glass-bottom boat tours for people who want to have a dry reef experience. You can also consider SUPs. For families with kids, there are boogie boards with viewing sections (we saw these at Fitzroy Island).
Some of the islands on the reef include Green Island and Fitzroy Island and we provide some detailed information on our visits below.
Great Barrier Reef Floating Pontoons
One of the better ways to explore the outer reef without being confined to a boat all day is to visit one of the offshore pontoons, operated by companies like Marine World or Quicksilver. These activity platforms serve as a base for multiple reef activities. Beginners are given snorkeling lessons, taught how to use the gear, and accompanied with a guide if required.
Pontoons a great option for those traveling with children. They have play areas and swimming and safety gear for kids to use. There are usually also plenty of activities for kids to get involved in on the pontoons. Some pontoons have a viewing deck below water that you can walk into as well as glass-bottom boats and semi-submersible vessels.
Fun Fact! This Mumma first snorkeled the reef as a 6-year-old off one of these floating pontoons – and she still remembers the blue lips of the clam vividly!
If you have a reasonable level of swimming then without a doubt a snorkeling tour from Cairns will be one of the most amazing experiences of your life.
Open water Great Barrier Reef tours are a good option for adults or families with older kids that want to get away from the crowds. These Cairns snorkeling tours are usually with a smaller group and the boats allow you to snorkel or dive straight off the back of the boat.
Other Types Of Great Barrier Reef Experiences
There are helmet-dive tours or the exciting sea walker adventure. This is where you’re required to don a spaceman-like helmet that has fresh air being pumped into its dome.
Helicopter rides or scenic flights allow a bird’s eye view of the reef and are an excellent way to get the scope and size of the reef.
Also, liveaboard or sailboat cruises. For those who really want to get out on the Great Barrier Reef, a live-aboard or sailboat cruise might be the way to go. As expected with the name “live-aboard” you spend a couple of nights on the boat which travels to different diving or snorkeling spots. This means that you will be able to experience many different sites, the amazing biodiversity of the reef, and also spend nights under the stars.
If you have the experience how about diving the reef? I’m told that snorkeling is really only scratching the surface of the Great Barrier Reef. That if you want to truly discover the majesty of the reef, then the best way to do it is by going scuba diving. Reputedly home to some of the best dive sites in the world, the Great Barrier Reef is a diver’s paradise.
What To Bring On Cairns Reef Tours
- Camera or Go Pro – (read our Using A GoPro For Travel)
Make sure your sunscreen is marine safe. Many tourists don’t realize that many of the most common types of sunscreen actually contain harmless chemicals that can damage the reef and marine life! In fact, I’ve read that damage from personal care products (not just sunscreens, but lip balms, mosquito repellents, and more) can be equally as damaging to the fragile ecosystem as global warming. Responsible tour operators do provide appropriate sunscreen on board but having your own marine-friendly sunscreen will be vital if you do any activities on your own around Cairns.
A Note About Sea Sickness
If you suffer from seasickness you know that it can substantially affect your enjoyment of your Great Barrier Reef tour. It is important to go well prepared and try to minimize the effects. Below are some different options to combat seasickness.
- Natural remedies include ginger. Either raw or tablets – you can try sweets for kids, though the taste is strong.
- Kwells are a product we use for my son’s car sickness and it seems to help (sometimes)!
- Motion sick bands (We use Sea-Bands).
- Fresh air.
- Sitting at the back of the boat or sitting facing the direction you are traveling.
- Looking to the horizon.
Great Barrier Reef Tours And Snorkeling In Cairns
While we like to try out every tour and experience for ourselves, obviously we can’t try every tour! Here we have called on other travel bloggers to share their experiences!
Green Island Snorkelling
If you are looking for the ultimate way to explore the Great Barrier Reef with kids, look no further than a trip to Green Island. Green Island is one the best Queensland island holidays you and your family will ever experience!
You can easily do a day trip from Cairns on one of the fast catamarans. Alternatively, you can stay on the island and explore from a different location each time you venture out. The beauty of Green Island is that it is so small. The whole family can easily walk and choose a new snorkel location each day.
The main patrolled beach at high tide is the best time to don your best snorkel gear and you are guaranteed to be able to swim close to the shore with a reasonable level of water beneath you. You are also guaranteed to see amazingly magnificent vibrantly colored fish! It is perfect for kids because the beach is patrolled, the water is calm and it is relatively shallow. So. if they’re new to snorkeling, they can simply walk with their faces in the water. The other great thing there for kids is the floatation devices that they have anchored to the floor of the ocean which children can hang onto while they watch the fish swim beneath them.
From Green Island, you can also head offshore just a couple of kilometers by boat into the deeper ocean. It can be choppier out there but you will have a better chance of spotting turtles. Now that is certainly a sight worth searching for! For a full-day tour, you can head out to one of the permanent pontoons; these tours will usually include a meal on the reef as well.
For the real little ones or non-swimmers/non-snorkellers, you can also enjoy the glass bottom boats from Green Island. Staying at the Island Resort gives you free access to the glass bottom boat tours and all your snorkeling equipment.
By Erin, Australian Mountains to Sea
Day Tour To Low Isles
A day tour to Low Isles is a great option for exploring the reef if you are visiting from Port Douglas. We have enjoyed this tour twice when holidaying in Queensland – we loved the first cruise that we did so much that we returned to do it again a year later. There are multiple tour operators to Low Isles. We have traveled with Sailaway from Port Douglas, which we found to be a fantastic luxury experience suitable for all ages.
Travel time to the reef from Port Douglas is just one hour each way, giving you five full hours to explore the reef and island as well as having lunch. Activities include snorkeling, a guided tour with a marine biologist, a guided heritage tour on the island, and a glass-bottom boat tour.
The reason we chose this tour is that you can do as little or as much as you like. We enjoyed all the activities when we traveled by ourselves. However, we stuck to snorkeling when we toured with the kids. It’s a fantastic experience for the family. The children learned so much about the ecosystem and why we need to contribute to its preservation and they enjoyed it so much they wanted to return as soon as we’d finished!
We also loved the ease of the day. Once we arrived everything is taken care of. All meals including a delicious morning tea, lunch (including seafood), and afternoon tea are provided. You’re guided through all activities with comprehensive instructions. You are also provided with all the equipment you need. All you need to bring is a towel, swimmers, sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, and a camera.
Another option for traveling to Low Isles is the ReefSprinter which takes just 15 minutes to arrive and provides you with a half-day tour. This would be a good option if you’re short of time but we preferred to travel slow and take the whole day to enjoy this incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience.
By Stephanie, Navigating Adventure
We opted to explore the Great Barrier Reef from the Quicksilver Cruises pontoon, located at Agincourt Reef. Our departure was from Port Douglas and entailed about 90 minutes of travel time each way.
We decided to spend the day with Quicksilver because our family included the full range of water comfort and we wanted each person to be able to experience the incredible sea life on the reef. Quicksilver offers exactly that!
One of my children didn’t want to enter the water at all, but he loved spending hours going on Quicksilver’s semi-submersible and looking through the massive windows in the underwater observatory. He saw incredible creatures without ever getting wet!
My other child was eager to hop in the water. At 3.5, she had been snorkeling a few times and knew what to expect. I was a little worried about finding equipment to fit her on the pontoon, but Quicksilver had everything we needed for her! The snorkeling platform made entry easy for her and she immediately saw fish as big as her head when she went below the surface! Quicksilver even had pool noodles to help her float.
My husband and I are experienced snorkelers and both enjoyed the experience. I went on the “advanced snorkel tour” with a marine biologist, who took us beyond the better area surrounding the pontoon. We saw wonderful creatures, including clownfish flitting in and out of an anemone and a stunning giant clam!
I do wish that there had been more time at the reef. In total, we were there for about four hours. We visited during Chinese New Year and the boat and pontoon were both packed – there weren’t even enough seats on the very bumpy boat ride back. That level of crowding may not be an issue going forward, but if you’re considering a visit during that time of year it may be worth considering a small operation. If I were going with older kids who wanted to spend a lot of time in the water, I might have chosen a small boat excursion with multiple snorkel stops. But for a family with wide-ranging interests and ability levels, Quicksilver was an excellent choice!
By Melissa, The Family Voyage
We absolutely love Fitzroy Island and our last visit was for three nights. However, if you are short of time and can only make a day trip to the Great Barrier Reef, this makes the perfect excursion for families.
It is a short boat ride from Cairns – less than an hour – and in relatively sheltered waters. Then you are suddenly transported to a remote, tropical island paradise. This is the thing – Fitzroy Island feels like it is a million miles away from the rest of the world, and not so visited that you can’t escape the crowds.
For us, it’s a great place to go snorkeling in Cairns. You can snorkel right off the island. You can also join one of the daily tours for a snorkeling trip around the island. For people with kids who aren’t confident with a snorkel, there are boogie boards with clear sections you can see look through. For kids, there are SUP’s, a pontoon, and kayaks.
Nudey Beach on Fitzroy Island is ranked as one of the best beaches in Australia. It’s a short 20-minute walk through the lush rainforest from the jetty where the ferry arrives.
For us, a day trip to Fitzroy Island is one of the best ways to experience everything on the Great Barrier reef in one place. In fact, we’d probably recommend spending one day on a pontoon and one day at Fitzroy Island if you can fit it into your itinerary!
Passions Of Paradise Sailing Tour
The Passions of Paradise sailing tour is a great way to see the Great Barrier Reef and enjoy a day of snorkeling, swimming, and even diving. This tour leaves from Cairns. It is an excellent choice for those looking for a good selection of activities at a reasonable price point.
This sailing tour offers a variety of different options but their most popular tour is a full-day Great Barrier Reef trip which goes from 8:00 in the morning to about 5:00 pm in the evenings. Passions to Paradise operates with a catamaran. This means it’s the perfect choice for those prone to seasickness since this type of boat is a lot more stable.
Prices start at 185$ for adults and 120$ for children. There are also family packages available for $519 which includes two adults and two children. For this price, you will receive snorkeling or diving equipment, life vests and wetsuits, morning and afternoon tea, and a freshly prepared buffet lunch that includes tropical fruit.
The staff of the Passions of Paradise Tour is always available to help. They can offer guidance for those who cannot swim. You’ll also be able to take part in a guided snorkeling tour although diving costs extra. This tour is a great choice for the entire family with lots of things to do onboard as well as the multiple stops at the Great Barrier Reef.
By Victoria, Guide your Travel
Ocean Quest Overnight (Liveaboard) Experience
Without a doubt, visiting the Great Barrier Reef is one of the best things to do in Cairns. I knew that a day trip to the reef wasn’t going to be enough for me. I knew I had to book a liveaboard option. There are several benefits to spending the night on a boat on the Great Barrier Reef. Not only does it allow you the option to see the reef at night, but it also allows you to visit a number of different dive sites on the outer reef. Furthermore, after a day of exploring the colorful underwater world, there’s no better end than being gently lulled to sleep by the gentle lapping of the waves against the boat.
Many dive companies in Cairns offer excellent liveaboard options. However, what set Divers Den apart for me was their Sharks In The Dark Dive Experience. In the evening, certified divers have the option for a night dive where you’ll be surrounded by many reef sharks.
For those without certification, you can observe the sharks from the boat. Also, during calm conditions, you can pop on a mask and wetsuits to get a look beneath the surface from their dive platform. This was definitely one of the highlights!
Beyond this experience, the 35m Ocean Quest catamaran is purpose-built for a diving holiday and felt well designed. Able to accommodate 44 guests, the boat felt very spacious with a large sundeck area to relax between dives. Finally, it’s worth going just for the meals on board – they were absolutely delicious!
By Sophie, We Dream of Travel
Great Barrier Reef Experiences South Of Cairns
A Scenic Flight In The Whitsundays
One of the most magical ways to experience the Great Barrier Reef is from above on a scenic flight. Although you do not see the reef from up close, you will get to understand the vast scale of this colorful wonder and in many ways appreciate it more. The flights leave from Airlie Beach in the Whitsundays last around an hour. Usually, this option includes a window seat, so you do not have to worry about not being able to see the reef.
From above, you can see the incredible islands that make up the Great Barrier Reef; including Hamilton Island and the Whitsundays Islands. Also, you will soar above the famous Whitehaven Beach and the iconic Heart Reef. You can watch the colors vary from the light turquoise to the deep dark blue where the water is deeper contrasting with the white sand remote beaches.
Another breath-taking aspect of seeing the Great Barrier Reef from above is that the pilots are usually excellent whale spotters. Depending on the time you visit in the year, you might be lucky enough to see the great mammals from the plane. It changes each year, but it is typically from May to August. Undeniably, you will not forget this scenic flight in a hurry. It is blissfully spectacular and unforgettable. There is no experience like it in the world.
By Rachel, Average Lives
Summertime Cruise (from Airlie Beach)
Scenic Helicopter Flight and Landing at Heart Reef Pontoon
If you want to get up close and personal with the world-famous Great Barrier Reef formation called Heart Reef, there’s only one way to do it.
For many years, Heart Reef has been a protected area in the Whitsundays and no boats were allowed there. This was due to it being surrounded by shallow water and jagged coral systems. They are difficult for conventional boats to navigate without running aground and damaging the reef. However, recently a brand new private helicopter pontoon has been constructed a few hundred meters away from Heart Reef making it possible for visitors to fly to the pontoon and snorkel around Heart Reef.
In order to visit Heart Reef, you’ll first need to get to Hamilton Island. Hamilton Island Air has exclusive access to the ‘Heart Island’ Pontoon. After a beautiful scenic helicopter flight over Whitehaven Beach, Hill Inlet, Whitsunday Island, and Hook Island, you’ll then be whisked off for a landing at the ‘Heart Island’ pontoon. Here you’ll get 90 minutes to explore the Heart Reef via glass-bottom boat and snorkeling.
The ‘Journey to the Heart’ Tour is not cheap. It will set you back $1100 per person for 3 hours, but it is totally worth it. All snorkeling equipment is provided, as well as sparkling wine and water.
By Amanda, Fly Stay Luxe
Lady Elliot Island
Most people in the Southern part of Queensland can’t experience the Great Barrier Reef without traveling a long way. Having Lady Elliot Island located 46 nautical miles off the coast of Bundaberg, it’s only a short flight away from cities like Brisbane, Gold Coast, Hervey Bay, or Bundaberg. With this in mind, you could be swimming in the Great Barrier Reef tomorrow!
This is a wonderful day out and great fun for the whole family to enjoy. After arriving, snorkeling equipment is provided for free and the kids will enjoy the underwater life straight off the beach. Take as much time as you need! Explore the coral, find unusual creatures like sea cucumbers and crabs or maybe run into a friendly turtle.
Alternatively, you could take a small boat ride to the outer reef and snorkel in sections where there is a lot more room to move, maybe seeing giant manta rays, dolphins, and large fish.
For those that don’t want to get wet, there’s an option for a guided glass bottom boat tour. It’s here the guide will teach you about the creatures you see. They also help you understand the eco-system surrounding this amazing island.
Apart from the water activities, Lady Elliot Island does provide several things to do on land. These include bird watching, turtle nursery, fish feeding, and includes a full buffet lunch. Additionally, with the eco-resort available you can visit for the day, overnight, or a week.
It’s a whole other world down there and Lady Elliot Island is a great place to explore it!
By Chris, The Aquarius Traveller
Lady Elliot Island is also on our family’s bucket list; take a look at some of the other options at Australian Bucket List Holidays For Families.
Great Barrier Reef Research Projects
If you are interested in learning more about some of the great companies doing research on the Great Barrier Reef, take a look at:
Great Barrier Reef Legacy Expeditions and Research – Visit sites that have recovered from the coral bleaching, and are in the process of identifying a strain of super corals that may be able to withstand warmer ocean temperatures – amongst a host of fascinating projects. Check out their website here.
Reef Restoration Foundation – This was the first coral offshore nursery and is located near Fitzroy Island. Using international research they grow coral on giant tree frames underwater before it is planted offshore. Explore more here.
Great Barrier Reef Foundation – Read more about them on their website. Some of their great projects include:
- Testing sunblock for the reef – not sunblock for people, but sunblock for the reef itself, stopping the sun’s rays from getting through to the corals.
- Using a new reseeding method by developing millions of coral larvae and then being used to form colonies
- Curating the largest biobank of frozen corals in the world – which involves freezing and banking coral sperm, in order to protect at-risk species.
Other projects include ones operated by Quicksilver and Wavelength.
The Verdict – Amazing Great Barrier Reef Tours And Tips For Snorkeling In Cairns
Cairns, and the Great Barrier Reef, are such amazing locals. There is so much to do and see. If snorkeling in Cairns is what your after, there are so many different options to choose from. Cruises to the Great Barrier Reef and Cairns reef tours are plentiful. Since a trip to the Great Barrer Reef can be a bucket-list experience we know you want it to be magical. We hope will all the information you can make an informed decision.
Know of any amazing Great Barrier Reef tours that we did list? Let us know in the comments below!
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