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Great barrier reef tours from Cairns to Port Douglas

Cairns is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, and offers so many ways for people of all ages and stages to enjoy it. Travel to a pontoon on the Outer Barrier Reef, dive straight from the back of a boat, or cruise to an island or coral cay and snorkel from the beach. See some of the 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish, and 4,000 species of molluscs that live in this natural wonder.

So what kind of reef experience are you looking for?

There are three kinds of reef on the Great Barrier Reef, including fringing, ribbon and platform reefs. Fringing reef occurs just off the shore of islands or the mainland. Ribbon reefs are long thin reef along the outer edge of the continental shelf. Platform reefs are reefs of coral emerging off the continental shelf.

Each type of reef is special in its own right. You are likely to see a diverse range of corals, fish and molluscs no matter what type of reef you choose to visit. From diving, snorkelling, sailing, cruising, island hopping and even flying, there is something to suit everyone. Whether you are travelling as a couple, family, as group or on your own, there is a variety of Great Barrier Reef tours to choose from.

Visit Cairns and experience the best snorkelling and reef tours that Australia has to offer.

Outer Barrier Reef Experience

There are many great Outer Great Barrier Reef cruise operators departing daily from Cairns and Port Douglas. Reef Magic Cruises are one of our favourites departing from Cairns.

The Reef Magic Cruises crew will take you out to their spacious two-story Marine World pontoon on board their fast and stable motor catamaran. All snorkelling equipment is included in the day, plus;

  • Wetsuit and lycra suit use
  • An on board marine biology talk
  • Semi-submersible tours
  • Glass bottom boat tours
  • Fish feeding
  • Use of the underwater observatory
  • Morning and afternoon tea
  • Hot and cold buffet lunch

Optional activities include Scuba Diving, Helmet Diving, Guided Snorkel Tours, and Heli-Magic scenic helicopter flights.

From Marine World you will likely see a lot of hard corals and colourful reef fish. This may include parrotfish, butterflyfish, angelfish, wrasse, snapper, sweetlips, as well as giant clams, feather stars, sea turtles and possibly a reef shark!

A visit to Marine World with Reef Magic is a full day tour commencing at 8am and arriving back to Cairns at 5pm.

Marine World, Reef Magic Cruises

Multi-award winning Quicksilver Cruises are another great company departing daily from Port Douglas. Their wave piercing catamaran will take you out to their two-story pontoon at Agincourt Reef. It is a stunning ribbon reef on the very edge of the Great Barrier Reef and the continental shelf. 

From there, you will experience a kaleidoscope of colour and marine life. Witness hard and soft corals, colourful reef fish, molluscs, turtles and reef sharks.

Included in the day is;

  • A complimentary marine biology presentation
  • All of your snorkelling equipment
  • Use of the underwater observatory
  • Semi-submersible submarine tours
  • Fish feeding
  • A tropical lunch with fresh prawns and other hold and cold dishes
  • Morning and afternoon tea

Optional activities include Scuba Diving, the Ocean Walker, and scenic helicopter flights with GBR Helicopter Group.

Quicksilver Cruises reef tours depart Port Douglas at 10am (although you have to be at the terminal at 9:15 to check-in), and arrive back at 4:30pm.

Island Experience

Just off Cairns is Green Island, a charming coral cay. It was formed approximately 6,000 years ago by waves depositing sand, coral and other debris onto its coral foundations. Today, much of the island is covered in vegetation, including dry coastal plants and vine thicket rain forest. It is surrounded by and fringing reef and seagrass beds.

Green Island, courtesy of Big Cat Green Island Reef Cruises

A visit to Green Island is a great option for families with young children, as you can snorkel straight from the beach. Sea turtles are a very common site, so keep your eyes peeled! You may also see a range of hard and soft corals, clams, sea cucumbers and feather stars. A variety of fish can be seen in the area, including coral trout, butterfly fish, angelfish, fusiliers, anemonefish (that’s Nemo!) and colourful parrotfish.

Also at Green Island is Marineland Melanesia. It is a walk-through nautical museum featuring tropical marine aquariums and the largest crocodile in captivity, Cassius.

Big Cat Green Island Reef Cruises depart several times a day to Green Island.  Included in the full day trip are return transfers on board Big Cat or Reef Rocket. It also includes either snorkelling equipment or a glass bottom boat tour. Semi-submarine tours and a buffet lunch is available at an extra cost.

Reef and Island Experience

For those looking for a more personalised and less crowded reef experience, a smaller catamaran tour might be the answer.

Passions of Paradise, a 25 metre high-performance catamaran, operates daily from Cairns to two unique locations. These include the world famous Michaelmas Cay, and exclusive to Passions of Paradise, Paradise Reef.

Michaelmas Cay National Park is a world-famous bird sanctuary, featuring beautiful sandy beaches and calm waters. It is very easy to simply snorkel or dive straight off the beach. You are likely to see a range of colourful reef fish, reef sharks, rays, turtles and hard and soft corals. While you are at Michaelmas Cay, you can also enjoy a glass bottom boat ride (optional extra) and view the reef without getting wet.

In addition to Michaelmas Cay is a stop at Paradise Reef, an exclusive mooring just for Passions on the Outer Great Barrier Reef. Paradise Reef is a hard coral reef, made up of a ribbon of smaller reefs. Water clarity is generally very good, making for a fantastic diving and snorkelling location. Paradise Reef is also home to the resident Maori wrasse, named Wally.

Passions of Paradise is a fantastic trip for those looking for the complete island experience. Participate in an Outer Great Barrier Reef trip and island experience, hop aboard a modern and fast catamaran, or have a small, more personalised day trip.

The day includes;

  • All of your snorkelling equipment
  • A tropical buffet lunch with hot and cold dishes, including prawns and fresh fruit
  • Morning and afternoon tea
  • A guided snorkel tour

Important Information

Don’t forget to take with you your swimmers, a beach towel, a change of clothes and some cash or a credit card for optional on-board purchases. You should also bring a camera, sunscreen (lots of it!) and sea sickness tablets just in case (try and find a non-drowsy version). Also remember to drink plenty of water throughout the day to keep hydrated.

Please note, all activities on the Great Barrier Reef are subject to weather conditions. Diving and snorkelling is also subject to medical assessment. Speak to our friendly Reception team for more information.

Hotel transfers are available, which our Reception team can help you arrange.

Environmental Sustainability

Each of the four reef tours mentioned above are Advanced Ecotourism accredited through Ecotourism Australia. You can be assured you will be experiencing a high quality tour while contributing positively to the environment.