Cairns: and how to explore the Great Barrier Reef in a day.

It’s called the Great Barrier Reef because it’s great – as in BIG. The largest barrier reef in the world stretches from the northern tip of Cape York in Queensland to the Fraser Coast some 2600 kilometres south. So exploring the whole colossus in one day with one operator is not a possibility.

But you can explore little pockets of it in a day that will seem like vast tracts of reef. And there is a wide range of operators to choose from. So which one is for you? Here are a couple of ideas…

Shangri-La Cairns, the perfect diving platformWhere to Stay

First of all, if you’re planning a bit of reef exploration, it’s important to find yourself a good base camp, and I can think of none better than the Shangri La. It’s within walking distance to all of the cruise operators, situated directly opposite the jetty.

The rooms are spacious and beautifully laid out with large balconies on which we had enough room to spread all our dive gear out to dry without offending other hotel guests by draping it over the balustrade. Read our full review here.

Here are two quite different ways to explore the reef from Cairns.

The Silversonic is a very spacious comfortable boat.The Silver Series

Silversonic, one of the Silver Series vessels, operates out of Port Douglas and her sister ship, the Silverswift operates out of Cairns. Both offer the opportunity to visit three sites in one day.

The Silversonic, based in Port Douglas, visits Agincourt Reef and the Silverswift, based in Cairns, visits Flynn, Milln, Pellowe and Thetford Reefs. Both provide morning tea, an extravagant buffet lunch which includes plenty of seafood, and a licensed bar (NB. No drinking until after your last dive).

Marlin and son, staying safely away from the Drop Off.The large, fast boat is run like clockwork, with helpful staff that quickly organise people into groups of snorkelers, those doing an introductory Discover Scuba dive, Open Water Scuba students and advanced divers.

Our first dive site is called Wreck, a very pretty part of the reef that some long-ago navigator chose to wreck his ship on presumably. All that’s left of the vessel is a rather impressive looking anchor.

The rest of the surrounding reef is simply stunning, with a wide range of coral types including table and plate corals, soft corals, stag horn and what I like to call lettuce corals. There is abundant marine life, lots of very pretty little reef fish and seriously giant clams.

Aptly named lettuce coral.Our second dive site is called Phils (who’s Phil? Not sure). It’s also very pretty with lots of schooling fish, clown fish, turtles and we’re even lucky enough to see a reef shark.

The third site of the day, which we opt to snorkel, is Castle Rock, home to a resident grouper who flirts and circles for his share of strokes and tickles and some extremely cheeky parrot fish who seem to get enormous delight coming between me and my camera.

Three very different dives in one day – not bad going really. I’d especially recommend this option if you have young kids. The marine biologists on board give the kids a great lesson about life on the reef and what they might see while they’re snorkelling.

Passions of Paradise minimises its carbon footprint by sailing to the reef when possible.Passions of Paradise

If you want to understand a little more about how the largest living thing on the planet really works, try taking the PADI National Geographic Diver certification with Cairns-based Passions of Paradise.

Like most PADI courses, there’s a bit of theory to be completed on Day 1 before the practical part of the exam on Day 2. The theory takes you through the ideals and ethos of the National Geographic Society and PADI’s commitment to sustainable diving.

Day 2 includes a full day of diving activities aboard the Passions of Paradise catamaran – a custom-designed vessel for diving, snorkelling and sailing on Paradise Reef and Michaelmas Cay about 90 minutes from Cairns.

Counting different species on the reef is easier than you might think.On our first dive, we refresh our basic navigation and buoyancy skills: so that we could navigate our way around the reef and ensure that we can observe and record data (and take photos) whilst hovering close to, but not touching the reef.

On our second dive, under the watchful eye of a local humphead wrasse, we complete two rapid monitoring survey exercises on pre-formatted sheets from the GBR MPA. One is a fish species count, and the other a 360’ survey on the health of the coral in a 5m radius circle.

We're joined on our survey by Barry the humpheaded wrasse.It sounds complicated, but if you can recognise 10 very different species – from sea cucumber to reef shark – using the colour images on the sheet, you can create a valuable tally of what you can see in 10 minutes.

After our surveys are complete we’re free to enjoy the reef for the rest of the hour, where we encounter a turtle, and epaulette shark and a white tip reef shark.

Passions of Paradise is a spacious vessel; we hardly noticed the other three dive groups and 40 or so snorkelers, enjoying the reef around us. There are safety briefings prior to each dive, a presentation by the on-board marine biologist, and a delicious hot and cold buffet lunch as well as morning and afternoon teas.

We had a 78% chance of seeing a turtle on our dive.At the end of the day, after we had written up our surveys and checked our homework, we were awarded certificates for our activities. What we really came away with from the day’s activities was not just a great experience, but a real connection to the largest living thing on the planet.

The vessel is also a great choice for kids – there’s always a dedicated crew member to assist snorkelling groups so you know they’ll always be safe. Michaelmas Cay is a particulary good choice for kids as well, with a sandy beach for them to swim to.

For more information on the National Geographic Diver certification visit

Awarded our National Geographic Dive certificates at the end of the day.

About the author

Deborah's first trip with her first child (at 4 months old) involved a 26 hour flight with no sleep, which is about when she realised travelling with kids wasn’t quite the same as without. Deborah has lived in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Edinburgh, London and now resides in Sydney’s northern beaches with her Brady Bunch-style family of seven – all seasoned travellers. Twitter // @deborahzoe42 Google Plus // +Deborah Dickson-Smith

2 thoughts on “Cairns: and how to explore the Great Barrier Reef in a day.

  1. Seana Smith

    I would SO love to take the kids out to the Reef. Maybe we might plan that for our next trip. On holiday right now and am enjoying a chance to read about travel and plan and dream!

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