The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef stretches like a kaleidoscopic ribbon down the coast of Queensland.
Around 2,300 kilometres in length and made up of some 3,000 individual reefs, it begins in the Torres Strait and ends at sublime Lady Elliott Island off the coast at Bundaberg. That’s a lot of coral; so much so, that the reef is famously visible from space. It also acts as a high-profile litmus test of the effects of global warming and debate continues about how best to shore up the health of what is a vast but fragile natural wonder.
There are endless opportunities to take a figurative stroll in this octopus’ gardens. Cairns is the obvious spot to base yourself, and the city offers an array of ways to explore the reef — some of which don’t even involve getting wet. Every visitor can take simple steps along the way to minimise their impact on the coral. Book your tours and activities with an eco-accredited operator and leave nothing behind in the ocean but wake. Choose your sunscreen carefully, as many contain ingredients that are toxic for the reef. Wear sun protective clothing to reduce sunscreen use where possible, and choose a sunscreen that shields you with natural minerals rather than harmful chemicals.
Here are ten great ways to explore the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns. If you need more inspiration, check out these amazing Great Barrier Reef trips.
1. Snorkel the outer reef from a permanent platform
While Port Douglas up the road offers closer access, you can certainly have an outer reef experience from Cairns. Great Adventures makes it possible with their high-speed catamaran and permanently moored activity platform, the beauty of which is the wide range of activities offered for all age groups. You’ll have about three hours at the platform to snorkel, dive (additional cost applies), or spot marine life from the underwater observatory. There’s even a semi-submersible craft to ride in. A buffet lunch is included in the cost of the trip.
2. Supercharge your reef time on board a superyacht
If all that sounds a little too energetic (you are on holiday after all), consider doing a day trip to a palm-fringed tropical island on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef and basking in its aura. Fitzroy Island is situated a mere 40 minutes from Cairns by launch. Relax on the soft coral beaches, enjoy a languid paddle in the warm water that teems with life, or really exert yourself and head out on a glass bottom boat trip.
4. Visit the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre
The Great Barrier Reef is quite literally an underwater city, and marine turtles are one of its most sizeable ratepayers. Sadly, that often puts them in harm’s way from the likes of boat propellors, abandoned fishing tackle, and weather ruckuses. The Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre is a volunteer-based organisation that rescues, treats, and rehabilitates injured or sick turtles. Following treatment by vets on the mainland, convalescing turtles are transferred out to a holding facility on Fitzroy Island. Visitors to the island can make a direct contribution to this vital work by booking a turtle tour. It includes an informative presentation from a marine biologist on these magnificent animals, and the chance to get an up-close look at a close-to-release patient in the display tank.
5. Walk on the sea floor
A modern take on the old-school diving bell, Seawalker Green Island allows you to don an aerated helmet and literally go for a stroll on the sea floor that surrounds this ancient coral cay. Green Island is located close to the main reef system, and this experience provides a unique, selfie-worthy perspective of the world beneath the waves. You’ll need to arrange your transport out to the island separately. Spend the rest of the day relaxing in this tranquil patch of paradise.
6. Do a scenic flight
There are few views more magical than that of the Great Barrier Reef from the air. Nautilus Aviation offers 30-minute scenic helicopter flights from Cairns, which can be tied in with your day on Great Adventures’ outer reef pontoon. Wing your way over the Coral Sea and admire the azure mosaic of coral formations far below.
7. Sleep on the reef
If one day on-and-in the water is not going to cut it, consider doing a ‘reef sleep’. PADI-accredited Pro Dive Cairns offers a three-day/two-night liveaboard reef cruise, which carries a maximum of 32 guests. Accommodation and meals are included, and you’ll have the opportunity to do eleven dives (including two evening options). Snorkellers are also welcome on this popular weekly trip.
8. See where reef meets rainforest
Two World Heritage-listed landscapes — the Wet Tropics rainforest and Great Barrier Reef — sit side by side in Tropical North Queensland, and you can see them both on a tour of the Daintree region from Cairns. Cape Tribulation is where the rainforest literally reaches out to caress the reef, and Kulki Lookout provides a view of both the forest-clad coastline and fringing reef just offshore. It’s one of the most beautiful vistas in the country.
9. Delve into the deep at Cairns Aquarium
It’s possible to immerse yourself in the magnificence of the reef and see incredible marine life without actually leaving the Cairns city centre. The state-of-the-art and privately-owned Cairns Aquarium takes guests on a fascinating journey through a progression of North Queensland water-based ecosystems. It’s a rare opportunity to view sea creatures that reside along the deep ribbon reefs (some of which would be a little nerve-wracking to bump into in the wild!). Groupers, cownose rays, mantas and reef sharks perform a mesmerising ballet in the 10-metre-high Deep Reef tank.
10. Splash down at the Esplanade Lagoon
Indigenous artist Brian Robinson’s iconic Woven Fish sculptures flit above the shimmering surface of the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon, invoking a sense of connection with the nearby reef. Overlooking the Coral Sea, this popular recreational facility is a delightful spot to splash about or just put in some serious towel time.
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Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ways to explore the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image: Tourism and Events Queensland. Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of Top Oz Tours, and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.