When I finally got to go to the Great Barrier Reef, I decided to base myself in Cairns. This was mainly because I wanted to experience the Great Barrier Reef through a volunteering project, and that was where the project is based. And since I felt that there was no point in changing locations many times, I simply decided to stay in Cairns for additional activities in the Great Barrier Reef.

So this article is about the many great ways you can enjoy the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns.

Coastline of Cairns with mountains behind as seen from the sea

The Vibe I Liked in Cairns

Now, people (like a former colleague who now lives outside of Brisbane) have told me that there are better places to explore the Great Barrier Reef from. Cairns is on the touristy side. But was that really bad?

Having done it, I didn’t regret choosing Cairns for my base. Cairns is indeed touristy; I’ll give them that. It’s full of hostels and tour operators and dive shops and souvenir shops. But, surprisingly, I also liked Cairns.

This is not because there is anything special about Cairns itself. However, of the four Australian cities I’ve visited so far, I liked it the best. I thought Sydney was ok, and I felt Melbourne was liveable. (Parramatta was a business trip, so I can’t really say.) But Cairns behaves as though it knows your trip shouldn’t be about itself. It knows it can’t compete with its two UNESCO Heritage Sites. I liked that lack of pretension, and I thought that deserves a mention.

Moreover, the tourism generally felt like the Heritage Sites ultimately come before the tourists. So, even though it’s touristy, I felt like it respected its treasures, and I respect that.

I liked it so well that I even contemplated renting in Cairns, and working remotely from there. It felt like the most comfortable location for a Malaysian (outside of Malaysia), so far. The many properties to rent were almost affordable.

What is the Great Barrier Reef?

The Great Barrier Reef is a marine ecological treasure and the largest coral reef ecosystem in the world. Stretching along the eastern coastline of Queensland, Australia, it is an area of unparalleled tropical marine biodiversity, with over 1500 species of fish, 600 coral species and 30 different whale and dolphin species.

One of the inner reefs in Australia's Great Barrier Reef, rising against a background of cobalt blue sea.

This biodiversity is supported by a great assemblage of coral forming the complex habitat structures in the Coral Sea. For this reason the Great Barrier Reef is a UNESCO Heritage Site.

There are countless reef islands in the barrier reef system, with only some above water. Most of the area is under the management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. You don’t have to be a marine ecophile to consider the Great Barrier Reef a bucket list destination. But most marine lovers certainly do.

For a map of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, along with its different zones, you can download the Eye on the Reef app. This app also allows you to upload your marine life sightings so that you can contribute to the conservation work managed by the Marine Park Authority.

3 Ways I Saw the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns

Before I arrived in Cairns, I didn’t expect to find the sheer array of options with which to explore the Great Barrier Reef. Your accommodation in Cairns would have an extensive section displaying Great Barrier Reef tours, and there would be more around the town as well. Wander along the Esplanade towards the Reef Fleet Terminal; some niche fishing-related tours can be found there.

You can sign up for most of the tours spontaneously, but a number of options require advance planning. Across three weeks, I went out on the reef and explored it in three different ways.

View of the sea next to a beach on Fitrzoy island. There is an inflatable round platform on the water next to a tour boat, and yachts in the distance.
Marine conservation volunteering
Giant clam among colourful yellow, brown, purple and pink staghorn and table corals
Scuba dive liveaboard
Acropora reef landscape in the Great Barrier Reef
Day tours to the reef

1. Joining a conservation volunteering program

Whenever I contemplate a trip to iconic marine destinations, I like to consider a conservation volunteering program.

I have a longstanding soft spot for marine destinations, and there are not many better ways to get close to it than by hanging out with people who work with the ecosystem. Compared to regular tourism, the people you meet are different, the conversations are different, and you sometimes get to access locations that are much more local and not touristy.

Because the project often requires it, you would also often be told a little bit about local culture, in a way that’s practical rather than as a curiosity.

And best of all, you would be contributing to a conservation program.

Choosing to experience the Great Barrier Reef through marine conservation volunteering is an option that requires advance planning. The organisation you are volunteering with typically has to check some minimum requirements, and send you information to help you prepare beforehand.

The lead time depends on what kind of activities are part of the program. For example, if you will be scuba diving, insurance and a medical history may be required.

Marine conservation volunteering with Oceans2Earth

For this trip, I chose a reef monitoring volunteering program with Oceans2Earth. This included training to carry out Eye on the Reef rapid monitoring surveys, Coral Watch fish identification, and then carrying out surveys at locations within the reef. On my trip we also teamed up with Parley for a beach cleanup in the Aboriginal Shire of Yarrabah.

Close up image of branching corals with the corals on the left in purple colour and on the right a greenish yellow
Branching corals

Apart from actual data collection, you also learn more about conservation issues in the Great Barrier Reef. Top of mind is the scale of mass bleaching events, and how much of the Great Barrier Reef can still recover.

2. Scuba diving from a liveaboard

When I told Oceans2Earth I would like to experience the Great Barrier Reef as a scuba diver, they suggested going on a scuba dive liveaboard. I took their advice and signed up for a dive cruise on the Spirit of Freedom.

Unfortunately I had health issues that year. After booking the trip, I did my medical checkup and was diagnosed with thyroid issues. Since this can cause an erratic heart rate, I could not supply Spirit of Freedom the doctor’s note clearing me to scuba dive.

My doctor’s really good, though. She took into consideration that I am fit and active, which is different from a typical Malaysian (at least, a Gen X one), and that my thyroid function was already improving with only a month of medication. She agreed with me that I could snorkel safely while continuing to take medication.

And that’s how I ended up in the ridiculous situation of being the only snorkeler on a liveaboard full of divers in the Great Barrier Reef. Oh the pitying looks my liveaboard fellows gave me! But at least I was on the boat!

Joining a dive liveaboard to experience the Great Barrier Reef is an option that requires advance planning. There will be paperwork to sort out beforehand, such as insurance, medical clearance, and proof of diving certification.

Spirit of Freedom cruise to Cod Hole & Ribbon Reefs

Originally, I meant to take a 7-day cruise which would have covered the coral reef diving spots in the Ribbon Reefs and the giant potato cods in Cod Hole, before crossing out to the Coral Sea for more oceanic dive experiences. However, since I was not diving after all, I amended this to just the coral reef segment, since the Coral Sea segment would be utterly pointless for a snorkeler. The cruise breaks at Lizard Island in between segments, where I would take a flight back to Cairns.

In the end, I was glad I wasn’t diving. I did have trouble controlling my heart rate, and even my snorkelling confidence was affected. However, the crew was absolutely fantastic and understanding, and it was perhaps among the most empathetic diving-related experiences I’ve ever had. Scott, the skipper, even came in the water with me and helped me work through overcoming my anxiety about snorkelling again with my medical condition.

Although I was envious of the photos taken of the others during their dives, I did get some unique photos from the perspective of a snorkeler looking down at the coral landscape as well as looking down at the divers. I suppose that will turn out good for my photo collection, for future content.

The Spirit of Freedom holds an Advanced Eco Tourism Accreditation, the highest eco certification attainable in Australia. They also have a climate action program and received certification as a Climate Action Business.

3. Going on a day tour to the reef

While in Cairns, I also decided to take a day tour out to the reef. There is a dizzying array of options for reef boat tours, and you can struggle to decide between the options. I finally decided on Passions of Paradise, purely because it was the only one that displayed its Advanced Eco Tourism Accreditation. It also had sails so that it would not need to use as much fuel on the return trip, and they offered an option for me to offset my carbon emissions from the tour.

The day cruises are aimed at the more casual tourists to the Great Barrier Reef. It’s relatively cheap, but that means there will be a lot of tourists on the same tour. The tours will stop at locations in the reef that are good for snorkelling; some tour operators also offer scuba diving trips.

Compared to the liveaboard, a day tour boat is less comfortable for introverts. But if you’re not diving, it is probably the best option to experience the Great Barrier Reef.

A day out with Passions of Paradise

The different tour operators in the Great Barrier Reef are given licenses for different locations. This is so that the level of tourism isn’t excessive, and is easier to manage. For my trip, Passions of Paradise took us to Whale reef (Milln Reef), and then a location called Little Tracy’s at Flynn Reef.

I was frankly astonished at how well they ran things, considering the number of people, some of whom were snorkelling and some were scuba diving, which all came with issuing and returning equipment. Not to mention lunch for everyone as well.

It was very safe; a tender was always on the water when people are swimming, as well as a lookout on deck, in case a rescue is needed. Additionally, you must sign in with the crew whenever you came back out of the water, and then they also do a full count before the boat gets underway. Apparently this became a requirement for all tour operators after some tourists got left behind.

Generally, equipment is provided for both snorkelling and scuba diving. This included a full body stinger suit because of potential jellyfish. However, it did not include thicker wetsuits, because they considered the water of early summer was warm enough. So if you do want a wetsuit or other equipment because you’re a little different than the mainstream, consider bringing your own. Additionally, they only issued short fins because some tourists have never snorkelled and may accidentally hit coral with longer fins.

They also had a marine biologist in the crew. On the way back to Cairns, there was a marine conservation talk that tourists are encouraged to attend.

3 Other Ways You Can See the Great Barrier Reef

Although I contented myself with just three ways of engaging with the Great Barrier Reef, even from Cairns itself there are at least three more. Two of them gave me feelings of regret that I couldn’t do them as well. The third may be more suitable if you’re looking for a more conventional holiday. Let me know in the comments below if you know more cool ways to see the Great Barrier Reef!

Great Barrier Reef Facts – The Great Barrier Reef is more than twice the size of the next biggest coral reef system. It is about 2,300 kilometers long, covering 344,400 square kilometers. Next in line is the New Caledonia Barrier Reef, which is 1,500 kilometres in length and only covering an area of 24,000 square kilometres. It’s not called ‘great’ for nothing!

1. Island resort stay inside the Great Barrier Reef

There are two islands with resorts in the Great Barrier Reef near Cairns. If you’re not keen on staying in Cairns itself, you can also stay on Fitzroy Island or Green Island.

You could also visit these islands for the day by ferry. Fitzroy Island was the location for reef surveys while I was volunteering with Oceans2Earth. From the beaches near the jetty, you can hike to a different beach which is a little bit nicer. There are two ways to hike to the lighthouse; one is shorter, and the other gets you the summit lookout as well. On a day visit, it may be possible to do both routes as a ring hike if you’re a fast hiker, and be back in time for your return ferry.

To the lighthouse

2. Go on the reef with Indigenous rangers

I was torn about this one. It never occurred to me that there would be a reef tour in Cairns that included Indigenous culture. And then I saw the tour boat at the Reef Fleet Terminal with its Aboriginal art. Dreamtime tours are led by Indigenous rangers (both Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders).

I considered going with Dreamtime instead of Passions of Paradise. In the end, I favoured the latter for their environmental action. Instead, I resolved to return to Cairns in order to do all of the other things you can do there, which I didn’t, because I was focused on the reef. It could be a more Aboriginal themed trip next time.

3. Stay on a pontoon overnight inside the Great Barrier Reef

The other way I was tempted to visit the Great Barrier Reef is by literally spending the night inside it. Not on a boat, but on a pontoon under the stars. I was reminded of how much I loved staying on a yacht in the middle of a Tahitian lagoon. I don’t remember the details now, but I’d look it up again if I ever go back to Cairns.

2 New Ways You Can See the Great Barrier Reef without Going to Cairns

Although Cairns is the best known location from which to access the Great Barrier Reef, it is not the only one. The Great Barrier Reef runs along almost the entire length of Queensland’s eastern coast. On the map, these locations along the coast look like they’re nearby. But this is deceptive; Australia is bigger than you think it is. At 2,300km long, the Great Barrier Reef is three times the Malaysian peninsula. Unsurprisingly, there are many other towns and cities along the coastline south of Cairns where you can also enter the Great Barrier Reef.

I haven’t tried any of these options, so I can’t say much about them. However, this section is about ways you can see the Great Barrier Reef without going to Queensland at all.

The Covid19 pandemic has changed a lot of things in the travel industry. The widespread travel restrictions has led to one kind of travel to gain in popularity: virtual travel. I was surprised by how fast it took off, and how much variety there already is, one year on. Indeed, it may have found its own niche, and may remain a thing even after physical travel becomes normal again.

There are two different ways you can visit the Great Barrier Reef virtually. Depending on your reasons to see the Great Barrier Reef, this could be a great option if you’re unable to go, or want to enhance the experience of a future trip. If being in the water isn’t very important to you, perhaps this option would give you some of the sights of the reef, without the carbon emissions of getting there.

1. Take a virtual tour on Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef

For a Great Barrier Reef trip with educational elements on environmental science, Sir David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef is an interactive experience. I took this experience myself and found it really interesting. You could do it all in one go, or split it into different days.

2. Explore Underwater Earth via Google Street View

If you want to go underwater to see the Great Barrier Reef, but can’t swim and can’t dive, you could see it on Google Street View. Yep, pretty much the same one as for land maps. Underwater Earth’s partnership with Google is making it possible for you to dive virtually. Its images already have billions of views and there’s only more to come.

Go to Google Earth (not Google Maps), and zoom to the Great Barrier Reef. Use Street View in the same way as with Maps, and ‘dive’ at the reef locations. Here’s a handy link to Saunders Reef to start you with.


You Can See More than the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns

As if the reef-related things to do in Cairns were not enough, there’s a whole bunch of non-reef activities as well.

Cairns has another UNESCO Heritage Site, i.e. the Wet Tropics Rainforest. There are also day tours to Port Douglas and Cape Tribulation, including ones that introduce you to Aboriginal culture. You could go inland and take a hot air balloon ride over the Atherton Tablelands. And that’s not counting the sky diving and all sorts.

So if you’re in Cairns but not solely interested in the reef, definitely check out the Tropical North Queensland website. It would help you figure out how long your trip needs to be, and be satisfied with your itinerary.

Carbon offsetting information to Cairns, Australia

A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Cairns via Singapore produces carbon emissions of approximately 4,383 lbs CO2e. It costs about $22 to offset this. 


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12 Responses

  1. Krista says:

    Great idea to join a conservation volunteering program to see the reef! I would love to go diving here but I’m a bit cautious because of the amount of damage tourism has already done to it.

    • Teja says:

      That’s a reasonable concern. I would avoid the day tours then. Personally, I wouldn’t have taken one if I could only figure out how to do low-intensity snorkelling, but there didn’t seem to be such an option in Cairns. I think that’s one reason to combine the diving with an existing survey program.

      Alternatively, you could go on a dive liveaboard that goes some ways out, where there are very few other dive operators, it at all. The liveaboard I was on was fantastic, only unfortunately I couldn’t dive then. This option would be much more expensive, compared to the day tours, but if a bucket list destination isn’t the place to deserve it, what is?

      You could also go from one of the GBR towns further down along the Queensland coastline which are substantially less touristed than Cairns. It is a REALLY big reef; there are multiple gateways along its hundreds of kilometres length!

  2. Kelli says:

    Amazing, great ways to see a truly beautiful place! Thanks for sharing

  3. Natalie says:

    I didn’t realize there were so many options to see the Great Barrier Reef! Thank you for putting this together! I’ll have to look into all of these when I finally make it to Australia :)

    • Teja says:

      It was overwhelming! Luckily I was in Cairns for quite a while, and eventually figured out the main options. The day tours are definitely the most prolific, but I was almost offended (haha) because many of the day tourists seemed to be there just for a thing to do, and really could almost be anywhere and wouldn’t mind the difference. But it’s the Great Barrier Reef! Be awed dammit! X-D

  4. Alison says:

    Oh this brought back memories. I look forward to your photos in future posts. I’ve never been to Cairns, but my great niece and her family live there so I’ll probably get there one day. And if I do for sure I’ll go snorkelling on the reef again.
    We based in Port Douglas and did a day trip – Don did 3 dives. I couldn’t get the hang of it, the sea was a bit rough, so I settled for snorkelling and loved it. The GBR is still one of the highlights of all our travels. We also did a day trip to the Low Isles for another reef experience. Great post Nuraini. Really informative.

    • Teja says:

      Thanks! I was considering Port Douglas as a future base should I return to north Queensland. I don’t know when (or if) that would happen, but on the other hand I do want a do-over on a dive liveaboard. The diving looked fantastic, and very photogenic.

      One of the things I really liked in Cairns was how the seaward direction was easier to end up in than anywhere else, as if everyone there were longing for the sea.

  5. Heather says:

    Beautiful! I went to Cairns 20 years ago and snorkeled at the Great Barrier Reef. Couldn’t quite get into scuba diving but great photos!

    • Teja says:

      Wow! The reef must have been even more beautiful 20 years back! I was really sorry to miss out on the scuba diving. Goes to show that travel risks re:health is very important as it could affect not just the trip you’re on, but future ones as well.

  6. Laureen Lund says:

    Excellent post! I wish I had known some of this before we visited. I especially would be interested in the volunteering and the aboriginal tours. We did enjoy our time in Cairns a few years ago and I hope to get back to Australia soon. Thanks for the great info.

    • Teja says:

      You’re welcome! I think Cairns is an excellent tourism destination. There’s a lot of variety. Time and money would be the limiting factors; otherwise you really could stay for a long time in Cairns doing all kinds of things.

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