Great Barrier Reef – How to Choose The Best Tour For You

Great Barrier Reef – How to Choose The Best Tour For You

Great Barrier Reef: How to Choose The Best Tour For You

You’ve arrived in Cairns, and at the top of your bucket list: The Great Barrier Reef. You may have a rough idea of what to expect, and what you hope to see once you’re in the water, but there are heaps of different tour options available, and it can be a little overwhelming. Whether you’re after a relaxing day out on a luxurious vessel, or looking for more of a budget option that still ticks most of the boxes, there’s always something for everyone.

5 Main Points To Consider When Choosing A Tour:

  • Reef Locations: Inner/Outer Reef, Roaming Licence, Exclusive Locations
  • Size/Style of Boat: Catamaran, Sailing, Luxury, Budget
  • Number of Passengers: Anywhere from 30-150+ passengers
  • Age of Passengers: Family friendly OR 18+
  • Available activities: Scuba Diving, Glass Bottom Tour, Helicopter Rid

No two boats go to the exact same locations; some only go as far as the inner reef, others have a roaming licence that change sites everyday, and a few select boats have exclusive rights to specific locations. Additionally, each boat is unique from the next and will range in size, style and the number of passengers they take. Small boats may have only 30-50 people aboard, whereas larger boats can take over 150 people out to the reef on a single day trip.

Snorkeling, Introductory Dive or Certified Dive?

You don’t need a dive certification to scuba at the Great Barrier Reef!

Dive Master

Deep Sea Divers Den

If you’ve never been scuba diving before, but want to experience the reef’s full potential, we highly recommend you try an Introductory Dive. A Divemaster will assist in giving you a taste of life under the sea, with a small group of other novice divers. The experience lasts for about 30 minutes, and it will be fully guided from start to finish. A Divemaster can take you as deep as 10 meters and will make sure to point out different types of marine life for you to take a closer look at. Although you won’t be able to talk to one another while underwater, you’ll be in constant communication with your Divemaster through hand signals and scuba sign language, which the crew will teach you on the way out to the reef.

** In order to qualify for an introductory dive, you must first complete a medical questionnaire.

Reef Quest friendly staff team

If you already have a scuba certification, you are permitted to dive alone (actually with your diving buddy) at the reef. There is more freedom with this option, and the dives last longer, but it is only available for those who have their PADI Open Water, Advanced, Rescue or Divemaster certification.

** If you enjoy the dive, you can get certified here in Cairns. PADI is the world’s most popular and recognised diving certification, and is offered by Divers Den, Down Under Dive and Cairns Dive Centre.

If diving in the deep isn’t your thing, stay closer to the surface and snorkel instead. You still get an incredible view of the marine life and reef, and get the same amount of time in the water as those who are diving. Note that if you do choose to dive, the remainder of your day at the reef can be spent swimming, snorkeling or enjoying other activities your boat may offer!

Choosing The Best Boat For You

Now that you have a better idea of what kind of trip you’d like to take, we’re here to help you decide which boat is best suited to you.

Option #1 – Divers Den: Reef Quest

Divers Den is a well known and praised company in Cairns, because it has been locally owned and operated for over 40 years. As the longest running tour operator on the Great Barrier Reef, Divers Den have learnt to perfect their tours to the incredible experiences they’re able to offer today.

Check in directly on board from 8:00am, and prepare for an extravagant day out at sea! ReefQuest is a never vessel, and offers a unique reef experience with a local vibe. This catamaran takes only 80 passengers, and due to its design, is more stable and comfortable on the journey to the outer reef, giving you the chance to explore the boat and meet the crew.

ReefQuest has access to 18 exclusive reef locations, including areas such as Shark Mountain, Turtle Bay, Twin Peaks and Blue Lagoon on the Norman, Saxon and Hastings outer reefs. Swim among giant clams, sea turtles, breathtaking coral formations and other colourful sea creatures while you discover some of the best, well-preserved spots on the reef. Make sure to say hi to Wally, the friendly Maori Wrasse! If you’re lucky, you may even spot a stingray or whale in the water too.

Reef Quest

After a dive (or two) and some snorkeling, we recommend laying out in the sun on one of the 3 amazing sundecks on board. Choose between the upper deck with its incredible views of the sea, the comfortable benches under cover on the mid deck or grab one of the large daybeds on the bow sun deck, to enjoy the Cairns sunshine and warm Queensland temperatures. If you don’t enjoy the hot weather as much, grab a cold drink from the bar and head to one of their two, comfortable, air conditioned saloons. To make this day even better, enjoy a fresh hot water shower on board ReefQuest, as well as complimentary tea, coffee and a tropical buffet lunch throughout the trip.

If one dive isn’t enough, make the absolute most of your reef experience and dive again. ReefQuest gives you the opportunity to choose this option on board (at a really great price), and you can dive up to three times, in different locations! Get your photo taken with the reef fish, by Reef Quest’s on board professional underwater photographer to remember the best of every moment.

Mad Monkey Crew on a Day out on the Reef

Option #2 – Down Under Dive: Evolution

Evolution is known for being the most luxurious vessel on the Great Barrier Reef. With over 150 passengers daily, Down Under Dive has thought of everything to offer the most comfortable and enjoyable day out at sea.

Check in at the Reef Fleet Terminal from 7:30am, grab a tea or coffee on board, and head outside for some fresh sea air as you sail out towards the Norman, Saxons and Hastings Reefs. The boat itself feels very spacious, with two sundecks, an indoor lounge and private cabins on board (for hire). Whether you sit outside in the sun or choose to stay cool in air conditioned cabins, take the time to explore the boat as you travel this 80 minute journey to the outer reef in style.

The reef sites you visit are selected by the skipper on the morning of your departure, and chosen based on factors such as wind and visibility. Norman, Saxon and Hastings Reefs are known for their vast coral gardens, underwater canyons and shallow sandy patches, amongst all three locations. Enjoy 5 full hours in the water in this tropical paradise!

In addition to snorkeling and diving, Evolution has a few optional extras for a more unique reef experience:

Explore the underwater utopia of the Great Barrier Reef on a 30-minute semi-submersible tour, and discover what it might feel like to dive – without getting wet!

Alternatively, if you want to learn about the vibrant corals and brightly coloured fish you’re seeing and swimming with, take a guided snorkel tour with Evolution’s on-board marine biologist.



You can also choose to see the reef from above, with the ‘Get High’ package. Enjoy a 10 minute scenic helicopter ride over Hastings Reef and discover the coral formations in the crystal clear blue waters, from the sky. This unique experience will take your day out at the Great Barrier Reef to the next level, leaving you mesmerized and anxious to get back in the water to explore!

Spend the rest of your day relaxing on board with a complimentary glass of wine, as you start to head back towards Cairns. Don’t forget about the cheese and fruit platters, and enjoy live entertainment on board or chat with the friendly staff of Down Under Dive.

Aerial View of Evolution & the Great Barrier Reef 

Option #3 – Cairns Dive Centre: Island Diver

If you’re looking for decent all-round day out, Island Diver is likely to tick all the boxes. Very popular amongst backpackers, this Cairns Dive Centre boat is the smallest of all three, carrying only 50 passengers. Don’t worry though, that doesn’t mean you’re getting any less value for money. One of the many great perks to Island Diver: it’s an 18+ boat, which means you won’t be on board with any families or children.

Friendly Maori Wrasse

With a later departure time (leaving Cairns Marlin Marina at 9:30am), enjoy a lie in before your big day out at sea. The boat journey to Sudbury Reef is around 90 minutes, but the time will pass very quickly, as you’ll be engrossed in the safety briefing, while sipping on a hot cup of Joe. Afterwards, take the time to meet the other passengers and explore the boat (we recommend the seated sundeck on top of the boat).

Once you’ve arrived at Sudbury Reef, start searching this underwater paradise for sea turtles and clown fish. After your first dive/snorkel in the ‘fishbowl’, enjoy a BBQ lunch, which will keep you full for the rest of the day.

Following Sudbury Reef, Island Diver will venture to another beautiful location: Sudbury Cay. This small island, made up entirely of sand, is surrounded by coral and a variety of marine life. The boat will anchor down near the island, which you can swim to and take some awesome photos. Did we mention these sites are exclusive only to Cairns Dive Centre?

The best part of joining Island Diver is the crew. Cairns Dive Centre staff are incredibly kind, funny and knowledgeable, and they work hard to keep everyone on board calm, fed and informed about the activities and safety procedures.

The later start to your day means you’re likely to catch the sunset over the horizon on your way back to Marlin Marina at 5pm. Try and leave some room for the succulent afternoon snack though, which is usually a plate of fresh, tropical fruit. To celebrate ticking the GBR off your bucket list, you can also purchase some beers at the bar on your return trip. Cheers to that!

Ever been to the Great Barrier Reef? Share your experience with fellow travelers in the below comment section.




Million Visitors/year

Individual Reef

Species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises


Species of sea turtles

Fish Species


World’s total fish species


A Unique Way Of Exploring The Rainforest In Cairns

We’d like to formally introduce you to Uncle Brian’s, one of the best backpacker tour companies in all of Cairns. Uncle Brian’s has been locally owned and operated since 1995. They know Cairns and the surrounding areas better than anyone, and offer only two tours: ‘Cape Tribbbin’ ventures north to the Daintree National Park, and ‘Fun, Falls and Forest’ to the waterfalls at the Atherton Tablelands, south-west of Cairns.

6 Things To Do From Cairns

The city of Cairns is usually the starting or finishing point for backpackers travelling the East Coast of Australia. It is perfectly located in the tropical climate of North Queensland, making it an ideal place to visit all year round. Access not one, but two Australian World Heritage listed sites, The Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef, side by side. With heaps of awesome must-do activities in the area, we have a feeling Cairns might make the top of your travel bucket list in Australia.

Why You Need To Visit Fitzroy Island

No trip to Cairns would be complete without a visit to Fitzroy Island. Originally called Koba/Gabar by Indigenous people who used the lands for fishing and hunting, this magnificent island was renamed by Lieutenant James Cook himself, after the Prime Minister of England, Augustus Fitzroy. Over the years, the island has attracted many tourists and locals alike, and continues to play an important role in Australian history today.


No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.