Vessels to take you to the Reef range from old trawlers to racing yachts and high-speed cruisers; cruises and dive trips last from a day to over a week. All day-trip operators have ticket desks at, and depart from, the Reef Fleet Terminal at the end of Spence Street in Cairns; you can also book through an agent, but either way you should do this at least a day in advance. One way to choose the right boat is simply to check out the price: small, cramped, slow tubs are the cheapest, while roomy, faster catamarans – some venturing to activity-packed pontoons – cost more; to narrow things down further, find out which serves the best food.
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The reef cruises and diving listings given here are not mutually exclusive – most outfits offer diving (prices vary wildly – you’ll pay anything from $85–245 for two dives including gear), snorkelling (usually free) or just plain old sailing. Prices can come down by as much as thirty percent during the low seasons (Feb–April & Nov). Dive schools usually run trips in their own boats, primarily to take students on their certification dives – experienced divers may want to avoid these, and should always make their qualifications known to onboard dive staff, who might then be able to arrange something a bit more adventurous. Beware of “expenses only” boat trips – there may be a catch. If in doubt, ask a booking office in town if you’re dealing with an authorized, registered operator.
Sailing Boat cruises
Day-trips cost around $130–210.
0458 426 005, fallareeftrips.com. Reasonably priced day-cruises aboard a 1950s Aussie timber pearl lugger, which leisurely visits two reef locations, including shallow Upolu Cay.
Ocean Spirit Cruises
1300 858 141, oceanspirit.com.au. Large vessel that holds well over a hundred passengers – it sails out to Michaelmas Cay and motors back, ensuring adequate time on the Reef. Great presentation but one of the more expensive sailing trips.
Passions of Paradise
1800 111 346, passions.com.au. Popular with backpackers, this roomy and very stable sail-catamaran cruises out to Paradise Reef and Michaelmas Cay. Great value.
Prices range from $150–220 (day-trips only). Some companies cruise out to their own pontoon, stable moorings ideal for families with toilet facilities and underwater viewing chambers where you can get as wet or stay as dry as you like; dive, snorkel, jump in a glass-bottom boat or semi-submersible vessel, or walk underwater on a “helmet” dive. You can also take a ten-minute helicopter reef flight from all pontoons, or opt to fly in or out one-way by air.
07 4044 9944, greatadventures.com.au. Trips on a large, fast catamaran to a private reef pontoon, with the option of stopping off at Green Island.
07 4052 8300, downunderdive.com.au. Speedy vessel which runs out to the outer Norman and Hastings reefs; comfortable boat, great crew and fantastic BBQ lunch.
07 4087 2100, quicksilver-cruises.com. High prices, but also one of the largest, comfiest vessels, docking at its own stable pontoon mooring at the outer Agincourt Reef.
07 4031 1588, reefmagiccruises.com. Speedy catamaran, which spends five hours at the Marine World pontoon, on the outer reef, for snorkelling, diving and glass-bottom-boat trips.
07 4050 1333, sunlover.com.au. Fast catamaran to a private pontoon at Moore Reef where you spend four hours exploring the outer reef.
Expect to pay $180–280 for two dives, gear rental, food and drink; a third dive generally costs around $20 extra. If you’re snorkelling, prices range from $130–200.
07 4051 0294, cairnsdive.com.au. Budget dive and snorkel operator visiting Moore and Thetford reefs via Fitzroy Island on a modern 17.5m catamaran.
07 4046 7333, diversden.com.au. Stable, well-equipped catamaran visiting Norma, Saxon and Hastings outer reef sites, with the option of diving three times in the day. Good value.
07 4041 6218, seastarcruises.com.au. Long-established family business with permits for some of the best sections of Hastings Reef and Michaelmas Cay, and a no-crowds policy (max 35 passengers).
07 4044 9944, silverseries.com.au. Large, speedy 29m catamaran visiting Flynn, Pellowe, Milln and/or Thetford outer reef sites with time to get in three dives if you want.
07 4047 9100, tusadive.com. Snazzy new purpose-built vessel holding a maximum of sixty passengers, with sixteen dive sites on its daily itineraries and a chance to visit three of them.
Liveaboard dive trips
Liveaboard trips last from one night (for snorkelling, cruising or diving) to over a week (for experienced divers), and typically cover the best of the reefs: you’ll get longer in the water, visit a greater variety of sites and also have the opportunity to do night dives. Prices vary seasonally, ranging from $460 for overnight trips, $600 for three days and to up to $3500 for a week, with cheaper rates from February to June. All costs generally include berth and meals, with dives typically included for longer voyages, but not gear rental. For further information and comparisons of various operations, check out Diversion Dive Travel (07 4039 0200, diversiondivetravel.com.au).
Coral Sea Dreaming
07 4041 1600, coralseadreaming.com.au. Sixteen-metre steel ketch sleeping up to eighteen, for two-day snorkelling and diving trips to Flynn, Milin and Thetford reefs.
07 4053 0500, mikeball.com. Luxury diving with one of Queensland’s best-equipped and longest-running operations; venues include the Cod Hole and Coral Sea sites, with most trips including dives with minke whales.
Spirit of Freedom
07 4047 9150, spiritoffreedom.com.au. Huge 37m vessel with superlative facilities, sailing to Cod Hole, the Ribbons and Coral Sea.
07 4041 1054, rumrunnercairns.com.au. Budget motor sailor sleeping sixteen in basic shared cabins, offering 24-hour outer reef trips and affordable three-day Coral Sea expeditions.
Ask around about what each dive school offers, though training standards in Cairns are uniformly sound. You’ll pay around $440–540 for a budget Open-Water Certification course, diving lesser reefs while training and returning to Cairns each night; and $640–800 for a four- or five-day course using better sites and staying on a liveaboard at the reef for a couple of days doing your certification. The following schools are long-established and have solid reputations; certification dives are either made north at Norman, Hastings and Saxon reefs, or south at Flynn, Moore and Tetford. These dive schools also offer one-day as well as longer liveaboard trips.
121 Abbott St 07 4051 0294, cairnsdive.com.au.
Deep Sea Divers Den
319 Draper St 07 4046 7333, diversden.com.au.
Down Under Dive
287 Draper St 07 4052 8300, downunderdive.com.au.
116 Spence St 07 4031 5255, prodivecairns.com.