Diving Cairns means warm, clear waters, colorful marine life, and access to the wonderland of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Cairns is the busiest hub of Australian dive tourism; domestic and foreign visitors flock here for the tropical weather, pristine rainforests, white-sand beaches, and underwater paradises. Cairns began as a mining town built on cleared mangrove forests. Luckily, much of its natural environment enjoys protection nowadays- not only is the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park 344,400 square kilometers in size; Daintree Rainforest is nationally treasured as a stronghold of ancient plant and animal biodiversity.
Some of the best dive sites in Cairns are on the outer Great Barrier Reef, which is accessible by day trip on specialized fast-crafts. Such sites include Milln Reef and Flynn Reef, both of which are often-visited destinations for liveaboards as well. Other beloved Cairns dive areas include Saxon Reef, Norman Reef, and Thetford Reef. If you’re looking to combine beach, snorkeling, and rainforest trekking with a dive excursion, endless options are available; visit Michaelmas Cay, the reef-fringed home of the largest bird rookery in the southern hemisphere, or Green Island, with its verdant patch of rainforest ringed by soft, white sand. And if you’re looking for a Great Barrier Reef liveaboard, Cairns is the perfect departure point for Ribbon Reef, Cod Hole, and the dive sites of the remote Coral Sea.
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What is diving in Cairns like?
Cairns scuba diving brings you face to face with a profusion of tropical coral reef fish and invertebrates in crystal clear waters with up to 30 meter visibility. Coral bommies are decorated in endless shapes, sizes, and colors of coral, and adorned with tiny, iridescent fish; resident turtles and sharks glide through the landscape. You can find every underwater topography among Cairns’s best dive sites: walls, caverns, swim-throughs, and sandy plateaus. Barracudas are abundant, as well as whitetip reef sharks resting on the bottom, often nestled together in a surprisingly cuddly-looking shark pile. Whales and dolphins pass through Cairns dive sites at certain times of year. Maori wrasse, known as humphead or napoleon wrasse in other countries, are also present. There are plenty of operators offering day tours from Cairns, and many spend enough time on the GBR to fit three dives into one day! These operators are passionate about GBR diving, and some boast exclusive access to special dive sites.
The best dive sites in Cairns / The best dive sites accessible from Cairns
Milln Reef is one of the best-loved outer reef dive location for both day trippers and liveaboards. It’s home to the famous Three Sisters, a triad of enormous bommies surrounded by sharks, barracuda, and an explosion of colorful reef life, with lots of fun swim-throughs to try.
Flynn Reef is another outer reef dive area visited by liveaboards and day trips. Flynn is one of the best locations for soft coral near Cairns, and its hard coral is just as good. The healthy coral population supports a wide variety of reef life, as well as grey reef sharks. You can see seasonal coral spawning here.
Thetford Reef offers wall dives and swim-throughs with a wide variety of colorful tropical fish.
Elford Reef, an hour’s boat journey from the Australian coastline, gives you a chance at seeing manta rays and large groupers, and dwarf minke whales in season; at Briggs Reef, manta rays visit seasonally.
Sudbury Reef is a great dive site for sea whips and sea fans.
Norman Reef sees resident maori wrasse amongst its staghorn coral thickets, as well as turtles, blue-spotted rays, and giant clams; dwarf minke whales stop by seasonally. Saxon Reef also boasts thickets of staghorn coral and bommies surrounded by reef life, as well as barracuda, jacks, and tuna passing in the blue.
Ribbon Reef and Cod Hole are famous Great Barrier Reef liveaboard destinations. The channels, coral gardens, and bommies of the Ribbon Reef system host maori wrasse, sharks, and good macro. Cod Hole, a well-known favorite, is the home of a resident Potato Cod family whose members often grow bigger than one meter!
Scuba diving in the remote Coral Sea is the pinnacle of Cairns-based liveaboard diving. In these crystal-clear waters, pinnacles, seamounts, and walls drop thousands of meters into the abyss; local marine life includes whaler sharks, barracuda, and other pelagics.
The best time to dive in Cairns
The best time to dive in Cairns is any time. Even during the monsoon season of December to May, visibility at the offshore dive sites remains virtually unaffected by mainland runoff. During the monsoon, warm summer temperatures (into the 30s celsius) make for comfortable diving. During winter, with the coldest water temperatures around 24 celsius, dwarf minke whales and humpback whales move into the area; June is the best time to see Minkes, and August is great for humpbacks. Coral spawning occurs in November!
What experience level is needed to dive in Cairns
Many of the best dive sites accessible from Cairns are suitable for beginners. There are also many operators who offer courses if you’re not yet certified. Cairns scuba diving is not infamous for strong currents, and some dive sites have both advanced and novice options.
Day trip prices from Cairns range from around 150 to 250 US dollars, depending on the reef you visit, the details of the tour, and the number of dives you do. An environmental management charge of 6.5 Australian dollars (around 5 US dollars) per visitor/day helps keep the reef in good condition; your tour operator will collect your fee or integrate it in the tour package. Visas or ETAs (electronic travel authorizations) are required for most visitors to Australia; research the rules for your nationality beforehand. Australia has a low risk for Hepatitis A, but it doesn’t hurt to be protected by the vaccine before you go.
The Great Barrier Reef experience two devastating waves of bleaching in 2016 and 2017. Before you book, it’s worth contacting a local operator to check the conditions, and to ask how you can help.