Great Barrier Reef Experience, Cairns

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living organism in the world and it can be seen from space. It is also on many bucket lists, including mine. I recently ticked it off with an amazing cruise from Down Under Cruise & Dive. Learn about how you can have a Great Barrier Reef experience too.

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The Great Barrier Reef

Most people will be familiar with the Great Barrier Reef but might not realise exactly how big it is. The whole reef stretches 2300km along the Australian coastline. It’s home to 10% of all fish species in the world as well as whales, dolphins, turtles, and even dugongs. It is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and is considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

More importantly for visitors, it provides an amazing opportunity for us to snorkel and dive, viewing the colourful coral and tropical fish, in warm, sparkling waters not too far from the Australian coast.

It can be accessed from many towns along the coast, but the most popular place is Cairns, in northern Queensland, which is where I began my day.

How to Snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef

In some places, reef snorkelling is as easy as walking out from the beach into the surrounding water to find coral and fish just metres offshore. The GBR is located quite a distance from the coast of the mainland. The closest point is 16km away, but it can be up to 160km away.

Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef therefore, means you will need to take some sort of tour (or have a friend with a boat) so that you can get out there.

A colourful fish swimming over a coral reef

Day Trip to the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns

When I was looking for a Great Barrier Reef snorkelling tour, over and over I kept seeing Down Under Cruise and Dive recommended. What really sold me though was the option to tick a second item off my bucket list by including a helicopter flight with the snorkelling.

Imagine seeing the Great Barrier Reef up close in the water, and then seeing it from the air too! I could not turn this opportunity down.

I booked about three weeks in advance because I knew I was visiting during the busy school holiday weeks. Our cruise was very close to being completely sold out, so I do recommend booking a little ahead, especially if you would like to do the helicopter ride as places are limited.

Down Under Cruise and Dive run the beautiful 3-level, 35-metre super yacht “Evolution”. They can have 200 guests on board, but a staff member said to me that they don’t like to go over 170 or it gets too crowded.

We had more than 160 people on the day I went, and while it was certainly busy, it did not feel crowded. There was plenty of space and the crew was so well-organised everything ran well.

The front of a very large super yacht

Besides snorkelling and the helicopter, guests can choose other options such as SCUBA diving for those experienced, or an introduction dive for those who want to give it a go.

Read TripAdvisor reviews for this cruise here.

Before Boarding

Check-in for our cruise to the Great Barrier Reef began at 7:15 am at the Reef Fleet Terminal located right on the marina in the centre of Cairns. This is where the majority of the companies who offer tours out to the reef or to nearby islands check in their guests.

When you arrive, the Down Under Cruise and Dive desk is well-signed and can be found towards the right-hand side – or the city end – of the building.

The inside of a building lined with ticket counters and barriers for queuing. There are some people lined up in the background

We joined the line and within a few minutes, we were talking to one of the staff members. They checked our names, gave us our boarding paperwork, a wristband for the helicopter flight, and the most important thing of all, our passenger number.

This number was used over and over throughout the day, and it is very important to remember. I was number 83!

Getting to the Great Barrier Reef

The boat was due to leave Cairns at 8 am, and boarding started around fifteen minutes before that. Again our numbers were checked and our pre-boarding photo was taken with the boat. Yes, there are two professional photographers on board, so there are lots of opportunities to get a good photo.

On board, we were to our allocated seats – which are linked to our passenger numbers. While waiting to leave we were asked to fill in a health and safety form. We were fitted for our snorkelling gear, which we kept out on the back deck in lockers – mine was, of course, #83.

The inside of a large boat with bench seats and tables. People are scattered around

We got a safety rundown and the staff went through the plan for the day. We also heard from the photographers about where they would be and how to get your professional shots. There was tea and coffee and some snacks available before we left the marina.

The trip out to the reef took about 90 minutes. This was a good opportunity to sit out in the sunshine on deck, either in the upstairs area filled with beanbags, on on the front of the boat.

Unfortunately about half an hour into our trip it started to get a bit rough, and most of the passengers made their way out to the back deck for fresh air and less bounciness. I stayed inside at the front, well away from anyone suffering seasickness (I don’t get motion sickness, but I do have a very weak stomach!)

If you are inclined to get seasick, there were ginger tablets and some seasickness tablets available on board. The staff also walked around with seasickness bags for those who needed them.

On the way out, those people who were diving went through their information and training sessions so they were ready as soon as we arrived at the reef.

Snorkelling at Saxon Reef

Saxon Reef was our first location, and after manoeuvring the boat so that the reef was behind it, 150 excited guests jumped into the water (yes, there were a few who did not!)

Everyone was supplied with a mask, snorkel and fins, and if you felt you needed it, lifevests and pool noodles were available too. I’m a reasonable swimmer, but I chose to use a lifevest to start with.

A view over an expanse of shallow water with people snorkelling in it

As someone who struggles to swim in cold water, I was pleasantly surprised to find the water a nice temperature to swim in. We were later told it was 26 degrees, so perfect for an Australian winter.

Words cannot describe how much I loved snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef. I just loved it! There has been so much talk of bleached coral and dying reef, and while I don’t deny that is happening, please don’t think it will detract from a snorkelling experience.

a close view of a coral reef

There were so many different shapes and colours of coral and more types of fish than I could possibly remember.

The most memorable fish was Wally, a huge Wrass that hangs out in this area and loves coming over and getting his photo taken with the swimmers. He hangs out with one of the photographers who is underwater getting shots of people.

People snorkelling near a large brown fish

I was in the water for about 45 minutes before I realised my husband had disappeared. He had decided he had enough (he doesn’t love the water) and had gone back on board. I was confident enough in the water to shed the lifevest now and enjoyed another 45 minutes of amazing reef scenery.

I suddenly noticed that there were only about twenty of us left in the water, and it seemed like a good time to head back on board.

I discovered that most people had already eaten their lunch, which was a buffet of chicken, fish, steak and a range of salads. I had a special vegan meal prepared (“Meal for #83”), but they also told me all the salads were vegan, so I had plenty of food.

As we were eating, a staff member was coming around and asked everyone for their number to confirm we were all back on the boat. Just as we were about to leave, we were all asked to remain where we were and a head count was done. Not leaving anyone behind here is very important.

Snorkelling at North Hastings Reef

It was only around half an hour before we were set up at our second dive site, North Hastings Reef.

This is where we would be doing our helicopter flight. We had been given our time to meet for the transfer to the helipad, which gave me only half an hour to snorkel here before I had to get out and get dry.

A blue fish swimming above a coral reef

I was in the water as soon as I could, and while you might think it was just more of the same, I couldn’t get enough and could have spent all day down there with the fishes.

I heard later that I missed the most exciting part of the day – while I was in the helicopter, a blacktop reef shark came along to say hello. It was about 2 metres long, and I know from past experiences swimming with them, that even though they are not dangerous to humans, seeing one can still make the heart pump a little faster.

During the time here at North Hastings Reef, some passengers were offered the option of viewing the underwater world from a sub they have set up here. This was an extra charge of $20 per person ($10 for kids) paid on board.

A white submersible floating in the sea

This was the perfect option for people who did not want to get wet but still wanted to see the reef. It was not an option for us though, as it was offered exactly when we were flying.

Helicopter over the Great Barrier Reef

The helicopter flights are limited to five people at a time, and we were in the fifth – and last – group for the day, so around 25 people chose this add-on experience.

A red helicopter lading on a platform in the ocean

It’s an extra $100/person for the helicopter, and it’s only a ten-minute flight, but I am so glad I saw the reef from the air. We circled only the small part of the reef we were near, but it was beautiful seeing the colours.

We could spot turtles when we were flying low at the beginning of the flight, and as went higher towards the end we were able to get a view over the whole area. Just magical.

a blonde female standing in front of a red helicopter

Making our Way Back to Cairns

As we settled in for the cruise back to Cairns we were all offered a glass of red or white wine to celebrate (only accept if cheap wine is okay) along with cheese and biscuits. I was given corn chips and salsa instead. The bar was also open for other drinks and snacks if wanted.

Again our numbers were checked, and then the headcount was done. It didn’t add up, so it was done again.

As these head counts were done, staff stood at every doorway to make sure no one moved around and the whole count was done by three different people. It felt a bit over the top, but I understand how important it is.

The view from a boat across the ocean

Now was the time to take a look at all the photos that had been taken during the trip. Photos could be purchased singularly or as a bundle and could be put on a USB or delivered digitally. The most expensive package was $90 for all your own photos plus a selection of other general photos taken on the day on a USB.

The trip on the way back was not as rough as on the way out and I didn’t notice anyone suffereing from any seasickness. Maybe by now we all had out sea legs.

We arrived back at the marina just a little before 4:30 pm, our expected return time.

More Cairns Snorkelling Tours

If you are not interested in the helicopter, you can book the exact cruise without it here.

While I do recommend Down Under Cruise and Dive, you may prefer to choose a different option for your time on the GBR. Here are some other options for different Great Barrier Reef experiences.

Read these posts next for your best-ever Cairns trip
How to Get From Cairns Airport to City
Eating Vegan in Cairns
Cairns Without a Car – 7 Must-do Day Tours


Find flights – I always use Skyscanner as my starting point when searching for flights. One search will give many options including airlines I may not have thought of. This means I can find the best possible flights to suit my needs

Book accommodation – my go to is always for the best places to stay. It’s not just hotels anymore, but hostels, apartments, B&Bs and more. I love that the bookings are usually cancellable, and that I can book now and pay later.

Hire a rental is my go to here. It allows me to do just one search and it finds cars from many of the different supplies, so no checking multiple websites to compare.

Get travel insurance – you would have heard by now that saying “if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel”. If we’ve learnt anything from the last couple of years it should be how essential travel insurance is. I use CoverMore for my insurance.

Pick up an eSIM – I tried an eSIM on my last trip and it was fantastic. I set it up before I went so it was ready as soon as I landed, and I still had access to my home number for emergencies. Get your own eSIM at Airalo.

Book activities, tours & attractions – I use a few different websites for this. Viator and Get Your Guide tend to be the first places I look. In Asia, Klook often has more options, and in Australia it’s Experience Oz.

Manage your money – the best way to manage your different currencies is with an account from Wise. You can hold money in many different currencies, and use them with the ATM card or from your phone.

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