Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has to be on every scuba diver’s bucket list. It’s one of the most beautiful and diverse locations on earth, not to mention it holds a third of the world’s coral, about 2900 individual reefs, making it the largest reef in the world.
By the way, not a diver? You can still have an incredible experience snorkeling. Are you ready to dive in? Well let’s go!
BEAUTIFUL GREAT BARRIER REEF
Located in the Coral Sea, this world’s largest living organism stretches from Queensland to Bundaberg, at over 1,615 miles (2,620 km) long, it’s no surprise you can see it from space.
Where is the Great Barrier Reef located?
FACTS ABOUT THE GREAT BARRIER REEF
- The Reef is home to many endangered species.
- The Reef is also home to Marlin and Nemo in Finding Nemo.
- The Reef is the breeding ground for many species such as humpback whales and some species of sea turtles.
- More than 1,500 fish species live on the reef.
- It is believed the Great Barrier Reef has been around for at least 500,000 years.
- English explorer Captain James Cook discovered the Great Barrier Reef in 1770 when his ship, the Endeavor, got stuck on it.
- The Great Barrier Reef is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is considered one of the Natural Wonders of the World.
- Climate change or global warming is the biggest threat to the Great Barrier Reef.
- Warmer ocean temperatures put stress on coral and lead to coral bleaching, this process kills the coral.
- The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is responsible for the protection and care of the Reef.
GREAT BARRIER REEF DIVING TOUR
We flew in to Cairns, pronounced “Cans” (I’m beginning to think Australians have an aversion to R’s, even calling themselves Aussies to avoid that R) as it was the closest and easiest city to do a day dive at the Reef. We spent a day in this extremely tropical city before heading the the Reef.
The weather felt like 90% humidity. If you have curly hair (like me), it was a love/hate relationship as I normally straighten my hair and just had to give up. But on the other hand, my curls were tight and bouncy.
There are several Great Barrier Reef tours that offer different dive packages for newbies to experienced scuba divers. Tour companies will have different dive spots, usually in remote areas, at several Reef locations. Most tour companies book day tours with at least one certified scuba diver that’s a dive guide.
We previously made a full day reservation with Down Under Cruise and Dive as they offered diving day trips. We were booked for a scuba, snorkeling and a heli ride adventure! It was important to pick a high quality reputable company that had several diving permits, knew the Reef and was Ecotourism certified.
We were going to visit a few Reef sites so we boarded the boat early the next day as it took about an hour and a half to get to the first dive spot. As expected, the boat ride was bumpy and windy. If you suffer from seasickness or motion sickness, bring medication. You do not want this day ruined because of being ill or nauseous.
There were plenty of areas to hang out, an upper deck for some sun and plenty of food and drink for purchase, although lunch was included. Dive instructors were on board to answer introductory diving questions.
The diver safety orientation was about a half hour before we arrived at the first Reef spot, which also included providing important information and checking certification cards of each qualified diver. But ugh! Forgot your card? PADI has an online database that can be accessed by dive centers. So no worries!
Scuba Diving the Reef
The tour operator provided all your dive equipment including wet suits. The water temperature was warm like bathwater. The warmer water apparently bring the stinging species of jellyfish. For an extra fee, the boat provided jellyfish suits. Many divers chose to rent one. I did not.
Also for an extra fee, you can rent a private guide for your dive. Before each dive, the dive master checked the fit of the gear and detailed the dive site and current. Then they assisted as you lowered into the warm waters from the boat. Then we were off!
It’s an absolute different feeling to experience the underwater world. It was a fascinating experience to see the Reef up close and to see the plentiful wildlife engaging with it too. We saw an abundance of different kinds of fish and some turtles.
We didn’t see any sharks although the Reef is home to several species of sharks, and we were a bit early in the year to see the dwarf minke whales that migrate here from March to October.
The Reef has an inner and outer reef. We dived the outer Great Barrier Reef as is the closest from Cairns. These reefs include Hastings Reef, Saxon Reef and Breaking Patches. We chose this because the outer Reef has better water clarity and has more coral gardens and a larger fish population.
You don’t necessarily need a boat tour get to the inner reef. This reef is closer to the islands, especially WhitSunday Islands and Green and Fitzroy Islands. The inner reef has soft corals and is a great place to see smaller fish species along with more turtles.
Agincourt Reef is another popular part of the Reef right off Port Douglas. It’s a series of many smaller ribbon reefs with at least 16 different dive sites. The Channels are swim-throughs and caves. The Gardens and Nursery Bommie offer an abundance of brightly colored reef fish.
Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef
After lunch, we opted not to do another dive, but to snorkel around the boat. We were able to see just as much marine life while snorkeling. The Reef depth ranges from vast shallow areas to over a mile (2,000m) deep.
Helicopter Ride Over the Great Barrier Reef
After snorkeling for a few hours, it was our turn to take an exhilarating 30-minute helicopter ride over the whole of the Reef. As the pilot navigated, he gave us a narrative of the Reef and some of the species you can spot from the skies.
I appreciated the Reef even more from above as I was able to take in the sheer size, pattern, colors and a few moving animals.
We were then dropped off back at the boat in time to head back to Cairns. For most of the ride back, I chose to sun bathe…until my husband came to get me and tell me that I had turned as red as a lobster. UGH!
TIPS FOR DIVING THE GREAT BARRIER REEF
As I already said, the Great Barrier Reef has to be on every diver’s bucket list. So get certified before coming to the Reef. This way you can relax and enjoy the beauty of the Reef without spending your precious dive time on an introductory dive.
If this is your first time scuba diving and don’t feel 100% comfortable breathing underwater yet, don’t worry, there are plenty of shallow areas where the fish swim and you can still fully experience the Reef while diving.
However, if you are a more experienced diver, you already know there are wait times before you can fly after diving, so plan accordingly. Please be safe and cognizant of the BENDS! But, you can always snorkel and fly whenever 😉
Scuba diving is physical activity. If you have medical conditions, make sure you are able to participate in this sport.
You may not know the amount of exercise you are doing because you really don’t feel yourself sweating, but you are! Make sure you drink plenty of water, eat and avoid alcohol before diving on the day of your tour.
Travel insurance usually doesn’t cover scuba diving as this water experience is considered an “extreme” or “hazardous” activity. Look into an insurance company that will specifically cover scuba diving. This Forbes article is helpful when choosing a company.
DO NOT touch the marine life or coral. Your touch can actually kill the coral, and some of them are very sharp which can leave you with nasty cuts. No feeding the fish either, they are not pigeons. And don’t even think of taking a souvenir, it’s actually against the law.
REMEMBER: LEAVE NO TRACE!
Reef Safe Sunscreen
You will be in the water and the sun all day. Therefore, sun protection is a MUST.
However, the Great Barrier Reef is dying and much of that is due to the harsh chemicals in some sunscreens that get into the water and essentially damage the DNA limiting the ability to grow properly and reproduce. It effectively contributes to coral bleaching, basically killing the coral reefs.
It also has a devastating impact on marine life as some sunscreen is toxic to them.
It is an absolute MUST to wear reef safe sunscreen.
DO NOT: Use sunscreen containing:
- OXYBENZONE and OCTINOXATE,
- Vitamin A—aka retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate, and retinol, and
- Spray sunscreen.
DO: Instead wear mineral sunscreens. This is sunscreen that is made of:
- ZINC OXIDE and TITANIUM DIOXIDE.
Here are some of my favorites:
REMEMBER: LEAVE NO TRACE!
COST OF DIVING THE GREAT BARRIER REEF
It would be helpful if you were scuba certified before diving the Reef. First, an all day diving trip can cost about $180 AUD ($140 USD), and although it usually includes lunch and refreshments, diving permits and equipment rental.
That doesn’t include any other things such as the helicopter ride, a private guide or the jellyfish suit. The cost may also depend on where in the reef you go.
Multiple diving days and liveaboard dives are going to cost more of course. These usually include accommodations and all your food. This can start at $300 AUD ($230 USD) and increase for luxury accommodations and upgrades.
This also doesn’t include other things such as private guides, professional photos and (legal) souvenirs.
LIVEABOARD DIVE BOAT
I’d definitely do it again the next time I take another trip to Australia. Next time though, I would book a liveaboard dive trip.
A liveaboard trip is staying overnight to several days on dive boats to visit a remote location at the best dive sites. This is the only way to see some popular reefs.
Liveaboard is for certified divers, even more so for experienced divers, as you will be diving in less than ideal conditions sometimes that will test your dive skills. Most don’t even offer an introductory scuba dive for new divers anyway.
You are able to do many dives during different hours. It seems the waters are more lively during a night dive and early morning dives. One popular liveaboard dive that I’m looking forward to is at Cod Hole to see the potato cod families (sounds adorable!)
This is the best way to see diverse marine life more active at night, such as reef sharks, sea snakes and giant clams.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON DIVING THE GREAT BARRIER REEF
There are a good number of tour operators that provide detailed information and will give you the best scuba experience. The perfect place to scuba, or snorkel, depends on what you’ve come to the Great Barrier Reef to see.
I would also add visiting other islands in the area such as WhitSundays or the Daintree Forest when I return. Where are you planning to dive?
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO THE GREAT BARRIER REEF
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WHAT ELSE CAN YOU DO
Don’t forget to check out my other posts on what you can do in Australia, including when is the best time to visit Sydney, how to pack for Australian weather, and my Melbourne guide. Let me know your thoughts below on diving (or snorkeling) the Great Barrier Reef.
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