A blogger review on the best Great Barrier Reef tour from Cairns. Narrow down the limitless options for an epic reef snorkel or dive trip from Cairns— the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef! A complete and honest scuba review by a certified Dive Master
What’s not to love about Cairns? For adventure travelers, Cairns ticks all the boxes for a world class tropical travel destination. From the islands to the rainforest, there’s endless opportunity for adventure.
However, there’s one highlight that drags more people to Cairns than any other— the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem, the Great Barrier Reef.
While you can visit the reef from other destinations like Port Douglas or The Whitsundays, in my opinion, Cairns is going to be the best bet. In this guide, I’ll make the search for the best Great Barrier Reef tour from Cairns easier for you by giving you an honest review. I’ll also help you out by giving you some tips for how to get a good local deal and how to make the most of this epic experience.
SKIP TO THE DEAL: I booked my Great Barrier Reef snorkel and dive tour from Cairns with Down Under Cruise & Dive using Klook. This trip is currently discounted due to the pandemic, so if you’re a Cairns local who’s always wanted to dive on the reef, now’s a better chance than ever!
What is the Best Great Barrier Reef Tour From Cairns?
As you might expect there are a multitude of tour companies and boats offering Great Barrier reef tours in Cairns. There are so many in fact, that there is an entire boat terminal dedicated to vessels headed for the GBR: The Reef Fleet Terminal.
However, if you speak to any Cairns local, the’ll recommend Down Under Cruise and Dive as the best Great Barrier Reef tour from Cairns, and with good reason. While I’ll go into these further on in the review section of this post, here’s a few reasons why they’re renowned as the best.
- Still a Cairns local family company: keep it local – don’t give your money to wealthy off-shore companies
- The Evolution is by far the most impressive boat offering of reef dive and snorkel trips
- Reviewed as having the highest level of safety
- One of the fastest boats so you can spend more time on the Great Barrier Reef
- More free inclusions like tea, coffee, snacks, lunch and even wine
How to Get the Best Deal on a Great Barrier Reef Tour From Cairns
When I book tours, activities, or experiences, I always use a booking app or website such as Klook. Klook selectively partners with only the best and most ethical tour providers, with hundreds of activities across Australia.
The good part about booking with an app or website like Klook is that you can easily compare reviews on experiences and activities across the board. Furthermore, you’ll always get the best deal since they always offer the cheapest deals, which often work out to be even cheaper than going directly to the terminal.
SEE THE CURRENT DISCOUNT DEAL: Now’s the best time to travel to Cairns. With the rest of the world off-limits, take advantage of the crazy local rates on offer.
Down Under Cruise & Dive – A Review
With that out of the way, let’s dive into what I believe is the best Great Barrier Reef tour from Cairns. I’ll try to keep this as unbiased as possible, but it is overwhelmingly positive. I personally went on this trip and there was very little I could fault about it.
In fact, many share this outlook, with the reef trip being rewarded #5 best day cruise in the world and the #4 best travel experience in Australia by Tripadvisor in 2020.
About the Business
The trip is pretty epic, but what really sold me on this particular Cairns Great Barrier Reef tour was the fact that they are one of the only businesses that are still locally owned and operated. With commercialisation of the reef came big overseas investment, which unfortunately bought out most of the smaller boats and companies operating in Cairns.
Rest assured, the business is still locally owned and operated by a Cairns family. They also employ Cairns locals so you know your dollar is going straight back into the local economy.
The Boat – The Evolution
Alright, perhaps the best reason to book a Great Barrier Reef tour from Cairns with Down Under Cruise & Dive is their boat, The Evolution.
If you’ve been to the Cairns marina, you’ll have undoubtedly already spotted her. The truth is, you can’t really call it a boat – she’s more of a luxury super yacht. The Evolution is a custom built, three-level luxury catamaran complete with multiple decks and air-conditioned saloons, a restaurant, a bar and full scuba diving capabilities.
If you’re one to not really mind about what the boat will be like, then let me assure you that it’s one of the most important factors when choosing between the best Great Barrier Reef tours from Cairns. This catamaran is super fast and stable, which means you’ll be spending more time out on the reef than bopping around in transit. In total, it only takes about 1.5 hours to get to the outer Great Barrier Reef on the Evolution. You’ll also have a more comfortable experience and less chance of getting seasick!
What is Included on the Down Under Cruise and Dive Reef Tour?
The trip I’ve recommended as the best GBR dive and snorkel trip is a full-day trip. We visited two reef destinations, which ultimately depend on the weather conditions and how busy it is on that particular day.
To summarise, here are the full inclusions that I got to enjoy on this epic experience from Cairns:
- Free coffee, tea, and snacks upon boarding
- Private safety briefings that don’t make you feel like you’re cattle
- Introductory or certified scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef (depending on your experience)
- All snorkel and dive gear included, as well as a stinger suit
- Full lunch spread
- A visit to two dive locations
- Free wine on the cruise back
Honestly, I couldn’t really expect more from a reef tour for this price. However, you do only get one dive in the base price. If you’d like more dives, you have to pay a bit extra. In saying that, I’ve never been on a dive trip anywhere on earth where you can get three dives for this price, so it’s fairly reasonable to only include one in the base package.
To Snorkel or Dive?
The trip with Down Under is a dive & snorkel trip. Since the Great Barrier Reef is a fairly shallow and calm dive location, they offer introductory dives with PADI even if you have never scuba dived before. You’ll need to do a briefing and safety introduction to scuba, which is conducted on the way out to the reef.
Of course, if you’d prefer not to dive, you can snorkel instead. As I mentioned, most reef locations are quite shallow, which means that you’ll still get to experience the reef fully by snorkelling.
I only did one dive on my trip, and since I held a Dive Master certification, Haylea and I were able to explore the reef by ourselves. The rest of the time we spent free diving and snorkeling around the reef. While the diving was better, I definitely didn’t feel like I missed out by freediving for the rest of the trip.
A Typical Reef Itinerary – My Experience
To illustrate what you might expect on the best Great Barrier Reef Tour in Cairns, here’s an outline of my experience.
7:15 AM – Check-in
After checking in at the Reef Fleet Terminal near the Cairns Marina, we boarded the Evolution at approximately 7:30. Upon boarding, we were taken to the upstairs air-conditioned saloon to fill out scuba diving paperwork and to be briefed on the safety of the vessel and the upcoming dives.
Shortly after, we headed down to the restaurant where we enjoyed a coffee and scones as we steamed ahead for the fist reef location: Saxons reef.
9:00 AM – First Dive
Since we had dive-guiding experience the Dive Master gave us the options of following a guide or exploring ourselves. If I’ve never dived at a location before, I’d typically follow a guide since they usually have a fairly good idea of where to find the coolest stuff down there. However, Saxons Reef is a fairly straight forward dive as you follow a wall of reef. To date, the dive at Saxons Reef was the most impressive that I’d experienced on the Great Barrier Reef so far. Visibility was over 20 metres and we spotted white tips, huge Maori Wrasse, incredible fern corals and an array of other colourful schooling fish.
After being being blown away by the dive conditions, we enjoyed a feast on the deck overlooking the incredible coral waters of the Great Barrier Reef.
11:30 AM – Lunch
After scoffing down lunch, we were pretty keen to get back into the water to enjoy the pristine conditions. This time, we just brought our snorkels and fins and floated over the shallower parts of the reef, which were thankfully still really vibrant and full of life.
1:30 PM – Next Reef Location
The second dive location for our reef trip was North Hastings Reef. Hastings is one of the largest and most popular coral reef locations on the Great Barrier Reef. Typically, there’d be dozens of boats moored up along it’s edge, but you know, Covid. I certainly wasn’t complaining and contemplated just how lucky we are to be able to experience this incredible coral ecosystem to ourselves.
3:30 PM – Leave the Reef & Back to Cairns at 5:00 PM
The rest of the day was spent in the water and on the deck of the Evolution. Once it was time to return back to Cairns, we were offered a glass of ice-cool wine as we sailed back into harbour.
We disembarked the Evolution at approximately 4:45 PM which meant we had time for a sunset drink at the marina!
Did you know? The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living organism to have ever existed. This coral ecosystem spans nearly 350 000 square kilometres up the coast of Queensland. It’s also under threat from being lost for good. For ways you can help, read this article, or donate to the Great Barrier Reef Organisation.
Things to Know When Planning a Great Barrier Reef Tour From Cairns
I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Cairns over the past couple of years. While I’m not quite a local yet, I’ve been able to pick up some handy tips to help you make the most of your trip.
If you book the trip using Klook, you’ll receive a digital pass on the app and sent to your email. You don’t need to print a PDF copy, just bring your phone. All check-in instructions will be included.
Checking In & Where to Park
Check in to this and any of the best Great Barrier Reef tours in Cairns is at the Reef Terminal next to the Marina. The email says to be there 15 minutes prior to check-in time. For parking, there is a dedicated car park right near the terminal which costs $18 per day. You’ll need to book at least until 5-oclock. However, if you are going on the reef boat trip on a Sunday, you can snag a free parking spot at any of the middle island car parks in town. Otherwise, they’re only free parking for three hours on other days.
What to Bring
Pretty much everything you’ll need is included on this reef trip. I’d only recommend bringing:
- Camera / go pro
- Own mask / snorkel (if you don’t want to use the provided ones)
- Reef Safe Sunscreen
- Dive certification card (if you’re with PADI they can just look you up)
- A wetsuit if you get cold, but you typically won’t need one (usually $10 extra)
All food, water, stinger protection and dive/snorkel equipment is included on board.
More Things to do in Cairns
That concludes this detailed review for the Best Great Barrier Reef Tour in Cairns. If you have any questions about the trip, or if you want to share your experience, don’t be afraid to reach out in the comments below. Otherwise, if you’re planning more epic Cairns adventures, check out some of my other travel guides and blogs like this list of Epic Things to do in Cairns, or the comprehensive list of Cairns’ best waterfalls and hiking trails!