My review of the famous “Evolution” Great Barrier Reef Tour. Find out why I think it’s the best option in Cairns.
Heading out for a snorkel or dive trip to the Great Barrier Reef is by far one of the best tour experiences you can book in Cairns and a bucket list experience for most visiting FNQ.
The good news is that reef trips from Cairns are usually cheaper and more comprehensive than other locations in Queensland. However, with so many boats and tours to choose from, narrowing down on which day trip is best is difficult.
To help you save time in your search for the best Great Barrier Reef day trip from Cairns I’ve written this detailed experience and short review of my trip with Down Under Cruise and Dive.
Spoiler: I liked it so much that I’ve now gone back to do it twice!
By Olly Gaspar, traveler, travel blogger & photographer for 5+ years with 600+ published travel guides. I visit every place I write about & share real tips from what I learn.
My Recommended Great Barrier Reef Day Trip from Cairns
Most of the reef snorkel or dive trips from Cairns operate at a very high standard. However, it's true that these are quite expensive trips in general. So, choosing the right one is important if you want your dollar to go further.
This can be difficult since there are many boats. So many in fact, that there is an entire boat terminal dedicated to vessels headed for the GBR: The Reef Fleet Terminal.
To cut to the chase, after trying several trips and sailing out to the reef myself on countless occasions, I still recommend Down Under Cruise and Dive as the best Great Barrier Reef tour you can book in town.
- Down Under is still a Cairns local family company. I don't like to give my money to wealthy off-shore companies
- The Evolution is by far the most impressive boat offering reef dive and snorkel trips
- They are reviewed as having the highest level of safety
- One of the fastest boats so you can spend more time on the reef and less time in transit
- More free inclusions like tea, coffee, snacks, lunch and even wine
My Experience on The Great Barrier Reef Tour
Below I'll provide a detailed rundown of my experience from boarding at the terminal, to snorkeling and diving on the reef, and the return trip back to Cairns.
I've updated this article to include more information about the experience since I've been back on the same boat a second time. This time I chose the add-on to do a scenic helicopter flight on the same trip (highly recommend).
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.
This process went smoothly and was quite natural. The staff were friendly and while there were quite a few people on the boat, it didn't feel like we were just another number.
Shortly after, we headed down to the restaurant where we enjoyed a coffee and scones as we steamed ahead for the first reef location: Saxons Reef.
9:00 AM - First Dive (Or Snorkel)
Since we had dive-guiding experience the Dive Master gave us the option 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 straightforward 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 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 on the Boat
Lunch on the Evolution was buffet-style and they served rice, pasta, salads, meat, chicken, and fish. I had no complaints with the food. However, we weren't really informed when lunch was going to be on, and I could have easily missed it if I stayed in the water.
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. However, on this instance it was pretty quiet! 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!
Verdict: Is this the Best Reef Tour from Cairns?
After going on several reef day trips from Cairns, this is still my favorite trip. I am happy to recommend it to anyone looking for a quality experience. The main reasons why I chose this company are its boat (the fastest and most modern), its professional dive and boat crew, and the food is delicious.
Below I'll go into more detail about why I have chosen this as my recommended reef tour from Cairns.
A Locally Owned Business
What really sold me on this particular reef tour was the fact that they are one of the only businesses that are still locally owned and operated.
With the commercialization of the reef came big overseas investment, which unfortunately bought out most of the smaller boats and companies operating in Cairns.
The Reef 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 what the boat will be like, then let me assure you that it's one of the most important factors when choosing a trip.
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!
The Trip Inclusions
We visited two reef destinations on this trip, which is quite common amongst most of the operators in Cairns. Typically, all boats will ultimately choose the snorkel and dive sites depending on the weather conditions and how busy it is on that particular day.
However, Down Under wins for me for its boat inclusions. Here's what's on offer:
- 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
This is one of the most comprehensive inclusion lists I've found on GetYourGuide and Viator booking sites. However, one thing that I don't like is that we only got one dive in this base price. We were told that if we wanted more dives, we'd have to pay a bit extra which I didn't like.
Travel tip: 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 place to do so since it offers many great tour options departing daily from the Cairns Reef Fleet Terminal.
What Don't I Like About this Tour?
The only negative aspect about booking this particular tour for me was that it is quite a commercial experience compared to smaller offerings (although there are not many).
This is mostly due to the number of people that come on the boat (50+).
However, with so many tourists coming to Cairns every year to do these trips, it's very difficult to find a Great Barrier Reef tour operator that offers small group trips. If you want to avoid a busy boat, then I suggest doing a dive trip instead, although that won't suit everybody.
Tip: If you want to see the Great Barrier Reef from above, I recommend checking out a scenic flight from Cairns. These work out cheaper than a helicopter trip and boat trips!
Things to Know When Planning a Great Barrier Reef Tour From Cairns
Book Your Great Barrier Reef Tour Online
These days I always book all my tours online using GetYourGuide, Viator, or Klook.
On the first occassion, I booked the trip with Klook. However, the second time the price was cheaper on GetYourGuide. These days I generally go for the cheaper option since I know it'll be the same trip anyway.
However, GetYourGuide is my preference since I know it good thing about this is that I get free cancellation options and a digital pass on the app sent to my phone.
This means that I don't need to print a PDF copy, just bring my phone. All check-in instructions are provided in the ticket as well which is handy.
Checking In at the Reef Terminal & Where to Park in Cairns
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 with the ticket says to be there 15 minutes before check-in time.
For parking, there is a dedicated car park right near the terminal but this is paid parking.
You'll need to book at least until 5 o'clock. However, there is free parking spots at any of the middle island car parks in town, if you're early enough!
What to Bring to the Great Barrier Reef
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 are included on board.
Should I Snorkel or Dive on the Great Barrier Reef?
Since the Great Barrier Reef is a fairly shallow and calm dive location, most of the reef boat trips offer introductory dives with associations like PADI even if you have never scuba-dived before. This is called a "Discover Scuba".
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 both my trips, 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 when snorkeling!
More Things to Do in Cairns
If you have any questions about the trip or 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 below.
- 60+ Things to do in Cairns - my ultimate Cairns and FNQ travel resource covering the best activities, hidden gems, and unmissable experiences.
- Cairns Hiking Guide - a huge list of epic rainforest, waterfall, and lookout hikes in Cairns.
- Cairns Waterfalls - a huge list of epic waterfalls that I've visited in Cairns and the surrounding tropics.
- Cairns Islands - discover my favorite Great Barrier Reef islands near Cairns and Port Douglas.
- Cairns Tours - my roundup of the best tours you can book in Cairns and FNQ, from the Great Barrier Reef to the Daintree Rainforest.
- Cairns Packing List - tips on what to pack for a trip to Far North Queensland.
- Top Things to Do in Port Douglas - a comprehensive guide to the sleepy Far North Queensland town of Port Douglas.
- Epic 5-Day Cairns Itinerary - my suggested adventure itinerary if you only have 5 days to spend in Cairns.
- Cape Tribulation Travel Guide - discover where the rainforest meets the reef at one of my favourite places in Australia.
- Magnetic Island Travel Guide - your ultimate resource for visiting "Maggie" near Townsville.
- Best Things to do in the Atherton Tablelands - my guide to one of Far North Queensland's most underrated adventure destinations.
- Accommodation Resources: Discover where to stay in Cairns, the best hotels in Port Douglas and my Cape Tribulation accommodation guide.