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Where to go Snorkelling in Cairns: Best Spots & Reef Trips

Where to go Snorkelling in Cairns: Best Spots & Reef Trips

Olly Gaspar

By Olly Gaspar, full-time traveler for 6 years. I visit every place I write about & share real tips, photos, & advice from my trips.

Visiting Cairns to experience the Great Barrier Reef? Here are the best places to go snorkelling and scuba diving, from the islands to the outer reef.

Cairns is widely known as the gateway to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. However, it’s important to note that the best snorkelling experiences are not found near the town or on the Northern Beaches.

The coast around Cairns doesn’t have crystal clear water or healthy corals and marine life like you might have seen in advertisements. Whether you like it or not, you’ll need to go on a day trip, ferry, or boat to get to the proper snorkelling spots. Below I’ll help you do just that.

Top Islands for Snorkelling Near Cairns

If you're chasing more accessible snorkelling adventures, the islands near Cairns offer some of the best options, especially for families with kids. These islands are reachable via short ferry rides and boast absolutely stunning beaches with direct access to vibrant coral reefs and diverse marine life.

Snorkelling locations near cairns, australia

Green Island - Best Snorkelling Island for Families

  • Location: 27 km (17 mi) from Cairns, accessible via a 45-minute ferry ride.
  • Highlights: Coral gardens, tropical fish, and occasional sea turtles.
  • Why Visit: This popular island offers easy access to stunning reefs directly from the beach, making it perfect for families and beginners.

Green Island is perhaps the most famous and iconic postcard location near Cairns. This coral cay has been naturally transformed into a lively oasis thanks to seeds dropped by birds and features a healthy fringing reef around its shores.

The best snorkelling spots on Green Island are located on the northern side of the island, where you can find healthy coral gardens teeming with colorful fish. The shallow waters are perfect for beginners, and I've spotted several sea turtles in this area. The island itself offers amenities such as restaurants, shops, and walking trails, as well, making it a great day trip!

Green island aerial view
Snorkeling at green island near cairns

Tip: Get $5 off any of the tours linked in my guides with code OLLY5 !

Fitzroy Island - Best Snorkelling Spot for Sea Turtles

  • Location: 29 km (18 mi) southeast of Cairns, 45-minute ferry ride.
  • Highlights: Nudey Beach, turtles, and diverse marine life.
  • Why Visit: Fitzroy Island's Nudey Beach is one of the best beaches in Australia. The island also offers great hiking trails and other fun activities.

94% of the 3.39 square kilometres making up Fitzroy island is considered National Park! This is a lush, more rugged tropical paradise that also takes just 45 minutes to get to from Cairns. It features a tall mountain peak and healthy coral reefs in the main area called Welcome Bay.

The best snorkelling locations on Fitzroy Island can be found at Nudey Beach, White Rock, and Shark Fin Rock, all within swimming distance from Welcome Bay. In my opinion, this island has more turtles than any other snorkelling spot on the Great Barrier Reef! I've also seen clownfish, angelfish, and even small reef sharks here.

Fitzroy island from above
Turtle at fitzroy island

Frankland Islands - Healthiest Coral Reef Island

  • Location: 45 km (28 mi) southeast of Cairns, accessible via a 30-minute bus ride and a 45-minute boat ride on the Mulgrave River.
  • Highlights: Healthiest fringing reef near Cairns and trip with a marine biologist guide.
  • Why Visit: The Frankland Islands offer a more healthy reef and less crowded snorkelling experience

The Frankland Islands are a group of unspoiled and relatively unknown islands surrounded by vibrant coral reefs south of Cairns. This group is made up of five continental islands, Normanby, High, Russell, Round and Mabel.

Strangely, there's only one operator offering trips to this island. I recently did this trip booked via BackpackerDeals which was great and included a guided snorkel with a marine biologist guide.

The best snorkelling spots at the Frankland Islands are found just off the beaches of Normanby Island and Russell Island, where the waters are shallow and the visibility is excellent. The reef at these islands is just as healthy as the outer reef, since it is fed by a steady stream of nutrients from the nearby mangroves!

Frankland islands day trip from cairns
Anenome at frankland islands

The Low Isles - Best Snorkelling Spot Near Port Douglas

  • Location: 15 km (9 mi) northeast of Port Douglas, accessible via a 30-minute boat ride.
  • Highlights: Coral gardens, sea turtles, and historic lighthouse
  • Why Visit: The Low Isles offer an easy and enjoyable snorkelling trip close to Port Douglas

If you're staying in Port Douglas, then the easiest and best place to go snorkelling will be at the Low Isles. The Low Isles are a pair of small, pristine islands surrounded by beautiful coral reefs. The best Low Isles snorkelling spots are located around the sheltered lagoon between Low Island and Round Island, where you can find coral gardens and occasionally a cruising sea turtle.

The shallow and calm waters make the Low Isles perfect for families with kids looking for an easy, fun, and scenic snorkelling day trip from Port Douglas.

Snorkeling at low isles
Low isles, snorkeling port douglas

Best Snorkelling Spots on the Outer Great Barrier Reef

By far, the clearest water and the healthiest reefs are offshore on the outer Great Barrier Reef. This is home to over 3,000 individual reefs– so finding the best spots is a bit hard. Luckily some of the best ones are located right near Cairns, with easy access via one of the dozen excellent Great Barrier Reef Day tour options from the Reef Fleet Terminal in Cairns.

Below are my favourite cays and reefs on the Outer Great Barrier Reef I recommend visiting directly from Cairns for snorkelling or diving.

Michaelmas Cay

  • Location: 40 km (25 mi) northeast of Cairns, accessible via dive or snorkel day trips
  • Highlights: Seabird sanctuary, soft corals, and clear water.
  • Why Visit: This picturesque cay provides excellent snorkelling close to a scenic sandy cay.

Michaelmas Cay is a small, sandy island smack bang in the outer Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and surrounded by healthy coral reefs.

The best snorkelling at Michaelmas Cay is found directly off the beach, where you can wade into the shallow waters and explore the reef. However, most boat trips will not let passengers onto the sand since it's a protected bird santauary. Instead, you can snorkel around the corals just a bit further out from the boat.

Michaelmas cay aerial view
Snorkeling at michaelmas cay near cairns

Vlasoff Cay

  • Location: 33 km (20 mi) northeast of Cairns
  • Highlights: Sandy cay with white sand and pristine corals
  • Why Visit: Great if you want to snorkel off a sandy island in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef

Vlasoff Cay is a secluded, sandy cay surrounded by the vibrant waters of the Great Barrier Reef. Most Cairns helicopter tours will fly over this cay since it looks absolutely amazing from the sky. However, the reef is just as beautiful below the water.

The best snorkelling spots at Vlasoff Cay are found all around the cay. Since this is an outer reef site, the water is much clearer than the other islands closer to Cairns' mainland. Furthermore, unlike Michaelmas Cay you are free to explore the beach as well!

Snorkeling at vlasoff cay
Vlasoff cay near cairns great barrier reef

Moore Reef

  • Location: 50 km (31 mi) offshore
  • Highlights: Coral gardens, giant clams, and a variety of fish species.
  • Why Visit: Moore Reef is known as one of the best scuba diving sites near Cairns.

Moore Reef is one of the most popular snorkelling and scuba diving destinations on the Outer Great Barrier Reef. That's because the corals here are very healthy and drop into deep, blue waters. There are also many protected sites surrounded by high bommies.

The reef features expansive coral gardens that are home to giant clams, colorful fish, and huge fish! If you plan on snorkelling you can explore both shallow and deeper sections, but for the best experience book a diving trip to this reef!

Corals at moore reef, great barrier reef

Hastings Reef

  • Location: 50 km (31 mi) offshore northeast of Cairns
  • Highlights: Vibrant corals, diverse fish species, and occasional reef sharks.
  • Why Visit: Hastings Reef is a popular spot for both snorkelling and diving and commonly gets excellent visibility.

Hastings Reef is one of my personal favourite spots on the outer reef. I've visited countless times on sailing trips and on dive boats from Cairns Reef Fleet Terminal. This spot regularly produces excellent visibility and the corals are very healthy. If you want to snorkel on the Outer Reef, I highly recommend a trip here.

It's home to some of the most diverse coral formations and I commonly spot white tip reef sharks here. Additionally, there's a resident giant Napolean Fish that tends to hang around the dive boats (he's friendly). You'll also likely spot rays, anemone fish, and turtles at this spot!

Scuba diving on the great barrier reef tour cairns

Norman Reef

  • Location: Approximately 70 km (43 mi) northeast of Cairns, around 1.5 to 2 hours by boat.
  • Highlights: Unique coral formations, abundant marine life, and excellent visibility.
  • Why Visit: Norman Reef is one of the clearest snorkeling spots on the outer Great Barrier Reef.

Norman Reef is another great spot to visit on the Great Barrier Reef for snorkeling. This site boasts excellent visibility and the high bommies create good shelter from currents.

Most boat trips from Cairns to the outer reef will visit two sites, sometimes three, with Norman Reef often being one of the chosen spots. These trips frequently include Norman Reef along with Hastings Reef and Moore Reef.

Giant clam at norman reef near cairns

Where to Stay In Cairns

Visiting Cairns? The best places to stay are near the Cairns Esplanade or on the sunny Northern Beaches. Below are the top 4 options for varying budgets.

Alternatively, check out my Port Douglas accommodation guide for more ideas on where to stay in Far North Queensland.

Girl sunbathing at crystalbrook riley resort in cairns

1. Crystalbrook Riley Luxury

If luxury and location are what you're after, you can't beat this 5-star resort right in the heart of Cairns Esplanade.

Fitzroy island wharf

2. Fitzroy Island Resort Mid-Range

Sleep out on one of the picturesque Great Barrier Reef Islands! Staying at Fitzroy often works out cheaper than staying in town & means you get more time to explore the reef, beaches, and rainforest walking trails.

Gilligans backpacker resort

3. Gilligan's Backpackers Budget

The best backpacker option for a great vibe in Cairns. Great place to meet like-minded travelers & features a pool, air-con rooms, a huge shared kitchen, & a great common area.

Peppers beach club four mile beach port douglas

4. Pepper's Beach Club Palm Cove

Stay at the best beach resort in the heart of Palm Cove on Cairns's Northern Beaches!


What is the closest reef to Cairns?

The closest reef to Cairns is the Green Island Reef, located just 27 km (17 mi) from the city CBD. It takes about 45 minutes by ferry to reach this popular snorkeling spot and it's also one of the cheapest islands to visit.

Is it better to snorkel in Cairns or the Whitsundays?

Both Cairns and the Whitsundays offer great snorkeling experiences, but in my opinion, Cairns provides much easier access to the outer Great Barrier Reef and overall better snorkeling.

Is Port Douglas or Cairns better for snorkeling?

Snorkeling directly from the beach at Port Douglas or Cairns is not a good idea since the water is usually pretty murky and there can be crocs around. Instead, you'll want to go on a boat trip to the outside islands or one of the outer reef spots on the GBR above.

Which part of the Great Barrier Reef is best for snorkeling?

The outer Great Barrier Reef is one of the best places for snorkeling in the world– but it's huge! Most reef fleet boats and day trips will visit some of the most accessible and sheltered sites like Moore Reef, Hastings Reef, and Michaelmas Cay which are great for snorkeling and diving in clear visibility.

How long does it take to get from Cairns to the Great Barrier Reef?

The travel time from Cairns to the Great Barrier Reef varies depending on the specific reef destination. On average, expect a journey of about an hour to 2 hours by boat to reach the outer reefs such as Moore Reef or Hastings Reef. However, some of the newer boats in Cairns lately like the Evolution can get you out there a bit quicker. For closer locations like Green Island, the ferry ride is approximately 45 minutes.

What are the best months for snorkeling in Cairns?

The best months for snorkeling in Cairns are from May to November, which we call the dry season. During this period, the weather is more stable, and cooler, and the water visibility is generally better. Additionally, there is less chance of marine stingers so it's much safer overall in the water.

Do I need a stinger suit for snorkeling in Cairns?

Yes, they look pretty silly but most tour companies will recommend that you wear a stinger suit. These are thin micro-net type suits that cover you from head to toe and provide great protection from jellyfish stings (some of which can kill you). Even though it's hotter, I usually wear it when diving and in the stinger season from November to May.

The good news is that most tour operators provide stinger suits as part of their equipment package.

I hope you've enjoyed this Cairns travel guide! For more inspiration for your trip, check out my guides below.

Scuba divers at fitzroy island
Thanks for Reading

I'm Olly Gaspar, adventure traveler from Australia. I’ve spent the last six years traveling the world full-time, sharing my first-hand experiences & photography in over 700 travel guides on We Seek Travel. I visit every destination I write about to bring you unique travel itineraries, epic hiking routes, fun tour ideas, travel & photography gear ideas, & interesting places to stay.

I only make genuine, worthwhile recommendations based on my experience, expertise, & research. If you buy through my links, I may get a commission, supporting this website at no extra cost to you. Read my Publishing Ethics Statement.