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Guide to Michaelmas Cay on the Outer Great Barrier Reef

Guide to Michaelmas Cay on the Outer Great Barrier Reef

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.

Michaelmas Cay is a small sand cay located on the famous Cairns Great Barrier Reef. Read this complete guide to visiting based on my personal experience.

In my opinion, visiting the outer reef is one of the best experiences you can have in Cairns. That’s because Cairns is the gateway to this incredible natural wonder, with many boat trips providing easy access to its cays and islands.

So, if you’re looking to visit the best of the Great Barrier Reef, make sure you don’t miss a trip to Michaelmas Cay. I’ve visited this epic slice of the Great Barrier reef on two separate occasions. In this quick guide, I’ll give you a rundown of exactly how to get here, what to expect, and tips for visiting.

Michaelmas cay great barrier reef aerial drone
Michaelmas Cay on the Great Barrier Reef

How to Get to Michaelmas Cay and the Outer Reef

When you're planning your outer reef trip, there are dozens of different coral cays, islands, and reefs to choose from. In my opinion, one of the best is Michaelmas Cay.

To get here, it's a 40 km boat ride North East of Cairns.

You can book a trip to Michaelmas Cay online with Ocean Spirit Cruises. This will cost roughly $250 per person. However, it includes a full day of cruising past the Great Barrier Reef Islands, snorkeling at the reef, and a glass-bottom boat ride.

On the way, you'll pass the popular Green Island. This is one of the best islands to visit close to Cairns, as you can enjoy tropical island rainforest and coral reefs on the same day!

Green island cairns

About Michaelmas Cay National Park & the Cairns Great Barrier Reef

Michaelmas and Upulu Reefs are National Parks protected under the World Heritage Listing. As a result, they are pretty well looked after, besides the threat of coral bleaching due to climate change.

The reef was initially named Oyster Cay in 1849 but was later renamed when it was used by the beche-de-mar (sea cucumber) industry. It was recognized as an official National Park in 1975.

The small stretch of sand is located at the tip of Michaelmas Reef, which itself stretches for many kilometers further north.

The cay has little to no vegetation and resembles a sandbar with surrounding reef. There is no overnight camping at Michaelmas Cay, since the site is an important nesting place for birds. Furthermore, you can only walk on the sand cay inside the roped area, and only between 9:30 am and 3:30 pm.

Michaelmas cay great barrier reef

Bird Nesting Site at Michaelmas Cay

Up to 20 0000 birds in the peak nesting season. For a short time, the droppings left by the birds were collected and sold as guano.

Since the National Park classification, the birds and reef have been much healthier. Now, only indigenous use is allowed by the traditional owners; the Gungandji, Mandingalbay-Yidinji and Yirriganydji people.

Michaelmas cay great barrier reef

Snorkeling at Michaelmas Cay

The main attraction at Michaelmas Cay and the rest of the outer reef is the incredible snorkeling and diving. This was the main reason why I made the trip out here, and it didn't disappoint!

While the corals aren't as healthy in my opinion as neighboring Upulu Cay, we still saw hundreds of species of healthy corals, large schools of fish and occasionally a cruising turtle.

If you book a boat, they will probably take you to some good snorkeling spots just off the edge of the cay, which is the best place to go snorkelling.

Some tour companies even offer a guided snorkeling tour. This is a great way to learn about reef biodiversity.

Turtles at michaelmas cay on the great barrier reef
Snorkeling at michaelmas cay cairns
Swimming at the great barrier reef near cairns

Scuba Diving at the Outer Reef

Of course, scuba diving is probably the best way to experience Michaelmas Cay and the outer reef. However, you'll need to book ahead either in Cairns or Port Douglas.

There are hundreds of businesses that offer trips to the reef. The dive sites will vary depending on the company and the weather conditions. If you're interested in scuba diving day trips, then I can recommend Quicksilver for regular trips and reliable equipment.

If you're a beginner and want a complete 5 Day Scuba Diving Course, then you can click that link to get a cheap online deal. This offers 9 dives, and you'll get certified under PADI, which is the most recognised body in diving.

Scenic Helicopter Flight over Michaelmas Cay

Looking for a bit of adrenaline and the best possible view of Michaelmas Cay and the Great Barrier Reef? You can take a scenic flight over the cay and surrounding reefs.

Seeing the Great Barrier Reef from the sky is one of the most surreal views imaginable, and certainly one of the best things to do around Cairns.

Michaelmas cay great barrier reef, cairns
Michaelmas cay great barrier reef
Michaelmas cay great barrier reef
Michaelmas cay great barrier reef
Great barrier reef helicopter view
Michaelmas cay great barrier reef

Sailing and Anchorage Information at Michaelmas Cay

Michaelmas Cay is great for sailors and boaters since it's a fairly quick and straight shot from Cairns Harbour. It took us roughly 2 hours to reach the cay from Green Island, and approximately 5 hours from Cairns in total.

There are two public courtesy moorings available if you want a convenient mooring close to the cay. To get here, you'll need to navigate around the white reef markers and navigate through the bommies on the North end of the reef.

If none are available, it's possible to anchor just outside the northern entrance to the cay in 16 meters of water.

Boaters and sailors looking for more information about Michaelmas Cay can do so on the QLD Parks website.

Sailing yacht at the great barrier reef

Marine Stingers on the Reef?

If you're already on the Great Barrier Reef, then you'll have probably already heard about the dangerous marine stingers.

It's generally advised to wear a stinger suit in the summer months, as they are much more prevalent on the coast at this time. However, stingers are hardly ever seen on the outer reef, but it's up to you to take precautions.

Snorkeling at the great barrier reef near cairns with stinger suit

More Photos of Michaelmas Cay and the Great Barrier Reef

Already in Cairns and thinking about the next thing to do on your Great Barrier Reef itinerary? Hopefully, some of these aerial and underwater photos from Michaelmas Cay will inspire you to visit one of Queensland's best destinations.

Snorkeling at the great barrier reef near cairns
Snorkeling near hard coral on the great barrier reef
Snorkeling at michaelmas cay cairns
Snorkeling at michaelmas cay
Sailing boat at the reef in cairns
Michaelmas cay great barrier reef
Great barrier reef helicopter view
Michaelmas cay great barrier reef
Michaelmas cay great barrier reef, michaelmas cay outer reef, aerial drone photo,
Panorama of michaelmas cay great barrier reef

More Great Barrier Reef Travel & Adventure Inspiration

I hope you've enjoyed this up-to-date travel guide to visiting Michaelmas Cay on the Great Barrier Reef. Before you head off, don't miss these useful travel guides to help you make the most of your trip to Cairns.

Michaelmas cay – exploring the best of the outer great barrier reef
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.