Which Great Barrier Reef tour is for you?
You’ve come to Tropical North Queensland with three objectives – to find Nemo, spot dory and fin-slap Crush. #lifegoals #respect.
Despite flipping through your dog-eared copy of Lonely Planet, kilograms of collateral from travel agents and conversation threads on TripAdvisor, you’re no closer to choosing a Great Barrier Reef tour because you’re spoilt for choice.
Choosing a tour is like opening a box of chocolates – you know they’re all going to be good but how do you go with just one?
If you’re basing your holiday in Cairns:
1. You’d like an intimate snorkel for 12 – Aroona Luxury Boat Charters
Aroona Luxury Boat Charters is a swanky boat found bobbing around the Cairns marina, taking guests on bespoke reef escapes. I say bespoke because these guys cater to just about anything. They cap tour numbers at 12 people, so you aren’t dictated by a large group’s schedule and can have input into the itinerary if you wish. Ohhhhh skipppppppeerrrrrr, more turtle time please!
When it comes to day trips, we like their day long tour. It departs Yorkey’s Knob Marina for a full day’s cruise to Vlasoff Cay (in case you’re not familiar with it, it’s the slice of paradise pictured above).
By morning tea you’ll arrival in situ for a snorkel, dive and fish, working up an appetite for a gourmet lunch spread enjoyed on board the boat. You’ll also get the chance to walk along Vlasoff Sand Cay (did someone say bucket list?) before returning home at about 5.30pm.
More serious scubees can arrange multiple day liveaboards to the Wild North, if it’s more remote diving you seek. You name it, chances are Aroona can do it.
Best for: People who don’t like crowds; like the finer things in life; want to build their own itinerary.
2. You want to swim the reef then sleep on it – Sunlover by Starlight
Sunlover by Starlight is the new kid on the reef and boy does it make sleeping in a hotel sound very per se.
You’ll cruise to Moore Reef and ‘glamp’ on top of it – in a two-day, one-night reef adventure.
By day you’ll be part of the Sunlover day cruise – snorkelling, glass-bottom boating and fish feeding on Moore Reef – and by night you’ll roll out a glamping swag and have a World Heritage Listed site to yourself.
With a maximum of 18 others (including staff) overnighting on the floating pontoon, it’s an intimate experience and as close as you’ll get to ‘a room with a reef view’.
What we love about this tour is that you can watch the sun set over water (a rare treat in Queensland with its eastern facing beaches), see the stars and wake up to the orange glow of sunrise over the blues and greens of the reef. This is surely where the hashtag #paradise was born.
After a hearty breakfast, you can have some one-on-one time with the GBR until the next day’s tourists arrive at 11am. How’s that for serenity?
Best for: People who want more than a day snorkelling, and want something to write home about.
3. You’re kinda a pro – Pro Dive Cairns
Pro Dive by name, Pro Dive by nature – it goes without saying that this boat is for people who know their way around a hooded lycra onesie better than Spiderman.
Pro-Dive’s liveaboard trips are for those who want to go all Jacques Cousteau on the reef, and spend anywhere between 3-7 days discovering what lies beneath the ocean’s surface. Three days will guarantee 11 dives including two night dives, for a comprehensive view of everything to do with this World Heritage Listed site.
If three days on water gives you sea legs just thinking about it, you might like to scale back to Pro Dive’s day trip. Their day boat Silverswift, spends over five hours at the reef, visiting three different outer reef sites – in what has to be one of the most comprehensive of all day trips.
If you’re just beginning your dive journey, you’ll be smitten with scuba after completing two introductory dives on board Silverswift. With a maximum of 32 guests, you won’t be overrun with crowds in the water or worse still, queueing for lunch when the buffet is rolled out at 12 noon.
Best for: Keen divers and snorkellers.
4. You want to set foot on an island – Raging Thunder
Once you arrive on Fitzroy Island, you can combine the ferry transfer service with a guided sea kayak and snorkel experience to see some of the most private stretches of beach that are only accessible by kayak. The tour includes a snorkel sesh, so you can get amongst the fringing reefs of this island paradise.
Once you’ve had your swimming fill, you can enjoy the rest of the day pottering around the island.
Best for: Landlubbers who want to do more than just swim.
5. You’re here for the ultimate selfie – Seawalker
Nothing says “I’ve been to the reef” like a picture taken at Seawalker on Green Island. It’s the opportunity to don an astronaut’s helmet, submerge 4.5m and walk along the sea floor – all while breathing normally.
What I love about Seawalker is that it’s easy. Trust me, the only skill necessary to participate is the ability to follow instructions – there is absolutely no swimming involved.
More than just an activity for non-swimmers, Seawalker is great for those with an attention span similar to a tropical fish. It’s 60 minutes from woe-to-go, keeps your hair dry and make up fresh, so you’ll have more time to discover the land-based activities on Green Island after you’ve ticked the reef off your bucket list.
Best for: People who can’t swim; want “the money shot”; want to see lots of fish but not exert any energy swimming to them.
You’re basing your holiday in Port Douglas
1. You’re busy, you don’t have time to spare – Reef Sprinter
It’s a question as old as time, “how can I see the reef in less than a day”? Enter, Reef Sprinter (clue is in the name), the two-hour reef trip, which takes off from Port Douglas. This tour isn’t just for people short on time, it’s made for people who don’t enjoy boats enough to stomach the rolling ocean that you encounter visiting the outer reef.
Onboard Reef Sprinter it only takes 15 minutes to get out to the reef, 15 minutes to get back and they’ll let you spend about 90 minutes snorkelling the bright blue water around the Low Isles. For my money, 90 minutes is enough time to tick off a number of coral formations, colourful fish and get a general gist of what the reef is about, leaving you with more time to get back to the mainland and hammock hangs.
Best for: People who are short on time; don’t love swimming; just want to see a small part of the reef.
2. You suffer FOMO and need a reef tour with the works – Quicksilver Cruises
Quicksilver Cruises is a decathlete in the reef world, excelling at about 10 different ways to experience the reef from its floating pontoon on Agincourt Ribbon Reef. Learn to dive, take an experienced dive, enjoy an introduction to snorkelling or go on a snorkel safari – the reef is your veritable oyster with Quicksilver’s outer reef day cruise.
From its pontoon position on one of the GBR’s ribbon reefs, the snorkelling is spectacular with clear visibility, colourful coral and plenty of marine life. Landlubbers and non-swimmers can breath easy (without an oxygen mask), and explore the reef from one of Quicksilver Cruises‘ semi-submersible boats, which cruise one metre underwater.
If you can spare a full day, it’s worth joining this full day cruise from Port Douglas at 9am and returning from the outer reef at 4.30pm. There may be bigger numbers on board a Quicksilver tour, but don’t expect to see the other passengers for long. With so many activities, you won’t all be in the same place at the same time and things feel pretty intimate once you break up for activities.
Best for: An all-rounder experience of the reef.
3. You like big sails and cannot lie – Low Isles Sailaway
Get your Captain Jack Sparrow and Elizabeth Swan on with a full-day sailing voyage to the Low Isles with Sailaway.
What we love about this tour is that you’ll spend less time off the boat than on it (even if the boat is picture perfect, sails and all).
Sailaway actually moors at Low Isles and the coral cay becomes base for this reef adventure, rather than a boat or a pontoon, which is good news for anyone who suffers motion sickness or wants a bit of island time infused with their reef trip.
There are 4.5 hours of time dedicated to snorkelling and exploring the island – the perfect mix of land and water-based activity.
If snorkel masks and flippers aren’t your thing – there’s a glass-bottom boat and a heritage walk to complete on the coral cay.
For those who book tours with their stomach, lunch includes fresh prawns, tandoori pieces, deli meats, salad options, homemade cakes and local tea and coffee – reason enough for me to sign up.
Best for: Spending less time on a boat than on it; those private island vibes.
Been on another reef cruise? Which tour was your favourite?
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