Where to get your PADI diving certification on the Great Barrier Reef
What better place to learn than the Great Barrier Reef? Warm, clear waters, practically no current, great stuff to see on your first open water dive, and associated bragging rights when asked, “Where did you learn to dive?”.
But where? It’s a fair question as the Great Barrier Reef (the Reef) is a pretty big place – almost 3,000 reefs and 300 coral cays – the only living organism visible from space.
But actually, the best part of the Reef isn’t visible from space at all – not even from the beach. You need to learn to dive to see this vibrant community of marine life from the tiny coral polyps to the colourful reef fish, and the megafauna: sharks, manta rays and turtles.
Snorkelling can be great fun but it’s like looking through a shop window – you can only see a small fraction of what’s on offer.
What’s in store?
The Reef’s Great Eight for starters. Impressive in themselves and fun to tick off as you see them, but just a taster really.
Clownfish are just one of a hundred species of the brightly coloured fish on the Reef. Another of the Great Eight, the maori wrasse is a solitary fish – imagine seeing schools of a thousand fusiliers whistling passed you on your dive.
Then there’s the giant clam – big and colourful, in contrast to the ‘nudis’ – small and brightly coloured sea slugs that breathe through their bum! And the practically motionless potato cod, compared to bumphead parrot fish that roam like a herd of buffalo across the coral meadows.
Half of life on earth lives in its oceans and most of the interesting stuff lives on a coral reef.
With the Reef being slightly larger than Italy, it pays to narrow it down by region before looking for a dive school. Let’s have a look at the different regions of the Reef starting at the bottom.
Where to get PADI certified on the Reef
If you already have a trip planned – just choose a dive centre where you’re headed. If you’re free to choose, here are some options by region.
Southern Great Barrier Reef
Characterised by coral cays, two of the largest boast some of the best wildlife you’ll see on the Southern Great Barrier Reef.
Lady Elliot Island is home to both manta ray and turtles. Being just 10km from the continental shelf, mantas regularly visit their cleaning stations where over 100 manta rays have individually been identified by Project Manta.
Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort offers a dive course spread over a full week so you can learn to dive and enjoy your holiday. With its whale season, manta season and turtle season – there’s plenty going off all year round.
On Heron Island you can see turtles nesting on the beach, and a few months later, watch the new hatchlings scamper down the beach to their ocean home. On every dive around Heron, you’ll see turtles in the water as well as some of the most pristine coral reef environments.
Heron Island Marine Centre offers the standard course and you can stick around as a ‘certified diver’ and notch up a few more dives – most of the sites around Heron are at less than 18m.
Next major stop north: the Whitsundays. These are continental islands (rather than coral cays), but have fringing coral reefs in sheltered bays – the perfect place to learn to dive and the outer reef is just an hour away, and the perfect place to graduate.
Dive amongst batfish, titan triggers and angelfish. A giant Queensland grouper lives under the Hardy Reef pontoon and turtles regularly visit.
If you’re staying at Airlie Beach, head over to Whitsunday Dive Adventures and if you’re on Hamilton Island head down to Explore Group’s shop on the marina. With both, the training is local and the qualifying dives are on the outer reefs where you’ll meet at least half the Great Eight.
Townsville North Queensland
Magnetic Island boasts some of the easiest shore diving – even with a couple of wrecks thrown in – always a mecca for fish. Dive boats visit the nearest reefs such as Lodestone which has channels in the reef chock-a-block with schooling fish, gutters below littered with wobbegongs, and the chance to see a passing manta.
Both Remote Area Dive and Adrenalin Snorkel and Dive offer regular open water courses. They’ll have you out on Lodestone Reef for your qualifying dives.
Cairns and Port Douglas
The town everyone thinks of when it comes to diving the Reef: Cairns. The outer reefs are about 90 minutes – and a world away – from this popular jump off spot.
On any of the reefs you can expect to see clownfish and giant clams, a reef shark or two, and each reef seems to have its own resident Maori wrasse that almost welcomes divers and snorkelers as they get off the day boats. The dive boats out of Port Douglas offer a similar experience to their local reefs.
Things work a little differently in this region. The day boats heading to the outer reefs are busy with snorkelers and certified divers, so no training takes place on these boats. They work with land-based training centres to offer the qualifying dives, once the theory and practical skills have been mastered.
Learn with Pro Dive Cairns, and go out on the TUSA; or try Deep Sea Divers Den, then go out on their liveaboard. In Port Douglas, learn with Blue Dive and go out on Calypso or Poseidon. The difference is you won’t have the same instructor throughout your course.
If that’s an issue, go with Down Under Cruise and Dive in Cairns or ABC Scuba Diving in Port Douglas who both have their own smaller boats.
Once you have about 20 dives under your weight belt you can head up there to the famous Cod Hole, where divers come face-to-face with a dozen or so massive potato cod in a natural aquarium, and Steve’s Bommie, a famous submerged pinnacle where you can count a hundred marine species in one dive.
OK, so you’ve chosen where, what next?
First things first: you want to get certified.
Discover Scuba Diving (DSD), Try Diving and any Resort Dive Program might include basic theory, basic skills and an open water dive but does not lead to a qualification. It’s the PADI Open Water Certification – that qualifies you to dive to 18m – that you want.
This a 4-day course which includes one day of theory – either classroom or eLearning; one day in confined water (a swimming pool) learning and practising the skills of scuba diving, then the real stuff – four dives over two days in the open ocean practising the skills and enjoying the thrill of getting up-close-and-personal with the reefs inhabitants in their natural environment.
Some schools allow you to do the theory by eLearning, making it a 3-day course, others allow you to tag on more dives at the end making it a 5 or 6-day course and dive holiday.
The only prerequisite is a medical questionnaire. Download one and check you can tick all the boxes. Asthma or heart problems will probably exclude you, and other conditions might require a short medical with a GP.
(Psst, and don’t forget to learn the lingo before you go!).
All set to go!
So what are you waiting for? The best half of the planet awaits you.
Here’s a littler taster of what you can expect!