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On my first trip to Australia I only had one must-do activity on my list: Go Snorkeling on a Great Barrier Reef Cruise. I had snorkeled in the Caribbean Sea while visiting St. Maarten, at Captain Cook in Kona, Hawaii and in the lagoons surrounding Moorea Island, French Polynesia – and I wasn’t leaving Australia without taking one of the snorkeling Great Barrier Reef tours. We planned our route in Australia from south to north, starting in Sydney and ending in Cairns – where we would finally experience a snorkeling Cairns cruise.
Cairns Reef Tours
There are numerous Cairns Great Barrier Reef tours that transport passengers to the outer barrier reef to snorkel. Most full-day Great Barrier Reef trips follow the same schedule: early departure, multiple snorkeling spots, snorkel equipment, an included lunch and water and coffee throughout the day. However, not all cruises from Cairns offer the same reef experience. Some barrier reef tours offer indulgent lunches on sleek boats, while other Cairns cruises only offer the basics. Additionally, there are full-day and half-day snorkeling Cairns tours.
Booking Cairns Snorkeling Tours
As budget-conscious travelers, we were most interested in an economical Cairns Great Barrier Reef snorkel tour. But also one that visited multiple snorkeling sites. We were not overly concerned with the type of boat, the kind of food served or other on-board amenities. The ‘extras’ can enhance the experience of barrier reef cruises, but at a cost. With a little more room in our Cairns, Australia budget, we would have factored those points into our decision. However, we were simply looking for cheap Great Barrier Reef tours that allowed us time to swim with the fish.
We waited to book our Cairns tour until we arrived in the city – which probably would have been a mistake in the high season. Our visit, however, was in August, which is the middle of Australia’s winter when Great Barrier Reef holidays are not as in great demand. The day before we wanted to go, we went to the dock where the Great Barrier Reef snorkeling tours depart and asked around for itineraries and prices. In hindsight, we did not need to waste time going to the docks; we would have been better off reading reviews and booking one of the Great Barrier Reef tours from Cairns online. More on Great Barrier Reef Snorkeling prices at the end of the post!
On the day of our Cairns to Great Barrier Reef trip, the ocean was flat and clouds hung in the sky. It was a perfect day. The conditions were optimal for the best snorkeling Great Barrier Reef experience. The crew claimed it was the best day they had for reef trips from Cairns in four months. Once we were checked in, we filled out the necessary paperwork and were given a safety briefing. The crew gave us a rundown on the Great Barrier Reef itinerary: Boat from Cairns to barrier reef, snorkel, lunch, snorkel, return to Cairns.
Fellow passengers sat at tables inside the cabin. We grabbed a cup of complimentary coffee and claimed the bow of the ship as our own. Along with the other Cairns outer reef tours, we departed the docks and headed east. It was a two-hour journey to our first snorkel stop, Breaking Patches Reef, an outer Great Barrier Reef just off Michaelmas Cay.
Snorkeling Great Barrier Reef Cairns: Breaking Patches
Although we had left with all of the other boats on Great Barrier Reef day trips from Cairns, ours was the only boat at the Cairns reef, Break Patches. With my fins secured to my feet and the proper amount of anti-fog spit rubbed in my mask, I pushed off from the side platform into the cold, clear waters of the outer Great Barrier Reef. The shallow sea backlit by the shining sun made it easy to spot the bright tropical fish and a sting ray in the sand. I had only been in the water for a few minutes and I was already claiming the Great Barrier Reef snorkeling tour from Cairns a success. The colors were vibrant, the clarity incredible, the experience phenomenal.
The fish we saw were similar to species we had seen while snorkeling in Moorea, but the Cairns, Australia Great Barrier Reef took snorkeling to another level. Although the fish were alike, the reef experience in Cairns was gigantic in comparison. The fish were enormous and strikingly rich in color. The entire Cairns barrier reef was humming with lively activity. As we floated over the colossal reefs, we could hear a clicking of the Parrot Fish feasting on the coral. The coral seemed endless and more than once I had to force myself to stay within the required distance allowed from the boat rather than venturing out.
Reef Cruises Cairns Lunch
The crew called us back to the boat when it was time for lunch. The on-board meal was a scrumptious and hearty helping of curry chicken, sausages and salads. Although other more luxurious Cairns barrier reef tours offer fresh seafood lunches, we were content with the meal we had. We were eating on the move as we motored to our next snorkeling destination, Hastings Reef.
Cairns, Australia Snorkeling: Hastings Reef
Revved up about our Cairns excursion, we were the first ones in the water when we arrived at Hastings Reef. We never imagined that on one of the Great Barrier Reef Cairns tours we would have the reef to ourselves – even if it was for just a few minutes. And it was amazing.
Entire schools of fish would sway with the current. We watched some fish that seemed to be on a mission. Other fish stayed close to the branched coral, a perfect hiding spot when intruders came by. I could just almost reach out and touch the intensely colorful fish as they swam by me, giving me a hard, one-eyed stare. The smallest fish I saw was a transparent fish the size of the end of my pinky finger. On the other end of the spectrum, two-foot long fish that glowed bright neon were impossible to miss.
Great Barrier Reef Attractions: Maori Wrasse and Reef Sharks
In much deeper water at Hastings Reef, the coral heads protruded from the ocean floor. They were absolutely teeming with marine life. As we swam, we encountered fascinating underwater scenes not witnessed in the shallow water on our first Cairns reef snorkeling stop. In addition to the colorful tropical fish, we caught sight of two of the most sought-after underwater creatures on Cairns snorkelling trips: a Maori Wrasse and reef sharks.
It was on the far side of the coral that I encountered the biggest fish I’ve ever seen while under water, a Maori Wrasse. The enormous, grayish-purple fish is commonly featured on brochures for Cairns boat trips, but I had no real hopes of actually catching a glimpse of one on our Great Barrier Reef boat tour. When I swam around the coral, the puffy-lipped fish looked at me with its suspect, bubbly eyes. Measuring about four feet long and two feet from top to bottom, the Maori Wrasse was agile enough to evade a close-up inspection from us. Spotting the iconic fish was a highlight of our Cairns Great Barrier Reef day tour.
However, there were more surprises in store at Hastings Reef. In between mammoth coral heads, we clearly saw two reef sharks on the sandy bottom of the sea. The harmless sharks playfully chased each other in circles as we hovered above watching in awe. The calm water made it easy to explore and there seemed to be a never-ending amount of reef to discover. Even though the water was cold, we didn’t want our Australia Great Barrier Reef tour to end.
One More Great Barrier Reef Experience: Boomnetting
Although outer Great Barrier Reef tours are focused on the best snorkeling Cairns has to offer, some Cairns boat tours offer additional water activities. On our boat trip back to the city, we learned there was one more activity in the water: Boomnetting. Not a game I was familiar with, a rope net is dragged from the back of the boat with participants clinging to the netting. As the boat speeds up, the goal is to hang on for as long as you can.
To be honest, the game is probably more suited to an episode of Stupid Human Tricks than a Great Barrier Reef cruises from Cairns. That being said, the challenge was too enticing to pass up. Besides, it allowed us one more chance to swim in the sea. We were the first in line and took our places on the net with other adventurous passengers. My friend bailed on Speed One. I hung on until Speed Two, letting go when I had had my fill of my face full of saltwater. No one lasted past Speed Three.
Great Barrier Reef Cruises Cairns: The Return
After boarding the boat for the fourth – and final – time, the captain navigated the waters back to land. On the return trip, the crew offered complimentary wine and cheese and opened the bar. On the remainder of our Cairns snorkelling day trip, we lounged on the bow of the boat. We tipped a few beers and mingled with other passengers.
Reflecting on the barrier reef tour from Cairns, we felt our Great Barrier Reef boat trip offered incredible value for money. For us, it was the best Great Barrier Reef snorkeling tour on a budget. We snorkeled one of the most epic reefs in the world, witnessed underwater creatures we never imagined we would see and had an enjoyable time on board. For the price we paid, we could not have had a better reef day trip from Cairns.
Great Barrier Reef Snorkeling Prices
Great Barrier Reef trips from Cairns vary in price depending on several factors. Our snorkeling Cairns day tour cost about $100 USD, but prices have risen slightly since our trip. Highly-rated tours cost about $150 USD, which is still a fairly cheap snorkeling Cairns tour. Great Barrier Reef deals can be found online, which is a good place to start when booking day tours from Cairns.
Snorkeling Cairns Sightseeing Tours
We have spent ample time scouring the internet for the best Great Barrier Reef tours. From our research, we identified the top-rated snorkeling Cairns tours.
Full Day Great Barrier Reef Tours
Top-Rated Speed Boat Tour – Limited to just 36 passengers, the boat motors from Cairns to two snorkeling spots and includes lunch. Book it now!
Highly-Rated Speed Boat Tour – Similar to the tour we took, the boat accommodates 140 passengers, visits two snorkeling spots, includes a BBQ lunch onboard and a complimentary glass of wine – and entertains with live music in the afternoon. Check it out!
Top-Rated Catamaran Tour – Set sail on a luxury catamaran to two outer Great Barrier Reef snorkeling spots and on-board lunch. Get the details!
Half Day Reef Tours Cairns
Short on time? Join a half-day cruise around Green Island where you can snorkel from the beach. Learn More!
Great Barrier Reef Tours Cairns Glass Bottom Boat
Ideal for cruise ship visitors, this tour departs near the cruise terminal. Hop aboard an air-conditioned glass bottom boat for a 6-hour tour around Green Island with the opportunity to snorkel, if desired. Get the Details!
Scuba Diving Great Barrier Reef
Although we were not interested in scuba diving Cairns, there are many companies that offer the experience. Find out more about the options for diving Cairns on Viator.
More Cairns Day Trips
Snorkeling Cairns tours are not the only day trips from Cairns! In fact, we took multiple Cairns day tours during our time visiting the city. Other Cairns trips we took were to the Kuranda Rainforest and Trinity Beach. You can search for top-rated tours from Cairns on Viator.
Get the best of both! Book a two-day tour for snorkeling and Kuranda and save money! Get This Deal!
Essentials for Snorkeling Cairns
- Don’t forget your water activity essentials (even in the winter)! You will need high-SPF sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, a swimsuit and towel.
- We’re certain you’ll be snapping tons of photos during your trip. We travel with a Canon Rebel (which takes amazing photos, but can be a bit clunky) and a Canon PowerShot ELPH (which takes beautiful pictures, is slim and lightweight – and the new models are wifi enabled so you can share your trip pics to social media in real time!).
- An underwater camera is a MUST – and we regret not taking one with us on our trip! If you don’t already have one, invest in a GoPro (or buy a much less-expensive waterproof action camera if that better fits our budget!).
- It’s always a good idea to have a current guidebook before traveling to any foreign city.
- We think travel insurance is essential – especially when snorkeling! If you haven’t already obtained travel insurance for your trip, travel protected with World Nomads.
We want to know: Is snorkeling Cairns on your bucket list? Have you taken one of the Great Barrier Reef tours? Tell us about it in the comments!
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