The 8 Best Reefs to Dive in Cairns and Port Douglas
The Great Barrier Reef is so big it can be seen from space, so we’ll forgive you if you have no idea where to start when it comes to exploring its vast array of ecosystems. Luckily for you, you’re speaking with the experts. We’ve highlighted the features of the eight best reefs to visit from Cairns and Port Douglas, from the scaly friends you’ll meet there to the structures and terrains you can expect to encounter.
There’s something for everyone on the Great Barrier Reef, be it your first time visiting or your fifteenth. If you're new to snorkelling or diving, Cairns and Port Douglas are some of the best places in the world to learn! With a booming population of marine biologists and diving enthusiasts you can trust that you're in good hands. All you need to do is suit up, make a splash, and embrace the underwater spectacular! And don't forget your GoPro — you'll want to get this on film.
96 kilometres north of Cairns, the world-famous Cod Hole is ideal for liveaboard experiences. Nestled within and protected by a ribbon reef system, Cod Hole has almost no current, making it suitable for all levels of divers and snorkellers. As you probably already guessed by its name, Cod Hole is home to a huge population of potato cod: big friendly sea giants. The bad boys can grow up to 2 metres in length and weigh up to around 100 kilos! Luckily for divers, they stick to a diet of crustaceans, fish, rays, squid and octopus. Potato cod are extremely fond of divers and will happily get up close and personal with you — you’re even allowed to hand-feed them on these reefs! During the winter months, you might even get lucky enough to see some dwarf minke whales gliding through the water as they migrate north for breeding and calving!
Join the Spirit of Freedom for the ultimate 3-day, 3-night adventure to Cod Hole! Take up to 11 dives through the reefs of Cod Hole and the Ribbon Reefs, and even score an intimate, once-in-a-lifetime night dive through nocturnal realms. This trip is recommended for experienced divers.
Norman Reef is situated on the Outer Reef, around 80 kilometres north of Cairns. This little gem is one of the best locations for underwater photography thanks to its pristine waters and high visibility. Norman Reef is a fabulous option for those seeking a little adventure! With drop-offs, swim-throughs, caves and even a shipwreck, you’re bound to feel like an underwater pirate on the hunt for lost treasure. Expect to commune with bronze whalers (a breed of reef shark), cuttlefish, dwarf minke whales, groupers, manta rays, Maori wrasse, moray eels, nudibranchs and sea turtles!
Milln’s five dive locations offer a diverse range of reefy terrains suitable for a mix of all levels of divers and snorkellers. Whale Bommie offers staggering depths exceeding 20 metres and a thrilling glimpse at the nocturnal atmosphere of the reef on popular night dives. At Petaj Mooring you can scuba and glide alongside turtles, whitetip reef sharks and technicoloured tropical fish through dramatic swim-through structures. Three Sisters is a sisterhood of three coral bommies rising out of the ocean bed to create homes for elusive sea creatures in their crevices and overhangs. And Swimming Pools I and II are perfect for beginner divers and snorkellers, offering average depths of 10 metres in some areas and plunging as deep as 30 in others.
Another glorious Outer Reef location just 65 kilometres from Port Douglas (approximately 90 minutes by boat), Agincourt is made up of a system of ribbon reefs. As mentioned earlier, ribbon reefs offer pristine sanctuaries to the ecosystems within as they shelter them from outside currents and threats. This reef in particular is massive — seriously, it’s made up of 29 individual reefs! Agincourt is easily one of the best places to visit on the reef simply because of the variety. From introductory dives in the garden reefs of Harry’s Bommie and shallow, sheltered grounds of The Gap, to more advanced and adventurous dives through Wreck’s sunken ship and Triggerfish City’s clefts and caves, Agincourt is an underwater haven for snorkellers and divers of all levels.
One and a half hours from Cairns, Opal Reef is a crescent-like structure perched on the Outer Reef. Its shape protects it from wind and waves, making it a rather idyllic snorkel site with sensational visibility. There are at least 14 reefs to visit and such a huge variety of marine life to be spotted here. On top of the usual suspects, expect encounters with the elusive fire dartfish (a small red and white fella who lingers close to the ocean floor), sea fans (vibrant fan-like soft corals that sway in the gentle currents), sixbar angelfish (stripy black, white and yellow flatfish that mate for life — tres romantique), and Nemo and Marlin’s iconic residential bestie, the anemonefish.
Whilst Michaelmas is more famous for its seabirds and crisp white stretch of sand, we couldn’t leave it off our list because of its unique formation. A cay is a small island made purely out of sand that rises from the ocean, and they make for fabulous moorings for a day of snorkelling. Spend hours investigating the sea turtles, humphead Maori wrasse and giant clams in endless coral gardens before retreating to Michaelmas Cay to catch your breath under the sun and share your discoveries with friends. You’re sure to catch a glimpse of sea turtles, sooty terns, common noddies and crested terns nesting, too!
Ocean Spirit offer a fabulous day trip to Michaelmas Cay on board a 32-metre sailing catamaran. Spend up to 4 hours exploring the sands and reefs, spotting seabirds, and chowing down on a delicious buffet lunch. You can even take an introductory diving class!
Mackay is a lesser visited reef 97 kilometres north of Cairns, just off the coast of Cape Tribulation. Being lesser-visited makes for a largely untouched and undisturbed ecosystem and a unique diving and snorkelling experience in pristine waters. This fragile reef system features a blindingly vibrant array of coral gardens with our familiar friends the clownfish, snaggletoothed barracudas, large sweetlips, rays, titan triggerfish, turtles, whitetip reef sharks, and giant clams big enough to fit whole humans inside of them!
Your best bet for a day under Mackay Reef’s secluded waters is with Sailaway’s Day Sail, offering 2 hours of guided snorkelling with knowledgeable marine biologists helping you to identify the residents of the reef.
Just off the coast of Fitzroy Island and 2 hours from Cairns, Moore Reef is most popularly accessed in packages including stopovers and time spent on Fitzroy. Moore has a vast variety of terrains and visibility, making for many diverse snorkel and diving experiences in the one location! With depths from 1 to 25 metres, shallow reefs, dropoffs and sea caves, this is a great destination for both snorkellers and divers. Experience the usual crowd of sea turtles, batfish, damselfish, Moorish idols, and other vibrant tropical fish and corals as well as the more elusive creatures lurking in the murkier waters that thrive off the varying degrees of visibility.
Experience a smorgasbord of seascapes and marine life at Moore Reef with Sunlover Cruises day trip. Anchor at Moore Reef pontoon and spend the day submerged in a vibrant underwater wonderland. On top of snorkelling, ride the 30-metre waterslide into the turquoise waters and score unique underwater views through a glass bottom boat tour and an underwater observatory.
Pretty Patches is an aptly named collection of three very pretty coral reefs located 43 kilometres and 1 and a half hours north of Cairns, and just east of Breaking Patches. This is another cluster of reefs less visited, making it great for those yearning to score a more intimate encounter with the Great Barrier Reef. The reefs at Pretty Patches are blanketed in vast stretches of underwater forests with some of the highest marine diversity in the world! From huge staghorn corals and itsy bitsy, wavy sea fans to spaghetti corals, bushy leather mushroom corals and even the uncanny-valley-inducing brain corals, the diversity in corals attracts an equally diverse thoroughfare of oceanic traffic. On top of giant clams, sea turtles and reef sharks, expect to rub shoulders with yellow, black and white striped butterflyfish, vibrant Christmas tree worms, and rays with electric blue spots that look like something from a Yayoi Kusama exhibition.