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Where To See Turtles On The Reef From Cairns

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Gabby Boucher
Updated Wed 13 Mar 2024

If you're hoping to see turtles on the Great Barrier Reef, the islands around Cairns are the perfect place to visit! Snorkelling or scuba diving on the reef is one of the main reasons why people visit Cairns. Though exploring this magnificent underwater world is always a treat, seeing turtles makes the experience that much more magical!

Wildlife sightings are never guaranteed anywhere in nature, but there are some beautiful islands off the coast of Cairns where it's very common to spot sea turtles. If your heart is set on swimming alongside an adorable turtle in the Great Barrier Reef, visit one of these places near Cairns!

man snorkelling next to a sea turtle

Where Are The Best Places To See Turtles On The Reef From Cairns?

The Great Barrier Reef is home to lots of stunning sea turtles, and it's located right off the coast of CairnsThough you could potentially spot sea turtles anywhere on the reef, the islands around Cairns are favoured among these playful marine creatures. Islands like Green Island, Fitzroy Island, and the Frankland Islands offer calm, protected environments where sea turtles can thrive and munch on the sea grass around the shore. These islands are also close to the mainland, so they make easy day trips from Cairns where you can possibly spot sea turtles. 

Here is a quick summary of the best places to spot sea turtles on the reef from Cairns! Remember that marine life sightings are never guaranteed. But these islands are generally a good place for finding turtles while snorkelling.

Try to spot sea turtles on these island tours from Cairns!

snorkeling through colorful coral reefs

Green Island

Green Island is a beautiful, family-friendly island near Cairns with soft white sand and calm shallow water. Turtles are often snacking on the seagrass in and around the flourishing reefs next to Green Island, making this one of the best places to spot sea turtles near Cairns. Many Green Island tours include snorkelling, and you might be able to see turtles from above on a glass-bottom boat tour or on a scenic flight

Close up of a sea turtle near the ocean floow

Fitzroy Island

A larger and more mountainous island compared to Green Island, Fitzroy Island is an excellent day trip destination for those who love hiking and adventure. The beaches around Fitzroy Island are slightly deeper and more rugged than Green Island, but there is still amazing snorkelling, scuba diving, and kayaking to be done around the island where you may see turtles!

aerial view of white sand and teal waters at fitzroy island

Frankland Islands

Because Green Island and Fitzroy Island are the two most popular islands to visit near Cairns, the other island destinations are significantly less touristy. Less people means more wildlife! The Frankland Islands are one of the best places to see turtles near Cairns! A Frankland Islands tour experience includes unique island visits, bushwalks, and guided snorkel safaris where you can spot sea turtles swimming amongst the untouched corals. 

sea turtle swimming over coral reefs

Michaelmas Cay

Another great place to see turtles on the reef near Cairns is Michaelmas Cay. This glorious strip of brilliant white sand is not only a popular resting place for seabirds, it's a safe spot for turtles to nest during the breeding season. Turtles love eating the seagrass right offshore from the cay and are unphased by snorkellers, meaning you can get pretty close to them on your day trip to Michaelmas Cay!

white sand cay next to bright blue water

Upolu Cay

Upolu Cay is another sandy, shallow cay resting near the surface of the Great Barrier Reef. Ocean Freedom and Reef Daytripper visit this secluded island paradise so you can snorkel in pristine reefs and maybe swim alongside some fascinating marine creatures. It's not far from Michaelmas Cay and makes a fun day trip from Cairns!

turtle swimming on the Great Barrier Reef

Outer Great Barrier Reef

Of course, there is still a chance you can see turtles on day trips to the Outer Reef from Cairns! Though turtles are more commonly spotted around the islands, the colossal reef structures that sit on the Outer Reef are also a common place for turtles to swim, eat, and play. You also have opportunities to see other large marine creatures out here such as Maori Wrasse, reef sharks, and maybe even whales during whale season!

girl snorkelling with a giant fish on the reef

Can You Swim With Turtles In Cairns?

Yes, you can swim with turtles in Cairns! Sea turtles are wild animals, so there aren't any organised opportunities where you are guaranteed to swim with them. But if you visit any of these islands or reef sites mentioned above, you have a good chance of spotting sea turtles during your snorkel sessions. Sea turtles are pretty mellow creatures that don't mind a swimming buddy, just remember to be respectful of their space and don't interact with them. Just admire them from a distance! If you swim near turtles casually in a non-threatening manner, you can swim quite close to them and enjoy a magical wildlife experience

girl snorkelling next to a sea turtle in the ocean

What Is The Best Time To See Sea Turtles Near Cairns?

You can see turtles year-round in the reef sites near Cairns. Sea turtles prefer calm water and sometimes swim to avoid big swells. Luckily, the Great Barrier Reef blocks any major swells from coming into the Cairns area, so the ocean is basically flat and warm year-round. This makes it easy to spot turtles and other wildlife in the reef no matter what time of year you visit Cairns

That said, certain seasons mean more turtle activity. October, November, and December are often considered good times to spot Hawksbill and Green Sea Turtles roaming around the Great Barrier Reef. November to March is nesting season, so this is when you might see turtles coming onto shore to lay eggs. Baby turtle hatchlings start to emerge in January and you might be able to see babies in the following months. 

sailboat anchored near reefs around Green Island

Read more about the Great Barrier Reef to get inspiration for your trip to Cairns! Also feel free to live chat with our locally-based travel agents if you have any questions. 

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