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This post is part of our Australia/New Zealand Series. You can find the rest of the series here.
The Great Barrier Reef has been on my must-see list since I first learned about it in elementary school! When we started building our itinerary for Australia, we put this right at the top. To get to the best portions of the reef, you will need to come up to the north east coast, which is why we flew into Cairns. Many companies offer reef tours from Cairns, with varying options and price points. We decided to go with Reef Experience, because they include an introductory scuba dive for beginners in their tour price. We had an absolute blast… and now all I want to do is scuba dive!
- Adventures – Write-ups of the activities we enjoyed during our visit.
- Hotel Spotlight – See our review of the Doubletree Cairns by Hilton.
Great Barrier Reef Tour – Reef Experience
Our day started relatively early, with a 7:30am pick up at the hotel. A bus picked us up and delivered us to the Cairns Marina where we boarded the boat.
Upon boarding the boat, smiling staff members greeted us and fitted us for snorkeling gear. We proceeded into the spacious boat cabin, to the smell of freshly cooked bacon. Breakfast consisted of bacon and egg sandwiches, fresh fruit, and coffee or tea. We really appreciated the hearty breakfast before a long day of snorkeling and scuba diving.
Marine Biology Presentation
After breakfast, the staff called everyone to the front of the boat for safety and marine biology presentations. Cam, the staff marine biology expert, taught us about the size and history of the Great Barrier Reef. He also described various types of coral formations and how they function within the reef ecosystem. Finally, he showed us pictures of the marine life we might encounter during our visit, including turtles, sharks, anemone, and all sorts of exotic tropical fish. This presentation really helped us understand the reef itself and to know what to look for throughout the day.
Location #1 – Hastings Reef
Reef Experience visits two locations on the outer reef during each tour. These locations can rotate, depending on conditions. Our first stop was at an area called Hastings Reef. We spent approximately two hours at this location.
We swam around, chasing parrot fish, marveling at the colorful coral formations, and peering into the deep crevasses of the reef. After about half an hour of snorkeling, the staff called us in for our intro scuba dive.
Introductory Scuba Dive
Reef Experience includes a 15-minute introductory scuba dive in the price of the tour. Neither of us had ever attempted scuba diving before, so we were a bit nervous for the introductory dive. Our guide did an excellent job of describing the processes of breathing, clearing masks, and equalizing ear pressure. We rolled into the water and tested these three skills before descending further.
Everything went very smoothly, and soon we were exploring the sea floor and lower portions of the reef. Even as a first-timer, scuba felt very natural. Diving at the Great Barrier Reef had been a dream of mine as long as I can remember! I could hardly believe that it was actually happening. If you take this tour, DO THE INTRO DIVE, even if you are nervous. You will not regret it!
Note: You must take this tour at least 24 hours before you fly anywhere. The compressed air used in scuba makes flying dangerous within this timeframe.
Back aboard the boat, the staff served lunch consisting of barbecue chicken or steak, sausage, fruit, rolls, and a variety of salads. We both opted for the chicken and sausage, and we sampled each salad. The sausage was particularly flavorful, and I made a BBQ chicken sandwich topped with coleslaw. Similar snorkel tours we have taken in the past only served sandwiches with cold lunchmeat. The freshly grilled meat was an unexpected treat!
Location #2 – Saxon Reef
After lunch, we arrived at Saxon Reef. Here, we had the option to take a second dive for $65 AUD or a guided marine biology snorkel tour for $25 AUD. If we didn’t want to do either of those things, we were still free to snorkel around the area. I opted for another scuba dive, while Brooke took the marine biology snorkel tour.
Scuba Dive #2
I loved the introductory scuba dive so much that I HAD to do it again! The second dive was about twice as long (approx. 30 min) and offered more freedom to explore. The guide took us around the lower reef, pointing out interesting animals and coral along the way. We got to hold a sea cucumber and touch a tiny starfish. We also followed a sea turtle for a bit and saw some clownfish hiding in their protective anemone. Scuba diving is absolutely incredible, and I wish I had not waited 30 years for my first experience. This is definitely something I will be doing again in the future!
Marine Biology Tour
Brooke decided to take the guided marine biology tour. This tour allows you to get outside the normal snorkeling area and up close with the marine life. Cam took the group around to points of interest along the Saxon Reef. During the swim, Brooke got to see two sea turtles and a sea cucumber, and she learned more about the surrounding ecosystem.
After packing up and departing Saxon Reef, we settled in for the 1-hour ride back to Cairns Marina. During the return trip, Eric, the on-board photographer, offered professional photos for sale. He took pictures to document the experience during the entire day. He even brought a huge camera rig down into the water to capture the scuba dives. His pictures turned out great! We picked up a couple pictures to remember our first scuba dive. He also generously supplied a few of the pictures for this post. Thanks Eric!
If you want to take your own pictures, Eric offered underwater cameras for rent. If you brought your own GoPro, he also had red filters available. Red light does not penetrate beyond 2-meters under the water. This makes everything appear relatively gray, and a red filter can bring out the true colors. We used a red filter to capture the videos of our scuba dives. They are also available for purchase on Amazon.
We returned to the Cairns Marina around 6:30pm, exhausted, but in awe of the day’s activities. On the walk back to our hotel, we marveled at what we had seen and how it was truly a dream come true.
Dinner – Waterbar & Grill
Back at the hotel, we showered and rested for a bit before feeling the rumbles of hunger. Based on the concierge’s recommendation, we walked down to the Waterbar & Grill for the “best ribs in Cairns.” Brooke and I shared a half rack with chips, because these ribs are enormous! The ribs were fall-off-the-bone tender, very meaty, and cooked to perfection. I am a bit of a rib connoisseur, and these are among the best I’ve ever had. We also sipped cocktails of Aussie-made Bundaberg Rum with apple juice and lime. Sounds a bit odd, but very refreshing!
Reef Experience runs a great tour from start to finish! The reef locations were beautiful, and the introductory scuba dive could not have been easier. The crew really seemed to enjoy their work, and their positivity was contagious. Meals on the boat definitely exceeded our expectations, and the relatively small group size made everything a bit more personal. In Cairns, you have a lot of options for Great Barrier Reef tours. We can personally vouch for Reef Experience… they made our day very special and enjoyable. Cheers!
We received complementary tours from Reef Experience in exchange for our review.