The Great Barrier Reef is not only one Australia’s most valuable treasures, it is also one of the planet’s most fascinating ecosystems. This idyllic beach paradise is home to luxury white sand beaches, softly rippling cerulean waters, and the most diverse collection of coral garden growth on the planet.
A weekend “at the Reef” is a fantastic way to unwind after a stressful week at the office. Or, if you’ve been saving up those vacation days, a week-long escape at the seaside scuba bungalow might be more up your alley.
The best Great Barrier Reef tours are the ones that provide access to world class snorkeling and scuba diving while respecting and protecting this amazing natural resource. With that in mind, we’ve come up with a list of the 10 best Great Barrier Reef tours.
Afterwards, we’ll reveal our number one destination town for exploring the Great Barrier Reef.
When to Go on the Best Great Barrier Reef Tours
The best time to see marine wildlife in the Great Barrier Reef is in winter. For those of us you who aren’t in the Southern Hemisphere, remember that this is June – August. This is when the water is going to offer the absolute best visibility, and the water never dips below 22C (72F).
However, diving and snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef is still pretty amazing anytime between April and November. Anyone who is booking a trip for the summer months of December through March will have to deal with very hot and humid weather, as well as reduced underwater visibility.
Where’s the Best Place to Stay When Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef?
There are a few popular and effective “home-base” locations for your Great Barrier adventure. Cairns is certainly the most popular starting point, largely because of its international airport.
The Whitsundays Islands offer many of the same tours, but have the added options of sailing and high-class beach resorts.
Port Douglas is about 1.5 hours north of Cairns. It is smaller than Cairns, and there isn’t quite as much to do in town. Port Douglas offers more luxury tours and tends to be a bit more pricey.
The Top 10 Best Great Barrier Reef Tours: Explained
Snorkeling & Diving Cruise – Day Trip from Cairns
The best way to get an overall look at what the Great Barrier reef has to offer is with a day trip beginning in Cairns. Boats take visitors to two different reef locations, both of which are teeming with tropical marine life.
These full-day cruises include lunch on board the boat. You can upgrade your adventure by taking introductory scuba diving lessons or a helicopter ride over the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Day cruise scuba tours are appropriate for beginners as well as pros. Most offer some level of instruction if needed.
Premium Catamaran Cruise
There’s nothing like renting a catamaran for a journey through the most beautiful waters on earth. A Premium Catamaran Tour includes visiting approved snorkeling sites and a 10-minute scuba lesson for anyone that needs one.
On the way out to the scuba site, a friendly, experienced crew will bring you up to date on the reef’s fragile ecosystem and will share a few good stories.
Enjoy a buffet lunch between scuba sites, and at the end of the day, a cold beverage on the way back to shore.Book at GetYourGuide.com
Green Island Reef Cruise with Big Cat
Green Island is the closest tropical island to Cairns. This unique, enchanting island paradise is surrounded by a pristine beach and some of the clearest snorkeling water that you will ever see.
The Green Island Tour is operated by Big Cat Green Island Reef Tours, a guide company that has committed itself to protecting the reef and operating in a sustainable way. They also happen to provide one of the best single-day reef experiences, all for about one hundred bucks.
It begins in Cairns, where you’ll board a boat and cruise out to Green Island. Upon arrival you’ll have some free time to explore the islands, walk the rainforest paths, or visit one of several small shops that are on the island. After that, you can enjoy snorkeling, diving, and ice cream until it’s time to go home.
Two Day Coral Sea Dreaming Tour
An overnight diving and snorkeling tour is the ultimate aquatic adventure, giving visitors the opportunity to visit some of the finest diving sites anywhere in the reef. Here you’ll find a kaleidoscope of brightly colored marine life and coral growth.
All the diving and snorkeling is done with the supervision and assistance of a small, experienced team of licensed dive guides. This isn’t the kind of place that is going to make you feel like a wimp for staying in the shallows, either. In fact, one of their sites has some of the best shallow coral gardens around.
Your accommodation will be either a private or shared room on one of their ships. This means that the moment you wake up, you’ll be ready to dive in for another adventure. All meals and drinks are provided!
Take a Cruise to the Reef Magic Activity Pontoon
Located on the outer Great Barrier Reef above some of the finest coral gardens in Australia, the Reef Magic Activity Pontoon is an all-weather adventure station. The Pontoon accommodates divers and snorkelers of all skill levels, even children.
Not into diving, but the family is? Kick back and soak up some rays on the spacious sundeck while everyone else tires themselves out in the water. You might want to enjoy some frosty beverages at the bar.
The hot & cold buffet lunch is pretty expansive and necessary for a full day of snorkeling.
Ride the Silverswift – The Fastest Dive & Snorkel Vessel in Cairns
Here is a Barrier Reef Tour for adventurers who don’t mind a little speed, especially if that means that they’re going to spend more time in the water. The Silverswift is the self-proclaimed fastest dive and snorkel boat in Cairns, and we have no reason to doubt them. This sleek boat will blast you out to the diving site, where you’ll get a full five hours of adventure before heading back.
On-board amenities include a buffet lunch and a patio bar … the perfect place to relax after your dive and swap stories with other adventurers.
There’s also the Silversonic Tour, an option that makes it possible to visit 3 different diving sites in a single day (most guide operations only visit 2 sites).
Explore the Daintree Rainforest & Cape Tribulation
If you aren’t much of a diver, or if you have perhaps had your share of snorkeling for the week, then you might want to consider an educational and awe-inspiring tour of the Daintree Rainforest. This tropical wonderland is nothing but coastal rainforest and tropical beaches, less than a few hours from Cairns.
The first stop is the Wildlife Habitat in Port Douglas, home to a number of endangered and local species, including the cassowary bird.
The tour continues north towards the Daintree River. Here you’ll be able to spot crocodiles with ease as the cruise takes you upriver. Enjoy a picnic lunch on the Dubjubi Rainforest Boardwalk before taking a relaxing stroll along Cape Tribulation beach.
Ride ATVs Through the Rainforest
Diving and scuba aren’t the only activities available to people who are visiting the area. A 1.5 hour ATV trip through the dense rainforest is a great way to cap off a morning of reef snorkeling.
The tracks are well developed, but you’re probably going to get pretty muddy on this one. There are ATVs available for people of all skill levels, but you’ve got to be 16 to ride.
Consider booking a half-day of diving in the morning with a few hours of ATV riding in the afternoon for a fun filled day in the sun.
Book a More Affordable Reef Tour
Let’s be honest: private luxury diving tours can be pretty expensive. If you don’t want to exhaust your adventure fund before it’s time to go home, Compass Cruises is the answer. Compass Cruises provides the most affordable full-day reef tour in its class.
All the standards are here: a sundeck for relaxing, a full buffet lunch, and as much scuba as you can fit into a 5 hour stay at the reef.
On the way back to shore you’ll be treated with wine, cheese and biscuits. That’s the perfect way to relax after a long dip in the water!Book at Compass Cruises
Visit the Low Isles of Port Douglas
One of the quieter diving destinations in the area is north of Cairns off the coast of Port Douglas. The Low Isles are a cluster of gorgeous islands that have a very special historical and cultural value. As such, they have been awarded the highest level of environmental protection, keeping them pristine for snorkeling.
A Port Douglas Reef Trip takes you out to the Low Isles. Here you’ll be able to go on shore to explore the tropical islands, or hop in the water for some world-class snorkeling. When you book through The Tour Specialists (link below) you have the added benefit of getting to the island two hours earlier than other tour operations. Unfortunately, beautiful places like these can get crowded later in the day.
The best part of the Low Isles? Probably the sea turtles. You aren’t going to find this many turtles further south in Cairns, making Port Douglas a must-visit destination for wildlife enthusiasts.
Stay in an Underwater Luxury Suite (Reefsleep)
Cruise Whitsundays was the first company to offer underwater accommodation in the Great Barrier Reef, and truly, it’s something that you have to experience firsthand to believe.
Reefworld is moored offshore at Hardy Reef. This is a massive renovated pontoon that hosts day-trippers as well as Reefsleep guests. The underwater rooms have an extraordinary luxury view of marine life swimming by the floor-to-ceiling windows!
The other benefit of booking Reefsleep over a day-trip is that you have an additional snorkel session the next morning before the other day-trippers arrive. Some of the add-on upgrades include helicopter rides, certified diving lessons, and souvenir photos.Book at Cruise Whitsundays
The Best Great Barrier Reef Tour in Queensland - Our Top Pick
If you’re planning a trip to the Great Barrier Reef begin by asking yourself a few questions: What is your experience level? How much instruction do you need? How long do you want to snorkel? What other activities do you want to include?
The Great Barrier Reef tours on our list accommodate all levels of divers. Experienced scuba enthusiasts will be able to hop in the water and take off right away. First-timers and novice divers might need a professional instructor to master the basics.
There’s always the third option, which is skip the scuba altogether and spend the day on the sun deck with a cocktail in hand. There is certainly no shame in that. Just be sure not to miss the sea turtles as they go floating by.