Get to know some of the must-see coral reef sites on the Great Barrier Reef.
Although the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef stretches over 2300 kilometres along the Queensland coastline, Cairns is considered to be the official gateway to experience this beauty up close. With 3000 separate reefs and over 900 continental islands and coral cays, it’s the world’s largest coral reef system and has a myriad of unique marine life you won’t find anywhere else.
Now we have the big reef covered, it’s good to keep in mind that each of those 3000 separate reefs has its own dive sites – basically the best spots on the reef where you can enter the water.
Ready to snorkel or dive on one of the seven wonders of the natural world, directly from Cairns? Take your pick from these 10 snorkelling and diving spots.
1. Flynn Reef
What it offers: Fantastic coral gardens
Number of dive sites: Nine
Located around 60 kilometres offshore from Cairns, the popular Flynn Reef is known for its stunning coral gardens and diverse array of marine life.
Hop aboard Silverswift and stop by the crystalline waters at Flynn Reef. (Image: Tourism and Events Queensland)
It’s perfect for snorkelling the shallow waters, as well as scuba diving, as the outer edges of the reef drop away to an average depth of 20 metres. Diving conditions are optimal all year round. Tour operators Silverswift and Passions of Paradise visit Flynn Reef.
Flynn Reef is renowned for its stunning coral gardens. (Image: Tourism and Events Queensland)
2. Milln Reef
What it offers: Beautiful clear waters
Number of dive sites: 11
Also situated on the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef is Milln Reef, home to some very famous dive sites – particularly Petaj Mooring where you can often find large schools of bright colourful fish called sweetlips hanging around, as well as resident turtles and whitetip reef sharks.
Dive to the depths of Milln Reef to see an array of marine life. (Image: Tourism and Events Queensland)
The Whale is another fun dive site with a shallow top creating the effect of a whale’s blowhole during low tide. Tour operators Silverswift, Passions of Paradise and the Pro Dive Cairns Three Day Liveaboard Scuba Dive Trip visit Milln Reef.
Spot stunning coral at Milln Reef. (Image: Tourism and Events Queensland)
3. Pellowe Reef
What it offers: Epic wall dives and swim-throughs
Number of dive sites: Two
A bit smaller than Flynn and Milln Reef is Pellowe Reef, yet it still packs a punch. One of the dive sites is named Cucumber Alley due to the vast amount of sea cucumbers that can be found here. The other dive site Darth Vader is named due to long deep valleys and caverns that cover up the light creating a dark gloomy (but amazing!) atmosphere.
Due to the smaller size of Pellowe Reef, it’s a lot more exposed to windy weather conditions and can only be accessed in extremely satisfactory weather conditions. Tour operators Silverswift, Passions of Paradise and the Pro Dive Cairns Three Day Liveaboard Scuba Dive Trip visit Pellowe Reef.
Find Nemo at Pellowe Reef.
4. Moore Reef
What it offers: Operators spend the day here
Number of dive sites: 16
In the shape of a giant horseshoe with three outer reef pontoon operators parked here, Moore Reef is massive. The pontoons offer an easy way to explore the reef in the protected waters, so families especially love it here.
Moore Reef is a great one for families to visit. (Image: Tourism and Events Queensland)
Onboard a Sunlover Reef Cruise you can even swirl down a 30-metre spiralling waterslide into the tropical ocean. Tour operators Passions of Paradise, Sunlover Cruises, Great Adventures and Reef Magic visit Moore Reef.
Explore Moore Reef with Sunlover Reef Cruises. (Image: Tourism and Events Queensland)
5. Thetford Reef
What it offers: Opportunity to see larger marine life
Number of dive sites: 11
The two-kilometre-long Thetford Reef site has a bit of everything – great visibility, many coral heads and lots of swim-through canyons and passages to explore.
Cathedral, TUSA Canyons, and Rosco’s are some of its most famous diving sites, and remarkably, whale sharks and dwarf minke whales have been seen passing near this reef. Tour operators Passions of Paradise, Sunlover Cruises, Great Adventures and Reef Magic visit Thetford Reef.
Swim with dwarf minke whales on Thetford Reef.
6. Norman Reef
What it offers: Adventure playground for divers
Number of dive sites: 15
Similar to Thetford Reef is Norman Reef, a reasonably large reef and one that’s especially appreciated by scuba divers. Here you can explore the many cliffs, caves, swim-through areas and even a little wreck. The reef’s depth also means that it’s home to a range of larger marine life, such as barracudas, trevally and even the odd reef shark.
The waters near Norman Reef are renowned for having superb visibility. Tour operators Passions of Paradise, Reef Experience, Reef Encounter, Divers Den and Down Under Cruise and Dive visit Norman Reef.
Prepare to be amazed by the marine life at Norman Reef. (Image: Jemma Craig/Tourism and Events Queensland)
7. Upolu Reef
What it offers: A wide variety of marine life
Number of dive sites: Six
Upolu is a small, protected lagoon-shaped reef with shallow coral gardens and is an excellent place for first-time introductory diving. You can spot a wide variety of marine life here such as giant clams, sea cucumbers, nudibranchs, cleaner wrasse, yellowtails, giant trevally and large green mauri wrasse.
Watch as a school of giant trevally at Upolu Reef rush past you.
Often hawksbill turtles can be found chewing on the red seagrass found growing between the hard and soft corals of the reef. Tour operators Passions of Paradise, Reef Day Tripper and Ocean Freedom visit Upolu Reef.
Keep your eyes peeled for hawksbill turtles at Upolu Reef.
8. Saxon Reef
What it offers: Ideal night diving conditions
Number of dive sites: Six
Large enough to allow up to three boats at a time to moor, liveaboard dive boats often stop at Saxon Reef to give scuba divers a night experience. Reef sharks can be seen at night, and you can expect to see whitetip, blacktip and grey whaler sharks.
During the day, large shallow coral gardens are exposed where many soft and hard corals thrive and can be viewed either snorkelling or diving. Tour operators Passions of Paradise, Reef Experience, Reef Encounter and Divers Den visit Saxon Reef.
Blacktip sharks come lurking around Saxon Reef.
9. Hastings Reef
What it offers: A favourite snorkelling spot
Number of dive sites: Nine
One of the shallower spots on the Outer Reef, a real highlight of Hastings Reef is its dive site Fish Bowl. Sitting around five meters under the surface of the water, Fish Bowl is home to plenty of healthy strong coral growth.
Explore the coral-laden Hastings Reef. (Image: Tourism and Events Queensland)
You may even spot turtles at Hastings along with a large school of humphead parrotfish. Tour operators Reef Experience, Reef Encounter and Divers Den visit Saxon Reef.
Hastings Reef is home to plenty of healthy coral. (Image: Tourism and Events Queensland)
10. Agincourt Reef
What it offers: Incredible coral formations
Number of dive sites: 30
Hop onboard a boat ride from Port Douglas to reach Agincourt Reef, a series of many smaller reefs with at least 16 different dive sites. As the reefs are located on the edge of the continental shelf of Australia, the water quality is spectacular which creates a pristine environment for marine life and coral colonies.
Off the coast of Port Douglas on the Great Barrier Reef lies the Agincourt Reef. (Image: Tourism and Events Queensland)
The Gardens is a particularly popular dive site as they are renowned for their brightly coloured reef fish, making it a photographer’s paradise. Tour operators Quicksilver Cruises, Silversonic, Poseidon Dive and Snorkel and Calypso Reef Cruises visit Agincourt Reef.
Spot diverse marine life species just below the swirling sea surface at Agincourt Reef. (Image: Tourism and Events Queensland)
For more information about how to access these Cairns reefs, check out the best Great Barrier Reef tours in Tropical North Queensland.