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Scuba Diving in Queensland, The Great Barrier Reef

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 Queensland Department of Tourism 

Scuba Diving in Queensland Courtesy of Ty Sawyer

Queensland, Australia’s dive scene is a grand opera played out in a three-ring circus. There are sweeping overtures, delicate arias, intimate gestures, moments of word-defying grandeur, overcrowded scenes with an excess of gaudy players (set amid even gaudier stages), and, of course, divas and villains.

Queensland isn’t so much a vacation – it’s a life’s endeavor. The state encompasses Australia’s entire northeast and covers a landmass nearly six times the size of the entire United Kingdom. And, that doesn’t count the main reason for divers going there: the more than 2000 kilometres/1200 miles of coral kingdoms known as the Great Barrier Reef. You’ll find walls, shallow coral gardens hiding just under the surface, bommies, coral canyons, walls and almost every other conceivable type of dive site along this UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can see Minke Whales in June or July, check out what is arguably the worlds’ best wreck dive in the SS Yongala or dive off of the hundreds of specks of land like Heron Island.

So, where do you start your journey?

Enchanted by the complex web of marine life that’s made the Great Barrier Reef worthy of inclusion on the World Heritage list, Cairns and Port Douglas are the places where many people first learn to dive. Inspired by an introductory dive or snorkel through magnificent coral gardens, learning to dive while vacationing in Cairns and Port Douglas is easy and fun. Safety and satisfaction are key elements in the region’s reputation as a premier learn to dive destination, as is the quality of the instruction. With state-of-the-art equipment and all of the necessary teaching materials provided by the many PADI Members specializing in entry-level training, the learn-to-dive courses are generally conducted over four to five days - two of which combine knowledge development and confined water training sessions in the air-conditioned comfort of the onshore facility. The open water training is conducted out on the reef itself, where divers practice and polish their skills in water depths up to 18 metres/60 feet.

Diving in Queesnland Courtesy of Ty Sawyer

While some of those specializing in entry level courses conduct the training dives from fast day boats – allowing participants to return to shore each evening and sample the delights of Cairns and Port Douglas – others maintain liveaboards that also double as training vessels. With onboard accommodation and meals also included in the cost of the course, this is the perfect option for people who want to maximize their pleasure and enjoyment of the Great Barrier Reef. Whatever the choice, the reefs and dive sites that they visit remain outstanding examples of the best that the Great Barrier Reef has to offer.

You can also book one of several liveaboards from Cairns or Port Douglas to explore the northern region of the Great Barrier Reef known as the Ribbon Reefs. You can also venture a little further out into the wild by visiting Osprey Reef out in the Coral Sea. In addition to Heron Island, other dive hotspots include Lizard Island, the Whitsundays and Lady Elliot Island. The islands are best if you want a resort experience with unforgettable diving off your doorstep. Otherwise, access to most of the Great Barrier Reef takes at least a 45-minute or longer boat ride, making this prime liveaboard country.

If you think the seascape diversity is a little overwhelming, the land-based part of your trip will leave you equally boggled. Queensland takes up almost a quarter of Australia and has everything from the red dirt and kangaroo-filled bush to the lush greens of the rainforest to stunning white sand beaches to urban experiences and just about everything in between. No trip itinerary should skip the rainforest or the bush. Both are equally iconic, breathtaking and you should plan at least a day or two for each. Australia, Queensland especially, spills over with an endless spectrum of outdoor adventures. Be prepared to go home tired and brimming with stories.


Ribbon Reefs, Northern Great Barrier Reef:

The Ribbon Reefs are known for their variety and pristine dive experience. Expect anything and everything - minke whales (in season), turtles, giant grouper, carpet sharks, sea snakes and fascinating macro creatures.

  • Cod Hole — You’ll realize how this iconic site got its name as soon as you hit the water. The massive (up to 136 kilograms/300 pounds) potato cod like to get up close and personal. Most of the dive takes place in less than 13 metres/43 feet of water. The site is also rife with everything from wobbegongs and white tip reef sharks to clownfish. That’s if you can see them through all the cod.
  • Minke Whales — In late June and July, relatively small minke whales (about 7 - 9 metres/25 - 30 feet) show up with remarkable regularity to interact with divers and snorkelers. Awe inspiring.
  • Pixie Pinnacle — This wonderful example of a coral bommie rises from a depth of 40 metres/130 feet to within 5 metres/16 feet of the surface. Each level reveals a unique niche, crammed with hard and soft corals, lionfish, clownfish, clouds of fairy basslets, trevally, stonefish, eels and – literally - hundreds of other species.
  • Challenger Bay — Although it’s a hotspot for cuttlefish encounters, you’ll need to keep a sharp eye out. Look for mating pairs because the males get protective and tend to get a little close to “distract” you from the female. It’s also a great spot for nudibranch hunting on night dives.

Osprey Reef, Coral Sea:

Tourism Queensland

Only accessible via liveaboards departing from Cairns or Port Douglas, this exposed coral mesa sits in the middle of the Coral Sea far from anything. As a result, just about anything and everything that roams this part of the sea will stop in for a break from the deep blue.

  • North Horn —Divers gather in a natural undersea amphitheater for a shark feed and when the fish parts are dropped, the mayhem begins. Silvertips, gray reef, white tip reef and the occasional tiger shark all jostling for their share. Look out for the groupers, too – they aren’t timid.
  • Around the Bend — At around 35 meters/115 feet, you’ll find a Technicolor soft coral theme park. But don’t get too distracted, manta rays also love the color and frequently pass through this site. At the safety stop, you’ll find what is probably the most photographed clownfish patch in the entire Coral Sea.


Townsville is the jumping off point for a descent on the wreck hailed as the best dive in the world – the SS Yongala. There are other dives, including China Wall and Davies Reef that are definitely interesting, but this wreck is certainly the focal point.

  • SS Yongala — Everything is supersized and that is not an exaggeration. Sea snakes the size of your bicep. Sea turtles that are so big they look prehistoric. Every single space on the surface of the wreck is a battlefield for area and color. On night dives up to five different species of rays “pancake” one atop the other, 20 deep, all over the wreck. It’s worth several dives – even several days – to try and see it all. At 109 meters/357 feet in length and in 34 meters/110 feet of water, the SS Yongala is truly spectacular.


Provided by Tourism Queensland.

This is the perfect place to combine sailing, island adventure and soft diving. With 74 idyllic islands, diving the Whitsundays is considered within the Great Barrier Reef and is perfect divers looking to complement their diving with multiple activities. The Whitsundays is home to one of the world’s top rated beaches, Whitehaven Beach, as well as the famed Heart Reef.

  • Bait Reef — This is a single name for multiple dive sites along the Great Barrier Reef. Expect colorful shallow gardens and a variety of marine life like passing green sea turtles, patrolling white tip reef sharks and striking Napoleon wrasse.
  • Hook and Hardy Reefs — Vertical coral chasms, shallow snorkeling sites and an abundance of marine life all await water enthusiasts here. Typical spottings include sea turtles, groupers, eels, wonderfully accommodating sweetlips and, for the sharp of eye, a nice array of nudibranchs and other diminutive sea dwellers.

Heron Island:

This famed island sits on the Great Barrier Reef’s southern reaches and is accessible via Gladstone by ferry or helicopter. Almost all of the more than 20 dive sites are within 5-10 minutes of the dock and the island includes luxurious accommodations. This is a great place to dive on a long list of world-class sites and enjoy life immersed in nature when you’re not underwater. Water here can be slightly colder than the northern sections of the Great Barrier Reef, so bring an extra thermal layer.

  • Heron Island Bommie — Jacques Cousteau loved this manta ray cleaning station and so has almost every diver that followed. It’s only about 18 meters/60 feet deep, so you can get some lengthy bottom times. Besides mantas, be prepared for crowds of jacks, barracuda, a rogue’s gallery of eels, sharks, very curious sea snakes and eagle rays.
  • Coral Grotto — If you like turtles, you’ll love it here. But, then again, if you like nudibranchs, you’ll also like it here. Enough said.
Queensland Courtesy of Ty Sawyer

Dive Summary:

Depths: Can range from surface snorkeling to more than 40 metres/140 feet.

Visibility: Depending on area and time of year, you can expect 6 metres/20 feet to more than 50 metres/160 feet.

Currents: There is generally little current throughout the Great Barrier Reef. Exceptions include certain exposed coral points and the SS Yongala, which is washed with a constant, nutrient-laden current.

Water Temperature: 28° C/85° F in summer and 22° C/75° F in winter.

Courtesy of Tourism Queensland

Dive Season: Diving is available throughout the year. Minke whales arrive from late June through July. 

Weather: Queensland is a large state with about five distinct climate zones so temperatures vary quite a bit from 15°C/60°F to 28°C/84°F. However, in the areas you’ll visit as a diver, you can generally expect warm, humid, wet summers and mild, dry winters.

Access: The country is well serviced by international airports and domestic flights. There are major highways and good rail service. Much of the road network to smaller towns or in the center of the country is unpaved.

Skill Level: From novice to advanced. Advanced divers will find plentiful deep wall opportunities.

Scuba Gear: Most dive centers, resorts and liveaboards offer full equipment hire.

Length of stay: Seven nights will let you sample a portion of the Great Barrier Reef. A stay of 10 days to two weeks is recommended.

Featured Creatures: Minke whales, sea turtles, manta rays, sharks, carpet sharks, sea snakes, cuttlefish and macro life.

Language: English.

Currency: Australian Dollar (AUD).

Tipping: Tipping is uncommon in most situations but you’ll definitely want to tip your divemasters and liveaboard crews. They work hard to provide great service so rewarding them with a 10 percent tip is a good general guideline.

Transportation: Taxis and local public transportation is generally available within towns but rental cars are best due to the vast distances you need to travel to get almost anywhere in Queensland, or Australia. Many places require off road vehicles, so be sure to check your rental car policy.

Major Airports: Cairns Airport (CNS) is the closest international airport to the Great Barrier Reef but Brisbane Airport (BNE) – in Southeast Queensland is another major hub. Townsville Airport (TSV) is a major regional airport that also has limited international flights. It’s the closest airport if you’re heading to the SS Yongala.

Electricity: 240v/60Hz and Type I electrical outlets.

Airport Entry/Exit fees: A visa is required for most nationalities. Check the Department of Immigration and Citizenship page for complete information. The departure tax of approximately $38 AUD is usually included with airfare purchase.