Dive below the surface to explore the underwater wonders of the Great Barrier Reef while living aboard a dive boat with the assistance of this 4-day itinerary. This travel guide will assist you in creating an unforgettable diving or snorkeling adventure whether you are traveling alone, with friends, or with your family (even with young babies).

The Great Barrier Reef needs no introduction. It is the world’s largest coral reef system, is visible from outer space, and has islands extending for more than 1,400 miles (which is the distance from Key West to New Jersey) over an area of 133,000 square miles. The 2,900+ individual reefs support a variety of marine life. Exploring this underwater world is like swimming in an aquarium. The corals and marine life are vibrant and varied.

Heart Reef in the Great Barrier Reef, viewed from a Seaplane.

When to Visit Great Barrier Reef

Diving/snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef is a year-round activity. From June through November, the air temperatures are lower, rainfall is less common, the water tends to be a little clearer, but the water temperatures are a bit cooler (around 64-78 degrees Fahrenheit). The months from December through May tend to experience the most rainfall, the air temperatures can be quite high, but the water temperature is much warmer (around 78-86 degrees Fahrenheit).

Your best chance at seeing Dwarf Minke Whales is from June through July, and Humpback Whales from August through late September. We saw at least 6 Dwarf Minke Whales continuously breaching for about 30 minutes on our way out to the Great Barrier Reef in late June.
Your best chance at seeing Dwarf Minke Whales is from June through July, and Humpback Whales from August through late September. We saw at least 6 Dwarf Minke Whales continuously breaching for about 30 minutes on our way out to the Great Barrier Reef in late June. Image courtesy Lenore Parr.

Sleep Above the Reef On Board the Reef Encounter

I can think of no better way to experience the Great Barrier Reef than living aboard a dive boat. The Reef Encounter, a 35 meter catamaran, is basically a floating hotel. It stays over the Great Barrier Reef and a smaller catamaran, the Reef Experience, brings new passengers to the Reef Encounter and returns departing passengers daily. This system allows passengers to choose any period of time they wish to stay over the Reef, and whichever dates they desire.

Reef Encounter Liveaboard Boat Cairns Great Barrier Reef Dive Trip
Varies multi-day diving trips are available aboard the Reef Encounter vessel. Image courtesy Lenore Parr.
Reef Experience Liveaboard Boat Cairns Great Barrier Reef
Day Tours are available on the Reef Experience boat. Image courtesy Lenore Parr.

Each day, the Reef Encounter moves around spectacular outer barrier reef locations providing multiple dive and/or snorkel opportunities. We selected the 3 day/2 night itinerary to allow plenty of time diving/snorkeling. The crew, dive masters, and instructors were all fabulous. Everyone was overly accommodating, friendly, professional and just amazing every step of the way. If you are constrained by time, you can select a 2 day/1 night itinerary on the Reef Encounter, or you can book a day tour on the Reef Experience.

  • Cabins – There are 21 cabins accommodating 42 guests. You have the option of either a double bed or two single beds. Each cabin has an ocean view window (not porthole!), and a private bathroom with a small shower, toilet, and sink.
  • Common Areas – The boat is air-conditioned throughout, offers spacious decks, and comfy dining and recreational areas.
  • Meals We were impressed with the quality, tastiness, and presentation of all our chef-prepared meals aboard the Reef Encounter. There was always fresh fruit available (which is a huge perk, especially when traveling with a baby), along with an unending supply of coffee, tea, and water. Our meals included: flash fried fish with green beans, broccolini, and potatoes, beef teriyaki and Moroccan chicken empanadas with an assortment of salads and fruit, and grilled chicken with green beans and a really tasty risotto. The chef was eager to cater to dietary requirements, and was happy to keep the veggies and other food we brought for our baby refrigerated and then warm up for us.
  • Dive/Snorkel Sessions On board the Reef Encounter, there are up to 6 total dive/snorkel sessions offered each calendar day at around three different spots along the Reef. During our trip, the dive/snorkel sessions were offered at 6:30 am, 8:30 am, 10:30 am, 1:30 pm, 3:30 pm, and 6:00 pm. Each passenger is only permitted to dive a maximum of 4 times per day, and can snorkel the remaining water sessions, if desired. If you are snorkeling, jump in at the beginning of the water session. I definitely noticed the fish disperse as more people congregated in the water and invaded their area. 
  • Babies & Small ChildrenBabies and children are welcome onboard. The boat is well-equipped for little travelers. Pack n Plays are available for babies 0-2 years of age. Rollaway beds are available for children 2-11 years of age. There was a comfy high chair and a bucket full of toddler toys in the living area. You are solely responsible for the safety of your child(ren), as there is no childcare available. My husband and I took turns in the water while the other watched our baby.
  • Cost – The price for 2 nights for 2 adults sharing is around $1,320 AUD plus a reef levy fee of $90 AUD. Traveling with an infant under 2 years of age adds $100 AUD, or $360 AUD for a small child under 12. The cost includes all meals, dive/snorkel equipment, all snorkeling sessions, and a glass bottom boat excursion. Wet suits ($10 AUD), prescription masks ($20 AUD), underwater cameras ($59 AUD), and diving packages are extra. The Reef Encounter provides full body stinger suits during stinger season, which spans from around November through May, at no additional cost.

Diving packages (ranging from $145-$380 AUD) are separate. The number of dives permitted is dependent on whether you are a Certified Diver, Resort Diver, or enroll in their Learn to Dive course. If you select the 3 day/2 night itinerary, you will have the opportunity for 8 day dives plus 2 night dives if you are a Certified Diver at the Open Water Level or higher, and Resort Divers and those enrolled in the Learn to Dive Course will have the opportunity for 8 day dives.

Great Barrier Reef Diving Trip Itinerary - Photo of a Bat Fish and Parrot Fish - Winetraveler.com
If there’s a professional underwater photographer on the boat and you intend on purchasing a photo package, I recommend telling the photographer at the beginning of the trip. A photographer with scubabo.com followed us around both in and out of the water once we committed to buying a package.

Travel to Cairns

Fly into the Cairns Airport in Queensland, Australia. Cairns (pronounced “cans”) is a tropical paradise. It is surrounded by mountains, rain forests, wetlands, waterfalls, and the Great Barrier Reef.

Where to Stay

Staying near the Cairns Marlin Marina is the ideal location to explore the Great Barrier Reef, the rainforest, and is only an approximate 10 minute drive from the Cairns Airport. We stayed at Cairns Harbour Lights. We had our own mini apartment with a spacious living room, a mini kitchen (complete with a small fridge, dishwasher, silverware, plates, microwave, stove top, and a sink), a washer and dryer, a separated bedroom, and a large balcony with views of the marina and surrounding mountains. There was a grill by the pool that we utilized to grill burgers our last night there. The best part about the hotel, especially while traveling with a baby, was that it was just steps away from the boat that took us out to the Great Barrier Reef.

Other hotels to consider that are nearby include the Shangri-La Hotel, The Marina, Cairns, and the Hilton Cairns.

There are plenty of dining/bar options along the water and within walking distance from the recommended hotels. The Salt House was our favorite. It featured an outdoor porch area with couches and cushioned chairs with low tables along a deck facing the water. The Woolworths Supermarket is also walking distance.


Day 1 – Transfer to Great Barrier Reef

You leisurely stroll out of your hotel in the marina and walk down to the Reef Fleet Terminal for a 7:30 am departure onboard the Reef Experience. The Reef Experience is a large catamaran that transfers you 90 minutes to the Great Barrier Reef and to your floating hotel, the Reef Encounter. The Reef Encounter offers more stability than the Reef Experience. Our baby got very seasick on the Reef Experience on the way to the reef, but he was fine during our stay aboard the Reef Encounter. Alternatively, you can arrive to the Reef Experience in style via as helicopter ride for an additional $690 AUD per person for a minimum of 2 guests.

A clown fish playing in an anemone on the Great Barrier Reef.

On your first day aboard the Reef Encounter, you will have the opportunity for up to 3 water sessions (2 daytime dives for all divers plus 1 night dive for Certified Divers).


Day 2 – Full Day over the Great Barrier Reef

Wake up to the sun rising over the horizon, and dive/snorkel all day. You have the opportunity for up to 6 water sessions (4 daytime dives for all divers, including the option for 1 of the dives to be a night dive for Certified Divers). After an adventurous underwater day, relax in the lounge with a glass of wine or other alcoholic beverage of your choice. Wait to drink until the conclusion of your water sessions as you will not be permitted in the water after any alcohol consumption.


Day 3 – Great Barrier Reef

On the last day of your stay on the Reef Encounter, you will have the opportunity for up to 3 water sessions. Your last dive/snorkel session ends around noon.

An aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef.
An aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef.

You depart the Reef Encounter around 2:15 pm and walk across to the Reef Experience that pulls up alongside your boat to transfer you the 90-minute journey back to the marina. You arrive back in Cairns around 4:30 pm.


Day 4 – Rainforest Tour

Tropic Wings offers full-day itineraries to explore the wonders of the rain forest. The rainforest tour is recommended after the conclusion of your diving trip since you should not fly to high altitudes within 24 hours after multiple dives and/or a single deep dive over 60 ft. The Grand Kuranda Tour operated by Tropic Wings, includes everything described below except holding a koala bear and/or baby crocodile and the food for the kangaroos and wallabies. The price for the Grand Kuranda Tour with a Cairns transfer is $259 AUD for adults, $130 AUD for children 4-14 years of age, free for babies 0-3 years of age, and $648 AUD for a family of 2 adults with 2 children.

A coach bus picks you up from your hotel in Cairns around 8 am and transfers you to the Kuranda Scenic Railway. If you select a different accommodation than one of those listed above, confirm whether Tropic Wings offers transfers from your hotel. If transfers are unavailable, you will need to make your way to a pick up location or meet at the railway terminal.

The 2 hour scenic train ride starts in the coastal city of Cairns and meanders up a mountain to the town of Kuranda. You traverse through tunnels, over bridges, and pass by waterfalls. You have a brief 10-minute stop at Barron Falls. As you tower over the coastline, you enjoy panoramic views of the coast and surrounding lush mountains as you enter the rainforest.

Hold a Koala Bear During a Rainforest Tour - Grand Kuranda Tour operated by Tropic Wings
Cuddle a koala bear on this tour. Holding a koala bear is illegal throughout most of Australia, but is permitted in Queensland and South Australia.

On this tour, you will have the opportunity to explore a butterfly sanctuary, enjoy a tasty buffet lunch, tour the rainforest on both land and water via an army duck boat, feed kangaroos and wallabies, admire dingos, wombats, and large crocodiles, engage in a Pamagirri Aboriginal Experience, hold a baby crocodile, and cuddle a koala bear. Holding a koala bear is illegal throughout most of Australia, but is permitted in Queensland and South Australia. You return back to the coach bus to transfer you to your hotel via a 40-minute ~4.6 mile Skyrail, which is a series of 3 cable car rides. Weather permitting; you will have an incredible view of the coastline and looking down through the thick trees of the rainforest.


Tourist Visa

Before traveling to Australia, visit the Embassy of Australia for the most current visa information. Obtaining the Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) to authorize our travel to Australia was extremely quick and easy.

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Lenore Parr
Travel Contributor at Winetraveler
Lenore Parr is an attorney with a passion for adventurous and family based travel. She has traveled to over 50 countries across 6 continents (18 of those countries with her 3 year old son), 49 states (34 with her son), and is always dreaming up the next trip. When she’s not exploring, she can usually be found sipping a Cab after spending a day outside with her family.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lenore Parr is an attorney with a passion for adventurous and family based travel. She has traveled to over 50 countries across 6 continents (18 of those countries with her 3 year old son), 49 states (34 with her son), and is always dreaming up the next trip. When she’s not exploring, she can usually be found sipping a Cab after spending a day outside with her family.

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