Great Barrier Reef, Australia

What to see: The biggest reef structure of the world with bommies, pinnacles and walls rich in fish life. Unfortunately the dive sites frequented by the shops from Cairns are reported to be severely damaged. Unfortunately the GBR was hit hard by El Niño. Many of the coral are bleached and it is not yet sure how much of it is dead or dying. Some of the reef might recover as soon as the water gets colder again. Find details about the bleaching on Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

Mantas in Heron Island

All big stuff including sharks, rays and the largest groupers at Yongala wreck

Diving: Boat entry, either day trips or liveaboard

Level: From entry-level to experienced diver. Depending on the level I would recommend different areas at the great barrier reef, see below

Who should go there: Beginners and intermediate level divers, Cairns is famous for doing DSDs (try dives) or take the open water course. There is sheltered, shallow spots ideal to try scuba or take a course during day trips from Cairns.
Intermediate level divers might rather take a short liveaboard to less dived areas
For experienced divers Heron Island, the Yongala wreck or a liveaboard to the Coral Sea offer more exciting alternatives to the diving from Cairns

How to get there: Flight to Cairns or
To Yongala: Flight to Townsville and rental car (1.5 hour drive) to Alva Beach or Bus (Greyhound) to Ayr and transfer to Alva Beach. It is possible to get to the Yongala wreck from Townsville but it includes long boat rides
To Heron island: Flight to Gladstone and boat transfer

Where to stay: A wide range of accommodations are available in Cairns, on Heron Island there is only one option (resort) at Alva Beach it is possible to stay at the dive shop or a camp ground to get to Yongala.

Where to dive:

In Cairns: Pro Dive Cairns, Cairns Dive Centre, Tusa Dive and Deep Sea Divers Den offer courses, day trips and short liveaboard trips.
The liveaboard options for more experienced divers to the Ribbon Reefs and the Coral Sea are Mike Ball, Spirit of Freedom and Taka. Mike Ball also offers trips to other destinations including the Yongala wreck.

In Heron Island with the resort

For Yongala with Yongala Dive in Alva Beach or Aqua Pro Dive in Ayr

Rates: Day trip with 2 dives cost around AUD 250, a 3-day liveaboard starts at AUD 700 and a 7-day liveaboard to the Ribbon Reefs and the Coral Sea at AUD 3500.
On Heron islands one dive costs AUD 75, the cheapest room including breakfast is AUD 330 per night
2 dives at Yongala start at AUD 240

Climate: Around 35°C in summer and 25°C in winter, wet season December to March

Water temperature: 30°C in summer, down to 22°C in winter

Visibility: 15 to 30 m, up to 40 m in the Coral Sea

Season: Diving is possible all year round, winter is warmer with generally better visibility, specials are dwarf minke whales in June and July, humpback whales in August and September as well as the coral spawning which happens in November or December

Favorite dive site: Yongala Wreck near Townsville with everything big and a lot of action – sharks, rays, groupers, turtles, sea snakes

My trip:

I flew to Cairns and took a trip on Taka to the Ribbon Reefs costing AUD 1200 for 5 days. Taka is the most basic and economic boat heading towards that region in the north of Cairns. The dives are unguided for experienced divers and the dive sites easy to navigate. I personally wasn’t too impressed by the diving there. I am spoiled with the biodiversity in the Coral Triangle and I expected more from one of the most famous reefs.
With a campervan I drove down along the coast to Alva Beach to dive the Yongala. This was one of the best dives I ever did. It is definitely worth the effort. Down there the conditions can be rough and it is only possible to dive when the sea is calm. Make sure to plan in enough days around Townsville to be flexible with the dates.