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Natural Wonders, Sightseeing, Swimming/Pools Type
Half Day to Full Day Time to Spend
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  • 4.0Value
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  • 5.0Atmosphere

Many visitors say the Great Barrier Reef is best seen through a scuba mask, but it's no small feat to traverse the area's dive spots. When choosing which regions to explore, consider your skill level, the amount of travel involved and the trip length in that area. Two of the most popular diving and snorkeling locales are listed below:

Cairns Reefs

Hosting a kaleidoscope of fish, sea turtles and humpback whales, Cairns' reefs are teeming with wildlife. Known locally as the Outer Barrier Reef, these reefs are ideal for first-time divers and families because of the one- to three-hour travel times from Cairns' Reef Fleet Terminal. Popular spots by Cairns include Michaelmas Cay, Moore Reef, Green Island and Hastings Reef. Ocean FreeSeastar Cruises and Tusa Dive all offer a variety of half- to full-day cruises; diving and snorkeling cruise packages start at 205 Australian dollars ($152) per adult and AU$120 ($89) for each child.

The Ribbon Reefs

Situated alongside northern Queensland's coast, these 10 narrow reefs – which are numbered one through 10 – are known simply as the Ribbon Reefs. Ribbon Reef No. 10 is home to one of the Great Barrier Reef's most famous dive sites, Cod Hole. Along with its chromatic parade of tropical fish, Cod Hole features massive potato cod and Maori wrasse fish. After many years of being hand-fed by guides, the resident potato cod aren't afraid to approach divers. Dwarf minke whales are occasionally spotted as well in June and July. Dive trips at the Ribbon Reefs require more time since they are approximately 60 miles north of Cairns, but the water is clearer here than it is at Cairns' reefs. Tour operators like Spirit of Freedom and Mike Ball Dive Expeditions offer three- to seven-day trips that start at AU$1720 (roughly $1,262) per person.

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#2 Cairns

If you plan on exploring the far northern half of Queensland, Cairns (pronounced "Cahns") offers a convenient home base. About 1,500 miles north of Sydney, Cairns boasts the closest mainland access to the Great Barrier Reef. One reason Cairns is such a popular entry point to the reef is its airport. While there are a number of regional airports dotting the Queensland coast, Cairns hosts the only international airport in the north (Brisbane and Gold Coast welcome international passengers in the south). But while the city provides a favorable jumping-off point for reef explorations, it also touts its own attractions. And along with a variety of shops and restaurants, Cairns hosts plenty of lodging options, from luxurious five-star properties to budget-friendly hostels.

You may be here to discover the reef, but Cairns is worth exploring, too. Travelers recommend strolling along the Cairns Esplanade and swimming in its adjacent lagoon. A plethora of picnic areas and eateries can also be found by the boardwalk, and some report seeing colorful lorikeets in the trees and pelicans floating on the water. Other must-visit attractions include the Cairns Botanic Gardens and the Atherton Tablelands.

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