The 8 best reefs to dive in Cairns and Port Douglas

The 8 best reefs to dive in cairns and port douglas

While international borders remain closed, many of us are rediscovering the incredible diving to be found right here in Australia. Some of us, myself included, returning to the place it all began: Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef.

I’ll never forget the moment I took a giant stride into the Great Barrier Reef for the first time, discovering an underwater world that stole my heart for life. Thirty years on, there is still fantastic diving in the northern section of the Great Barrier Reef, from Norman, Flynn, Milln, Moore and Saxon Reefs out from Cairns, to the Agincourt Reefs out of Port Douglas. Some of these reefs have made remarkable comebacks after damage sustained by cyclones and bleaching events, and it’s heart-warming to see the Reef’s resilience up close and personal.

This week I took a trip up north to ask the experts which dives sites you should add to your Great Barrier Reef Bucket List, interviewing a selection of Master Reef Guides in Cairns and Port Douglas. Here are their recommendations.

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Cairns: Three Sisters, Milln Reef

The Three Sisters are three enormous bommies that sit on the very edge of Milln Reef, where the current brings in large amounts of plankton, a food rich environment for schooling pelagics such as fusiliers, red bass, drummer, and larger marine life including turtles, reef sharks, several species of rays including large smooth rays and cowtail rays.

The Sisters’ position at the edge of the reef assures excellent visibility, upwards of 20 m, perfect for shark and ray spotting!

Start at the third sister and swim a figure eight pattern around the second and third sister before heading to Sister No. 1. Reef fish you’re likely to see along the way include fusiliers, damsels, purple and orange anthias, bright blue chromis, yellow spotted and diagonal banded sweetlips and parrot fish.

The 8 best reefs to dive in cairns and port douglas

Cairns: Club 10, Milln Reef

Good for snorkelers and divers, this shallow dive (so named for its deepest point: 10 m), has vibrant coral cover and several species of anemones in one of the largest fields of anemones you’ll ever see. Just beneath the mooring there are large clusters of blue and brown staghorn corals, huge boulder corals, and on the sandy seafloor, garden eels sway in the mild current.

In the surrounding shallow coral gardens you’ll find a wide variety of reef life: damsel fish, blue tangs (Dory), cuttle fish, butterfly fish, turtles and several species of sharks, including epaulette sharks, tawny nurse sharks and reef sharks.

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Cairns: City Hall, Moore Reef

  • Master Reef Guide: Pablo Cogollos
  • Dive it with: Sunlover Reef Cruises

Located about 200 m from the Sunlover Pontoon, City Hall is a large pinnacle, festooned at depth with giant gorgonian fans and healthy, vibrant and diverse coral cover in the shallows. It is surrounded by at least 10 swim throughs where you might find wide-eyed red cardinal fish, here and there clouds of glass fish and the odd coral trout darting in and out.

Turtles are almost guaranteed at this site, with 18 individual resident turtles identified: two hawksbill and 16 green sea turtles. As you circle and ascend the pinnacle, you’ll see lots of damsels fluttering about the thick outcrops of branching coral and huge schools of yellow tail fusiliers darting scaling the coral wall at high speed.

The 8 best reefs to dive in cairns and port douglas

Top Tip: while Sunlover Reef Cruises are known more as a specialist for non-divers with guided snorkel tours and glass bottom boats, they are also a great choice for certified divers as you will usually find yourself in a very small group.

Cairns: Marine World Wall, Moore Reef

  • Master Reef Guide: Sam Gray
  • Dive it with: Reef Magic

This section of Moore Reef is heart-warming comeback story, one that graced the cover of the Weekend Australian Magazine some 12 months ago. The ‘Wall’ is located on the far side of the reef where the ‘Marine World’ pontoon is moored. In 2011, this part of Moore Reef was hammered by Cyclone Yasi, so much so that in parts, it was virtually stripped bare of coral cover.

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In late 2020 Reef Magic’s GBR Biology team conducted Eye on the Reef Rapid Health Indicator Surveys, and were delighted to discover that coral cover was back to pre-Yasi levels. The reef now boasts 80 per cent coral cover, with layers and layers of plating coral competing for space with branching corals and providing shelter for an increasing population of reef fish such as coral trout and lizard fish.

The Wall is horseshoe-shaped, which (under normal weather patterns) protects the coral cover from the elements, even though it faces open ocean. It is best dived as a drift dive, jumping in at ‘Pressure Point’ where you’ll likely see large schools of pelagic fish including drummer, rainbow runners, snub-nose dart fish and fusiliers. As you drift along, the coral cover changes from candy-coloured soft corals to hard branching and bushy corals in the more protected areas.

Look out into the blue for the larger pelagics such as white tip reef sharks, tawny nurse sharks, the occasional manta, and up close on the coral for nudibranchs, Ascidians and feather stars.

Cairns: Twin Peaks, Saxon Reef

  • Master Reef Guide: Michelle Barry
  • Dive it with: Divers Den

Saxon Reef is undoubtedly among the best Great Barrier Reef dive and snorkel sites. Set between Norman and Hastings Reefs, there are calm lagoons ideal for glimpsing fish and corals while snorkelling – as well as the famous Twin Peaks coral ‘mountains’ where a deeper scuba dive offers the chance to spot species like reef sharks, trevally, large cod, and moray eels.

The 8 best reefs to dive in cairns and port douglas

Port Douglas: The Point. Agincourt Reef No. 3

  • Master Reef Guide: Dr Glenn Burns (and Dive Instructor Haylie Bennett)
  • Dive it with: Quicksilver and Silversonic,

‘The Point’ is at the northern-most point of Agincourt 3, on a section of the Reef that sits on the very edge of the continental shelf around 35 km offshore. It is separated from Agincourt 4 by a narrow channel. These two geographical features combine to create a spectacular site for lovers of pelagic action. Strong currents sweep plankton-rich waters from the surrounded deep sea into the channel attracting predators, with large schools of striped and yellow tail fusiliers patrolling the coral wall, and chasing them, larger predators such as big eye trevally and barracuda.

The 8 best reefs to dive in cairns and port douglas

Divers can find themselves inside a circling tornado of big eye trevally and barracuda. Outside the lagoon, divers frequently sight larger pelagics including grey reef sharks and the occasional bull shark, while inside the lagoon, white tip and black tip reef sharks.

The best way to dive The Point is a drift dive, dropping in on the outer wall just outside the channel, drifting swiftly around the Point itself into the channel, passing forests of enormous gorgonian fans along the way before being sucked into the lagoon, where you’ll likely meet Donut, the world’s friendliest, giant Maori Wrasse.

When conditions allow, you can also dive along the outer wall, where you can expect visibility between 30 m to 50 m as the reef wall drop down, in stages, 50 m, 100 m, 1000 m.

Nursery Bommie. Agincourt Reef No. 3

  • Master Reef Guide: Dr Glenn Burns (and Dive Instructor Haylie Bennett)
  • Dive it with: Quicksilver and Silversonic,

Nursery is a relatively shallow dive, starting at 25 m depth at the base of the bommie itself which sits on a sloping reef wall. Drop in on the deeper side of the bommies and gradually circle your way to the shallows. The marine life changes as you ascend, passing reef sharks, large schools of drummer, the occasional reef shark and other pelagics in deeper water, and in the shallows, clouds of purple anthias. Divers often see pods of dolphins and in winter, minke whales are occasionally sighted.

The 8 best reefs to dive in cairns and port douglas

As you follow the reef wall into shallower water, you’ll pass a huge garden of staghorn coral in shades of brown, purple, blue and green before ending your dive in ‘Fishbowl’, a bowl with a white sandy bottom, surrounded by staghorns, and brimming with pretty reef fish of all colours, including neon blue chromis, orange and purple anthias and damsels.

Dr Glenn Burns explains; “one of the reasons I love this dive is that it’s so versatile, it has something for divers of all levels, from beginner to hard core”.

Helm Deep Drift. Agincourt No. 2

  • Master Reef Guide: Dr Glenn Burns (and Dive Instructor Haylie Bennett)
  • Dive it with: Quicksilver and Silversonic,

Helms Drift is channel between two Agincourt reefs, namely 2A and 2B, where strong currents carry you along the outer wall and suck you into the channel where you drift and an incredible pace until the current peters out inside the lagoon.

“On this drift dive, you fly” according to Haylie.

And while you’re ‘flying’ you’ll pass turtles, grey reef sharks and barramundi cod, before you reach the gentler pace of the reef surrounding the mooring and the macro features to be found there, such as tiny pipefish and nudibranchs. Near the mooring you may also come across a couple of cheeky residents, Agro, a camouflage cod and Colin, a Malabar cod.

The 8 best reefs to dive in cairns and port douglas