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Great Barrier Reef: A Guide To Port Douglas Reef Tours

Main image courtesy of Wavelength
Would anyone know Queensland even existed if it wasn’t for the Great Barrier Reef? A Guide To Port Douglas Reef Tours is a post that is a loooong time coming. It’s taken us 3 years of running an airbnb rental to finally taking the hint from countless requests. Which is the best reef operator? How do I book? Do I need to book? How long are the tours? We’ve always had some stock replies and hoped that their weren’t too many follow up questions and to be honest (because I should be), beyond the basics, we just didn’t really know the details.

This is where I sigh and think about the amount of research I’m going have to do over the next few days. All those agonising research breakfasts at Lure Cafe in the Marina, it’s all about the vantage point you see. You need to observe the operators and boats in action and it would be rude and way to obvious if you didn’t do it from behind an eggs benny and large latte. So… the point I’m making is that what is to follow is old school, pound the pavement, hard won information packaged as… Great Barrier Reef: A Guide To Port Douglas Reef Tours.

Aerial image courtesy of Wavelength | Dive image courtesy of Scuba IQ

The Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is huge. You could fit the Australian states of Tasmania and Victoria in the same area. At 2,300 kilometres long it’s the largest ecosystem on Earth. 9000 organisms feed and shelter within it. 10% of the world’s total fish species plus 6 species of turtles and over 200 bird species… and it’s just a baby at 20,000,000 years old.

Tourism employs 70,000 people on the Great Barrier Reef, generating $5 billion in income annually. So it’s a big deal both domestically and internationally. Yes, there has been bleaching events where large areas of the reef have been affected. It is in the tour operators interests to give their customers the best possible experience so I doubt they will be taking you to a barren underwater field. If you are concerned about it you’re best to contact the operators directly.

Why Port Douglas for Reef Tours?

To continue the “Where would we be without the Great Barrier Reef?” theme, I’m certain that Port Douglas would still be a sugar cane town that people would pass by on the way to the world’s oldest tropical rainforest, which in itself is a stand alone marvel. But the Great Barrier Reef is so special and Port Douglas is uniquely positioned as the prime location on the Queensland coast to get the most out of the GBR. Of course there are other “hopping off” locations, it’s a 2,300km long Goliath, but there’s a reason why tourists are ferried in bus convoys from Cairns everyday just to join the reef tours… options… and Port Douglas is really good looking.

Great Barrier Reef Tour Options, Times & Costs

Departure times can be as early as 7:30am and rarely later than 8:30am. The duration of the tours depend on the reef location so we’ll get into that further down when we talk specific reefs.
Costs range for Adults $185 – $260 | Children $130 – $180, a $6.50 Environmental Management Charge may or may not be included but you will have to pay it. But wait, there’s more… there’s plenty of ways to add to your experience and your bill… we need to talk options.

Image courtesy of Quicksilver

There is a variety of reef locations but there is also many experiences within these locations. An example might be a trip to an “outer reef” like the Agincourt Ribbon Reefs with the “big boys”, Quicksilver. They have a small town bobbing about out there where you can buy groceries, have your hair done and play blackjack. Yes, I’m kidding. But it is a large floating pontoon/island that affords underwater reef experiences from an observation deck and via a “helmet dive” with no diving experience required… oh, and there’s a bar and a post office box.

Image courtesy of Wavelength

Other vessels will go out to the Agincourt Reefs (and other outer reefs) but operate under what is called a “roaming permit”. This means that the reef experience is conducted from the vessel. Large hydraulic platforms enable easy water access. Roaming permits enable multiple sites in a single trip so it’s a good way to hedge your bets as they can choose the reefs best suited to the day’s conditions… and you could always put a massage in a bottle… I didn’t write that, that would be bad😬.. no, really.

So if you are putting together a budget it will need to be specific to the vessel. Just going by a flat fare may not get the multiple dives or snorkel experiences you’re after so you need to check what is being offered in each package. The fares and prices are very clear and most operators will offer a variety of extras, it’s just a matter of finding what works for you.

I’ve listed some of the most popular reefs as a starting point, it’s not all of them by a long way. Operators have permits for particular reefs and many also do private charters to more secluded spots. Some reefs are more exclusive than others so I’ve listed that where relevant. The duration of a trip is a ballpark figure as operators vary but remember there are safety protocols that must be conducted so you will be on the boat for around 30 minutes before you leave and if there are stragglers, maybe longer.

*Most of the Reef Tour Operators will pick you up from your accommodation if you ask nicely our slide them a little somethin’😉.

Snorkelling v Diving

Whilst there are some smaller “boutique” dive only operators, nearly all of the bigger names will do snorkelling but not all will do diving. This is down to the permits as not all reefs will allow it or will have a cap on the amount of permits that can be obtained. So I’ll start with reefs, the map and list below highlights some of the more popular reefs. Travel times beyond the Low Isles is similar between most of these listed as some of the routes can be more circuitous than others.

Low Isles Reef Experience

Duration from point of departure, Half day 4 hours – Full day 5.5 hours (Journey time is 30 minutes)
The Low Isles is a protected Coral Cay and really is the classic picturesque tropical island. It offers sandy beaches and coconut palms, with surrounding coral gardens for snorkelling and is a great option for the reluctant mariner or if you just want to tick the GBR off your list as the Low Isles is within sight of Port Douglas, a 30 minute boat ride. A very popular option for the condensed reef experience as it’s the only half day reef experience available outside of sunset cruises.

Image courtesy of Sailaway

Agincourt Ribbon Reefs

Duration from point of departure, 9 hours (Journey time is 90 minutes)
On the very outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef there are reefs known as ‘ribbons’ that run parallel to the Continental Shelf. Adjacent to the Coral Sea trench they are apparently recognised for their diverse eco-systems. The Agincourt Reefs are 90 minutes (70km) from Port Douglas on the faster vessels. So we’ve covered Quicksilver’s “reef pad” but it’s important to remember that there are other operators that cover Agincourt (and other outer reefs) with roaming permits, which I find more appealing personally, mostly for the smaller crowds. But I can understand the appeal in Quicksilver’s experience for families with younger children and bar flies.

Images by Robert Linsdell

Tongue Reef

Duration from point of departure, 9 hours (Journey time is 90 minutes)
Has the claim on sea turtle sightings at err… Turtle Bay. Apparently there are 8 resident green sea turtles and yes some have names (use them, otherwise they’ll ignore you😉). Wavelength has the exclusive permit for this site.

Image courtesy of Wavelength

Opal Reef

Duration from point of departure, 9 hours (Journey time is 90 minutes)
Opal is big for snorkelling, so it seems a good option for all swimmers, regardless of skill level and perhaps a little less intense than than Agincourt.

Image courtesy of Calypso

St.Crispins Reef

Duration from point of departure, 9 hours (Journey time is 90 minutes)
St.Crispins Reef has been classified by the Marine Park Authority for “Intensive” use which means it’s open to larger boats but there is still only four moorings available. Bumpheaded parrotfish, butterfly fish and sea cucumbers are on the menu sight list.

Images courtesy of Wavelength

Port Douglas Marina

The Port Douglas Marina is where it all happens. We’ve done a post, Port Douglas Marina – The Guide here which’ll give you the complete rundown on opening times, restaurants and cafes but for the purpose of this post, all you need to know is where it is… ‘cos without that you won’t be going out on the reef. To miss the marina is pretty difficult, a five minute drive or 15 minute walk around town and you’ll stumble across it but if some reason it eludes you I’ve popped in a Google Map below.

Map for the Port Douglas Marina

Port Douglas Reef Boats

There are quite a few reef operators in Port Douglas, more accurately, there are lots of boats. Many are owned by the same companies but to keep things simple I’ll just go by boat names. The important thing is that we’ve never heard a bad word about any of them. Whether you’re planning on snorkelling or diving you won’t be left wanting for choice. I covered costs earlier, so the prices are going to vary but a day on the reef won’t be cheap, giving thousands of people a quality and safe Great Barrier Reef experience on a daily basis requires a lot of moving parts, your looking at a baseline $185+ for a decent reef experience. The ideal day on the reef would be dead calm and no recent rain or high winds as it affects the visibility. The reality is that most of us will have to take what we can get given time restrictions but either way I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Wavelength

Wavelength Reef Cruises is the second oldest and only one of 2 outer reef tour operators that are locally owned (+Aquaquest/Diver’s Den). These guys have 3 boats and specialise in snorkelling and if you read their site you’ll get an interesting perspective on the issue of “diver damage”, which is caused by novice divers unintentionally breaking fragile hard corals. Their view is that mixing snorkellers and divers on a boat means site selection is a compromise due to depth issues for diving. Their focus is Opal, St.Crispins & Tongue Reefs.

Reef images courtesy of Wavelength

Sailaway

Sailaway caters specifically for small numbers. They have 3 catamarans that do full and half day trips to the Low Isles and also combine these with packages to Mossman Gorge and sunset cruises. The have got the Mackay Coral Cay (off Cape Tribulation) listed on their permits but I don’t see any packages for that at time of writing.

Aquarius

Aquarius is Cheryl’s favourite. She makes a habit of taking friends and family on their sunset cruise. There’s quite a few “lagoon” catamarans at the Port Douglas Marina, it’s a lovely boat and the limited numbers makes for a very chilled experience. Aside from sunset cruises they do full day snorkelling trips out to Horseshoe Bay, which is Tongue Reef.

Poseidon

Poseidon covers 3 different reef sites at Agincourt. They do snorkel tours as well as scuba diving (which is an extra cost). They are also permitted to allow swimming with dwarf minke whales.

Calypso

Calypso do snorkel and diving experiences (they team up with Scuba IQ listed below). Both at Agincourt Reef and snorkelling at Opal Reef.

Aquaquest

The other local and the latest dive and snorkel vessel to Port Douglas. Divers Den is a brand new vessel introduced in July 2017 and does dive and snorkel trips out to Agincourt, Opal and St.Crispin’s Reefs.

SilverSonic & SilverSwift

These guys are part of the Quicksilver Group but Siversonic and Silverswift are very different boats to the Quicksilver “monster”. Silversonic roams between 3 sites doing snorkelling and diving at the Agincourt Reefs and as an added bonus they are one of the few permitted to swim with dwarf minke whales (during whale season, mid-june to mid-july is the peak season). Silverswift covers 3 other reefs that I haven’t listed – you can read more about Flynn, Pellowe, Milln and/or Thetford Reefs here.

Wave Dancer

Wavedancer 3 is one of the few reef tours that depart later. At 9:30am they do a 6.5 hour cruise out to the Low Isles for a day of snorkelling and chilling on what is a fairly large boat.

Quicksilver

Quicksilver I’ve already given these guys enough airtime. Agincourt Reefs – Big boat, big ponton, big numbers.

Reef Sprinter

Reef Sprinter is the “strap yourself in and hold on” reef experience. They do snorkel tours to the Low Isles and Opal Reef – they get there twice as fast as everyone else… to fast to photograph, we’ll have to schedule another “eggs benny” outing.

Dive Operators

Getting some of the operators to communicate has been difficult so I’m not going to list them all as many dive experiences are integral to the vessel operators. That being said there are quite a few independant dive operators that work with different boats so I’ll list them as they come to the party (alcohol is provided… at the party).

Scuba IQ

The folks at Scuba IQ have been fantastic to communicate with so I’m guessing that would translate😉 well into a great dive experience. They operate at Agincourt, Opal, Tongue & St.Crispins Reefs from the Calypso and Diver’s Den vessels.

Images courtesy of  Scuba IQ

What To Bring on a Port Douglas Reef Experience

  • Bathing suit
  • Towel
  • Hat, sunglasses, sunscreen
  • Camera
  • Cash or credit cards for extra purchases
  • BYO alcoholic beverages

Where to Stay in Port Douglas

Port has it all when it comes to accommodation, it’s really just down to where you want to be situated (and of course how much you want to spend). There are quite a few bigger resorts lining the road on the way into the centre of town, Port Douglas is tiny by most standards so you’re never more than a 40/50 minute walk away from most things at worst. There is plenty of accommodation options in the centre of town but remember it will be buzzing with night life. Most of the locals live out at Four Mile, which is the other end of town. We use Airbnb whenever the opportunity pops up and Port has plenty of options there also. We run our own place in Port Douglas so know the system pretty well and for us it’s the most user-friendly of the private holiday rental apps. It’s a bit tricky to find places under 3 nights but if you are planning a holiday for longer click here to set up an Airbnb account, you’ll get way more bang for your buck.
If you prefer the hotel/resort thing, the search engine below is set for Port Douglas so give that a whirl for a comprehensive list of options or have a look at the Agoda banner under that.

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Credits

Whilst many of the images are our own we did get some help from the following talented individuals, we like to give credit when it’s due! If you click there links you will see some fantastic portfolios of passionate travellers and photographers.
All images were obtained under the Creative Commons Licensing Agreements, please contact us if you would like to have your images removed.

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