7 sustainable marine experiences to enjoy in Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef

Explore one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef, on memorable experiences that support the preservation of the globally important World Heritage site…

Team Wanderlust
09 August 2023
Promoted by
Discover Tropical North Queensland

If there’s one thing that’s even more special than experiencing the spectacle of the Great Barrier Reef, it’s knowing you’ve done your bit to help protect it by supporting local operators dedicated to safeguarding this spectacular ecosystem. In Tropical North Queensland, there’s now a bounty of reef-friendly marine experiences to enjoy. Here are some ideas for starters…

1. Team up with conservationists on a citizen science reef tour

See coral planting projects up close (Tourism Tropical North Queensland)

Form a deeper bond with the Great Barrier Reef by playing a hands-on role in its protection through citizen science. Begin by downloading the Eye on the Reef app, which invites every visitor to engage in citizen science by uploading photos of reef health, animal sightings or incidents to the app. This data is used by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to better understand the reef, and how to manage it. Hone skills with the likes of Passions of Paradise, which runs a citizen science Eco Tour for snorkellers and divers. Hosted by a Master Reef Guide, your expedition could see you survey reef locations, monitor coral planting, and complete submissions for Eye on the Reef – all while enjoying some of the world’s most superb underwater scenery.

2. Dive in for a marine biologist-guided snorkelling tour

Dive alongside marine biologists for an expert eye on the Great Barrier Reef (Tourism Tropical North Queensland)

Do you know which reef fish poops out sand, or how to distinguish a male marine turtle from a female? A growing number of Great Barrier Reef operators now offer marine biologist-led snorkelling tours to provide deeper insights into the environment you’re seeing. Based in Port Douglas and Cairns, Quicksilver Cruises was the first reef operator to employ marine biologists to guide optional snorkel tours. On a day trip to the outer reef, you can sign up for an introductory snorkel tour designed for novices, or an advanced snorkel tour that might see you drift in the current as the drama of the reef unfolds beneath you. Look out for the reef restoration project alongside Quiksilver Cruise’s Agincourt Reef platform, where impressive staghorn corals now grow from a mesh frame installed in 2018 to stabilise a damaged section of the reef.

3. Enjoy a meaningful day on the reef without getting your feet wet

Learn first-hand about the reef restoration process from marine biologists (Tourism Tropical North Queensland)

Not much of a snorkeller? No worries. On an educational day out on the outer Great Barrier Reef with Reef Magic, enjoy mesmerising views of the reef and see reef conservation in action. Travel from Cairns to Moore Reef, where you can join marine biologists in the new Reef Magic Pontoon’s purpose-built laboratory to learn about the reef restoration process. Then board a glass-bottom tour to see how the reef has been restored and transformed into a living coral garden. Marvel at how the use of ‘reef stars’ to stabilise the reef bed in 2020 has helped to fast-track the reef’s recovery process, with the reef stars now all but obscured by dazzling new coral cover.

4. Be a marine conservationist for a day on Fitzroy Island

Swim past the offshore nursery just off the coast of Fitzroy Island (Tourism Tropical North Queensland)

The not-for-profit Reef Restoration Foundation was the first organisation that received the green light from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to grow coral on the world’s largest living organism. The Foundation established the Great Barrier Reef’s first offshore nursery at Fitzroy Island in 2017, from where volunteers take cuttings of coral and attach them to frames suspended underwater where they grow faster and can be replanted on degraded sections of the reef to boost coral cover and diversity. On a day trip to Fitzroy Island Resort, just 45 minutes from Cairns, you can snorkel over the coral outplantings as a participant on the resort’s Marine Conservation Program. You’ll also learn how to identify coral-eating Drupella snails and help remove them from the reef, while a visit to the island’s Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre is the only place where you can go behind the scenes and help to collect data on turtles and other reef residents as part of the Eye on the Reef initiative.

5. See the reef through Indigenous eyes

Listen to Indigenous creation stories as you cruise to reefs (Tourism Tropical North Queensland)

Understand how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups have lived in harmony with the Great Barrier Reef for millennia on an Indigenous-guided tour. Join Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander guides from Dreamtime Dive and Snorkel for an action-packed day on the reef. Listen to evocative Creation stories as you cruise from Cairns to the outer reef, then dive in with your guides to learn about the role of the reef in Indigenous life and culture, from corals that produce natural sunscreen to the Totem animal system and how it relates to sustainability. Or on Wunyami, the traditional name of Green Island near Cairns, the Indigenous-guided Wunyami Cultural Tour (book through blackseahorse.com.au or greatadventures.com.au) reveals how the island is connected to the ancient journey of two ancestral beings who formed Wunyami, and still protect it today.

6. Tour the world’s first living coral biobank in Cairns

The coral biobank at Cairns Aquarium (Tourism Tropical North Queensland)

In a pioneering move to safeguard the Great Barrier Reef, the not-for-profit Great Barrier Reef Legacy has spearheaded the Forever Reef Project at Cairns Aquarium, which aims to establish a conservation programme that creates a living ark of all 400 species of Great Barrier Reef hard corals; so far, they’ve collected nearly 200 species. The project will safeguard live coral specimens at the Cairns Aquarium so there are specimens available for reef research and restoration efforts should they be required to restore coral biodiversity on the reef. An add-on to the entry ticket to Cairns Aquarium, you can enjoy a 30-minute guided tour of the Living Coral Biobank, where you’ll be witness to the largest collection of hard corals on display to the public anywhere in the world. Exploring the rest of the aquarium, you can also meet more than 16,000 aquatic animals in nine key ecosystems, across 11 zones, during your visit.

7. Take a low-impact excursion to the serene Low Isles

The main island of Low Isles is famous for its white lighthouse (Tourism Tropical North Queensland)

Get a taste of the Great Barrier Reef with a visit to an inshore reef, just an hour’s boat ride from Port Douglas, on a relaxing sailing adventure to the carbon-neutral Low Isles. Slow down and enjoy the one-hour journey to these protected twin coral cays with Sailaway Port Douglas. Your luxury sailing catamaran will anchor in a calm lagoon, from where you’ll be shuttled to shore to enjoy a guided walk on the main island, topped with a historic lighthouse. You can also paddle straight out from the beach to explore the vibrant reef surrounding the islands. Spot animated clown fish, colourful parrot fish, graceful turtles and other marine critters living among a whopping 150 different species of hard corals on a guided snorkel, before relaxing on deck once again as you cruise back to Port Douglas.

Feeling inspired?

For more information about this compelling corner of Australia, visit the official Tropical North Queensland website.

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