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How to prepare for a day at the Great Barrier Reef

Whenever I reminisce about my trip to the Great Barrier Reef – aside from remembering it as one of my best days ever and ticking an incredible adventure off my bucket list – I think about was how nervous I was leading up to the tour. Considering I’d previously spent almost three years living abroad and had been solo travelling, it seemed bizarre that I felt like it was the first time I had to be solely responsible for everything – getting myself to the correct location, not getting lost, not getting left behind, not getting eaten…

Thankfully, my over-preparedness got me there on time, nothing was lost, stolen and I wasn’t swallowed by any sea creatures.  So, here are a few tips on how to prepare for a day at the Great Barrier Reef.


Do your research and find a tour that suits you

There are so many different ways to experience the Great Barrier Reef. You can explore the reef by snorkelling or diving and encounter the underwater life up close or you can choose to experience the reef with an aerial perspective from a helicopter. Or both.

Initially, I’d only thought about snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef. But when it came time to book, I persuaded myself to splurge on helicopter ride too. And if you’re wondering if the ride is worth the money, let me say this: It was an incredible (but short) ten-minute flight, and seeing the reefs from above is something really special. I certainly don’t regret spending the extra money on the helicopter flight but it is expensive and I realise that it is not within everyone’s budget.

Leave your expectations at the marina

Before I jumped aboard my boat tour, I had spent hours looking through Instagram feeds that showed people swimming with turtles and having all these amazing encounters with underwater creatures. I was so sure that I was going to come across a friendly little sea turtle during my time at the Great Barrier Reef, but it wasn’t my lucky day. I found myself slightly disappointed because I’d seen so many pictures of other snorkelers casually swimming alongside happy little creatures, and I didn’t even catch sight of one. At the end of the day, I still had an amazing time exploring the coral and chasing after beautiful, colourful fish.


Ring to confirm your booking

Considering I was only in Cairns for 48 hours, I didn’t want to leave any room for error – and I certainly didn’t want to miss out on my day at the Great Barrier Reef. There’s never any harm in making a phone call to double or triple checking, especially if it puts your mind at ease.

Arrive for check-in earlier than you think you need to

As per my booking confirmation, check-in time was to commence on 7.30 am. I arrived a few minutes earlier than the suggested time, which I thought would be adequate. I was wrong; I ended up being one of the last to check-in and one of the last to board the boat.


Print your booking confirmation

This one is pretty self-explanatory, but nowadays with so many people relying on their electronic devices to carry their confirmations, it begs to be mentioned. While digital confirmations are generally much more efficient (and eco-friendly), it can be a good idea to have a hard copy with you in case anything goes wrong with your electronic device or you can’t access it.

Take extra cash onboard

There are certain mandatory fees for all passengers that are not included in the original booking payment. These fees will need to be paid on the day. Fees and charges include reef tax, fuel levy and other optional extras that you can book or hire on the day, such as reef tours and wetsuit rentals.


Be prepared for rough seas

On my tour, we encountered some pretty rough seas for a good half hour. This resulted in a lot of green faces and almost as many paper bags. If you’re prone to seasickness, I’d recommend you bring your own remedies along with you for your day trip. However, if you forget, the crew are well prepared with enough ginger and seasickness tablets for everyone. These can be purchased for a small fee.

Bring an underwater camera

Before I made my way to Cairns for this bucket list adventure, I wanted to be able to capture my underwater memories and bring them home with me. Since stealing underwater life from the Great Barrier Reef is probably frowned upon and I wasn’t sure that my round fishbowl at home would be big enough, I decided to purchase a GoPro so I could easily bring home some photographs instead.

Cameras, such as the GoPro, can be super pricey but are great for capturing underwater videos, as well as still pictures. If you’re looking to bring some memories home with you but don’t want to spend a fortune, there is the option of purchasing a disposable underwater camera or even leasing an underwater camera. Some tour groups may even offer cameras that you can loan onboard the ship.


Did you know that you can learn to dive at the Great Barrier Reef?

If you didn’t before, you do now! When I went on my tour, I wasn’t actually aware that, even though I hadn’t booked it, I could choose to signup an introductory dive once onboard the boat. This could be booked for an extra fee, of course. Unfortunately, I didn’t end up doing this as I would be catching a plane the next morning, and you cannot dive within 24 hours of flying due to compression reasons.

Consider the storage facilities on the boat

One of my major concerns leading up to the day was where I would store my belongings on the boat – and whether they’d be safe. While there was no secure storage such as lockers, there was space for storage under the seating. On the day, I noticed that most people left their belongings on top of their seats. I was also comforted slightly when the crew announced surveillance cameras were on board.


Read more about my experience at the Great Barrier Reef here.

Have I missed something you might be curious about before your trip to the Great Barrier Reef? If so, comment below and I’ll do my best to assist with your query. Or if you’ve been to the Great Barrier Reef, was there anything you wish you knew before your experience?

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  1. The Great Barrier Reef looks awesome 🙂 Your tips and your preparatory list are very useful thank you for sharing!

  2. Great Barrier Reef is so amazing. The world of reef under the water looks nothing less than a beautiful galaxy of dazzling starts to me. I would love to visit here

  3. Chasing after beautiful, colorful little sea fishes in the Great Barrier Reef seems like a great fun to me despite your hope to swim with a turtle, maybe next time! Beautiful photos!

  4. The Great Barrier Reef is a place I’ve wanted to visit – but I’ve heard that it’s disappearing and not what it used to be; riddled with endless crowds and not much sea life. Did you find that there were too many people? Are there tours you can do that go to lesser known spots? It looks like you had a lovely time, so I’m assuming that all the negative press I’ve heard isn’t entirely true. These tips are all very helpful. I always forget how rough it can get out at sea when you’re on a smaller boat! The chopper ride sounds magnificent!

    1. I went last year with few expectations, and no previous trip to compare it to, but from the snorkel tour I did with the marine biologist I became very aware of the coral bleaching events that is affecting the Great Barrier Reef. I felt like I had plunged into a massive fish bowl and had plenty of fish swimming around me (others saw turtles, stingrays, sharks) – but I’m not sure if in previous years there may have been a much larger population of sea life. I did feel as though much of the coral was dull in colour, which is due to the coral bleaching and really sad. On my tour, there was only our boat at the two reefs we visited, but then there was around 200 passengers on the boat. I’m sure there are lesser known spots to go, which would probably be more enjoyable. I went from Cairns, which is one of the most popular spots to take the day trip to the Great Barrier Reef. While I’m sure there are other tours from Cairns, there are also other cities along the coast (such as Townsville) that have day trips to other parts of the reef. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my day at the reef (seeing and learning), but judging on the state of the coral (only a few weeks ago suffering another coral bleaching event) it may not be around forever, which seems to be the very sad reality of the reef.

  5. Great Barrier Reef is such a gorgeous destination. Your preparatory list seems very thorough. Its a day trip from Cairns, isn’t it?

    1. I was certainly well-prepared haha… And yes, I did a day trip from Cairns. Although, I’m pretty sure other cities along the coast offer day trips too, such as Townsville.

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