Cairns Reef Tours: The Best Great Barrier Reef Trips For Kids

So, you are planning to do one of the Cairns reef tours with kids but are not sure where to start. You’ve come to the right place!

‘But Mum, there’s too many fish in there!’ my usually bold three-year-old is mesmerised but terrified.

Will we be able to persuade him into the water?  On his first trip to the Great Barrier Reef, I’m wondering if we’ve brought him too early.  Turns out we had, he barely got wet.

But cut to what feels like 10 minutes later (but is in fact ten years) and he’s disappearing down the anchorline on his first scuba dive experience, and he’s loving it. This time it’s me who feels nervous as he disappears from view.

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Cairns reef tours, an essential part of a North Queensland holiday. I wish I’d taken this but it’s actually from Tourism + Events Queensland
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It’s a challenge watching your teenager disappear into THE DEEP

I’ve taken my children to the Great Barrier Reef several times and have visited it by myself too. And I’ve enlisted some travel writer friends to share their experiences with their families as well.  

So here you will find a guide to the Great Barrier Reef for kids, focussing on trips and tours from Cairns. I’ve divided this article into sections, so please do just look at the contents box below to see which section suits your family best.

Book all your Cairns activities in one handy location on Get Your Guide. Just click on the images below!

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Snorkel with a friend on the Great Barrier Reef. Image credit: Tourism + Events Queensland


Great Barrier Reef Trips With Babies, Toddlers + Preschoolers

Visiting one of the islands close to Cairns is the best option for families with babies, toddlers and young children. There’s plenty of space to play on the beach and there are coral reefs easily accessible from shore.

Frankland Islands

Christine Knight of Adventure Baby says:

‘I just did Fitzroy and Frankland Islands which are both great reef options for littlies. There are five islands comprising the Frankland Islands: Normanby, High, Russell, Round and Mabel. There is only one way to visit to these uninhabited islands: booking through Frankland Islands Reef Cruises. The islands are uninhabited, which means no bathroom or running water.

At Frankland Island, snorkelling is easy to do right off the beach. Only a few metres out we saw parrot fish, clown fish, giant glams, sea cucumbers and more.

Frankland Island Cairns view of beach
Frankland Island beach and glorious views

Carrie Hutchinson is the editor of get lost travel magazine, she puts in a word for Frankland Island too.

The Frankland Islands tour is the only one of its kind departing Cairns, taking in both the rainforest and the famous reef. Cruise through the rainforest and mangroves of the Mulgrave River before the short crossing to these uninhabited islands set in a marine park.

On Normanby Island, the master reef guide leads snorkellers of all levels on a tour of the calm bay, where we spotted turtles, plenty of colourful fish and a colony of Nemos in a bright blue anemone. After that, there’s the chance for stronger swimmers to go on a snorkel safari, a tour in a semi-submersible or glass-bottom boat, a buffet lunch and a guided nature walk around the island.

For those who want to spend more time on the reef than in a boat, this is an excellent option.

Check prices and availability for Frankland Islands here.

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Beautiful Fitzroy Island. Image credit: Tourism + Events Queensland

Fitzroy Island

Leah Smileski of Kid Bucket List loves Fitzroy Island: 

‘Fitzroy Island is a fabulous destination for families wishing to experience the Great Barrier Reef but reluctant to head out into the open ocean to reach the fringing reefs. Situated 29km south of Cairns (around 45 minutes by catamaran) and boasting  Nudey Beach which was ranked Australia’s best beach in 2018, this pristine island has numerous places to enjoy with kids from the beaches to its rainforest, Turtle Rehabilitation Centre to water sports. It has quickly become one of our favourite Tropical North Queensland destinations for our family.
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Enjoying the beach at Fitzroy Island
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Fitzroy Island family fun. Image credit: Tourism + Events Queensland

Julie Jones of Have Wheelchair Will Travel says: 

I prefer Fitzroy or Frankland to Green Island. Green seems to attract lots of overseas tourists and on our visits has been really crowded. Frankland is much quieter and you do a tour with a marine biologist. It is the shortest open water crossing so quick to get to and there’s a chance of spotting crocs on the river section which might appeal to kids. Where you land is where you spend the day so not much walking for little ones.

Fitzroy is lovely too but you need reef shoes as the coral is harsh on feet, especially little feet. Fitzroy has the turtle rehab centre which may appeal to kids but tickets go fast and numbers are limited.’

Julie’s post about Frankland Island is here.  Check dates and prices for this tour here.

Green Island

Green Island is just 27km away from Cairns, about 45 minutes by fast catamaran.  You can go for a day trip, or even for half a day, or stay there for a few days too.  Small children might enjoy a glass-bottomed boat tour from Green Island and Marineland Melanesia there has lots of crocodiles to be amazed by and turtles and aquariums to see. There are short walks around the island too, Green Island Boardwalk is just 1.3km long and very scenic. It’s easy to snorkel and swim off the beach on Green Island too.  

Travel writer Lindy Alexander says: ‘Green Island is really great – we did the half day trip with young kids (who were then 3 and 5) and it was perfect. The waters at Green Island are clear and shallow, making it ideal for paddling and fish spotting. Our tour included a ride in a semi-submersible and a glass bottom boat tour, so we got to see lots of marine life. 

Check half day and full day Green Island tour options.

Cairns Reef Trips With School-Aged Children + Teenagers

Older children who are confident swimmers will enjoy a visit to the outer reef. there are many day trips available from Cairns, overnight trips too but these are not described here.  If your children (and you!) can already snorkel then you will love this. If you are a learner then you can ask the crew to take you in and look after you.

Most day trips from Cairns have the following:

  • 9 – 10 hours long, usually starting about 8am from Cairns Reef Fleet Terminal
  • lunch and tea/coffee included
  • Marine biologist and diving instructors aboard
  • snorkels, mask, fins and wetsuit provided
  • experience dives available for ages 12+, no experience necessary
  • dives for qualified divers
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Quicksilver Cruises

11-year old Junior Citizens of the Reef Ambassador Rafferty Laight of BoyEatsWorld has just returned from snorkelling the reef with Quicksilver Cruises

I’ve just been out on the outer reef with my buddy, Citizen of the Reef’s Andy Ridley, and the crew from Quicksilver, to take a look at how our Reef is doing. The good news is things are looking up with plenty of marine life and an abundance of colourful coral at Agincourt Reef.

Quicksilver’s super kid friendly tour let us explore an epic underwater world full of brightly coloured soft and hard coral, a million busy fish, giant green turtles and even a Spanish dancer (which is a type of nudibranch, not an actual Spanish dancer. Can you imagine how soggy all their ruffles would get)? But the best bit about this experience is that you can join a guided tour with a qualified marine biologist who’ll introduce you to all the best bits of this pretty patch of reef.

A Hot Tip To Keep Our Oceans Cool

My best advice for any ocean-loving kid, whether they’re coming to enjoy the Great Barrier Reef or staying home, is to join me and SpongeBob SquarePants as a Junior Citizen of the Reef. This awesome ocean conservation program created by Nickelodeon Australia and Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef  promotes reef and ocean awareness and encourages kids like me to play a part in protecting the Reef and our oceans through simple every day actions. You can make the pledge to join the #SpongeBobReefSquad here

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Meeting a sea cucumber at Michaelmas Cay. Photo credit: Tourism and Events Queensland

Ocean Spirit Cruise to Michaelmas Cay

Perth-based travel writer Jennifer Morton can recommend Ocean Spirit Cruises’ tour to Michaelmas Cay.

This was a fantastic day of sun, fun, eating, reef education, snorkelling, and bird watching. I loved the safety of snorkelling off the beach and the guided snorkel trip with a marine biologist; we even swam with a green sea turtle.

My 14-year-old son would love this Great Barrier Reef experience (better bring him next time). There’s also a 30-minute semi-submersible, glass-sided boat tour for younger kids and non-swimmers, which make this reef trip amazing for ages four and older.

Check dates and prices for  Ocean Spirit  here.

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A turtle at Michaelmas Cay. Photo credit: Tourism and Events Queensland
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Coral and fish on the Great Barrier Reef
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The luxury catamaran Passions III heads out to the reef

Passions of Paradise

Passions is one of the longest running and most popular of the Barrier Reef trips that run out of Cairns. Established more than 30 years ago, Passions has helped more than 600,000 people get to know the reef.  From this gorgeous and comfortable catamaran, you can dive or snorkel on two beautiful reefs. The day trip lasts 9 hours and includes a delicious lunch. 

Deborah Dickson-Smith is a Diveplanit travel consultant, travel writer, SCUBA diver and passionate ocean advocate. Deb has dived with Passions a couple of times and loves that they share her passion for the Reef:

I’ve been diving with Passions of Paradise a couple of times now, and what makes the experience special for me is something in the company name: the sheer passion for the marine environment that the entire crew share. These guides must visit the Great Barrier Reef several times a week, yet they seem as excited to get in the water and guide you through this underwater wonderland, as they might have done their first day on the job.

If you have teenage kids that are keen to try SCUBA diving for the first time, Passions have great instructors to guide them safely and enjoyably on their first Discover Scuba Diving experience, and the onboard marine biologist engages kids of all ages – from six to sixty – with guided snorkelling tours and lively discussions back on board about all the creatures spotted underwater.
The Passions of Paradise team of on-board reef guides is led by Environmental Manager, Russell Hosp, himself a Master Reef Guide. Russell’s passion for the ocean is hard to miss and his educational talks reinforce that even the smallest changes we make in our everyday lives can ensure marine habitats are preserved for future generations to come.

Check prices and availability for Passions of Paradise here.

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Torres Straits Islander and indigenous guide Robert showing us things as we snorkel!

Dreamtime Dive: Explore The Reef With Indigenous Rangers

‘So when I was a child, we’d go out fishing on the reef a lot. We’d catch all sorts of fish, the parrotfish you see here and coral trout.’  On … Robert has pushed up his mask so that we can hear his words more clearly. Robert if a Torres Straits Islander, he’s from Saibai Island. We’re learning about the Reef from the locals actually on the reef, even under the water sometimes when Robert snorkels down to point out something,

Dreamtime Dive and Snorkel is a company which combines Great Barrier Reef trips with cultural knowledge. As we motored to the reef Steff, who is from Maubia Island shows how firesticks were used. Later on Milkka will show us his tribal paint and dances and how to play the didgeridoo. But it’s the underwater explanations that make the great test impact!

For older children and teenagers who are interested to learn about the indigenous heritage and use of the reef, Dreamtime Dive and Snorkel comes highly recommended.

Check prices and book a trip on the Dreamtime Dive website here.

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Steff gives a demonstration of firesticks as the boat heads out from Cairns
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Teeming fish life on the reef
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Tusa Dive, preparing to leave Cairns wharf

Tusa Dive Day Trip 

Marianne of Mum On The Move (read her article on Fun Things To Do in Cairns With Kids here) went to the Outer Reef with Tusa Dive. Here’s what she says:

‘The Tusa Dive day trip visits two different locations on the Outer Great Barrier Reef. The group size is small, with a maximum number of 60 guests and the boat is comfortable with air-conditioned interior as well as outdoor seating. I know my kids always appreciate a cool indoor section.

Kids aged 12 and up can do an introductory dive, otherwise snorkelling gear is included in the price. Lunch and afternoon tea is included and there’s a fully licensed bar on board. Kids would enjoy the marine biologist’s talk about marine life seen on the reef too. It takes around 90mins to get out to the reef so it may be a good idea to bring some activities for younger kids.’

Read more about Tusa Dive Snorkelling trips here.

Book a day’s scuba diving with Tusa Dive here.

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Snorkellers above and divers below: Tusa Dive
A night aboard the Coral Sea Dreaming yacht was a joy for myself and my four children

Coral Sea Dreaming Overnight Reef Trip

Seana writes: The kids and I had such a great trip out to the outer Great Barrier Reef. I’m still feeling proud of myself for finding a trip that suited Teen17, Teen15 and the 8 year old twins.. and me… and it felt like a real adventure too. I love sailing yachts so the overnight trip aboard the Coral Sea Dreaming appealed as soon as I heard about it.  I knew I wanted to go to the Reef for a couple of days, and I knew that’s an expensive desire.

See also Tips for Planning a Family Trip To Cairns and Port Douglas 

The Coral Sea Dreaming is a 16m steel sloop, she sleeps 12 passengers and three crew in the marine equivalent of bunkhouse accommodation.

There’s plenty of space on deck for the passengers and crew, plus all the wetsuits, snorkels etc etc The other passengers were a real highlight of this trip, in fact. No-one minded the fast that I had the teens and twins with me, and were very chatty with the kids which they loved. My three boys shared a cabin with a Dutch-Moroccan stunt pilot… great yarns from him!

My wee daughter and I were in cabin 3, and let me tell you it is really small. The cabins are for sleeping only, we spent all the rest of the time up on deck.

Teen 17 and Teen 14 (at that time) went scuba diving with the dive master, I just snorkelled with the kids.  I’m telling you that seeing the three of us in a photo together is unusual… seeing us smiling is rare indeed. This trip worked!

Coral Sea Dreaming has over 20 mooring that can be used when she is out. So the captain can choose to visit the reefs that will be best, depending on the weather conditions.

On day 1, we set off and visited two reefs, doing three separate dives/snorkels. We sleep like babies and are awake early. Day 2 sees three more underwater adventures on two different reefs and then the cruise back to Cairns. The dive master aboard is in charge of all matters underwater and gives a good briefing on each site.

This trip would work for you if…

  • You’re looking for something more adventurous than a simple day trip
  • You don’t want to be on a huge boat with hundreds of other people
  • Your children are old enough not to fall overboard
  • You don’t mind a bit of roughing it – we didn’t shower for two days though there are showers aboard
  • You love being out at sea

But don’t forget to…

  • Dose yourself and the kids up with anti-seasickness tablets

Read more on the Coral Sea Dreaming website.

Exiting the sea after dives and snorkelling

I do recommend that you look at Get Your Guide’s complete range of Cairns Great Barrier Reef tours on the activity widget below, so that you can get an overview of all the options to visit the reef.  I like to see all the options myself, before I start drilling down into specific tours. I know other people might find that looking at all the options for Cairns Reef tours is a bit overwhelming. But just skip this idea if that’s you.

Find a huge range of Cairns reef tours by clicking below.

Master Reef Guides + Marine Discoveries

The Great Barrier Reef’s Master Reef Guides are considered the best in their field for reef interpretations, master storytelling and experience delivery. 
Reaching Master Reef Guide status requires a comprehensive selection and training process, to learn how to enhance people’s reef experiences, creating those unforgettable WOW moments, and planting seeds for people to take home and grow into something beautiful.
The program is managed by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators and Tourism and Events Queensland and is the first of its kind for the Reef.
About Reef Teach
If you’re planning a day out on the Great Barrier Reef, to really make the most of it, I highly recommend joining an evening session at Marine Discoveries. You will then enjoy your time on the Reef so much more – understanding the complexities of what you’re seeing.

Marine Discoveries is a very entertaining and engaging evening, full of amazing facts and beautiful images, woven together to help you understand how the Reef works. From the tiniest little creatures that you hardly know exist, up through the various species of fish and marine mammals. The material is presented in two ‘exciting halves’ – the little stuff and the big stuff – in a very accessible way.

As Gareth Phillips, Master Reef Guide and Reef Teach owner explains: “Reef Teach was born out of a demand for people wanting to know more and more about the Great Barrier Reef. So a group of us as marine biologists got together and decided let’s share our knowledge – what we know about the ecosystem so when people go visit it and experience it they actually understand it more and enjoy it more and we find if they understand it and enjoy it more every time they use it whether snorkelling, diving … they’re more responsible with it.” More info

Great Barrier Reef Facts For Kids

There are some good websites to check out with the kids before going to the read. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has a reef Facts For Kids webpage here.

PS This post contains some affiliate links meaning that, if you buy an item using the link, a small commission is paid to support Hello Sydney Kids, at no cost to you. Read my full disclosure policy here.

Book all your Cairns activities in one handy location on Get Your Guide.

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