Diving the Great Barrier Reef has been on my bucket list for a long time and I was stoked when I finally had the opportunity to go to Cairns in September 2014, when the diving conditions were good. The Great Barrier Reef is a Unesco World Heritage Site that stretches for over 2,000 kms. There are over 2,900 individual reefs that compose the Great Barrier Reef but only a few dozen are accessible for diving with tour groups. The best time to dive the Great Barrier Reef is from June to November, when it is not too hot, visibility is good, and there not many stingers in the water.
Sara and I flew to Cairns at the beginning of September, during school holidays, when the temperature was perfect but the tourist numbers were high. We were picked up at the Cairns airport by a free shuttle that took us to Caravella Backpackers Hostel, where we had pre-booked a double room with shared bathroom for $65/night. Our original plan had been to spend one night in Cairns and then board the Rum Runner for a two day / one night Great Barrier Reef dive tour. We had spent a lot of time researching different dive companies and found the Rum Runner to be the best affordable option for overnight dive trips with mostly positive reviews. Unfortunately, right before we arrived in Cairns Sara hurt her arm which meant she would not be able to dive or even snorkel so we had to reassess our travel plans.
We had planned to go to Port Douglas after our Rum Runner dive adventure but decided to switch our itinerary around with the hopes that Sara’s arm would heal enough for her to dive at the end of our week in Northern Queensland. After a number of phone calls we were able to change our accommodation bookings and cancel our tour with Rum Runner (without a cancellation charge) but we did not have another option for diving the Great Barrier Reef. Cairns is a relatively small town and its main tourist boardwalk is lined with tourist information shops and tour sales center, all eager to sell dive trips. Even though we were extremely tired since we had traveled to Cairns that day we set out in search of a Scuba Dive trip for when we returned to Cairns from Port Douglas a few days later.
Unfortunately, we discovered the tourist information shops are not great places to go for information but rather places focused on high pressure sales which almost certainly result in commission for the sellers. Even though I recognized that the sellers were pushing trips on us and we had not done enough research about the various options, I also felt that with the school holidays we had to make a decision and book something right away or risk not seeing the reef at all! As a further complication, we were now diving at the end of our trip, rather than the beginning, which meant we had to do our trip at least a full day before flying from Cairns to avoid decompression sickness. In the end we booked with Deep Sea Divers Den after being told it was the best reasonably priced day trip option and each paid $190 + $20 tax. The trip was marketed for $210 + $20, but it seems like most of the “tourist information” shops are willing to take a $20 hit on commission to encourage you to book. The snorkeling trip is $70 less and as we later learned, if you are not sure about diving it is better to book the snorkeling and try to upgrade on the boat rather than downgrade for a refund.
We had a great trip to Port Douglas but unfortunately, when we returned to Cairns, Sara’s arm still wasn’t better and she didn’t think she’d be able to dive. We went back to the booking agency to downgrade her to a snorkeling trip but they said we would need to speak to the staff on the boat before our reef trip for a refund. Of course, when we reached the boat the next morning (early, just to ensure we could speak to someone before the boat got busy) we were told that we had to speak to the booking agency. No surprise that each party blamed the other and we quickly realized we were out $70. Frustratingly, one of the staff even said “don’t worry about it, it’s only $70” which is ridiculous given that Deep Sea Divers Den is operated as a disgustingly money hungry commercialized business focused on saving every nickel they can rather than promoting a good experience like other dive trips I’ve been on. Disappointed in not getting the refund, we were still eager to have a good time and spent the next hour making our way through the crowd on board trying to get registered and set-up with our diving and snorkeling equipment.
Unfortunately, the winds were high and the ocean was rough which led to a very bumpy ride out to the reef. I would guess that approximately half of the boat got sea sick, many of whom were unable to recover throughout the day. On other dive boats crews would offer ginger pills or other sea sickness tablets to people for free to ensure they would have an enjoyable day, but with Deep Sea Divers Den the staff seemed to prefer to angrily tell customers to get to bottom of the boat so they wouldn’t spit up on deck or go purchase sea sickness tablets from the bar. I guess a $70 refund is “nothing to worry about” but offering $0.25 sea sickness tablets to people without charge is too much cost. Thankfully, I do not get sea sick and I was able to enjoy the views, scenery, and fresh air from above deck.
After finally getting my dive equipment organized around 15 certified divers were called together for a dive briefing. I was surprised when they told us that we’d have to pay an additional $15 per dive for a guide, which is usually included in the cost of tours to promote both enjoyment and safety for the divers. Even worse was the disorganization of the guides and how useless they were. On my first dive, the boat was packed with divers and once in the water it wasn’t even clear who was in our group. Because of issues with a couple of entry-level divers equalizing, we spent around 20 minutes of our 45 minute dive waiting for our guide to actually be available to show us around rather than fiddling with people having problems. I guess that’s what happens when there are such huge groups!
About 30 minutes into our first dive one of the girls in our group ran out of air after the guide looked at her gauge!!! That is the first time I have seen anything like that happen on a “guided” dive and I’m happy she able to quickly get a secondary to ascend. The reef was decent but there were so many divers, especially beginner divers, that sand was getting kicked up everywhere and visibility was not as good as it normally would have been. I have nothing against beginner divers but normally I see dive crews give beginners a lot more attention to ensure that they are safe and don’t damage the reef.
The highlight of the first dive for me was seeing “Nemo” clown fish but of course that was ruined by the persistent photographer who was just pulling and pushing people in and away from the anemone to try and make a few dollars off his photos. Even worse was watching him carry a large humphead wrasse, an endangered fish supposedly protected in Australia, around like a football so he could shove it into people’s arms for photographs. I’ve been diving in a dozen countries, many of which are developing countries, and have never seen the dive staff touching fish and corals like I saw on this trip. Just because the Great Barrier Reef is massive doesn’t mean that the permitted dive sites should get destroyed to line people’s pockets with a few extra dollars.
The lunch consisted of a meat and cheese sandwich and some salads. The food itself was decent but the staff were hovering over the cold cuts to ensure that people only took one slice of each. Once again, I couldn’t believe that $70 shouldn’t matter to Sara when a few extra dollars in ham is such a big issue for them. The second and third dive sites were only a few hundred meters from the first dive site which was disappointing since the trip was marketed as visiting the Norman, Saxon, and Hastings reefs. Most people, including myself, had chosen to only do two dives, but because of that the few people who paid for three dives seemed unable to get any direction from the boat crew as to when or where they were to go on their second of three dives. The Deep Sea Divers Den dive tour was essentially a clusterf*ck in my opinion.
To prove how close the first and second dive sites were to each other, the same massive Humhead wrasse the photographer liked to carry around like a football re-appeared! Although endangered and supposedly protected, the fish is clearly encouraged by the boat staff to hang around (fed?) but I couldn’t believe we were diving in basically the same place twice in a row given the cost of the tour. The saving grace was that on the second dive the groups were changed a bit so I at least managed to get a full 45 minutes underwater. The highlight of the second dive for me was a large turtle who seemed very content for me to hang out nearby.
After my second dive I went and joined Sara snorkeling. The snorkeling was almost as enjoyable as the diving for me as the reef colours were far more brilliant and I wasn’t bumping into people everywhere like I had been in our massive dive groups.
After the dives, I purchased a wildly overpriced can of beer from the boat’s bar to celebrate being able to cross another item off my bucket list. Although I was happy I finally got to dive the great barrier reef, I was hugely disappointed with Deep Sea Divers Den as a tour operator. The boat was packed with people, the staff were rude, and they were clearly focused on saving every nickel they could while extorting every possible dollar out of passengers. I would highly recommend doing your research before booking tours as I found the trip hugely overpriced for what we received. I suspect their live aboard trips may be better, but once again, it is worth doing your due diligence.
Cairns itself is definitely a tourist town. There is no beach in Cairns suitable for swimming so most people looking for sunshine lay around a lagoon the city built on the coast right around the main tourist esplanade. The Cairns lagoon was filled with people but it did not appeal to Sara or I as much as Port Douglas’ Four Mile beach so we did not make use of it.
Although most restaurants and bars on Cairns’ main esplanade catered to older and wealthier tourists, I also found the town to have a solid backpacker vibe. There were a lot of promotions for cheap food and party nights and there are lots of good hostels in town. Sara and I used discount vouchers obtained from our hostel to go to PJ O’Brien’s for a $7 meal deal two nights in a row. The meal options were good quality pub and it even came with a free half-pint of beer which is a steal in Australia for $7. Even better was that PJ O’Brien’s was featuring $7 pints of Guinness in September, when we were there, and the bar staff knew how to properly pour a pint of stout.
The first night, Sara and I met a French couple she knew from Adelaide at PJ’s and we enjoyed dinner and drinks on the patio. During that time we witnessed a long drawn-out fight among Aboriginals which was quite sad to see. I was surprised that no one, including the bar’s bouncers, would get involved to break-up the fight, especially after seeing a man hit a woman, but I later learned that the general consensus among white Australians is that Aboriginals have their own system for dealing with issues among themselves and that getting involved does more harm than good. Sure enough, before long a tough looking Aboriginal on a bicycle rolled up and chased away the instigator of the fight, who was clearly under the influence of something. It was a sad reminder of Australia’s past and how poorly Australian’s indigenous people have been able to integrate with Australia’s Western immigrants.
The next night, PJ’s was featuring a strip show of sorts and it was one of the funniest things I have ever seen. It was structured as a “strip tournament” with prizes to the winner where groups of women and men did strip teases on stage and the winners moved to the next round based on audience cheers. In the first round, two local teenage girls in ridiculous heels and short mini-skirts competed against an extremely drunk Scottish gal. The two teenage girls must have been aspiring strippers because they were twirling and flipping and spinning and twisting like stripping was their job (perhaps it was). The best part about it was the three poles were tightly spaced together and while the teenage strippers were hanging upside down, the drunk Scot tried her own amateur spin moves and kicked them in the face – not once, but twice! When it came time to cheer for the winner, the two teenage stripper wannabes who had performed so brilliantly it was awkward (due to their age and seriousness about the strip competition) received so little applause the bar could have been mistaken for a church library. It was exactly what I had hoped would happen and I love that Australians have that sense of humour too. When it came time to cheer for the drunk Scottish lass, whose best moves were the kicks to the teenagers’ faces, the crowd erupted in a roaring cheer. The guys were just as funny as a guy on his stag was dancing with a ball and chain and another did a backflip between the poles which ended up having him flip over the beer taps and landing on the floor behind the bar. It was a fun night and Cairns definitely has a solid backpacker party vibe worth experiencing!
I’m not sure I will ever return to Cairns, or to dive the Great Barrier Reef, but it was still a memorable experience.