Best way to explore the Great Barrier Reef Island.

Pontoon or Boat Trip?

Visiting the Great Barrier Reef is an amazing experience, and a big reasons why a lot of visitors come to Australia. Once people get to their Great Barrier Reef holiday destination they realise there are multiple reef trips offered by a variety of operators and then they try and decide which one is the ‘best’ Great Barrier Reef Day Trip.

Instead of trying to pick the ‘best’ reef it is better to decide which type of Great Barrier Reef trip is best for you, each offers something different and choosing the one right for you will make the day a lot more memorable. The main types of trips you can do are Boat Based, Island Based or Pontoon Based.

What to Expect

As a generalisation the further away from the mainland you go, the better the reef will be, but this also means more boat time, although with many of the fast catamarans operating that time is now greatly reduced.

Also the colours and varieties of the reef and coral changes the deeper you go. The deeper the reef the more varieties of marine life and coral you will likely see, whereas the shallower the water the more colours that are visible. The change in colour is due to certain colours being ‘filtered’ out by the water the deeper you go, and is part of the reason that vibrant blues are one of the more common reef fish colours, as blue remains visible the deeper you go.

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Enjoy with Company

Regardless of which trip you choose always heed the safety briefings and don’t enter the water alone. The Great Barrier Reef is stammeringly beautiful so take regular breaks to check how far from the boat or shore you are.

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Boat Based

This option is where you spend your day on the boat. When you get to the reef the boat becomes your base for the day. Most of these boats have a diving or swimming platform, usually at the rear of the boat, for easier entry to the water, although some people do find it slightly awkward to enter the water this way.

The great thing about boat based tours is normally they are the smaller operators with access to a few different locations to give you the best experience on the day. Most of the boat based operations also go to the outer reef so the coral is at its best.

If you are not a confident swimmer, or would not be comfortable on a boat for the whole day, a boat based trip would not be recommended. If you want experience optional activities such as Glass Bottom Boats or Semi-Submersibles check that option is available. For a smaller group, outer reef experience nothing beats a boat based tour.

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Island Based

Most Great Barrier Reef islands have fringing reefs a short distance from the shore with the quality and quantity of the coral improving the further from the shore you go. Being able to see the Island while swimming allows you to keep your bearings and spend more time watching the reef than worrying where you are. Children often prefer an island based experience as they can intersperse making sandcastles with looking for Dory or Nemo.

The islands themselves vary greatly, from ones with just you and the beach umbrella through to 5 star resorts and from sandy cays to rain forest clad mountains where the rain forest truly does meet the reef.

Island Activities

Some islands also offer more activity options, on some of the larger island you can take a bush walk and even find your own secluded beach. There may also be more food and activity options on an island and you may even be able to stay the night. Imagine having a romantic candlelit dinner on a tropical beach.

If you don’t want to spend all day on a boat then an Island based trip is a must, and you are more likely to see turtles and a wider variety of birdlife at an island. Swimming out from the beach to see the reef is also very special and suitable for less confident swimmers. For families the diversity an Island offers is hard to beat.

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Want to find out more about Cairns? Including our favourite tours, latest specials, travel information and plenty more. See our Cairns Things to Do Travel Guide.

Pontoon Based

Most pontoons are run by the larger operators, this means bigger boats and more facilities. Over the years the quality and stability of the outer reef pontoons has improved to the point where you may think you are on dry land. Entering the water from the pontoon as they usually feature swimming platforms.

Pontoon Activities

For children, when they aren’t swimming or participating in a water based activity there are other activities to keep them occupied, and activities are what the pontoons specialise in. Glass Bottom Boats, semi-submersibles, seawalkers and helicopter flights all add up to a memorable experience. There are even pontoons with a waterslide to keep the children (and the adults as well) entertained.

With the bigger boats does come slightly larger group sizes but the moment you don your mask and start watching to fishes at play in the reef you will feel like it is just you and the reef.

Most pontoons are on the outer barrier reef, so you can expect an amazing reef experience.

Sleep on the Coral and Under the Stars

Recently some pontoon operators have added a reef sleep experience, where you stay the night on the pontoon after everyone else has gone home. Two days on the reef, sleeping under the stars with the reef all around you, unforgettable. There is one tour operating from Cairns and another in the Whitsundays.

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Other ways to see the Great Barrier Reef

If boats aren’t your thing or you want a few hours alone on a sand cay then you can always have a helicopter drop you off on a deserted sand cay for an amazingly romantic lunch, proposing on a deserted island anyone?

If you are short on time you could take a half day reef trip where you are helicoptered one way or both, or combine two trips in one day, there are so many options.

You could also take a scenic flight over the Great Barrier Reef, this is one of the few ways to get that iconic Whitsunday photo of Heart reef. With scenic flights there is even some with options to stop off at a sand cay or an island, what a way to see the reef!

Whichever way you decide to visit the reef there will be a trip that suits you. The more popular destinations of Cairns, Port Douglas and the Whitsundays will have the most options. A trip to see the Great Barrier Reef is something everyone should do at least once and picking the right type of trip will just make the day better.

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Want to find out more about the Whitsundays, Airlie Beach and Whitehaven Beach? Including our favourite tours, latest specials, travel information and plenty more. See our Whitsundays Things to Do Travel Guide.