Scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef is on almost every person’s bucket list, but scuba diving is an expensive hobby. Anyone who has learned how to scuba dive knows what an incredible experience it is to be able to breathe underwater and doing that in the amazing Great Barrier Reef is even more incredible! The Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It has an abundance of aquatic life that is incredible to see. If you’re a budget backpacker, like I am, finding affordable places to scuba dive can be a challenge. So when a fellow traveler told me about this creative way to dive in the Great Barrier Reef for next to nothing, I knew I had to try it!
Where Can You Go to Visit the Great Barrier Reef?
There are basically two options for diving in the Great Barrier Reef- you can leave from Cairns, Australia or Port Douglas, Australia. The two towns are only 1 hour apart from each other. If you leave from Port Douglas it is only about a 1 hour boat ride to the reef, whereas, if you leave from Cairns, it is almost a 2 hour boat ride to the reef. Technically you could go to the GBR from other places on the East coast of Australia, but you would be on a boat for many hours to get there. So going from Cairns is the spot people typically go from.
Travel Tip: Bring some seasickness meds if you get sea sick easily. I am not easily sea sick, but the ride out to the Great Barrier Reef can be pretty rough. I even felt sick! There were probably 10 people on the back of our boat pretty sick, including my boyfriend!
When Is the Best Time to Scuba Dive in the Great Barrier Reef?
While you can technically dive in the Great Barrier Reef any time of year, there are wet and dry seasons which will help the clarity of the water and roughness of the waves. Peak tourist month is July and the lowest tourist month is around January.
Best time of year to visit: June, July, August, September and October. During the beginning of this season there are an abundance of Minke Whales migrating through the reef. The clarity will also be better since it is dry season.
Less ideal time of year to visit: November, December, January, February, March, April and May. During this time, the Box Jellyfish are also present so you need to wear protective outfit to be safe in the water. The water will also be rough and less clear.
We visited the Great Barrier Reef in the beginning of May and had an incredible time. The water was pretty rough on the way to and from the reef, but the boat crew told us that was not as bad as it could be. We were able to dive twice and had great visibility.
Fly into Cairns International Airport
To visit the Great Barrier Reef you need to fly into Cairns International Airport in Queensland, Australia. I would suggest renting a car if you are interested in visiting some areas around the Great Barrier Reef, like Cape Tribulation which is where two World Heritage sites meet (the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree National Park). But if you’re going there just to dive, you probably won’t need a car as Cairns is a pretty small city with the airport only a 5 minute drive away.
Flights to Cairns from Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, Australia on a budget airline cost around $75-100 USD one way.
Get a Hostel Near the City Center
Depending on the season, a hostel in the city center of Cairns should cost between $10-15 USD per night for a dorm room. We stayed at JJ’s Backpackers Hostel and Caravella Backpackers. They were both nice stays with good wifi, self-catering facilities, and within walking distance to everything in the Cairns city center. Cairns is not a very large city, but they have a wonderful park that includes a huge free public pool right on the ocean.
Visit Divers Den
Divers Den is one of the best companies in the area to dive with. They have boats going to different reefs within the Great Barrier Reef almost everyday of the year from Cairns. This is where you can dive in the Great Barrier Reef on a tight budget. To go on a day trip from Cairns with Divers Den to the Great Barrier Reef, it typically costs about $185 USD which includes two dives and lunch.
Divers Den has this special option where you can volunteer on their boat and dive for free. In exchange for serving food, and cleaning some of the bathrooms on the boat you can be diving for free! All you have to do is buy a t-shirt for $25 USD that you can use to volunteer over and over again. This includes renting all the equipment you would need for diving and lunch. While they do not advertise this option, or have any information about it on their website, if you arrive to the Cairns area, there are plenty of young backpackers taking advantage of this opportunity.
You need to visit the Divers Den office in Cairns, Australia as soon as you get off the plane. There you can see their upcoming schedule and which days they need volunteers. Sometimes these may not be for a week out, so the sooner you get there and more flexible you are, the higher chance of volunteering you have. The more time you have, the more days you can go out on the boat with them. Once you have bought your shirt, every dive is free. They warn volunteers that you may not be able to do two dives every time you go out because they sometimes have so many customers to serve first.
Travel Tip: Make sure you have travel insurance that includes diving. I use Allianz Travel Insurance while traveling and my plan includes diving up to 18 meters. You will have to show proof of this travel insurance in the Divers Den office or purchase their insurance for your dives.
Our Experience with Divers Den
Our experience was incredible. You wake up early and get to their office around 7 am. Then you get in their shuttle to the harbor and board the boat. From there you are instructed to start help setting up the breakfast snacks, coffee, and tea. The customers arrive at the boat around 8 am. The captain gives a safety speech to everyone aboard.
After serving the light breakfast, when the boat starts moving, you will get fitted into your wetsuit, BCD, snorkel, mask and fins. Then you’ll get briefed on scuba diving in the region and refamiliarize yourself with the equipment if you haven’t dived in a while. Then it is back to work preparing for lunch on the ride out to the first dive spot. Once everything is prepared, you can get your scuba gear on and get with your buddy for your first dive of the day. Our first dive was a bit shorter as I was a bit anxious and ran out of air faster than my boyfriend.
When you finish your dive, you’ll probably do a quick check on if the bathrooms need cleaning and then finish preparing lunch. Once everyone aboard eats lunch, you can then eat too before cleaning up (i.e. doing all the dishes and collecting cups from around the boat). The boat then moves to its second location for the day and if all the volunteers are completed with lunch clean up, you can go on a second dive. Somedays this might not happen if the boat is full and if it takes you too long to finish clean up. We were lucky and got to take another dive in the second location. This dive was my perfect dive! I was much calmer so we got to dive for 45 minutes!
After your second dive, it is time for the boat to go back to the harbor. This will take about 1-2 hours, depending on the waves of the day. During this time, we filled out our dive books from the data from the day and started cleaning for the end of the day. Once all of the customers of the day leave the boat, you help vacuum, take the trash out, wash the windows, and clean up the food. You should be finished and back at the Divers Den office around 4:30-5:00 pm.
One of the other volunteers we were with was volunteering for 4 days total! That’s $25 USD for 4 days of diving! Such an incredible deal.