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Diving the Great Barrier Reef has been cemented into my bucket list for years. I love everything about the ocean. It calms me down, it excites me, it fascinates me. You’ve probably heard scientists say that we know more about space than we do about our oceans. How mind blowing is that?
Finally, after missing out on my last trip to Australia in 2013, I got the chance to experience the Great Barrier Reef. Tom and I were up in Cairns right before we were leaving Australia to travel Southeast Asia, and I was beyond excited! As with all of my time in Australia though, Tom and I needed a tour that suited our small budget but still gave us the experience we were looking for.
Enter Compass Cruises, the cheapest Great Barrier Reef tour in Cairns…
Now, I know what some of you might be thinking, you get what you pay for right? Well, I’m a huge believer that cheap doesn’t equal rubbish, and the most expensive doesn’t mean the best, which is exactly why I’m writing this Compass Cruises review. For me, this tour had everything I wanted from it. So why pay more when you don’t have to?
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Where is the best place to dive the Great Barrier Reef?
Did you know that the Great Barrier Reef is 2300km long? That’s bigger than Tasmania and Victoria combined! The reef actually starts right down the Queensland coast at Bundaberg (the town famous for its delicious rum) and stretches right the way up to the tip of the York Peninsular in the north. If you’ve visited the Whitsunday Islands, you’ve technically visited the Great Barrier Reef too.
So with the reef covering such a huge part of the coast, where is best to experience the reef properly? Well, there are actually a number of places with great snorkeling and diving spots. Lady Elliot Island, Heron Island, Townsville to name a few. But I found Cairns to be the easiest place to book a tour from and to be the most reasonably priced. Cairns has a number of dive sites that their tours operate from and the boats rotate their moorings to help preserve the reef and the spots they take you to are great for diving the Great Barrier Reef.
What to bring with you on your Great Barrier Reef trip
- Reef safe sunscreen: This is so important! Normal everyday sunscreen contains chemicals which leach into the water and can harm the corals, plants and sea life. A reef-safe sunscreen (like this one from Tropical Sands) provides great protection from the sun’s harmful rays without harming the sea life.
- Motion sickness prevention: If you’re like me and can struggle a bit on boats, be sure to take some tablets that are suitable for you before you get on to help settle your stomach. I personally take ones for children as I find they do the trick but don’t make me as drowsy. I’ve also recently picked up some wristbands like these and find they really help.
- Swimsuit: This is, of course, a no brainer! Just make sure you have a comfy set of swimmers as you’re going to be wearing them all day. I love the selection they have at H&M and also on boohoo.com.
- Microfiber towel: These towels are great for day trips as they’re really small, light and dry really quick. They also don’t take up much space in a day bag which is perfect for your reef tour as there isn’t a lot of storage space beside the floor. You can check prices and choose your size and colour here.
- Beach cover-up: I actually recommend just wearing this and your swimmers when you get on the boat as it’s just easier. You’re going to get wet so wearing something simple like a cover-up will dry fast and keep the sun off your skin, too.
- Waterproof bag: As you’re about to spend the day on a boat, jumping in and out of the water, it’s a great idea to use a dry bag like this to keep all your belongings dry and in one place.
- GoPro and selfie stick: I really wouldn’t recommend bringing your normal camera with you for this sort of trip – saltwater and DSLRs don’t tend to go too well! Instead, be sure to get your hands on a GoPro so you can still capture the day. The new GoPro Hero 7s take awesome photos and videos and if you get a floating selfie stick, you’re not going to lose it.
- Water: Water is available on the boat but it’s always best to bring your own in a flask from home. The sea air and swimming makes you really thirsty and it’s important to stay hydrated on board.
- PADI license card: If you’re a certified scuba diver and you’re planning on scuba diving on the trip, you will need your PADI license card with you as proof. Don’t forget it or you won’t be able to dive! Want to learn more about diving? Take a look at this guide to learn how to become a certified scuba diver.
- Travel insurance: Although anything bad is really unlikely to happen, it’s essential to have travel insurance to cover you when snorkeling and diving the reef. I use World Nomads insurance (and have done for a couple of years now) as they cover these kinds of activities, have great all-round coverage options and also allows me to buy a policy when I’m already outside of my home country. I know travel insurance is an annoying cost, but it’s one worth investing in.
What is the boat like on the Compass Cruises tour?
When you look around at tours for the reef, one thing that pops up a lot is the size of the boat. Of course, a smaller boat means less crowded and more room to enjoy the reef but these cruises are more expensive. The Compass Cruises boat can hold up to 85 people and I personally didn’t find it to be crowded. The boat is pretty big with enough seating for everyone over the 2 decks and even a sun deck if you wanted to catch some rays.
Now, the outside of the boat isn’t the prettiest but don’t judge a book by its cover. The inside of the boat is laid out with tables and benches so you have somewhere to keep your stuff throughout the day. There’s also air conditioning which you’ll be so thankful for in Queensland, even in winter! The boat is simple, functional but still comfortable. There’s space to move around and there’s space to chill out.
So, what is the day tour like with Compass Cruises?
The day starts pretty early at 7.30 am over at Marlin Wharf where we simply showed our tickets and hopped on to the boat. The crew were all super welcoming and helped to get everyone seated. Once everyone was on board, we set off on our 2 hour journey to the first dive site.
As we set off we were given a safety brief from the captain and the crew and the rest of the time was ours to relax. One of the crew members was a marine biologist and she gave a great introduction to the reef including how it is formed and what we might see there. It was a great way to get a bit of an insight into what to expect and I couldn’t wait to get in the water.
As we got closer to the first dive site we were able to pick up masks and snorkels and I also went towards the back of the boat to get ready for my scuba dive. I was actually pretty nervous about diving as I hadn’t done any dives in a number of years. To ease my worries, I opted to pay a little extra to have a guide take me around the reef. This is actually something I would highly recommend even if you are more experienced as the guide knows the site well and can show you some good spots. I opted to just do the one dive and had the choice to do it at either the first or second site.
What is the scuba diving Great Barrier Reef actually like?
After 2 hours of sailing, we had reached the first dive spot I had been kitted up with my scuba gear and was sat on the back platform waiting to go. The sea was really choppy on the day I went but the crew were there to help me move if I needed to. As I had paid extra to have the guide, I also waited for them to get ready before we jumped in.
It’s well talked about that the Great Barrier Reef has become damaged over the years due to a number of factors. Reef bleaching has become a massive problem and I was concerned that I was going to get down there and see nothing but that. However, I didn’t find this to be the case (thankfully) here!
I have to admit, the colours were not the crazy vibrant tones you see in all the photos, but there were plenty of colourful corals and fish swimming by. The guide lead us down to make our way around a huge rock teeming with life. Compared to the choppy waves above, this was so peaceful – exactly how I remembered scuba diving to be. I had been pretty nervous about diving again after so long but with the guide, I didn’t really need to think about much.
We made our way around the area for about 45 minutes catching sight of plenty of corals, fish and even a little blacktip reef shark which blew my mind! I freaked out for a moment (because a shark is a shark, right?) but it was so timid and quickly swam away. I was in awe. And you know what? I wouldn’t have got a better experience just by paying more.
The rest of the day
Of course, the highlight for me was diving the reef, but the rest of the day was also great. After the first site we had a delicious BBQ lunch onboard the boat where there was more than enough food to go around. They served up a mixture of fresh salads, pasta, meats and rolls which was perfect after a dive.
After lunch we set off to the second dive site and I couldn’t believe our luck. One of the best things about Australia is that the east coast is a busy whale migration path. In the distance the captain spotted some plumes of water and before we knew it, a whale was within easy viewing distance! I had been lucky enough to see whales migrating a number of times along Australia’s east coast but I’d never been out on the water and encountered one that way. It was an amazing sight to see the whale breaching the water and something I’ll never forget.
I mean, what are the chances? I ticked diving the Great Barrier Reef off my bucket list and saw whales and dolphins, all in one day!
At the second spot, Tom and I went for a snorkel around the Breaking Patches Reef. The waves were still pretty choppy but the crew was handing out flotation vests to make things easier. This site was just as beautiful as the first and had a huge range of corals and fish. Sadly, the only thing that I missed from my day was seeing the turtle that briefly came over! As with before, we had about an hour to enjoy the reef which was plenty of time to swim around a good chunk of the site.
A great way to finish off
As the time on the reef came to an end, we made our way back to Cairns. The journey back wasn’t as long as the journey out but again, there was plenty of time to relax. I was surprised at how tired I was but it truly had been a great day. The crew handed out wine and set up a delicious cheese platter for us to dig into and there was nothing left to do but chill and eat lots of cheese.
We arrived back around 5.30 pm, just as the sun was starting to go down – what a day!
A couple of optional extras…
For the price of the trip, it was great that everything we actually needed was included. There is however, a couple of optional extras that you might want to make use of. If you would like to wear a wetsuit they do have these available for $5 which you just pay on the boat. They also have an awesome underwater photographer who takes incredible photos which you can then buy in a variety of packages.
One thing that I wasn’t able to do, but is actually included in the price of the ticket is boom netting which looks awesome! Sadly, however, as this is weather dependent and I was out there on a particularly choppy day, they called off the boom netting.
Of course, the option to scuba dive the reef is there for you to add on. With Compass Cruises, I think the prices are great compared to other Great Barrier Reef diving prices and the dive site I visited was fantastic. For certified divers, it cost just $55 for one dive or $100 for two. I also opted for a dive guide which was just an extra $15 and well worth it.
So is the cheapest Great Barrier Reef Tour with Compass Cruises worth it?
I think there is a big misconception that paying more means you’ll have a better time. Whilst this can be true in some cases when it comes to experiencing the Great Barrier Reef, Compass Cruises ticked all my boxes. I wanted to scuba dive the reef, see some beautiful corals and sealife and spend the day out on the ocean, and that’s what I got, plus so much more.
The boat was comfortable, the crew was great and the food was delicious. Some other tours advertise that they only take small groups, but I didn’t feel crowded with Compass Cruises both on the boat and in the water. So much of what makes a trip on the reef great is out of the hands of the tour itself anyway. No amount of money will guarantee you the wildlife and the weather conditions. So why pay more?
Compass Cruises is a great option for anyone traveling on a budget who doesn’t want to skip experiencing the Great Barrier Reef. I had a fantastic time and it was everything I hoped for when it came to ticking this off my bucket list.