Home » Exploring Cairns by Liveaboard – Guide to the Best Liveaboards in Cairns

Exploring Cairns by Liveaboard – Guide to the Best Liveaboards in Cairns

by Max
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Exploring Cairns By Liveaboard - Guide to the Best Liveaboards

When you choose to spend hours or even days on the reef, you’d want to aim for the best liveaboard tour to allow you to become one with the undersea world. It is common for visitors in Cairns to choose reef day trips because they are always spectacular. However, if you truly want to submerge yourself in the world’s largest coral reef, try taking a liveaboard trip in Cairns and spending a couple of days frolicking in the marine habitat.
Cairns is a well-known dive destination so there are several excellent liveaboard options you can find. But, only a few stand out and offer more advantages. We’ll look at the top Cairns liveaboards, including what they offer, and discuss what we like and dislike about each of them.

But first, what is it that makes Cairns such a popular diving destination? What is the best season for Cairns and why should you go on a liveaboard in Cairns?

Why Go Liveaboard Diving in Cairns?

As a diver, you’ve probably heard about the Great Barrier Reef. On Australia’s northeast coast, the Great Barrier Reef is a location of exceptional varieties of species and beauty. It has the world’s greatest collection of coral reefs, with 400 different types of coral, 1,500 different fish, and 4,000 different mollusks. It is also of significant scientific significance because it is the habitat of endangered animals such as the dugong and the giant green turtle.

That said, the best season for Cairns is between June and October. But if you’d rather meet fewer crowds, cheaper flights, and tour deals, you’ll want to visit around April/May or September. Here’s why you’ll want to choose Cairns for your liveaboard diving:

  • Cairns liveaboard adventures allow you to spend the entire day and night on the reef for a couple of days at a time.
  • You’ll sleep aboard a pontoon or a dive boat and watch the sunset over the Great Barrier Reef’s azure seas.
  • Liveaboards in Cairns give you more time to get underwater, whether you’re a snorkeler, an amateur diver, or an experienced diver.
  • Each liveaboard diving boat in Cairns is significantly different, but many provide 10 or more dives at various unique reef areas.
  • Some offer night dives and all offer high-quality equipment and trained local instructors.
  • Liveaboards in Cairns are perfect for improving your diving skills because you will have plenty of time to practice and learn on the boat. You will gain in-depth knowledge of the Great Barrier Reef and emerge a more experienced diver!

Why Go Liveaboard Diving in Cairns?

What are the Best Liveaboards in Cairns?

Each liveaboard fundamentally offers the same services, but there they are also unique in some aspects that might tickle your preference. Here are the best liveaboards in Cairns:

1. Ocean Quest

Deep Sea Divers Den, a local dive company, owns and operates Ocean Quest. They have been a PADI-certified dive instruction company in Cairns for almost 40 years, making them one of the best liveaboards in Cairns. Deep Sea Divers Den operates four boats that you can choose from. They include:

  • Ocean Quest – Cairns Liveaboard
  • Reef Quest – Cairns Day boat
  • Sea Quest – Cairns day boat that services the Ocean Quest liveaboard
  • Aqua Quest – Port Douglas day boat.

That said, Aqua Quest is the most recent addition to the Deep Sea Divers Den boat fleets, which means it is the newest boat in the collection. It is also their newest dive and snorkel operation sailing from Port Douglas. Let’s take a look at their dive locations and the things you can expect to see.

Ocean Quest Cairns Dive Locations

Ocean Quest is anchored permanently between Norman, Saxon, and Hastings Reefs. For optimum exploration of these diving spots, the skipper will reposition the boat twice per day. The day boat Sea Quest travels to Ocean Quest. Travel time from Cairns is 1 hour and 15 minutes.

What to See While Diving with Ocean Quest Cairns?

When diving with Ocean Quest, you can expect to see vast shallow coral gardens along with steep outer reef cliffs at Saxon, Norman, and Hastings Reefs.

  • On top of the reefs, you will find brightly colored hard and soft coral colonies in 6 to 12 meters of water.
  • In the shallows, there are numerous cleaning stations populated by tiny cleaner wrasse, which attract larger predators like mauri wrasse, giant trevally, and coral trout.
  • Although not always but you can expect to see sharks. White-tip and black-tip reef sharks, which normally sleep on the sand during the day, live on the deeper outer reef walls.
  • In most sections, the outer reef walls reach to a depth of 22 meters. In about 8 meters of water, you can find brightly colored anemones that house the Great Barrier Reef’s most famous species, the clownfish.
  • You’ll also find coral caverns and swim-throughs.

What Does Ocean Quest Offer?

Ocean Quest offers a relaxing experience. From, their room to the equipment they provide, here’ what Ocean Quest offers:

  • You can pick from either the twin share (two beds in a room) or double (one double bed in a room) are the two room kinds available.
  • Private ensuite bathrooms are available in both room types. If you are traveling alone, you’ll want to select the twin share.
  • Ocean Quest is substantially larger than Pro-Dive and has twin hulls, making it much more stable in the water. It is great for folks who feel seasick easily.
  • Ocean Quest currently holds reef permits on Saxxon, Norman, and Hastings Reefs.
  • All dives are unguided, making them ideal for people who want their independence, such as experienced divers and underwater photographers. However, you can still hire a dive guide for as little as $15 for each dive.
  • Ocean Quest includes all snorkeling and diving equipment, including a wetsuit. Local Cairns Hotel Bus Transfers are also included.

What We Like About Ocean Quest

There’s a lot to enjoy with Ocean Quest, but here are their selling points for us that make it one of the best liveaboards in Cairns:

  • It is excellent for both experienced and inexperienced divers.
  • A large, sturdy yacht with excellent handling regardless of weather conditions.
  • Divers have easy access in and out of the water.
  • The rooms are clean and comfy and they offer good food.
  • Dive guides are available for an additional fee.
  • Good dive sites, excellent dive briefings, comfortable spacious accommodations with private ensuites, a fun crew with delicious meals, and Cairns Hotel Bus Pick Ups are included.

What We Don’t Like About Ocean Quest

As fantastic as Ocean Quest is, they also have a few setbacks.

  • There may be little children on board at times; this is not a bad thing, but not everyone might enjoy it.
  • The day boat transports you to the mothership, thus people board and disembark daily; however, this is not a major disadvantage because you may reserve this boat seven days a week.
  • Dive guides are an additional expense.

2. Pro-Dive Cairns

Pro-dive Cairns has three purpose-built liveaboard diving boats that leave and return to the city every three days. Except for Tuesdays, pro-dive liveaboards depart every day of the week. PADI Certified Diver training is available at Pro-Dive Cairns. Pro-diving Cairns has an excellent reputation as one of the best liveaboard diving in Cairns. Pro-Dive has a different dive location from the Reef Encounter and Ocean Quest. Let’s take a look!

Pro-Dive Cairns Dive Locations

Reef permits on Flynn, Milne, and Pellowe Reefs are held by Pro-Dive Cairns. These dive spots are 65 kilometers east of Cairns. Pro-Dive Cairns takes 2.5 hours to get to this region of the reef. Every day, Pro-Dive Cairns selects two dive spots.

What to See While Diving with Pro-Dive Cairns?

When diving with Pro-Dive Cairns liveaboards at Flynn Milne and Pellow reefs, you can expect to see:

  • Beautiful shallow coral gardens as well as vibrantly colored soft and hard coral colonies.
  • Large schools of juvenile barracuda (seasonal), gorgeous white and yellow sweetlips, enormous mauri wrasse, schools of humphead parrot fish, and various sea turtle species, including the uncommon and endangered hawksbill sea turtle.
  • White-tip and black-tip reef sharks.
  • You’ll want to dive at Gordons, Three Sisters, Tracy’s, and Little Tracy’s dive spots. The deepest areas of the outer reef walls reach a maximum depth of roughly 25 meters.

What Does Pro-Dive Liveaboard Diving in Cairns Offer?

The Pro-Dive Cairns is a single-hulled vessel. Designed for navigating rough seas and arriving at your destination in one piece and here’s what to expect:

  • Pro-Dive Cairns is the only boat that operates a real start-to-finish liveaboard that departs and returns to Cairns every three days. However, note that there are no departures on Tuesdays.
  • The accommodations are modest, there are only communal bathrooms, and the meals are adequate but not extravagant.
  • Typically, the boat holds 60-75% of freshly qualified students completing their certification and initial fun dives. This is something to consider if you are still a learner.
  • All of their diving is unguided, making it also ideal for expert divers.
  • You will need to buddy up with a friend or, if you are alone, they will pair you up with someone of similar expertise. Pro-Dive Cairns is ideal for photographers who wish to be independent, as well as divers who do not want to be accompanied by a dive leader.
  • The dive deck is a little cramped, and there isn’t much place for cameras, but the dive sites are fantastic.

What We Like About Pro-Dive Cairns

Pro-Dive offers awesome services and a customer-oriented, so here are the things we like the most about them”

  • Excellent dive sites, excellent dive briefings, and an enjoyable crew.
  • Pickups from Cairns hotels are included.
  • Single-hull vessels can move more freely in the ocean than twin-hull vessels.
  • The rationale behind a single-hull sailboat is that it can withstand tougher conditions such as high winds and severe waves.
  • The boat’s single-hull design allows it to slice through waves and swell.

What We Don’t Like About Pro-Dive Cairns

As great as Pro-Dive is, they also have their shortcomings.

  • The disadvantage of the single-hull design is that once moored, the boat bobs about from side to side more than a double-hull watercraft.
  • All Pro-Dive Cairns boats have a single hull. Smaller rooms, all shared cabins, no private en-suite toilets, simple meals, no diving guides, and not enough space on the dive deck.
  • There isn’t much room for photographers’ cameras.

3. Reef Encounter

Reef Encounter is one of the best liveaboards in Cairns owned and run by a Cairns-based family. Reef Encounter owns and runs a big twin-hull liveaboard. They also run a day trip boat named Reef Experience. Every day, Reef Experience transports passengers from the mainland to the liveaboard. This allows passengers to board and depart the liveaboard daily. They also run a day boat named Compass Cruises. Reef Encounter is an SSI-certified diving school. Let’s take a dive into what you can expect to see in Reef Encounter dive locations.

Reef Encounter Cairns Dive Locations

Reef Encounter is among the Cairns liveaboards that have licenses for Saxon, Norman, and Hastings. They reposition the boat twice a day to maximize time diving at new dive spots. The day boat Reef Experience takes 1 hour 15 minutes to arrive and reach the Reef Encounter Liveaboard from Cairns.

What to See While Diving with Reef Encounter Cairns?

When diving with Reef Encounter in the Norman, Saxon, and Hastings Reefs, you can expect to see:

  • Vast, brightly colored coral gardens in 6 to 8 meters of water on top of the reefs. The outer reef walls have a depth of about 22 meters.
  • Giant Green Humphead Parrot Fish are frequently seen in large schools of 6 or 8 animals (usually very early in the morning).
  • Giant clams, cleaner wrasse, several cleaning stations, sting rays, octopus, and the occasional sighting of transitory Manta Rays.

What Does Reef Encounter Offer?

Reef Encounter is great for a number of benefits but one thing they are known for is their kitchen quality. Let’s look at what makes them unique.

  • They offer twin hull vessels; it has two room types, the Multishare room (three single beds in one room) and the roomy twin/double Staterooms (twin room has two single beds or the double room has one double bed).
  • If you’re on a tight budget, you can book the Multishare room (three persons in a room). Keep in mind that all passengers must be over the age of 18 to travel in the multi-share rooms. These provide excellent value for money and are ideal for a party of friends looking to dive into the Great Barrier Reef on a budget.
  • The private staterooms, which come in twin or double-bed configurations, are ideal for a group of friends or a couple.
  • You can bring a kid into the stateroom with you. Reef Encounter has a rollaway bed/crib for kids for an extra cost.
  • They proved top deck services, which include valet service, champagne upon arrival, breakfast served in your room, sunset cocktails, turn-down service, a romantic dinner beneath the stars when the weather is nice, and a personal snorkel/dive guide on call at all times.
  • Their dives are unguided. They also charge an additional fee for Cairns Hotel Bus Transfers.
  • The team is welcoming, and the chef is known for cooking up a storm in the kitchen.

What We Like About Reef Encounter Liveaboard Diving in Cairns

The Reef Encounter offers lots of benefits but here are the particular things that stand out for us:

  • Excellent for both experienced and inexperienced divers.
  • Dive guides are available for an additional fee.
  • Reef Encounter is a large, stable twin-hull yacht that provides a pleasant onboard experience in most weather conditions.
  • Divers and snorkelers will appreciate the large dive deck with easy access to the ocean. The onboard cook prepares delicious meals.
  • Good dive sites, excellent dive briefings, roomy rooms with private bathrooms, a cheerful crew, and delicious food.
  • There is a heated Jacuzzi and the chance to upgrade to the top deck.

What We Don’t Like About Reef Encounter

Here are some of the Reef Encounter’s drawbacks:

  • There may be little children on board at times; this is not a bad thing, but some people may not enjoy it.
  • The day boat transports you to the mothership, thus people board and disembark daily; however, this is not a major disadvantage because you may reserve this boat seven days a week.
  • Dive guides are an additional expense. Wetsuits are extra, as are Cairns Hotel Bus Transfers.

Other Fantastic Liveaboard Diving in Cairns

Between Ocean Quest, Reef Encounter, and Pro-Dive you’re certain to you have the best liveaboard experience in Cairns. However, there are also other amazing liveaboard boats you can always rely on. Here’s two:

Coral Sea Dreaming

This liveaboard dive and snorkel cruise visits 30 special moorings on 9 different reefs and offers a genuine sailing experience and personalized service to a limit of 12 passengers. All snorkeling and diving equipment, including wetsuits and stinger suits, is provided, and all first-time scuba divers are given a free 10-minute “Try Dive.”

Coral Sea Dreaming has three private cabins with double beds, one shared cabin with two single bunk beds, and one communal cabin with four single bunk beds.

All rooms share a bathroom with hot water showers and two toilets. Food is supplied, but there is also a bar where you can treat yourself after a long day of resting on the Great Barrier Reef.

There is a range of certified and introductory dive packages available, and this boat is one of just a handful in Australia with a license for introductory night dives. Furthermore, this Cairns liveaboard dive boat is available for private hire, with a charter dive charge of only $100pp per day for unrestricted diving, including a night dive.


Being one of the best liveaboards in Cairns, this boat was ‘built by divers for divers’ and is Australia’s most awarded liveaboard yacht. Air-conditioned guest cabins are available in a range of configurations, ranging from double with queen beds to twin share. The boat also provides plenty of space for passengers to relax in the spacious lounge or on the sunbeds on the sundeck, which have fantastic views of the Coral Sea.

These three, four, and seven-night expeditions take guests to some of the most spectacular sites on the northern Great Barrier Reef, where they can interact with a wide range of marine animals, including some of the underwater world’s biggest stars, such as potato cod, giant bump head parrotfish, sharks, and even whales.

Mike Ball Dive Expeditions also offers dedicated Minke Whale Dive Expeditions for 3, 4, or 7 nights in June and July.

Divers from the age of 12 (inclusive) and non-divers from the age of 8 are welcome onboard these liveaboard cruises, and all trips, except the Fly Dive Coral Sea, are suitable for snorkelers.

Optional Extras

  • Nitrox diving (at an additional expense).
  • Rebreathers: If you wish to dive with a rebreather, you will be required to fill out documentation before the tour. For rebreathers and decompression diving, there is a ‘no solo’ policy, thus divers must dive with a licensed buddy.
  • Dive classes in open water, nitrox, advanced, and other specialties are provided.

The Best Itinerary for Cairns Liveaboard Diving

While you may already have an itinerary for the trip, when it comes to Cairns there’s a lot to experience and engage in so it can be a little bit overwhelming. So, here’s a simplified itinerary we built for you to help you get the best out of your trip to Cairns.

Transfer to the Great Barrier Reef on Day 1

You can take a relaxing walk out of your waterfront hotel and head down to the Reef Fleet Terminal for a 7:30 a.m. departure on a boat. The boat takes you to the Great Barrier Reef in about 90 minutes.

Spend a Day at the Great Barrier Reef on Day 2

Wake up to the rising sun on the horizon and spend the day diving/snorkeling. You have the option of up to six dives (six daytime dives for every diver, with the option of One-night dive for Certified Divers). Relax in your lounge with a bottle of wine or other beverages of your choice after an exciting underwater day. You will not be authorized to enter the water after consuming alcohol, so wait until the end of your dive sessions to drink.

Leave the Great Barrier Reef on Day 3

On the final day of your Reef Encounter stay, you’ll have the option of participating in up to three water sessions. Your final dive/snorkel session will end at noon.

Around 2:15 p.m., you leave the liveaboard boat and walk across to the Reef Experience, which comes up alongside your boat to transport you the 90-minute ride back to the dock. You return to Cairns at 4:30 p.m.

Rainforest Adventure on Day 4

Tropic Wings offers full-day tours to see the rainforest’s treasures. The rainforest tour is recommended after your diving experience because you aren’t meant to travel at altitude within 24 hours of several dives and/or a single deep dive of more than 60 feet. The Grand Kuranda Tour with a Cairns transfer costs AUD 259 per adult, AUD 130 for kids aged 4 to 14, free for newborns aged 0 to 3, and AUD 648 for a family of two adults and two children.

What to Bring for a Liveaboard Trip in Cairns

There are a lot of items to consider bringing along for a dive in the Cairns, especially as an inexperienced diver. While a number of divers come with their own dive kit, all the best liveaboards in Cairns provide divers with dive equipment including tanks, a mask, fins, boots, weights, snorkel, and weight belts.

Essential Items

  • Travel documents: They include your passport, visa, flight ticket, COVID-19 vaccination documents, and dive/travel insurance.
  • Dive log book
  • Scuba certification card
  • Nitrox certification card (if you intend to use Nitrox)
  • Mobile phone and charger
  • Dry bag
  • International plug converters/adapter
  • Underwater camera
  • Underwater housing for cell/mobile
  • Cash

Dive Equipment (if You Want to Bring Your Own)

  • BCD (Buoyancy Compensator Device)
  • Regulator
  • Mask
  • Fins
  • Wetsuit
  • SMB (Surface Marker Buoy)

Clothing Items

  • Sleepwear
  • Swim Wear
  • Sun Glasses
  • Hat
  • T-Shirts/Tops – Preferably Quick Dry
  • Shorts – Preferably Quick Dry
  • Long Trousers (Pants)
  • Light Weight Travel Towel – Preferably Quick Dry
  • Jumper or Sweater
  • Socks and Underwear
  • Dress or Skirt
  • Flip Flops or Sandals
  • Rain Jacket Or Windbreaker


  • Sunburn relief
  • Reef-safe sunscreen
  • Toiletries
  • Moisturizer
  • Seasickness tablets
  • Leave-in conditioner
  • SPF lip balm
  • Other personal medication

Optional Entertainment Items

  • Journal
  • Book to read


Ultimately, a Cairns liveaboard trip promises an unparalleled and profoundly enriching interaction with one of the world’s most extraordinary natural wonders. The pleasure of diving beside majestic manta rays, swimming among fascinating sea turtles, or experiencing the bright colors of the reef will definitely linger in the hearts of visitors for years to come.

So pack your baggage, don’t forget your diving gear, and prepare to embark on an unforgettable journey aboard the best liveaboards in Cairns. The Great Barrier Reef awaits those who wish to explore its depths by liveaboard, ready to reveal its spells and majesty.

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