How to Scuba Dive on a Budget in Cairns

CAIRNS, AUSTRALIA- Scuba Diving in Cairns is expensive. If you want to see the Great Barrier Reef, you’re going to have to take a day trip to dive sites with a tour company, setting you back $250 on average. While many operators offer the opportunity to dive with a dive master even if you are uncertified—my brother had never been scuba diving and was underwater for 27 minutes on his very first dive—it is preferable to have your Open Water certification already. You will get the most value for your money as a certified diver in Cairns. Either way you need to be prepared to spend a lot, so here are some tips for being as savvy as possible when diving in Cairns:



Do a Single-Day Trip. Avoid the Overnight Boats. Many companies will offer you the chance to dive off a live-aboard boat—it’s generally not worth it if you’re looking to save money. One of the big selling points for a live aboard boat is the opportunity to go on a night-dive…now if you have your heart set on a night dive, by all means, go for it. But consensus among the dive masters is that a night dive is just a gimmick to get you to pay to stay on the boat overnight and generally not worth the hype.


There also isn’t much to do on the boat when you aren’t diving…which is most of the time. Of course it’s a beautiful experience, but there isn’t a whole lot of space and if you aren’t used to being at sea, it can be a nauseating one. Yes, you might go to dive spots that other companies aren’t visiting since the boat has more travel time, but most dive sites on the Great Barrier Reef are similar and if you have never been before will make little difference


Dive as Much as You Can in One Trip. You’ll be paying a lot of money to go out on the boat regardless of how many times you actually dive, so it pays to go on a single trip and dive three times rather than do two separate day trips with two dives each. You really won’t be diving much deeper than twenty meters or so, so diving three times is not an issue with decompression times (though this doesn’t give you license to not keep track!). Many companies offer additional dives for a fraction of the cost of the trip + first dive, so if you’ve paid to make it all the way out to the reef, it’s worth it to spend the extra cash and go for a second or third dive.


Book Your Trip With A Hostel. Here’s how the dive companies work: each charges a certain flat rate for a single ticket on the boat, and its up to the tour companies and hostels to sell the trips at a significant markup. It’s possible to bargain with all of these companies either by leveling with them about your ability to meet a certain price, or by leveraging offers from different companies. You want to find someone selling the tours who has no personal financial incentive to move the tickets at face value.


It will be difficult getting any significant discount at one of the travel companies (Wicked Travel, Happy Travels) unless you are booking in a large group, since the travel agent is working for cash to sell you the tour. The key is to find a hostel that sells tours, and an agent at the desk that is working for accommodation and not getting a cut of the proceeds. They are far more likely to bargain with you, since it makes no difference to them how much you pay for a ticket.


Book Early. If you will only be in town for a short period of time, call up the companies beforehand and get a sense of what kind of availability there is. The last thing you want is to dive the Great Barrier Reef on a poor weather day, or not at all because there happened to be no availability on the day you wanted. It’s obviously busier during the school holidays and summer, but the weather in Cairns is favorable enough year-round that there is no real low season with full availability.


Listed below are some recommendations for diving in Cairns. Don’t be swayed by any company trying to sell you on diving destinations—virtually all dive spots on the Reef are indistinguishable and you can see anything on any given day. Additionally, the operators don’t know what destination they are visiting until they have left the docks in the morning, so avoid booking your trip based on advertised destination dives.


The obvious first consideration for picking a dive operator is availability; the second is price. I recommend TUSA and Down Under Dive—they have the best boats and the most seasoned crews. They are professional and provide top-notch diving services with premier equipment.


Cairns Dive Centre, while cheaper, is much a much…grittier boat. You won’t be able to lounge in the sun like you can on the other boats, and their equipment is not as good, but if it’s just diving you care about, they certainly offer the best bang for your buck. Ocean Freedom is one of the nicest boats in the entire fleet, but it’s incredibly expensive for divers. The luxurious space on the boat isn’t worth paying $300 for two dives. While you need to be prepared to spend a good deal of money to dive the Great Barrier Reef, the experience is beyond “worth it”. Using these tips you should be able to get the best deal possible, and save some money for your other adventures!