How long does it take to get from Cairns to the Great Barrier Reef

admin on February 7th, 2024

There is a question that we often get asked about the Great Barrier Reef:  “How long does it take to get to the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns?”

It very well may seem like a simple and easy question to answer, however, there are so many variables that make the answer not quite as straight forward as you may have initially thought.  Read on for information on how long it does actually take to get from Cairns to the Great Barrier Reef and how to get to the reef from Cairns.

The Cairns Marlin Marina which is on the edge of Cairns city has a variety of reef  boats departing at all times daily taking tourists out to see the Great Barrier Reef, and this is where the Cairns snorkelling tours and dive trips depart from for their Great Barrier Reef tour.

On any given morning, you will see fast catamarans, single hull vessels, sailing yachts or catamarans making their way out to the Coral Sea for adventures on the Great Barrier Reef with passengers from all around the world.

Some of these passengers will be travelling on day trips and others for liveaboard scuba diving expeditions to the outer edges of the Great Barrier Reef.

There are boats heading to the reef for snorkelling, scuba-diving, glass bottom boat tours, deep sea fishing, swimming with whales, and even private charter boats or a luxury superyacht and others simply to take their passengers out for a relaxing day on a tropical island.

Each of these dive and snorkel boats have a Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Licence that allows them to visit a specific destination/s each day and each tour boat goes to a different destination to the next. Yet, they all pass through the leads of the Trinity Inlet only to disperse in to various directions on the World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef.

This is because the Great Barrier Reef is a massive formation made up of clusters of 2900 reefs, 900 islands and multiple sandy cays which stretches 2,300 kilometres along the state of Queensland on the East Coast of Australia.

So, depending on which reef or island you are travelling to, and the tourist boat you travel on, the time travel can be distinctly different.

This is without factoring in the options of travelling to the reef by helicopter. Helicopter rides take an immense amount of time off open water travel in comparison to a boat, and offers spectacular views of the reef.

There is a variety of helicopter flight options from a 30 minute scenic flight from Cairns, to a reef combo tour with a fly/cruise option where you can do a one way or return transfer by helicopter to the reef.  You can even fly to a remote sand cay and enjoy a gourmet picnic and time snorkelling from the sand cay. See all private helicopter rides that offer something really special and unique on the Great Barrier Reef.

So, How long does it take to get to the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns then?

Outlined below are the answers of how long it actually does take to go from Cairns to the Great Barrier Reef broken down to the actual reef destinations and their approximate travel times.

Outer Reefs [Norman, Moore, Thetford, MIln, & Flynn Reefs]
The average amount of time for a modern fully motorised catamaran to travel to the outer reef is approximately 90 min one way.

Mid Reefs [Arlington, Saxon, Hastings, Upolo, Pinnacle Reefs & Michaelmas Cay]
If travelling to the mid areas of the Great Barrier Reef [half way between the coast line and the Continental Shelf edge], the average time is approximately 70min.  However, if travelling by a sailing catamaran, open water travel to the reef can take approximately 2 hours.

Read more about the different reef locations on the Great Barrier Reef.

Green Island & Fitzroy Island -Islands are closer to the mainland, so therefore are faster to get to by catamaran.
This allows half day options to be available. The average time to either Green Island and Fitzroy Island is 45min.  There are a couple of operators with boat travel times being 30min and 60 min depending on boat size and departure times.

Helicopter travel to the Reef - Any outer reef tour will require a full day due to the distance to get there. This is unless you travel one way by helicopter, and the return route by fast catamaran or vice versa.  Or, you can fly out and return by helicopter or visaversa.

A one-way route to the outer reef by helicopter ride is approximately 25min. This means a good 60 min is cut off the travel time compared to a boat trip to the reef.  And incredible birds eye views of the reef can be seen along the way!

So, back to the question… “How long does it take to get to the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns?”

The Short Answer: it takes anywhere between 30 minutes to 2 hours to get to the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns. Now you know why the short answer is so broad.

So be sure to choose the right mode of transport and the right Great Barrier Reef tour that suits the people you are travelling with at the time. For very young families we highly recommend short boat rides to the islands off Cairns that take around 30 to 60 minutes and Low Isles in Port Douglas takes around 70 minutes on a sail boat and a power boat around 25 -30 minutes where the family can snorkel and swim straight from the safety of the beaches. For the non-swimmers we recommend the islands and also the pontoons as there are so many activities to choose from on these tours.

If you have any questions just contact our locally based team of reef specialists when wanting to book your Great Barrier Reef snorkelling and scuba diving tour experience!

Read more about Great Barrier Reef and travel tips. Follow our social pages on Instagram and Facebook for daily inspiration.

Meet Wally the famous fish on the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns


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