The 10 best reefs to go freediving in Cairns

View of a tropical estuary with clear blue water and white sand
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Ever wonder why Australia is considered to be one of the best freediving destinations in the world? Because it has the spectacular Great Barrier Reef!

Thousands of freedivers and holiday-makers visit Cairns every year to enjoy the sun and the sand – but also the huge number of stunning reefs just off its shoreline.

If you are planning to see for yourself, but you aren’t sure where to go, read this list of the 10 best reefs to go freediving in Cairns. 

Important note: all of these reefs are offshore and require chartering a boat service to reach. We offer our own 5 days trip aboard a maxi-yacht, or you can use sites such as tripadvisor to browse some options.  Remember, not all tours will allow freediving, or the use of freediving fins, so make sure you check before you book!

What is freediving? 

Freediving is the art of diving without equipment for long or deep distances on a single breath hold. Freediving is a great way to experience underwater landscapes, a method of building fitness, and can be a fun social activity. Many people also freedive because being alone underwater can help put them in a meditative state. 

1. Agincourt Ribbon Reefs

A long distance shot of Agincourt reef on the Great Barrier Reef

Agincourt Ribbon Reefs is a chain of reefs along Eastern Australia’s continental shelf. On the Western side of the formation, freedivers can enjoy tranquil water protected from the swell. Here, there are a mix of soft and hard corals, and a plethora of marine life. 

On the Eastern side, for more advanced freedivers there are deeper walls that can be explored, as well as larger marine animals. The water here is crystal clear, as it is far enough away from shore to be free of sediments and topsoil. This reef can cater to any freediving skill level. 

2. Mackay Reef

Mackay Reef is closer to shore and perfect for snorkelling or beginner freedivers. It has very mild currents, mostly still water, and boasts one of the brightest, most healthy coral reefs in the area. 

Snorkelers can hope to spot turtles, octopuses, and various small species of sharks. For freedivers in Cairns looking to practise breath holds and shallow distance diving, there are few places with better scenery. 

3. Norman Reef

Beneath shot of a manta ray swimming overhead

Heading back to the continental shelf, Norman Reef is a long way out and is best enjoyed on overnight, or multi night diving trips. Gorgeous coral gardens can be enjoyed on the Western side, while the Eastern side offers deeper drop offs for more intermediate or skilled divers.

Norman Reef is known for frequent manta ray sightings, which are thrilling for divers. As manta rays pass over or under you, you will be in awe of their massive size. The largest ones can block light and will cause a big shadow across the ocean floor. 

4. Saxon Reef

Slightly closer to shore lies Saxon Reef, a vast, shallow reef that is ideal for snorkelling. Much of its coral islands are near the surface, with occasional corridors of metre deep water running over them. These corridors act as highways for countless fish species – and for curious snorkelers!

Schools of Moorish Idols and Harlequin Tusks are common, as well as large populations of colourful cuttlefish. If you are interested in freediving in Cairns and seeing all of the fish species that the Great Barrier Reef has to offer, this is the place to go. 

5. Hastings Reef

Freediver making heart symbol with their hands near some coral and a school of tropical fish

Just a little south of Saxon, Hastings Reef has one of the most interesting and well known dive sites in the entire Great Barrier Reef. The Fish Bowl, a naturally occurring basin of hard and soft coral, has created a protected ‘bowl’ where many popular fish species call home.

Divers can enjoy diving the 5m needed to explore the Fish Bowl, but for snorkelers who plan to stick to the surface, there are also huge schools of Parrotfish that emerge in the early mornings, and a plentiful population of sea turtles that be seen swimming around the the site.  

6. Flynn Reef

Flynn Reef is one of the furthest reefs from shore, but the trip is definitely worth it! The local fauna is abundant and varied, with everything from Moray Eels to giant Maori Wrasse

For divers with a knack for photography, the massive amounts of sea life and the clear blue waters of the continental shelf make this the best place to take some wildlife snaps. In particular, the sloping coral gardens known as the ‘Ski Flats’ are splendid vistas that you’ll want to photograph to show family members back home. 

7. Milln Reef

Colourful tropical fish in the blue water of a reef

A little way south of Flynn is Milln Reef. For people interested in freediving in Cairns, this reef provides a real treat. Famous bommies, most notably Whale Bommie and Petaj Bommie, that stretch for 22 metres can be freedived, offering a test for your skills and a unique experience.

Conditions here can be unpredictable, so it is recommended that freedivers have at least an intermediate skill level before attempting to dive the bommies. 

8. Thetford Reef

Thetford Reef is located roughly halfway between Cairns and the continental shelf, making it perfect for a day trip. It is well known for its healthy population of giant clams which can be spotted amongst the coral by experienced divers with a keen eye. 

As well as clams, this reef is abundant with other sea life, most notably Coral Trout, which are adorned with beautiful patterns and colouration.

9. Pellowe Reef

Turtle swimming in clear blue water

Pellowe Reef is one of the most remote sites in the Great Barrier Reef. If you want to go Freediving in Cairns away from all the other visitors, this is the reef for you. 

It has two features which are popular with divers. The first is Cucumber Alley, a part of the reef that is teeming with colourful sea cucumbers. The second is scarily named Darth Vader Alley. Its deep valleys limit the natural light and create a darker, more ominous atmosphere than you would expect on a sunny reef. It’s a real treat for more experienced freedivers. 

10. Moore Reef

Moore Reef is the most southerly of the famous reefs associated with freediving in Cairns. It has naturally formed a horseshoe shaped  inlet that shelters smaller marine life. This also makes it perfect for snorkelling, or for people with limited swimming ability who still want to enjoy the reef. 

If you’ve got children, Moore Reef is the perfect opportunity to go for a dive without needing to leave the kids at home. Dive or snorkel with the peace of mind that they are enjoying the shallow, calm waters in the Moore Reef inlet. 

Try a freediving course

Longshot of an estuary in Cairns where there is clear blue water and white sand

Now that you know all the best places to go freediving in Cairns, how about you join a freediving class to learn or hone your skills before your trip?

At Freediving Central, we offer beginner, intermediate and advanced courses, as well as courses for instructors.

No matter your skill level, Freediving Central can help you improve. 

To get in touch and book a lesson, visit our contact page.

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