What makes snorkeling Cape Tribulation, Green Island, Pontoons Outer Reef Spots unique from one another?

The Great Barrier Reef Reef Australia

What makes snorkeling from Cape Tribulation, Green Island, Pontoons and Outer Reef Spots unique from one another?


First of all I wanted to say “Thank you Mr Le”. Your question has inspired me to attempt to answer your question. “What makes snorkeling from Cape Tribulation, Green Island, Pontoons and Outer Reef Spots unique from one another?”


Please read on to find out the nitty gritty.


Below is an extract from Mr Le, it is a very common question or group of questions we receive on a daily basis. I have to thank Mr Le for asking this because it has inspired me to try to answer this in the best way that I can with my local knowledge of just over 420 scuba dives on the Great Barrier Reef from both Cairns, Port Douglas and Cape Tribulation.



Could you provide some local insight on how the different activities/spots vary?  More specifically, what makes snorkeling near Cape Tribulation, Green Island, Pontoons, and Outer Reef Spots unique from one another?  That’s one thing we are having trouble with because while all the activities seem to provide great experiences based on the reviews we’ve read, we don’t know how they vary other than location since most of the reviews only focus on a single location, without any comparisons.  I have read in general terms that different snorkeling and scuba diving spots have different animals, etc. but nothing concrete that details pros/cons.


Please read on for my response below, please let me know in the comments below if I have missed anything or if you have any further questions, I will try my best to answer.



In general, the first advice I try to give people (I have just completed over 420 dives myself) is visit the reef as many times as you can.


Every company pays allot of money to the Australian Government to acquire a reef permit which allows them a certain location on the reef.


All the companies do not share, they all have their own unique permits and go to different parts of the reef.


So if you could forget about money just for a second and just think about the reef, how large and diverse it is.


To get a basic understanding of the reef in the simplest way put, the more time you can spend out on the reef the more things you are going to see. I’m sure many people already know but at just over 2600klm long and over 60/70klm wide the reef is made up of thousands of smaller reefs and the only true way to see it would be to spend a lifetime snorkelling and diving to have a basic understanding.


Put it this way NASA currently have an aeroplane fitted with state of the art Prism scanner, a special sensor to map the conditions of large portions of the reef in fine detail, gathering data from 28,000 feet above sea level to produce a real-time picture of how much sand, coral and algae make up big stretches of the Great Barrier Reef.


They can only complete these sorts of studies by aeroplane fitted whith high tech scanning systems. That is how large the Great Barrier Reef is covering an area roughly the size of Germany.


Are you still with me? 🙂



Now back down to Earth, in general, the 3 different way humans can visit the reef are:


1 – Day Snorkel Dive Boats: (Smaller, Less People, Travel Further and go to Multiple Locations in the one day) A few day boats that do this from Cairns (Silverswift) (TUSA) (Reef Experience) and from Port Douglas (Silversonic and Poseidon), there are many more but just to get the ball rolling will start with these guys.


2 – Island / Sand Cays: Great for a beach day with shallow water easy to get in and out. Good for people who perhaps get sea sick or if you have small children. In general not allot of coral close to the beach (Green Island, Fitzroy Island, Michaelmas Cay) Although Michaelmas Cay is a bit of an exception with quite beautiful reefs very close to the beach. Michaelmas Cay generally appeals to the romantic market with sailing and relaxing on the beach.


3 – Pontoons: Designed for people who do not swim, or perhaps have a family member who swims and someone that does not swim. Pontoons have purpose built Semi-Submarines, Glass Bottom Boats and Underwater Observatories. All of these things allow people to get up close to the reef without getting wet. Snorkelling equipment is provided and many people do snorkel from the pontoons but you tend to find more people that do not swim or that are maybe a bit scared of the water. Pontoon companies are (Quicksilver) ( Reef Magic,) (Great Adventures) and (Sunlover)


All three options of visiting the reef mentioned above (Dive – Snorkel Boats), (Islands – Sandy Cays) and (Pontoons) are a great way to visit the reef in varying degrees, depending on the person’s ability to swim and snorkel in the water, or if you have children or you would like a secluded Sandy Beach day.



In general, all locations are beautiful and all offer unique coral and marine life.



Snorkel Dive boats have the advantage of being able to move around. Most companies have more than a handful of moorings that they can choose from. Having a variety to choose from allows them to Moore at different sites based on that days weather conditions. For example, if it is blowing a Northerly sea breeze on an out going or incoming tide. Skippers know which sites perform at their best based on these weather factors.


Some areas of the reef have more seaweed and in those areas, you tend to find sea turtles, these tend to be Flynn, Millne and Pellowe reefs. You can also expect to find bright colorful yellow and white sweet lip fish, sometimes schools of juvenile barracuda can be seen relaxing in the shallow pools of Flynn reef. White tip and black tip reef sharks are also a common sight at these reefs. (Boats that go there – (Silverswift), (Coral Sea Dreaming), (Pro-Dive Cairns).


Some areas of the reef have different types of corals that attract certain types of fish like green humphead parrotfish growing to lengths of 1.3metre. You can find these at reefs like Norman Saxxon and Hastings Reefs (Boats that go there – (TUSA), (Reef Experience), (Reef Quest) & (Evolution Dive & Snorkel).


Some parts of the reef have more currents and deeper walls, this is where the larger pelagic species of fish can be found, reefs like the Agincourt Reefs from Port Douglas. (Boats that go there – (Silversonic) and (Poseidon Dive & Snorkel).


But in general, if you can swim, if you are comfortable in the water I always recommend the smaller day snorkel / dive boats. Number one they move around to 2 or 3 locations in the one day (Cover more ground, more things to see). They take less amounts of people and generally travel allot further offshore to the outer reef systems like Flynne, Millne and Pellowe Reef on Google Maps.



The Islands in general, are a great day at the beach. If you want to relax on a beach, take a walk or even go for a shallow water swim and do a little bit of snorkeling. Visiting the Islands is a great day out. For example, Green Island is a 6000-year-old coral cay, of the 300 coral cays on the Great Barrier Reef it is the only one with a rainforest on it. Green Island is located on what is called a Patch Reef. As the name suggest you will find patchy bits of coral around the Island.

If you are looking for that magnificent vast reef system like in the photo at the top of this article, going to an Island may disappoint you. In general, if you are looking at visiting and snorkeling on pristine reefs systems once again I go back and recommend choose a day snorkel dive boat. If you do not swim choose a pontoon. Read more about the pontoons below.



The pontoons are all moored permanently on the reefs. They are all located in different parts of the reef. Reef Magic Cruises and Sunlover Reef Cruises are both based at Moore Reef. Moore reef is located just over 45klm East / South/East of Cairns. A large horseshoe style reef with hundreds of coral bommies in the calm water lagoon side of the reefs. A wide variety of marine animals are found at Moore reef due to large deep coral walls on the outside of the reefs to shallow calm water on the inside lagoon side of the reef. Marine animals and coral include Maori Wrasse, Giant Trevally Coral Trout, Anenome Fish, Yellow Tail Fusiliers, Ginat Brain Corals, Staghorn Corals, Giant Clams, Sea Turtles, Anenome Fish, Nudibranchs and much more.

Great Adventures have 2 pontoons the main one is located at Normann reef. The is reef is located around 45klm East, North/East from Cairns. Beautiful shallow coral gardens with a beautiful array of large giant clams and schools of bump headed parrot fish. You also find cleaner wrasse, the odd Manta Ray, and sometimes White tip and Black tip reef sharks.

Quicksilver Cruises pontoon is located on the Agincourt reef systems. Access to this pontoon is only from Port Douglas with the pontoon located just over 65klm offshore in a East / North East position from Port Douglas. The Agincourt reefs are renowned for their vast marine and coral diversity. Located a long way off shore and on the edge of the continental shelf of Australia. Many different species of fish and corals are living in bright healthy numbers on the Agincourt reefs.



It is entirely up to the individual or families needs, wants and desires. If you are comfortable in the water you should look at the day snorkel and dive boats, if you are a non-swimmer or perhaps have a few people in your party that do not swim or maybe you have small children and still really want to see the reef, choose a pontoon. If you are adamant that you do not swim and do not like boats or perhaps get sea sick choose one of the islands. Or in the case of Michaelmas Cay if you are looking for a relaxed beach day with some half decent coral straight from the beach choose Michaelmass Cay.

I hope I haven ranted on to much, I hope this article helps to give people a good basic outline on what are the main points of difference in what you can expect to see at the various locations. I hope it explains the different experience you can have with each option, and what you could expect to see.



Cairns Tour Info is a small independent travel agency based on the Cairns esplanade. We are not affiliated with any of the companies above. We make money from booking your ticket to the Great Barrier Reef. The tour operators pay us for this service.

Please leave a comment below to keep the discussion rolling. If you have any questions about day tours or would like to book a trip please contact our reservation team on E:info@cairnstourinfo.com.au or PH: 0740411635.



Leave a Comment