How to visit the Great Barrier Reef from Port Douglas with kids
A visit to Australia’s magnificent Great Barrier Reef is a bucket list experience for many families, however the reef’s remote location, cost to visit, and choice of activities can be daunting. We were lucky enough to visit the Great Barrier Reef recently, during our stay in Port Douglas, North Queensland and it far exceeded all of our expectations. Here we share our experience to help you make a visit to the Great Barrier Reef with your family a reality.
Who to go with (apart from your family)?
The most important part of a visit to the reef is to make sure you are going with a reputable company. When you’re that far out in the open ocean with your kids, you want to make sure you trust the operator. There a quite a number of excellent operators – it’s just a matter of choosing one that suits you.
Having spent countless hours talking to past visitors and locals, and scouring the web for reviews on operators and locations, I finally came to choose a day on the Outer Barrier Reef with Quicksilver Cruises.
What sold me on that trip was Quicksilver’s long standing reputation, that they have a permanent pontoon making it easier to get in and out of the water, plus they had other activities so that if one of the boys hated snorkelling, we wouldn’t be stuck on a pontoon with nothing to do.
I also decided that if we were going to spend the money to see the reef, then we were going to see the most spectacular part possible, which is why we headed to Agincourt Reef, on the edge of Australia’s Continental Shelf.
Getting to the reef
We set off at 10am on an impressive silver wavepiercing catamaran. Try to go out on one of the lower decks as you leave (or come back into) the marina to see Port Douglas from a different viewpoint. It’s also really nice to see all the Quicksilver staff out there waving to people on the shoreline.
The Marine Biologist presentation was well worth watching and we got to learn a lot about the reef during the one and a half hour boat ride.
Tip: If you’re arriving by car, get there around 9.15am before the buses do, check in at the office and line up to get the seat you want. We went for a table and chairs near the front of the lower deck, so the boys could occupy themselves with colouring in and we could see the Marine Biologist presentation.
What an incredible experience snorkelling was. We swam so close to coral reefs you could almost touch them, were amazed by the sight of hundreds of different colours and species of fish, and wowed by discovering sea cucumbers, giant clams and sea turtles in their natural habitat.
This is no ordinary place to explore. As the world’s largest coral reef, it needs to be seen in person, to be believed. We spend so much time looking at places like the Great Barrier Reef on television, that many people wonder whether it’s worth exploring it for real. Well in our opinion, it is absolutely worth seeing, exploring and learning about this incredible piece of nature face-to-face.
Is it worth doing a guided tour?
Absolutely, positively yes!
I don’t think we would have enjoyed it half as much if we hadn’t have gone on the marine biologist tour. The wonderful Tatiana took the boys, taught them how to snorkel and made sure they were safe out in the ocean, while we parents paddle along behind with another Marine Biologist, the lovely Tim.
The three major benefits of going on a guided tour for us were:
- We got to go further out on the reef than those not on a tour and therefore saw so much more.
- We had someone on hand the whole time to tell us about the things we were seeing, and things we might have missed seeing had they not been there.
- As parents, we could spend our time looking down in awe rather than continually chasing after the boys.
We paid $150 extra for the four of us to go on a beginner’s tour and it was worth every cent.
What ages is it suitable for?
Every child will vary as to what age they would enjoy the reef, so I would recommend you talk to the guys at Quicksilver if you have any doubts.
My boys were 7 and 9 when they went snorkelling and this was a great age. They were old enough to understand and be interested, and could follow most instructions (even though the youngest kept getting carried away with what was down below and not paying attention to the direction he should be swimming). They also were old enough to grasp the concept of wearing a snorkel mask.
The boys had never done snorkelling before, but picked it up quickly. It was fairly rough while we were out on the open water but at no time did we feel unsafe. You just had to be careful when you pulled your head out of the water that you didn’t get a wave to the face!
What you’ve got to remember is that at Agincourt Reef you are actually swimming from a platform in the middle of the ocean. That can be pretty scary for some little kids and the water isn’t always lovely and calm.
If my boys were a few years younger, I would have looked to go to Low Isles where they can snorkel off the beach. I don’t think it would be quite as breathtaking as Agincourt Reef but it would still be pretty spectacular and less nerve-racking.
What does it cost?
For a family of two adults and two children, the cost was $642, which included all your equipment and meals. To put it into perspective, it’s cheaper than one day at Disneyland.
What you get for your money
Apart from the most unforgettable experience of a lifetime, you will also get:
- All your snorkelling equipment including snorkel, flippers, and a lycra stinger suit. The boys were also provided with wetsuits to keep them warm in the water.
- Bouyancy aids – we put the boys in lifejackets so we didn’t have to worry about them letting go of a pool noodle type aid and then having nothing.
- Morning and afternoon teas on the boat, and lunch on the pontoon.
- Reef presentation by marine biologist.
- Return Wavepiercer cruise from Port Douglas
- Supervision in the water by qualified lifeguards
- An underwater observatory for fish and coral viewing
- Semi-submersible vessels for coral viewing
- Watch the crew feed the fish
There are extra activities out on the reef you can pay extra for.
- Marine biologist led tours – introductory and advanced tours
- Scuba diving
- Ocean walker
- Scenic helicopter flights
What to take
- Swimwear (wear it – it’s much easier than changing on a moving boat or platform)
- Change of clothes and underwear.
- A long sleeved shirt or jumper in the cooler months. You can get pretty cold when you’ve been in the ocean for a long time.
- Travel sickness medication if required
- Something to keep the kids occupied on the boat. We took colouring books and pens.
- A few snacks and fruit as there are not a lot of options for morning and afternoon tea and the boys will get hungry from all that activity
- Underwater camera and some way to secure it to your wrist
- Money or a credit card to buy an ice cream, packet of chips, or a well deserved drink on the way back. You can also hire underwater cameras if you don’t have one.
- Waterproof watch if you like knowing the time
TIP: Don’t take any valuables, as there are no lockers. We took everything in our daypacks, and the small amount of cash, sunglasses and car keys we locked in one of the packs just in case.
If you think you or your children may get seasick or you haven’t tested that theory out yet, make sure you ask your Doctor or Pharmacist about preventative measures. We were told it’s too late to take tablets once you already start feeling sick and that we needed to take them 30 minutes before we set off and then again before the return trip.
While Dad said he wouldn’t get sick, I knew there was a good chance the remaining three of us would, so we took travel sickness tablets from the local Pharmacy. There are medical and herbal variations plus age restrictions, and other precautions as with all medication so make sure you ask.
I am extremely grateful to the Pharmacist in Port Douglas because the sea was rough the day we went and there were quite a number of people really suffering, especially on the way home.
TIP: If you think you might get seasick, sit on the lower deck of the catamaran and make sure you get some air if you start feeling off.
What would we improve?
We absolutely loved our time with Quicksilver and would absolutely go with them again. Next time I would love it to be a calm, fine day but there’s only so much they can control, and we’d still go anyway.
The only thing we were a little disappointed with was the morning tea of Arnott’s biscuits, tea, coffee, red cordial and water, and afternoon tea of water crackers, cubed cheese and drinks. I wasn’t expecting handcrafted profiteroles or anything, but thought there might be a bit more variety. Maybe it has something to do with curbing seasickness!
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Disclosure: We approached Quicksilver and received discounted tickets to go snorkelling but paid full price for the marine biologist tour. We chose to go with Quicksilver after doing a lot of research on all the operators. The above review is our honest opinion.
Feature image taken by Quicksilver Cruises. All other images were taken by and remain the property of Travel with Boys.