Snorkel turtle

How to do the Great Barrier Reef with Kids

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Visiting the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is on most traveler bucket lists.  The GBR is not just for divers or backpackers or adventure seekers.  We visited as a family with young kids and had an amazing day on the Great Barrier Reef with kids.

We have all heard how climate change and ocean acidification are threatening our coral reefs throughout the world.  The concern for the world’s largest barrier reef that extends 2,300 km down the coast of eastern Australia is paramount.  In fact, the GBR has experienced three mass bleaching events in the past five years.

We had been to the reef as backpackers 15 years ago and since then have snorkeled and dived in many parts of the world.  We weren’t sure what we would find this time on the Great Barrier Reef.  Would we see a sick and bleached reef or would we see a thriving, colourful reef full of marine life?

When we travel with our kids we travel not just for enjoyment, but to learn together as a family about our earth – its resources, its cultures, its wildlife.  Visiting the GRB as a family allowed us to experience this incredible marine wonderland, but also to prompt discussions about climate change and the threat to the world’s oceans.  A great Netflix documentary to compliment your trip is Chasing Coral, which will make you realize why visiting now is a good idea.

For us our primary purpose in holidaying in Cairns in tropical north Queensland was to experience the Reef.  Yes, there are so many other amazing things to do in the area, but the driving reason for our visit was the Reef.  Don’t be intimidated by visiting the Great Barrier Reef with kids.  Let’s walk through how to organize your trip and what to expect.

Sea turtle Great Barrier Reef

A sea turtle coming up to the surface

Great Barrier Reef with Kids – Planning Your Trip

First of all, be prepared to shell out some money to visit the Great Barrier Reef.  This was by far the most expensive activity we did while in the Cairns area, but it was worth every penny.  Plan to spend $500-600 AUD for a family of 4-5.  Most companies have a family rate (2 adults, 2 children) that will save you money.  You can go to some islands closer to Cairns, which are wonderful day trips, but please make sure you go out to the Outer Reef while here.

You are going to be overwhelmed with choices for which company to choose for your Great Barrier Reef kids tour.  I spent hours reading various reviews and weighing the pros and cons of each.  We ended up doing two day trips with two different companies: Passions of Paradise and Sunlover Reef Cruises, both of which were perfect for families.  You will need to book in advance to reserve your spot and transfers from your hotel can be organized.

great barrier reef kids

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef

The first thing you will notice when comparing Great Barrier Reef cruises is that some go out to a pontoon (a floating activity centre).  These have larger boats and offer a wide range of ways to experience the Reef.  Sunlover goes out to Moore Reef where you spend over 4 hours on the pontoon exploring the Great Barrier Reef.

Other small operators like Passions of Paradise, will take you to various sites depending on the weather conditions.  These tours are much more personalized and better for families with older children who are confident swimmers.  Click here for the best rates on Passions of Paradise trips.

In this post, we will explore what to expect if you choose a pontoon GBR trip or a small group operator.

Option 1: What to Expect on a Pontoon Trip

Getting to the Reef

All of the tour companies are congregated at the Cairns Harbour with check in counters at the Fleet Terminal building.  The Sunlover catamarans are fast and modern with lots of comfortable seating on two levels.  The boat departs at 9:30, but you will want to check in an hour prior to get settled.

Great Barrier Reef with kids

Getting to the Outer Great Barrier Reef

It is a 1.5-2 hour trip out to the Outer Reef and winds are generally blowing 25 km/hr, making it a bit lumpy.  We are very used to being on boats, but we would still recommend you take a sea sickness tablet before departing.  Many, many people were seasick on our boat and it is a bit harder to jump right into exploring the Reef when you are feeling poorly.  On your way out, the crew will do a snorkeling briefing, explain the various activities on the pontoon and there is a marine biologist presentation.  Our kids enjoyed listening and watching this presentation where they learned how coral is related to jellyfish and how the coral grows.

Kids on the Sunlover boat

Goodbye Cairns, Hello Reef

The Pontoon – Activities Galore

Once you arrive at this floating pontoon, it is pretty magical to see the contrasting blues of the reef without any land in sight.  Our kids were so excited, they couldn’t decide what to do first.  This was one of the reasons why we think this is one of the best Great Barrier Reef tour for kids.  Sunlover’s pontoon has a huge theme park style waterslide into the ocean that captured our kids’ attention right away.

Waterslide


The kids and adults loved this thrilling waterslide and even our 5 year could go down by himself.  There is a lifeguard operating the slide and keeping a close eye on the kids.  How cool is it to be able to waterslide into the Great Barrier Reef!?! Our kids could have spent all day on the waterslide, but we managed to drag them away to explore the other areas of the Reef and Pontoon.

Great Barrier Reef for kids

The kids loved the slide!

Great Barrier Reef Snorkeling

Off the one side of the pontoon they had a cordoned off area for snorkeling.  I must say I was a bit worried that we would be relegated to snorkeling in a very small area.  I definitely needn’t to have worried because the snorkel area was huge and over an amazing section of Reef.  We lived on a sailboat for 5 months in the Bahamas, so our kids are very comfortable swimmers and snorkelers.  However, even if your kids aren’t as confident, there are lots of safe ways to snorkel comfortably.  On the pontoon there is snorkel equipment organized by sizes, soaking in disinfectant.  You just help yourself to what you need.  We found the equipment to be in good shape and there were lots of sizes and options for the kids.  They have snorkel vests (life preservers) available and we had our 5 year old wear one.

healthy Great Barrier Reef snorkeling tours

Lots to see under water

You may have heard that there are dangerous jellyfish in the waters off the Great Barrier Reef for 6 months of the year (Nov-May).  It was the end of jellyfish season when we visited in May, but we opted to wear the suits just in case.  They also help keep the kids a bit warmer in the water plus work as sun protection.  You can rent the full body stinger suits on the pontoon for $5/each.

There are easy access platforms off the pontoon for you to put on your equipment and enter the water.  Once you get in, you will be immediately amazed by the amount of fish surrounding you.  If you swim farther from the pontoon in the enclosed snorkel area you will be rewarded by the brightest colours and largest variety of fish.

Great Barrier Reef for kids

Easy access platforms help kids (and adults) get in the water easily.

I was a bit worried what we would find under the water at the Reef, but was pleasantly surprised.  Moore Reef looked incredibly bright and healthy and it was some of the best snorkeling we have done.  We saw so many varieties of fish and coral, a few sea turtles, a small reef shark and even Wally, the wrasse (a huge fish that hangs out near the pontoon).  The kids lasted about an hour in the water before they got cold, but my husband and I took turns going out on our own because it was so beautiful.  You can buy or rent an underwater camera on the Pontoon, but we just used our own Go-Pro.

Semi-Sub and Glass Bottom Boat

Great barrier reef trip

A little tour in the semi sub.

The benefit of going on Barrier Reef tours to a pontoon is that there are lots of other ways to experience the Reef without getting in the water.  This makes it a great option for families with young kids or non-swimmers.

We took a ride in the Semi-Sub and saw some of the corals and fish outside the snorkel area.  It was a fun 20-minute trip, but I would still try to get in the water if you can because the colours are more vivid and you see more fish in the water.

We were so busy snorkeling and testing out the waterslide, that we didn’t go out on the Glass Bottom boat.  That would be another great way to see the Reef while staying dry.  These 20 minute trips are included in your ticket.  Just check the schedule on the pontoon for times; no need to reserve.

Underwater Observatory & Touch Tank

Great Barrier Reef Australia

The underwater observatory on the pontoon was a great way to see the fish without getting wet.

On one side of the pontoon, you can descend into an aquarium like observatory where you can see the fish swimming by.  This was a really cool area to check out, especially when they do a fish feeding in the afternoon.

Also towards the end of the day, the crew pulled a few sea cucumbers and starfish up into a touch tank.  The kids loved touching these animals and hearing more about them from the crew.

Sunlover Reef Cruises

Gavin liked checking out the starfish and sea cucumbers in the touch tank.

Optional Activities (additional costs)

If you are a certified diver, you will probably want to sign up to see the Reef lower down.  Even if you aren’t certified, you can do an introductory dive with a guide, no experience necessary.  Sunlover also offers the Sea Walker Helmet Diving experience where you walk on the sea floor.

Kids from 12+ can experience an introductory dive without certification.  Read a kid’s perspective on diving the GBR for the first time.

You can partake in a Snorkel Safari where you go outside the snorkel area with a snorkel guide.  We had read really good things about that, but found the marine life in the snorkel area to be really amazing and felt we were experienced enough we didn’t need the additional tour.

If you can’t bear the thought of traveling two hours by boat to the Reef, you can hire the helicopter to take you there or back.  It lands on a floating platform near the pontoon and would be a wonderful way to see the Reef if you have some cash to spare.

Pontoon Facilities

Visiting the Great Barrier Reef

The pontoon was a great way to experience the Reef with kids.

The boat stays docked beside the pontoon the whole time you are there.  On the pontoon you have fresh water showers, change rooms, all snorkel and dive equipment, and a second story sun lounging area with lounge chairs and beanbags.  They even have a small kids swimming pool, which is an enclosed, shallow ocean pool off the pontoon.  Our kids loved playing around in there and it would be a great place for toddlers or teaching younger kids how to snorkel.  They can still see the fish, but are safe and contained in the kids pool.

Pontoon facilities

Great space for young kids or less confident swimmers.

Lounging Great Barrier Reef

The pontoon allows every one some space to spread out and the top deck lounge area was a great place to do that.

Safety was an obvious priority on the pontoon and the boat.  There were lifeguards watching out over the snorkel area and keeping an eye on everyone.

Option 2 – What to Expect on a Small Group GBR Trip

We love sailing and that was one of the reasons that attracted us to Passions of Paradise and their 30 m power catamaran, Passions III.  We also knew that the thousands of 5-star reviews on Tripadvisor couldn’t be lying.  Great Barrier Reef tour

Getting to the Reef

When boarding Passions III, we had many staff members come up and strike up a conversation with us.  Right away the first mate invited the kids to come sit at the helm with skipper Garett. The kids loved sitting in the captain’s chairs and learning about the navigation equipment.

It was rough going out to the Reef and it took 2 hours to get out there. At least half of the 50 passengers were motion sick, so take tablets as a precautionary. The smaller operators can adjust their destinations for each tour based on the weather, giving you the best possible Great Barrier Reef experience.  Most tours, like Passions, include two different stops. GBR with kids

Snorkeling or Diving with a Small Operator

Overall, I think smaller operators are best for more experienced swimmers, snorkelers and divers.  While they do offer a more intimate experience, a pontoon style tour is definitely better with small children and less confident swimmers.

The first location we went to had a good swell to it and was a bit tricky snorkeling. I was super impressed with their focus on safety. We had snorkel leaders that took less confident snorkelers around the reef and helped our kids quite a bit. There was always a lifeguard watching and once back on the boat, they did thorough head counts.

The second location (only a 10 minute motor away) was even better then the first. It was calmer and the reef was really full of life and good colours.

The Boat

The boat was launched in 2017 and is in fabulous condition.  It was lovely to get the sails up and relax on the boat.

There was lots of room on the boat and it was great to move around to the different areas. The trampolines on the front were a great place to lounge while we were moored and the back decks were also lovely with huge soft lounge areas.

The Personalized Service

The staff were so amazing and friendly and got to know each passenger. I loved how they all lined up and shook our hands as we disembarked. They were super attentive, encouraging and super professional.  I felt so good supporting this small business and were blown away by the level of service.

Our Verdict

snorkeling Great Barrier Reef

Bucket list item checked off and wonderful memories made.

The Great Barrier Reef is an epic trip for visitors to Australia.  Visiting the Great Barrier Reef with kids made it that much more special as we saw the awe and amazement in their eyes.

While the pontoon tours are the most family-friendly way to experience the Reef, don’t discount the smaller operators who can offer a more intimate experience.  The pontoon offers so many wonderful ways to view and experience the Reef and is particularly good for families with young children. The smaller operators, like Passions of Paradise, offer a more boutique experience, but are better suited to families with older children.

Great Barrier Reef holidays aren’t cheap, but after spending the day on the Reef, you will appreciate what a value packed day it was.  Best of all, you will have memories that will last a lifetime.

This World Heritage Site is suffering, but by creating more awareness on climate change, hopefully we can slow the degradation of our coral reefs.  Don’t wait to visit this amazingly beautiful place; visit now while the colours are still bright and the marine life abundant.  Then talk to your kids and talk to others about why coral reefs are important and how climate change and ocean acidification is killing them.

Our kids learned so much from our time in far north Queensland.  They learned about rising sea temperatures and the effects on the GBR.  They learned about sea turtles consuming and dying from plastic bags and balloons.  They learned why new coal mines are bad for the environment.  Our visit provoked lots of family discussions and THIS is why we travel – to teach them and us to respect the world’s resources and cultures.

Disclaimer: Sunlover Reef Cruises and Passions of Paradise graciously hosted our trips to the Reef.  As always, all opinions are our own.  This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you book a tour through one of our links, we made a small commission.  We really appreciate your support in helping us generate great content.  

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Great Barrier Reef kids


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