The Cairns area provides some excellent recreational opportunities including boating, snorkelling, diving and fishing. There are some important things to consider when planning your trip.

Boating in the Cairns area

Before heading out in a boat always refer to your local tide times. The tidal range in the Cairns area is generally two to three metres. Make sure you are also aware of Responsible Reef Practices while out on the water.

View Responsible Reef Practices for boating and yachting.

View information on super-yachts in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Visiting national park islands in the Cairns area

National park islands in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area are popular holiday destinations, and many are easily accessible by boat or aircraft from the mainland.

There are five national park islands in the Cairns area, which provide a variety of recreational activities such as bush walking, wildlife watching, boating and camping. They are:

  • Frankland Group National Park
  • Green Island National Park
  • Hope Islands National Park
  • Lizard Island National Park
  • Michaelmas and Upolu Cays National Park

The islands and their surrounding waters are internationally significant and protected in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, the first World Heritage Area declared in Australia (1981). The Department of National Parks, Recreation, Sport and Racing is responsible for managing national parks in the World Heritage Area.

Camping on national park islands in the Cairns area

There are a range of camping opportunities on national park islands in the Cairns area. To find out what camping options are available on each island (and information about permits and fees), visit the Department of National Parks, Recreation, Sport and Racing website. Campsites must be booked, as visitor numbers are limited to ensure a quality visitor experience.

Please note camping is not permitted on some islands in the Cairns area.

Commonwealth Islands in the Cairns area

A number of islands within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park are directly managed by the Commonwealth of Australia or the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) and collectively form the Commonwealth Islands Zone. Generally these islands are used for navigational, research, tourism or recreational purposes.

GBRMPA works in partnership with the Queensland Government, the tourism industry, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), Department of Defence, Indigenous representatives, community groups and public and private lessees to provide for long-term conservation of these islands.

Commonwealth islands within the Cairns area include:

  • Low Isles - activities include tourism, research and heritage
  • Russell Island - activities include camping.

Commonwealth Islands can be used without permission for low impact (non-extractive) activities (e.g. filming, photography, sound recording and limited educational programs) with the following limitations:

  • Most Commonwealth Islands are subject to private lease arrangements, defence activities, or have a caretaker. Additional management arrangements may exist for these islands. Contact the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority for more information on freecall 1800 990 177.
  • Camping permits for Russell Island can be obtained from the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service in Cairns on (07) 4046 6677.
  • Some islands are subject to seasonal or year-round bird closures. View more information on restrictions applying to significant bird sites under What you need to know about the Cairns Area Plan of Management.

Protecting wildlife in the Cairns area

The area is home to a variety of protected species of wildlife, including whales, dolphins, dugong, turtle and seabirds.

Protecting whales

Humpback whales are commonly sighted offshore from Cairns during their yearly migration from the south between May and September each year. Dwarf minke whales are found in northern Queensland waters from March to October, with most sightings occurring during June and July.

To help protect whales while in the Marine Parks, make sure you follow the laws for whale and dolphin watching. These include:

  • Boats must not approach within 100 metres of a whale
  • If there are already three vessels within 300 metres of a whale, all additional vessels must remain outside a 300 metres radius from the whale.

View Responsible Reef Practices for when you encounter whales and dolphins.

Protecting dugong and turtles

Dugong and turtles are often found in shallow areas containing seagrass meadows. Take care travelling through these areas, and reduce your speed to below 10 knots.

View Responsible Reef Practices for when you encounter turtles.

Please report sick, injured or dead dugong, turtles, whales and dolphins to the Marine Animal Strandings Hotline on 1300 130 372 as soon as possible.

Protecting seabirds

Some of the most important seabird breeding sites in Australia are found in the Cairns area. Because roosting and nesting birds are very vulnerable to disturbance, several sites require special management. These are Normanby Island, Stephens and Sister Islands, Mabel Island, High Island, Round Island, Michaelmas Cay and Woody Island.

Please refer to the Special Requirements table for details of restrictions at significant bird sites under What you need to know about the Cairns area Plan of Management.

View Responsible Reef Practices for bird watching.

Looking after the environment in the Cairns area

While you are visiting the Cairns area, you can make a big difference to your enjoyment and to the enjoyment of others by:

  • Considering the activities happening around you and try to match your activities to the activities of others at the site
  • Respecting other people using the area
  • Keeping your noise low
  • Always aiming to leave no trace of your visit.

Remember to take all rubbish home with you, never throw it overboard or leave it somewhere it can blow into the marine environment.

When you’re out in the Marine Park and you see something happening that you think might be against the law, you can report the incident, through the Incident Reporting form.

If you witness a marine emergency, such as an oil spill or navigational aid fault, contact your local Maritime Safety Queensland office.