We were in Cairns for other reasons; our accommodation recommended the Reef Experience package. It's a day on the reef, with two stops; snorkelling and an optional introductory dive are included, along with food, tea and coffee. More diving is available at the second stop for an extra charge.
On our trip, there was a mixture of experienced divers, newbie divers, snorkellers and those simply along for the ride. We chose not to scuba as we were going to be flying out soon. (Planning tip: It is recommended to not fly for at least 24 hours after scuba diving.) There is also a glass-bottomed boat so you can see some of the reef without getting wet.
Newbie divers go through a few supervised exercises before they're allowed out. Some people took to it quickly, but the crew were very patient with those who needed extra help. As for the snorkelling, there was a briefing, and that was it. I'm not a strong swimmer and had never snorkelled or dived before... so I gave it a try with a flotation 'noodle', and found it too difficult to get everything right at once. But this was OK, one of the crew gave me a tow around on a rubber ring instead so I could work on my technique and still see some of the sights. By the time of the afternoon stop I was confident enough to go out with a 'noodle' and enjoyed it.
There is a marine biologist aboard to explain all about the reef, and a pro photographer with some very fancy camera kit. Underwater cameras are available for hire; the photo dude burns your shots, along with any of his shots that you pay for, onto DVD-R.
Don't let the first impressions put you off - the seats were damp and some of them were a bit tatty, but (of course) you're going to be sitting on them after you come out of the water, so they're not going to stay dry.
The transit time to the reef is over an hour in each direction. Booking agents will look up the forecast so you can try to plan your trip for a calm day; seasickness medicine is available on board.
Wear: swimming costume, clothes you don't mind getting damp.
Bring: towel, sunscreen, diving log book if you have one, money for the bar.
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