Where to get your PADI certification on the Great Barrier Reef
What better place to learn to dive than the Great Barrier Reef? Warm, clear waters, practically no current, and the pride that comes from knowing that you learnt to dive in the world’s best underwater playground. Glide among rays, dive through schools of colorful reef fish, and come face to face with a gentle turtle with the sound of your breath and the swell of the ocean in your ears. But choosing where to get your PADI certification on the Great Barrier Reef is another story.
The Reef is a big place (it’s larger than Italy), made up of almost 3,000 reefs and 300 coral cays, and the only living organism visible from space, so it pays to narrow down your ideal region before choosing a dive school.
(And, did you know learning to dive here can help the reef, in more ways than one?)
Here are the best spots to get PADI certified on the Great Barrier Reef.
What will you see?
The best part of the Reef isn’t visible from space – or even from the beach. The magic of the Reef lies below the surface, where a vibrant community of marine life is waiting to meet you.
You’d do well to start with the Reef’s Great Eight. Including whales, manta rays, clownfish, potato cod, giant clams, maori wrasse, turtles and sharks, each is impressive to spot and fun to tick off, but they’re just a taster of the marine life you might encounter. Bumphead Parrot Fish roam like a herd of buffalo across the coral meadows; small, brightly coloured sea slugs slide along beside you; and schools of a thousand fusiliers whistle past on your dive.
How to get certified
Not all dive certifications are created equal. Before you enrol, make sure your course is the PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) Open Water Certification, which qualifies you to dive to 18 metres. Discover Scuba Diving (DSD), Try Diving and any Resort Dive Program might include basic theory, basic skills and an open water dive but do not lead to a qualification.
PADI certification is a four-day course, which includes one day of theory – either classroom or eLearning; one day in confined water (a swimming pool) learning and practising the skills of scuba diving, then four dives over two days in the open ocean practising the skills and enjoying the thrill of making some news friends on the reef in their natural environment.
Some schools allow you to do the theory by eLearning, making it a three-day course, while others allow you to tag on more dives at the end making it a five or six-day course and dive holiday.
The only prerequisite is a medical questionnaire. Download the questionnaire before you enrol and confirm you can tick all the boxes. Unfortunately, Asthma or heart problems will probably exclude you, and other conditions might require a short medical examination with a doctor.
Where to get PADI certified on the Reef
Southern Great Barrier Reef
One of the largest of the cays, Lady Elliot Island has plenty of uncrowded, easily accessible dive locations and is home to both manta ray and a wide variety of turtles. Voted one of the top fine spots in the world to view manta rays, mantas regularly visit the cleaning stations where over 100 manta rays have individually been identified by Project Manta.
Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort offers a PADI dive course spread over a full week so you can learn to dive and enjoy some free time, with a minimum of two dives a day and optional night dives. Catering to all experience levels, the dive shop has equipment for hire and all dives are escorted by professionals. With whale season, manta season and turtle season to experience, there’s plenty to see all year round.
One of the best dive sites in the world, with 20 dive sites within 5 to 15 minutes of the island, Heron Island offers plenty of marine life but this is a paradise for turtle lovers. See turtles nesting on the beach, and a few months later, watch the new hatchlings scamper down the beach to their ocean home. A dive around Heron promises turtles in the water as well as some of the most pristine coral reef environments you’ll find anywhere.
Heron Island Marine Centre offers a range of certified PADI dive courses for everyone from beginners to advanced divers.
Head north to the Whitsundays and you’ll find continental islands (rather than coral cays) with fringing coral reefs in sheltered bays – the perfect place to learn to dive. And the outer reef is just an hour away – the perfect place to graduate.
Dive amongst batfish, titan triggers and angelfish at Hardy Reef, home to popular feeding spot, the Reefworld Pontoon. A giant Queensland grouper lives under the pontoon, and turtles visit regularly.
Hardy Reef is easily accessible from Airlie Beach and Hamilton Island. If you’re staying at Airlie Beach, Whitsunday Dive Adventures offers PADI diver certification, and if you’re on Hamilton Island head to Explore Group’s storefront on the marina. With both, the training is local and the qualifying dives are on the outer reefs where you’ll meet at least half of the Great Eight.
Townsville and Magnetic Island
Magnetic Island boasts some of the easiest shore diving, and the local shipwrecks mean the area is a mecca for fish. Dive boats often visit nearby Lodestone Reef, located in the central section of the Great Barrier Reef, which has channels full of schooling fish, anemonefish, wobbegongs, and the chance to see a passing manta.
If you’re coming from Townsville, both Remote Area Dive and the eco-certified Adrenalin Snorkel and Dive offer regular open water courses. They’ll have you on Lodestone Reef for your qualifying dives.
On Magnetic Island itself, Pro Dive offer an open water course, and if you’re heading to the peaceful coastal town of Mission Beach you’ll find Mission Beach Dive on your doorstep, literally – they’re only 100 metres from the beach.
Cairns and Port Douglas
When we think of the Great Barrier Reef, we think of Cairns. The outer reefs are about 90 minutes – and a world away – from this popular starting point.
On any of the reefs you can expect to see clownfish and giant clams, a reef shark or two, and each reef has its own resident Maori wrasse that seems to welcome divers and snorkelers as they get off the day boats. The dive boats out of Port Douglas offer a similar experience on their local reefs.
PADI dive certification in Cairns and Port Douglas tends to start in land-based training centres, with day boats typically reserved for snorkelers and certified divers. However, once you’ve mastered the theory and practical skills, you can head out on a boat for your ocean dives.
In Port Douglas, learn to dive with Blue Dive and visit the Agincourt Ribbon Reefs.
For a more intimate experience, try smaller, local operators like Down Under Cruise and Dive in Cairns or ABC Dive and Snorkel in Port Douglas. Both offer smaller class sizes and less impact on the reef.
Head further north to the Wild North, where you’ll find some of the most remote and spectacular diving on the Reef. A playground for advanced divers, The Wild North is not advised for learning to dive (so all more incentive to get your PADI certification).
The only resort on the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef, the stunning Lizard Island Resort, is on Lizard Island, which offers dives on the surrounding islands and reefs. Other than Lizard Island, the Wild North is exclusively liveaboard.
A liveaboard lets you sleep overnight in cabins on the boat, so you’re able to dive remote and often better dive sites. It’s a unique opportunity to live and breath diving, get close to nature and spend your evenings under the stars. Check out our Liveaboard first timers guide to learn more.
Cod Hole Dive Site
With a bit of experience (20 dives is recommended) you can head up to the world famous Cod Hole where divers come face-to-face with a dozen or so massive potato cod in a natural aquarium, and Steve’s Bommie, a famous submerged pinnacle where you can count a hundred marine species in one dive.