The Great Barrier Reef is one of those things you always hear about in nature documentaries or science classes; I didn’t think I would actually have the opportunity to see it for myself.
When I started planning my Australia trip and realised I would be in Cairns for a few days, I couldn’t help but schedule a day out to the Great Barrier Reef and see it for myself!
The big question was, should I snorkel or scuba dive on the famous GBR? If like me you’re not sure which one to go for, this is the article to help you decide!
I’ve teamed up with other awesome travel bloggers to outline all the advantages and disadvantages of each, so as to help you unravel the scuba diving vs snorkelling debate and make an informed decision of what to do on the Great Barrier Reef.
- 1 What is scuba diving?
- 2 Advantages of scuba diving
- 3 Disadvantages of scuba diving
- 4 What is snorkelling?
- 5 Advantages of snorkelling
- 6 Disadvantages of snorkelling
- 7 Scuba Diving vs. Snorkelling: Which is better?
What is scuba diving?
Scuba diving is a sport that through the use of air tanks allows you to basically breathe under water. Humans have always been fascinated with the mysteries of the deep blue and by scuba diving we can explore it and feel like we are a part of it.
Even if you scuba dive in a tropical destination you will usually scuba dive with a wet suit since the temperatures drop as you deeper underwater. You will also be given a belt with weights to help you swim deeper.
Scuba diving has become increasingly popular around the world and is considered one of the few ways to really experience and explore all the deep blue was to offer.
Advantages of scuba diving
This time with the Great Barrier Reef however I wasn’t so sure about scuba diving and wanted to weigh all the pros and cons before deciding whether to scuba dive or snorkel.
While the scenarios of these suggestions is specific to the GBR, a lot of the points they raise are valid for snorkelling and scuba diving elsewhere around the world too.
You avoid the rough surface waters
“The Great Barrier Reef stretches from just a few kilometers to over 50km off the coast of North Queensland. The more distant parts of the reef, such as Saint Crispin and Agincourt Reefs, are referred to as the outer reef.
The further you head out from Queensland’s coast, the more untouched the coral reefs are, and rougher the water surface gets.
If you have ever snorkeled in rough water, you will know how unpleasant it is getting a wave of salty water down your breathing pipe.
However, as you dive underwater to a depth of 20 meters or further, the rough water surface conditions have next to no effect.
Scuba diving is more affected by the direction and strength of the water currents, which with a good instructor will be used to your benefit to save oxygen.
For these reasons, scuba diving is definitely the better option for exploring the outer Great Barrier Reef.”
– recommendation by Josh of The Lost Passport
You can experience a live-aboard dive boat
“After visiting the Great Barrier Reef multiple times, both snorkelling and diving, my top recommendation is to head to the Outer Reef and stay on a live-aboard dive boat.
The Outer Reef offers the best reef viewing opportunities, but it usually takes about 90 minutes to get there, meaning you spend a lot of your day on a boat transfer, rather than in the water.
By staying on a live-aboard, you get to spend 2, 3 or more full days out on the reef. Plus you’ll get the chance to do at least one night dive – a not to be missed opportunity!
While some live-aboard boats accept snorkelling guests, it’s best if you’re a diver, with the locations selected with divers in mind. And if you’re not yet certified, you can combine your trip with doing your open-water certification.”
– recommendation by Shandos of Travelnuity
You can go deeper and “see more”
This advantage of diving that all keen scuba divers push is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Supposedly by being able to go deeper you can “see more”.
I’m not sure what you see more of since fish, corals, turtles and dolphins are all visible also near the surface. However you can’t deny that while scuba diving you are indeed able to swim deeper and for longer as you the surface waves won’t bother you.
Disadvantages of scuba diving
Having listed all the amazing benefits of scuba diving, it’s time to look at the negative aspects of it.
You can’t do it if you’re flying in the next 24 hours
As you might or might not know you shouldn’t scuba dive if you’re catching a flight in the next 24 hours. This because as you increase in altitude (as you would on a plane) it can increase the risk of decompression sickness.
After scuba diving you might have a few tiny air bubbles in your body, which don’t cause any issues at ground level, however if you fly these small bubbles can expand and cause decompression sickness.
This is an easily avoidable disadvantage as you can simply schedule your dives well in advance of your flights.
You can’t do it if you have asthma or other medical problems
One of my friends I visited the GBR with had pre-booked a scuba diving tour beforehand and then wasn’t allowed to dive on the day when they found out he had asthma. He ended up only snorkelling despite having paid the premium for scuba diving.
If you have asthma or other medical issues you should check before booking a scuba diving tour, since often if you book it online or at a tourist stand they might not have all the information, and you will only find out once you are on the boat and the diving instructors don’t let you in the water.
Let’s be real, the compressed air tastes shit
Every time I’ve been scuba diving I leave with a foul taste in my mouth and a rather sore throat. The air you breathe from the tanks obviously isn’t the same as normal air, it’s compressed air that has been filtered and dehumidified.
This isn’t really a big disadvantage as it doesn’t have side effects on you other than the unpleasant taste it leaves behind, it’s just something to bear in mind if you’re never been diving and do 2+ dives in the same day.
What is snorkelling?
Snorkelling is swimming with a mask and tube (called a snorkel) that you put in your mouth, which allows you to breathe through your mouth as you swim near the surface of the water.
You won’t be able to go as deep as when you scuba dive but it’s much easier and anybody can do it.
Advantages of snorkelling
Now that we’ve looked at the pros and cons of scuba diving, it’s time to look at its competitor; snorkelling. On my trip to the Great Barrier Reef I only snorkelled as I was put off scuba diving by my last dive.
Even if I didn’t go as deep I still had a great experience, here are the advantages of snorkelling in my opinion.
Anybody can do it
Regardless of your fitness level, as long as you can float and more or less know how to swim, you can snorkel. You just need a mask and snorkel and you’re good to go.
There is no risk of decompression sickness and you’re not entrusting your life to an oxygen tank strapped to your back. If you’re not a big sea lover it’s definitely the easier option to choose.
Disadvantages of snorkelling
Similarly to scuba diving, snorkelling has advantages but also disadvantages. In my opinion the only things that actually penalise snorkelling relative to scuba diving are the following.
You can’t go as deep
Personally I don’t think this is a big disadvantage of snorkelling. If you’re new to scuba diving on your first dive you won’t be allowed to go deeper than 10 metres.
On all my previous dives I found that what you can see at 10 metres isn’t massively different from what you can see on the surface.
Animals like turtles and dolphins need to come up to the surface to breath anyway, so if anything you have a better chance to see them more while snorkelling than scuba diving.
Obviously this doesn’t apply if you’re a qualified diver that can go beyond 10 metres, as in that case the marine flora and fauna does vary from the surface.
Scuba Diving vs. Snorkelling: Which is better?
So you’ve read all the pros and cons of both snorkelling and scuba diving and now you’re probably wondering, which is better? The answer to that is that only you can know and decide for yourself.
I personally prefer snorkelling, as I dislike the feeling of breathing compressed air and as I’m not a certified diver I can’t go as deep, and on all my previous dives I never saw anything at 10 metres that I wouldn’t have been able to see while snorkelling.
On the other hand I have friends that absolutely love diving and would never pick snorkelling over it. You need to weigh the pros and cons of each and make an informed decision for yourself.
Have you visited the Great Barrier Reef before? How did you find it? Did you snorkel or scuba dive? Let me know in the comments below!
Regardless of whether you decide to snorkel or scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef is a stunning natural beauty and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I definitely recommend paying it a visit!
If you need help planning your Great Barrier Reef trip, check out these guides about the best places to dive on the GBR and how to pick the best Great Barrier Reef tour. If you know everything you need to about the GBR but you’re still looking for more Australia travel inspiration, check out my guides about Uluru, the Great Ocean Road, and my Cairns to Brisbane 2-week itinerary.