Outfitter: Cairns Dive Centre
No place else on earth can compare to the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral ecosystem. Stretching for more than 1,250 miles along Australia's coast and covering an area about the size of Montana, the Great Barrier Reef actually comprises around 2,800 individual reefs, home to more than 500 coral species and 1,500 different types of fish. For divers, the Reef is paradise found.
You don't have to be an expert to dive in the Reef. Novices flock to the coastal towns along Australia's northeast coast to learn how to dive at one of the area's many dive schools. You don't have to lay down a lot of money for a quality course either. While some schools in the U.S. charge upwards of $500 for an open water certification class, you can find options in Australia that charge less and include dives on the Great Barrier Reef from a live-aboard boat, allowing you to sleep out on the reef, which means more opportunities to dive and see more marine life.
The Cairns Dive Centre (CDC) in Cairns, a seaside town near the top of Australia, has an especially good deal, charging only $411 for a four-day class. The course includes two days of pool and classroom study and two days of diving out on the Reef on an 85-foot live-aboard catamaran.
"I still can't believe how much cheaper CDC was from other companies," says Australia native Jasmine Lord, who has taken several courses with the company after being referred by a friend. "Since then, I've met a few people who did their learn-to-dives with other companies—none of them speak as fondly [about their experiences] as my coursemates and I do [about ours]—and they paid so much more."
As for fulfilling her expectations, the courses "exceeded them," say Lord. "It was so much fun and the instructors were so good."
On the four dives you'll take from the boat, you'll visit one of three sites on the Outer Reef where the underwater visibility reaches up to 100 feet. You may see a vast array of hard and soft corals, colorful fish, sea stars, rays, and sharks. Instructors will help you to identify the various species you see out in the water.
The cost of the course covers two days of training and two days of diving, one night aboard the M.V. Kangaroo Explorer, all dive gear, instructors, use of dive manuals, and meals aboard the ship. You'll be responsible for covering accommodations and meals during the first two training days, a small government environmental tax, medical insurance (a requirement), an Australian Standards Dive Medical fitness exam, and passport-sized photos for your dive certificate. You can book budget accommodations at the Travellers Oasis, which charges $55 AUD for
double rooms or $24 AUD per person for dorm beds. Cairns is served by frequent flights from Sydney, Brisbane, and other major Australian cities.