Diving Cairns: Great Barrier Reef Sea Turtle Encounter

August 22, 2017

scuba diving cairns

Diving Cairns, my hand stretched out, the piece of swaying seaweed I was holding beckoned the friendly Hawksbill turtle who’d been curiously circling us. He started swimming toward me….

It was my birthday. One of those “milestones,” so I wanted to do something special. Really special. I’d only recently earned my PADI diving certification, so it seemed like the best time to take on one of my long-time bucket list adventures – a road trip through tropical northern Queensland with scuba diving in Cairns at the Great Barrier Reef!

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The Reef

scuba diving cairns

Photo by Deep Sea Divers Den

Located in the Coral Sea, off the coast of northeast tropical Queensland, The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef, stretching out for 1800 miles. It comprises over 3000 individual reef systems and coral cays. It’s one of the seven wonders of the natural world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the only living thing on earth visible from space.

The Operator

scuba diving cairns

Kary and I chose Deep Sea Divers Den (DDSD) for our three-tank-excursion. I queried my Girls that Scuba community for a recommendation in Cairns, and DSDD won, hands down. They are a locally-owned business with two busy locations and the highest level of PADI certification – they have certified over 130,000 divers over the course of 43 years.

scuba diving cairns

Photo by Deep Sea Divers Den

“We’re the only operation in Australia to do fluorescent diving,” said Kath Cutler, Marketing Manager of DSDD. “We get our equipment from Germany. You slip it over the top of your mask and it’s almost like a 3-D shield. An instructor/guide takes you down in the evening and when they turn on the torches everything looks three-dimensional.”

The First Dive – Great Barrier Reef

The check-in at “C” finger pier at the marina was 8 a.m. sharp. The slick “Reef Quest” vessel docked at the end of the pier was impressive, to say the least. We were greeted by our dive guide, Annie Kjestrup as we climbed aboard, and we set off for our 1.5-hour cruise out to Norman Reef, our first dive destination.

Arriving at the reef, we were the only boat on the 360° horizon. DSDD has a series of exclusive sites on the Great Barrier Reef, and they constantly alternate to ensure that the reef is not over-dived and remains pristine.

Squishing myself into my wetsuit like some kind of human sausage, I gleefully grabbed my new corrective dive mask. Because I’m farsighted, my gauges had become increasingly more difficult and a cause of anxiety. My colleague, Lance Longwell of Travel Addicts told me about his diving mask with a prescription reading lens at the bottom, and now I own and cherish my own.

scuba diving cairns

Photo by Deep Sea Divers Den

Fins on and over the side I slid into the slightly chilly water. I was immediately surrounded by a school of huge red bass. They seemed even more curious about me than I was about them. They dodged in and out, seeming like they would bump into me, but then abruptly turned at the last moment.

great barrier reef turtle

Photo by Kary Kern

We slowly descended, pinching our nostrils and blowing through the nose to equalize ear pressure, and then proceeded to follow Annie as she pointed out one outstanding marine specimen after another. We passed myriad types of corals seagrasses, parrotfish, barracuda, and reef sharks. All too soon, Annie gave the signal and we ascended.

The Second (and Best!) Dive – Great Barrier Reef

After a very brief rest, some water, and a newly filled tank, we were back in the depths of the sea. We noticed a fairly large sea turtle that seemed quite interested in us, hovering in our area. Annie went down a little deeper and picked some seaweed from the ocean floor. She held it out, and low and behold, the turtle swam over to it and plucked it from her hand! What an amazing thing to see!

But wait… Annie went back down and grabbed another piece of seaweed. She held it out to me and pointed to the turtle. My eyes went wide, and I started floundering in the water. But I took it. And offered it. The beautiful turtle came over and took it. Full transparency, I let go a split second before he grabbed it because that beak looked big and hard.

It was one of the most memorable experiences in all of my dozen or so dives, right up there with the time I took my son on his first dive in Curacao. Opportunities like this just don’t open up very often.

You can see us feeding the sea turtle in this short video that Kary expertly caught with our GoPro underwater action video camera. He gets the most amazing shots with that tiny piece of equipment!

Video by Kary Kern

The…Third Dive – Great Barrier Reef

After an extensive lunch onboard and a short rest while the boat sailed on, it was time for our third dive, this time at Platetop Reef. I’d never done three dives in one day before, and I was hesitant because, quite frankly, I was exhausted.

“Nothing to worry about,” said Annie. “You just give the signal and we’ll come back up whenever you want.”

We went down again. I was having trouble maintaining neutral buoyancy, most likely because I was tired and anxious about doing a third dive. About ten minutes went by, during which time I was aware that my breathing was irregular, which of course increased my anxiety. I knew I had to go up. I signaled Annie and we slowly ascended.

Our heads popped up through the surface, and I said to Annie, “I’m okay, just tired. I see the boat just a few hundred yards away. I’ll swim to it – you go back down with Kary and the other guide (who had joined us for this dive).”

I proceeded to swim to the boat. Or so I thought…..

The Rescue

scuba diving cairns

Photo by Kary Kern

The current was strong and against me. The progress was very slow. Unbeknownst to me, Kary had also surfaced and was right beside me. He grabbed me with one of his strong arms and proceeded to “tow” me (his description) to the boat. Hey, I’m no dummy! I just relaxed and let him bring me in. After all, he is the lug in Luggage and Lipstick!

The way he tells it, he saved my life. Seriously!

With some effort, we made it to the boat, where another challenge awaited, i.e., I was exhausted and still had the nearly full, heavy tank strapped on my back. So Kary proceeded to heave me up, while a male crew member hauled me aboard. I may or may not have been dead weight at that point. What a sight that must have been! I could not suppress my giggles. I did refrain from asking them to each take an arm and just drag me across the deck. But I won’t lie, it did cross my mind.

The Bleaching

“You’re diving in the Great Barrier Reef?” a few people asked before my trip. “But isn’t it dead?”

Climate change, causing ocean warming has resulted in coral bleaching in parts of the reef. As global warming continues, it will be a challenge for the coral to keep up with increasing ocean temperatures.

That being said, the Great Barrier Reef is most certainly not “dead.” One look at the photos on this page will support this claim. While the future of the reef may certainly be at risk, as of now there is an abundance of healthy coral abundant aquatic life.

scuba diving cairns

Photo by Deep Sea Divers Den

“No one is really talking about the marine life that we’re seeing which is bigger, more schools and activity. One thing that the crew mentions on a regular basis is that they are seeing so much activity in the water in comparison to last year,” said Kath. “Captions stating that the “Great Barrier Reef Is Dead” is nothing more than misleading click-bait.”

“Claims that the Great Barrier Reef is dead are irresponsible and untrue,” supported Dr. Russell Reichelt, Chair and CEO of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. “Ensuring Reef resilience is our core priority and we are doing all we can to support its recovery.”

The Eco-Tourism Efforts

“We’re advanced eco-certified and we work closely with the Marine Park Authority,” said Kath. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park’s fundamental obligation is to protect the ecosystems of the park by limiting the impact of human tourism, such as fishing, diving, boating, etc.

“We have biologists are on board, and because we do have 17 exclusive sites that we’ve owned for such a long time, we’re not always going to the same site on a regular basis bringing hundreds of people to that site,” said Kath. “We monitor all the sites with the help of the scientists at the Marine Park who come out to survey the sites. All the education that comes our way we pass on to the crew, as well as our social media pages for the public.”

It’s a really big responsibility as an operator,” she said. “But because we’re locally-owned, it’s our priority to keep up to date.”

The Celebration

scuba diving cairns

View from DoubleTree by Hilton. Photo by Kary Kern

We walked the short distance to our hotel, DoubleTree by Hilton, conveniently located on the Cairns waterside boardwalk, the Esplanade. Kary clasped my hand tight to encourage my tired body to drudge along the waterside boardwalk.

Arriving at the hotel, I collapsed onto my bed and eyed the adorable special birthday outfit – red and white polka dot off-the-shoulder dress, white floppy sunhat with two bright red poppies along the brim, white sandals, and red retro sunglasses. Cute, right? But alas, the ensemble would have to wait for another day.

“Would you mind just bringing back a pizza?” I asked?

“As you wish!” he said.

And so it was that I happily ate my sausage pizza in my PJ’s for my birthday dinner. Oh, and he also brought back a gigantic piece of tiramisu. Just doesn’t get any better than that —  diving Cairns and tiramisu on my birthday!

scuba diving cairns

Photo by Annie Kjestrup

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The author was honored to be the guest of Deep Sea Divers Den and DoubleTree by Hilton during her stay in Cairns, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.

This article may contain affiliate/compensated links. For full information, please see our disclaimer

About the Author

Patti MorrowPatti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning blog Luggage and Lipstick. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.”  Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal.


  1. Comment by Penny

    Penny Reply August 22, 2017 at 2:23 pm

    An awesome description of an awesome experience. What a great way to spend your birthday! And Thank you for helping to debunk the BS about the dying Great Barrier Reef. It’s heartening to read about the efforts in place to make sure it doesn’t happen.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply September 10, 2017 at 4:33 pm

      I was so happy to see the Great Barrier Reef so vibrant too!

  2. Comment by jane canapini

    jane canapini Reply September 4, 2017 at 3:49 pm

    This looks like an amazing way for you to spend your birthday (although I’m personally terrified of scuba diving (or anything really under the water if I’m down there with it). The photos and the bragging rights from your dives must have been a great part of the celebration.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply September 4, 2017 at 5:46 pm

      Diving in the Great Barrier Reef was definitely a great way to spend my birthday!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply September 10, 2017 at 4:31 pm

      We were so fortunate to get the video of the sea turtle engagement. Right place, right time!

  3. Comment by Marcelle

    Marcelle Reply September 5, 2017 at 1:27 am

    If I can choose a place to dive again, I’d go for the Great Barrier Reef! You did the right choice for your special day and the best thing, you were able to make the most beautiful pictures during your dive! What a stunning experience!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply September 10, 2017 at 4:28 pm

      Diving in the Great Barrier Reef was an amazing way to spend my birthday! I hope you get to dive there soon!

  4. Comment by Doreen Pendgracs

    Doreen Pendgracs Reply September 5, 2017 at 9:26 am

    Heavens. I hope the Great Barrier Reef will survive and thrive despite the challenges. I saw an excellent documentary about the restorative measures being taken in the Caribbean to save their coral reef and I believe they have seen good results. I hope the same will be true for the GBR.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply September 10, 2017 at 4:27 pm

      Yes, all measures should be undertaken to preserve our amazing reef systems! Divers Den is doing their part in their part of the world.

  5. Comment by Suzanne Fluhr

    Suzanne Fluhr Reply September 6, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    I love the photos and the description of your experience. Alas, you have reinforced my fear of underwater exploring. For me, mere snorkeling produces the same feelings of anxiety you described when you were exhausted and scuba diving. I’m glad the “Lugster” was there to be your rock when you got into trouble (well, rocks aren’t good when one is trying to swim—so let’s say your life preserver).

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply September 10, 2017 at 4:24 pm

      Lol, yes, Lugster saved the day again! The Great Barrier Reef is amazing to see and if you don’t like seeing it underwater, you can see it onboard a boat or even from the air.

  6. Comment by julz

    julz Reply September 11, 2017 at 3:27 am

    When we lived in the Maldives, we had 4 resident turtles on the reed around the island, they were just awesome!! I love turtles 😀 – I’d love to discover the Great Barrier Reef – must be quite an experience!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply September 11, 2017 at 6:58 pm

      Meeting the sea turtle was an amazing and unexpected surprise!

  7. Comment by Joella

    Joella Reply September 11, 2017 at 9:12 am

    So glad to still see this place thriving with life. I was there 15 years ago and while I did not dive (only hubby did) it was still an experience of a lifetime. Even while just snorkeling it was amazing. Would love to go back and be able to see a sea turtle like you did.

  8. Comment by Caitlin

    Caitlin Reply September 11, 2017 at 2:44 pm

    Patty these underwater photos are amazing!!!! I’m in love! It’s funny that you bring up the “Great Barrier Reef is Dying”. I remember those articles! Glad to hear it’s not as bad as the media makes it out to be! The underwater eco system is one of my favorites. You really make me want to go get scuba certified. They do classes in Reno and you train up in Lake Tahoe!!! I should look into it for reals!

  9. Comment by umiko buhl

    umiko buhl Reply September 11, 2017 at 2:57 pm

    What an experience you’ve had on your first day of scuba dive. But the reef were amazing though. So, you must want to do it again!

  10. Comment by Cat

    Cat Reply September 12, 2017 at 7:45 pm

    I’ve heard a lot of good things about this diving company. What a beautiful experience you had with the turtle. I haven’t ever dived but it is on my list of things that I would love to do. Agree with you on the bleaching, it is a concern but the reef is certainly not dead. I went snorkelling at hardy reef last year and it was absolutely beautiful : )

  11. Comment by Abigail Sinsona

    Abigail Sinsona Reply September 12, 2017 at 8:06 pm

    I’ve only been scuba diving once and I enjoyed it fully. The Great Barrier Reef would be a dream dive spot for beginners or experts alike. Thank you for sharing photos of your dive. It was marvelous to be able to glimpse of the beauty of this massive coral reef system!

  12. Comment by Rachelle

    Rachelle Reply September 13, 2017 at 11:52 am

    It looks like you had a great birthday! What a fun experience to celebrate at the Great Barrier Reef and with sea turtles! Loved your video and am glad you made it back to the boat!

  13. Comment by Sapphire Kharyzma

    Sapphire Kharyzma Reply September 13, 2017 at 10:06 pm

    This looks like so much fun! I always wanted to try snorkeling! I also love sea turtles!

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  17. Comment by Geoff

    Geoff Reply February 15, 2022 at 9:13 am

    Amazing interaction with minke whales. We saw 15 whales and were swimming with them around 2 meters away. Stuff are really helpful and let us borrow the camera for free. We got some really nice snaps of a trip we will never forget.

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