Thinking about visiting the Great Barrier Reef in May, is Cairns or Townsville better?

I’m considering visiting a longtime bucket list site of mine, the Great Barrier Reef, this May. I have two choices for places to stay at: Cairns or Townsville. I was initially planning on Cairns due to its proximity to the Wet Tropics, which would allow me to take some trips to see their rare flora/fauna (including high cassowary presence, and an easily accessible platypus viewing area!) and the giant curtain figs.

However, a professor informed me that he’s visited Townsville before and that it has a healthier reef than Cairns due to less bleaching over the years. Although I know that the northern GBR suffered lots of mortality in 2016, I’m not sure if that extends as far south as Cairns. In addition, Townsville doesn’t seem to have easily accessible rainforests as Cairns does, although it does have Magnetic Island, and if what he says is true, seeing a healthier reef is always a plus.

Which spot would you recommend, and is Townsville’s reef healthier than Cairns’?

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I lived in Cairns for nearly 16 years and I hate Townsville, so I’m biased. I’d pick Cairns though because you can do the reef and rainforrest, and you could take coastal road to Cooktown and go through the Daintree.

I can’t comment on which reef is healthier. I know that when I was in Cairns and travelled to the Outer Reef and the Low Isles it was very nice and in a very good condition.

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Thanks! How long ago did you visit the reef though? If it was before 2016, it might not give enough information for how it is now.

Anyone else have thoughts? Bumping

It was well before then. First time I visited Low Isles and the out reef was about 1993-94, then again around 2000-2003 or so. You could try For more links that will let you see data on the state of the reef see

Just came back from Australia (also a bucketlist). Went diving out of Cairns in late Feb. - sorry to say, it was a great disappointment. We did one daytrip and a 4 days liveaboard trip. Not counting the bad visibility, because that can happen anytime, anywhere, and it was the end of rainy season. What we found was this: practically no soft corals; lots of fish, BUT no other critters. We’re more into macro, crabs, shrimps, nudibranch etc. In 10 dives we’ve seen 2 morays, 2 turtles, 2 nudibranchs. When your dive master is getting excited to find THE ONE anemone with “Nemo” on it on a 60 minutes dive …
On the other hand, if you like big stuff, sharks, hard coral “islands”, they’re there.
Some people said that the amount of tourists visiting the reef on a daily basis may have a negative impact on the reef - can’t say either way, this was the only time we’ve seen the GBR. (but yes there are multiple companies, taking hundreds of divers/snorkelers daily)
Can’t comment on Townsville.
About the surrounding tropical forests: that was what saved the trip from complete failure. Went on excellent tours to nearby waterfalls, cave and Daintree rainforest.

Would be nice if some of the locals could chime in here.

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How were the hard coral cover (and the sharks)? I’m more interested in seeing the ecosystem as a whole and observing whatever I come across rather than any specific type of organism.

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