The vast country of Australia is famed for its outdoor lifestyle and excellent scuba diving. There is a wide variety of diving found here - cage diving with great whites in Port Lincoln, swimming with whale sharks in Ningaloo Reef or sailing the idyllic Whitsundays, there is something to suit everyone.
New South Wales has some of the best and most famous diving in Australia. The vibrant coral reefs provide a stunning backdrop for some truly incredible marine animal encounters. From wrecks and caves to manta rays, great whites and seals - there will be a dive perfect for everyone here.
Queensland, commonly referred to as the “Sunshine State”, has some of the best diving in Australia. With the Great Barrier Reef stretching along the coast, perennially warm weather and varied dive sites including wrecks, caves and diverse wildlife like mantas, sharks, turtles and whales - this is a scuba diving paradise.
Western Australia’s unique coastline is a scuba diver’s paradise, from diving with the largest fish in the world, the whale shark, to exploring the many historic wrecks. Whether you want to complete your first dive or delve into more challenging sites, scuba diving Western Australia has something for you, with humpback whales and manta rays to accompany.
Diving in Australia
The Land Down Under is well known for its interesting topside wildlife, seemingly endless sunshine and spectacular coral reefs. The diving industry here is a big one and it brings hundreds of thousands of tourists a year to Australia’s shores. You can dive all over the country and with several different climates crammed into one enormous country - there’s always something new to see!
Diving courses in Australia are big business. The tropical weather of the northern reefs and the high level of backpacker tourism combine to make Cairns the most popular place in the world to get your Open Water certification. All levels and specialties can be found, though naturally, the tourist hubs have more options. The density of dive centres depends on the popularity of diving locally - for example, the busy Whitsundays have dozens. Dive resorts exist only on the coastal idylls - think Ningaloo, the Great Barrier Reef and the remote Whitsunday islands.
Liveaboards are very popular on the Great Barrier Reef. The calm, clear, azure waters and emerald gems of islands mean that you don’t even have to get in the water to appreciate the beauty. There are numerous boat operators jostling to take you on overnight stays onto the reef so you can fully explore the outer reaches without lengthy travel times every day.
Australian diving really is world class and exceptionally varied. If you like macro muck diving then the silty dives around New South Wales will be ideal for you. Contrastingly, if you love big fish and pelagics then perhaps the whale sharks of Ningaloo or mantas of the Great Barrier Reef will be more up your street. For thrill seekers, you can take the adrenalin-pumping plunge into a cage with great white sharks just outside Adelaide. There are caves, tropical reefs, temperate reefs, wrecks, drift dives, wall dives… The list continues. One thing you will never be while diving in Australia is bored.
Best time to dive
Diving in Australia is possible year-round but due to the sheer size of Australia, the weather can vary a lot from the north to the south.
The winter months run from May to October. The north enjoys daytime and water temperatures averaging in the mid to low 20s. The south has a more temperate climate with some places, like Melbourne and Tasmania, experiencing temperatures close to freezing in the depths of winter. The water temperatures in the south can plunge to 13oC in July, August and September. The southern coast can be battered by southerly winds during winter, which can make the sea very choppy.
During the summer, temperatures sit in the high 20s countrywide - though most places experience several extremely hot days which send temperatures soaring to over 40oC. Water temperatures in the north hover in the tropically high 20s while the southern waters struggle to get above 20oC. Though Australia is generally a low rainfall country, the number of rainy days increases during the summertime. This tends to fall in short, sharp downpours, often accompanied by tropical thunderstorms.
Minke and Humpback whales migrate up the east and west coasts to breed from May to August and then make the long journey back south, calves in tow, from August to November. In the north, beware of the lethal box jellyfish in the summer months. The whale sharks of Ningaloo Reef are regulars between March and September. On the Great Barrier Reef, if you are lucky, you may see the coral spawning phenomenon where thousands of corals release their gametes at once sometime in October/November.
Types of diving
Diving in Australia has many different possibilities and no matter how you like to dive, you will certainly find something to suit you.
Reef diving is the most well known variety with the world famous Great Barrier Reef found here. This and other excellent systems like Ningaloo Reef, which is around 12 north of Perth, create stunning dives whether you’re new or experienced - with a kaleidoscope of corals and sponges surrounded by clouds of fish - it doesn’t get much better.
The cave diving in Australia is not as abundant in other places, but what it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. You can try the freshwater dives at Kilby’s Sinkhole near Mount Gambier and explore this subterranean wilderness. Another famous cave is Fish Head Cave off the coast of New South Wales.
Over 800 wrecks adorn the seafloor surrounding Australia’s perilous coastline and there is a variety of skill levels available. The most famous and popular is the SS Yongala which sank in 1911 near Townsville. She is routinely voted among the best wreck dives in the world. Other good alternatives include the Lady Bowen and SS Nord near Tasmania. Another one for the thrillseekers, around Port Lincoln, you can cage dive with great white sharks. This well established attraction isn’t for the faint hearted.
Liveaboards can be found in Australia but only in certain areas. Calm, tropical areas like the Great Barrier Reef, the Whitsundays and Ningaloo are rife with boat tours. The remote Broome is another great option for liveaboards, as it is one of the most isolated locations in Australia. On the other hand, the southern half of the country can experience choppy seas and strong winds - and most dive sites are close to shore.
What to see
With two distinct climates, it is no surprise that the marine life in Australia is diverse. The tropical northern reaches have all the normal residents of a bright, healthy coral reef system. Fish like butterflyfish, angelfish, triggerfish, damselfish and parrotfish bring additional colours to the already vibrant corals and sponges. Moray eels, stingrays and sea snakes are common. In the winter season, majestic manta rays may be seen all along the north coast.
The temperate water of the south incites rockier reefs, less vibrant corals and more varieties of seaweed - perfect for all the camouflaged beasties. A highlight for many divers are the weedy sea dragons found around New South Wales. Other macro life around the area includes crustaceans both large and small, like spider crabs and lobster, as well as nudibranch and pipefish. Blue and Queensland gropers along with potato cod are enormous and friendly towards divers. Octopus, cuttlefish and squid are found country wide but those found around Sydney can reach up to 1.5m long!
Sharks are a dividing topic when diving in Australia - people either love them or hate them! The waters around Australia have over 100 different types. The biggest fish, the whale shark, can be found in the north western reefs around Ningaloo and Exmouth. In the cooler south, you can find Port Jackson, wobbegong, grey nurse and bronze whalers. The most famed apex predator is the great white shark which you can dive with off the south coast where they hunt seals along with other big sharks like tigers, bulls and oceanic whitetips. Other species include leopard, zebra, shy, pygmy, hammerhead and thresher sharks.
All around Australia, you can find trevally, barracuda, tuna and others in the deep water. They can be found in large schools as well as hunting alone. An ever popular local resident is the sea turtle - 6 of the 7 species of turtles worldwide are found in these waters. Some other creatures you may encounter include dolphins, inquisitive sea lions and even fairy penguins. Migrating whales are a highlight for many divers and Minke, humpback and southern right whales can all be seen close to shore. Though it is a lucky diver who sees one, it is not uncommon to hear the humpback whales’ song as you dive.
Best places to dive
Great Barrier Reef, Queensland
It goes without saying that the Great Barrier Reef is not only one of the best places to dive in Australia but also the world. However, covering such a large area there are a few places that must be highlighted.
Just north of Cairns are Ribbon Reefs, only accessible by liveaboard, these isolated reefs host some of the best diving in Australia. Lady Elliot Island is also a must see. Although regular interactions with manta rays are its main attraction, Lady Elliot is an outlying eco-resort meaning the reefs here are unspoiled and pristine.
Lizard Island - A stone's throw from Cairns is this island retreat. It has some amazing dive sites including the famous Cod Hole - with potato cod over 1.5m long.
Osprey Reef - This pinnacle far out in the coral sea is a haven for big pelagic life. Large hunting trevally and tuna accompany reef sharks and hammerheads who are driven into a feeding frenzy by the chum that is put in the water. It also has dizzying walls, plunging into the depths.
SS Yongala - This wreck dive is often voted the best in the world. Near Townsville, there is abundant marine life on the wreck including sea snakes and bull sharks. Penetration is forbidden as a result of the souls who perished with her. It lies at 30m and currents can be strong.
New South Wales (NSW)
Lord Howe Island - A 2 hour flight from Sydney lies a Darwinian wilderness. With limited tourism numbers, no phone service and tropical reefs and lagoons - this is the most remote area of Australia - with some of the best diving.
Fish Head Rock - Found near South West Rocks, north of Sydney, lies this excellent dive site. Various tunnels and air pockets make this dive technically interesting and has bull rays and macro creatures like crayfish aplenty. This is a haven for grey nurse sharks and as you enter the warm waters of the cave, you will see them silhouetted in the gloom, a very dramatic backdrop!
Ningaloo Reef - This reef lies so close to shore that you can snorkel it. You can see whale sharks, manta rays, leopard sharks, schooling mobula rays, and much more. With dives to suit all levels and a reputation for serving the unexpected, this is not a destination to miss.
Port Lincoln - Cage Shark Diving is top of the agenda for divers visiting here. Experience the thrill of diving with these magnificent creatures safely from organised cage diving trips.
Rapid Bay Jetty - A 90 minute drive from Adelaide and a macro paradise. As well as nudibranch, crustaceans, seahorses, and more, this is a top spot to find leafy sea dragons.
Kangaroo Island - Features the largest population of leafy sea dragons in the world as well as a friendly population of friendly sea lions and fur seals.