turtle australia diving

How to dive for FREE on the Great Barrier Reef!

August 5, 2016|Posted in: Advice, Australia

That’s right, I said free. If like me, you have this unnatural obsession with being submerged under 30ft of water, hanging out with all manner of ocean life, then on the Great Barrier Reef is the perfect place to do it. And what better way to experience this wonder of the world, than not having to pay a dollar! So, here’s my how to for free on the Great Barrier Reef post!

When you arrive in Cairns, you’ll notice that this ‘city’ is full of dive shops. Large companies like ProDive that offer full live aboard packages, to cheap ‘backpacker’ focused tours like, Ocean Freedom, you’ll be spoilt for choice. However, once you arrive and start price checking, the cost of a trip (even a day tour) really does add up. Liveaboards especially cost over $700pp. Even snorkeling tours on the Great Barrier Reef can be extortionate. But don’t fret, there are options for you. If you are willing to commit to at least a week of hard labour you’ll be able to dive for free on the Great Barrier Reef. So, how I hear you ask?…


There are a few companies in Cairns that allow you to trade your hard work for free dives. However, when I say hard work, I really do mean it. I’m not afraid to admit I hate manual labour, but man, it was exhausting. I really gained a lot of respect for everyone that works/lives on a boat.

How does it work?

Depending on the company, depends on the process so I’ll give you a run through of how the program I did worked.

Once you’ve signed up to the program, either directly through the dive shop or at one of the many travel stores throughout Cairns, you’ll pick the dates you wish to volunteer for. I chose to work the 8 days/7 nights as I was already booked onto a 3 day/2 night tour, and I thought 11 days on the ocean would be enough for a while!

You meet up at the transfer boat before the paying customers arrive and sit up with the crew on the way to the main live aboard vessel. Once you’ve transferred you’ll usually be shown the ropes by the current ‘vollie’ (what volunteers are called… Australians and their slang…) or the ‘hostie’ (hostess, if you didn’t get that…). I was shown to my bed in the crew quarters at the bottom of the ship, a snug room fit for 3 people.

diving for free in australia

And then shown the huge pile of washing up…


But, I really do love diving. Swings and roundabouts I guess.

The main tasks of a vollie, other than washing all the dishes from breakfast, lunch and dinner, also include; hovering the main areas and washing the kitchen floors/sides etc.

A day as a vollie would usually look like:

  • 05:30am – wake up for 6am dive
  • 07:00am – back to set up breakfast, eat quickly and wash up
  • 09:00am – another dive
  • 10:00am – help prepare lunch for main vessel and transfer vessel
  • 12:00pm – Serve lunch, eat quickly, wash dishes, clean main areas
  • 12:30pm – quick break for 30 minutes
  • 14:00pm – get ready for passenger transfer boat that shuttles people between Cairns and the reef and start to prepare dinner
  • 16:00pm – afternoon dive
  • 17:00pm – set up and serve dinner, eat and begin washing dishes
  • 19:30pm – night dive
  • 20:30pm – set up for dessert and clean dessert dishes
  • 21:00pm – clean down all of kitchen, and main dining areas
  • 22:00pm – chill out on the top deck with a beer
  • 23:00pm – collapse into bed, and repeat.

I didn’t always get to do all my dives, especially when the vessels were full. And at one point I was the only vollie cleaning over a hundred peoples dishes. Nightmare.

It’s physically draining. Constantly on your feet or diving from 5.30 in the morning really does take its toll. I did struggle to get out of bed on some mornings.


But, is it worth it?

Yes. It is one of the best ways of logging dives without the price tag. I went from 25 logged dives to nearly 60 in 11 days! You’ll also meet a lot of great people that share your love for diving.

And, of course, diving on the Great Barrier Reef is absolutely breath taking in itself. I saw some amazing things out there from Black and White Tipped Reef Sharks, nudibranchs, turtles, stingrays, and so many fish I couldn’t list all of them!

What companies offer this opportunity?

I volunteered with Cairns Dive Centre, but I also did a live aboard with Deep Sea Divers Den and saw they offered the same sort of volunteering program. The best way to find out is to contact the dive shops, either by phone, email or in person. They will be more than happy to let you know if they cater for volunteers.

Cairns Dive Centre also offer Dive Master Internships, which allow you to work in exchange for your Dive Master qualifications. However, you have to commit to at least 3 months and have a way of funding yourself whilst your not living/working on board.

I really hope this ‘how to’ is helpful to you in terms of being able to dive on the Great Barrier Reef on a backpacker budget! If you know of any great companies that offer this that I haven’t mentioned, or if you’ve taken part in a similar scheme, let me know in the comments below

Amy is the founder of thewanderlustadventures.com. Currently residing in Reading, UK with a love of adventure travel, writing and photography - she pretty much writes about whatever the hell she wants!

1 Comment

  1. Ivan Jordon
    November 25, 2016

    Leave a Reply

    Forget about diving, looking the beauty under water gives me content. Beautiful it is!

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