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11 ethical and eco-certified tour operators in Tropical North Queensland

Discover the best of Tropical North Queensland with ethical and eco-certified tourism operators that contribute to environment and wildlife conservation.

There are few eco-certified experiences quite as humbling as drifting over the world’s largest coral reef system, turtles bobbing all around, dolphins dancing in your wake, and tropical fish gliding over car-sized coral reef bommies. The sheer immensity of the Great Barrier Reef takes your breath away – it spans some 2,300 kilometres from the tip of the Cape York Peninsula in the north to Bundaberg in the south, covering 344,400 square kilometres of Coral Sea off the coast of Queensland. That’s an area around the same size as the whole of Japan, Germany, or Malaysia. The rest of Tropical North Queensland is just as beautiful, both on land and under the sea. Tropical North Queensland’s savvy tour operators are working together to preserve its beauty for years to come – and visitors can actively contribute to its preservation, too. Learn more about these conservation leaders below.

Snorkelling in Opal Reef
Snorkelling in Opal Reef © Johnny Gaskell

Be a marine biologist for a day with Passions of Paradise in Cairns

Join Passions of Paradise’s one-of-a-kind Citizen Science and Research Team and contribute to the ongoing conservation projects on the Great Barrier Reef. You’ll assist Master Reef guides as they survey reef locations and monitor reef health, as well as observe coral planting as part of the University of Technology Sydney’s Coral Nurture Program. Use plastic paper to write underwater and even visit a coral nursery, where broken coral pieces are brought back to life.

Since 2019, Passions of Paradise is an ethical tour operator that has been a partner in the government-funded Coral Nurture Program, designed to unite tourism and science to protect this World Heritage Site. In addition to planting coral nurseries, Passions encourages guests to get involved in the Eye on the Reef monitoring program, a citizen science movement that allows researchers to stay in touch with reef conditions via input from those cruising, snorkelling or diving around it.

regrowing coral reefs at the Coral Nurseries Dive Site
Passions of Paradise Coral Nurseries Dive Site at Hastings Reef © Tourism and Events Queensland

Join Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef

Citizens of the Reef is a 21st-century conservation organisation working across the Great Barrier Reef. Combining leading science with meaningful citizen action and digital innovation, their mission is to drive people-powered reef conservation that can be scaled up to meet the escalating threats facing coral reefs around the world. Join the Great Reef Census, a groundbreaking citizen science effort that collects and surveys tens of thousands of images from hundreds of reefs across the Great Barrier Reef each year. While it isn’t technically an ‘ethical and eco-certified tourism operator’, if you’re on the reef from October to December, you can jump in the water and collect photos which can be submitted online for analysis. If you’re at home, you can help by analysing the images today.

The reef is teeming with diverse marine life
The reef is teeming with diverse marine life © Frankland Island Reef Cruises

Volunteer at the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre on Fitzroy Island

Spend a week as a turtle conservation volunteer and help the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre team with their daily tasks, such as cleaning tanks and feeding turtles. This volunteer program allows visitors to get an immersive, behind-the-scenes experience working with sea turtles as well as the opportunity to learn from experts in wildlife conservation. All your volunteer work for this ethical tourism operator is generally carried out by midday after which you can enjoy the remainder of the day on Fitzroy Island or return to Cairns to explore the city and surrounding area.

turtle on the great barrier reef
© Adobe Stock

See the reef with Cairns Premier Great Barrier Reef & Island Tours

Husband and wife team, Perry Jones and Taryn Agius operate Cairns Premier Reef & Island Tours. A passionate partner of the Coral Nurture Program since 2019, the duo’s boats Ocean Free and Ocean Freedom offer a front-row seat to this maritime initiative while ensuring their reef sites continue to be protected through a parade of eco-forward projects captained by Master Reef Guides including, crown-of-thorns eradication, Eye on the Reef surveys and annual contributions to turtle rehabilitation.

Take a private day tour of the Wildlife Habitat in Port Douglas

This personalised YOUR Wildlife Private Tour is a two-hour experience that includes entering a koala enclosure for one-on-one time, visiting the Tropical Animal Rehabilitation Centre to witness wildlife rescue efforts, and engaging with animals that have been hand-raised. You’ll also spend a little over an hour with a wildlife keeper for a private reptile presentation. The tour concludes with a premium dining experience with the company of Australian wildlife. Your ticket also includes a five-day entry, so you can go back and visit your new animal friends whenever you want.

Volunteer at Tolga Bat Hospital in Carrington

The Tolga Bat Hospital is involved in bat research and for more than 30 years the organisation has been rescuing and rehabilitating all bat species, including flying foxes (fruit bats), microbats and blossom bats. Tolga Bat Hospital is actively looking for volunteers to feed the tiny baby bats (the hospital holds up to 200 at a time) whose mothers have died from tick paralysis. Sign up for a session on your next holiday!

flying fox in tree
© Adobe Stock

Snorkel the Great Barrier Reef with Sailaway Port Douglas in Port Douglas

Sailaway has been awarded just about every green tick imaginable. They have an Advanced Ecotourism Certification, are a Climate Change Leader and are also one of the five tourism companies partaking in the Coral Reef Nurture Program. It contributes $20 from each passenger ticket to offset carbon emissions and renewable reforestation. Specialising in premium sailing and snorkelling experiences, Sailaway Port Douglas is a carbon-conscious tourism operator offering ocean adventures, such as touring the Low Isles, or a relaxing sunset sail on one of Sailaway’s luxury wind-powered catamarans.

Ride a hot air balloon with Indigenous-owned Yagurli Tours in Burketown

Join Balloon Aloft and Yagurli Tours for a hot air balloon ride over the extraordinary countryside of Burketown in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Enjoy sunrise or evening views of the spectacular Gulf Country, including Australia’s largest salt pan, Albert River, and out further towards the ocean. Learn about the unique local flora and fauna from the Gangalidda and Garawa crew pre- or post-flight and discover the rich cultural heritage of this beautiful natural landscape.

Take a Coral Expeditions cruise along the Great Barrier Reef

With a maximum of 70 guests and leading research experts onboard, Coral Expeditions‘ small ship Coral Discoverer calls on remote reefs, islands and significant wildlife habitats in the Coral Sea marine zone. Visit the Mon Repos Turtle Centre and enjoy a ranger-guided Turtle Tracks and Tales walk, or explore the conservation park and learn about turtle conservation, research, turtle tracks and nesting sites. You’ll also get to experience the work of dedicated marine scientists in Coral Reef Studies at the oldest and largest marine research station, Heron Island Research Station, and snorkel at John Brewer Reef (Museum of Underwater Art).

Learn about the cultural significance of the reef with Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel

Exploring with your head underwater is the only real way to comprehend the immensity and environmental significance of the reef. Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel‘s Indigenous rangers can explain the cultural significance of the Great Barrier Reef, before revealing the treasures that lie beneath the glossy surface. By joining a tour with Traditional Custodians, you’ll learn creation stories that have shaped both land and sea country, along with a chance to immerse in cultural dance, song and ceremony.

Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel have Advanced Ecotourism Certification, a badge of honour showing the operators’ commitment to have a minimal impact on the environment and help protect and preserve the destinations and communities they explore. When it launched, Australia’s Eco Tourism Certification was a world first. It remains a pioneering system to identify responsible tourism companies and (as of 2018) destinations.

Learning about Indigneous culture with Dreamtime Dive and Snorkel
Learning about Indigenous culture with Dreamtime Dive and Snorkel © Tourism and Events Queensland

Visit a wildlife carer at Lumholtz Lodge in Upper Barron

Stay with full-time wildlife carer Margit Cianelli in this unique B&B and learn about her daily routine. More than 100 mammal and bird species have been spotted around the property’s 160 acres of lush rainforest. Guests experience spotlighting nocturnal wildlife, bottle-feeding baby wallabies, reading in the extensive nature library and exploring the many walking trails. Even wildlife legend Bob Irwin has stayed at the Lumholtz Lodge.

Other names you need to know about

  • Cairns Aquarium is a vital contributor to reef research and development, with an on-site turtle hospital open to small groups.
  • Wavelength Cruises pioneered the use of coral clips to propagate and plant coral fragments.
  • Great Barrier Reef Legacy has also created the world’s first living coral park to preserve the reef’s coral at the Cairns Aquarium. The project will safeguard corals so there are specimens available for reef research and restoration efforts. A partnership between researchers and tour operators, the Coral Nurture Program, also allows operators to collect coral fragments to propagate in underwater nurseries and then plant on the reef.
  • Frankland Island Reef Cruises take you snorkelling around the dreamy archipelago with a marine biologist and Master Reef Guide.
  • Reef Magic Cruises cruise to an outer-reef pontoon for a day of snorkelling and diving with this Advanced Ecotourism Certified company’s marine biologists.
  • Sunlover Reef Cruises visits Moore Reef with experienced marine biologists. They can also drop you at Fitzroy Island.
  • Mike Ball Dive Expeditions take you on scuba expeditions while staying on a liveaboard, with ship staff and guests updating reef reports en route. One expedition is to swim with minkes.
  • Calypso Reef Cruises dive and snorkel tours visit the Low Isles and blissful Agincourt Reef. The company had Advanced Ecotourism Certification.
Great Barrier Reef - humphead wrasse and worldwide coral
© Tourism and Events Queensland/Gabriel Guzman

What is coral?

Coral is the name for marine invertebrates that form reefs. Multiple individual polyps make up the underwater colonies. Coral reefs as the basis for entire marine ecosystems. It is vital to preserve coral reefs as they support healthy marine environments. Coral is becoming endangered through climate change. Given their various benefit to both humans and marine life, authorities have adopted different coral reef restoration methods and methods for regrowing coral reefs.

Why are Coral Reefs Important?

Coral reefs provide habitats and the basis of marine ecosystems. They also protect coastlines from storms and erosion, absorb carbon dioxide and purify water. Studying coral reefs have led to medical breakthroughs in the treatment of asthma, arthritis, heart disease, cancer and other illnesses. Coral also aids in climate tracking. Their limestone deposits provide records of weather patterns and coral growth. The Great Barrier Reef is an irreplaceable Australian marine ecosystem and the biggest reef in the world. The tourism industry brings in over three million visitors per year, aiding in important research and conservation activity.

Great Barrier Reef Climate

The Great Barrier Reef has a tropical climate. The skies are mostly blue and the ocean temperatures are around 22 degrees Celsius. Daily temperatures range around 18 – 31 degrees Celsius. In summer the Great Barrier Reef experiences higher humidity and rainfall while in winter days are sunny with low humidity.

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