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There are beautiful coral cays, islands and spectacular outer edge reefs offshore from Cairns, Port Douglas and Cooktown. The reefs and islands support a range of wildlife, including dwarf minke whales, seabirds and green turtles.

The Cairns Planning Area includes offshore Cairns and Port Douglas, the Ribbon Reefs and Lizard Island and is one of the most highly visited regions of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

What is the Cairns Area Plan of Management?

The Cairns Area Plan of Management 1998 (the Plan) helps protect and conserve the values of the Cairns Planning Area while allowing for a range of experiences and uses.

The Plan applies to everyone and complements Zoning (and other management strategies) by addressing area-specific issues.

A range of management tools is used so visitors can enjoy their favourite marine activities while protecting the natural environment.

Rules in the Plan relate to protecting wildlife, vessel length, group size, motorised water sports, anchoring and mooring, and other vessel/aircraft restrictions.

If you are a commercial tourism operator, refer to our new Guide to tourism operations and other commercial activities in the Cairns Area. 

View the Cairns Area Map to see the full extent of the Planning Area.

What you need to know 

It is important to be familiar with the different management tools used within the Marine Park as there are implications for non-compliance.

Click on 'general access to the Cairns Planning Area' and the headings below to find out what rules apply.

Recreational use of the Cairns Planning Area is popular with both locals and visitors.  

As a recreational user, it is important to be familiar with where you can go and what you can do, take time to read further about the Cairns Area Plan of Management,  and become familiar with rules specific to sites that you are visiting.

A wide variety of tourism experiences are available in the region.

Consider choosing a high-standard tourism operation that makes it a priority to care for the Reef.

Due to the popularity and concentration of use of the area, the Plan includes additional requirements for permittees within the region.

Permit holders should refer to their permit and the Plan for more information as well as reading the information below.

Tourism operators should pay particular attention to the tourism operator requirements below.

If you are visiting with a superyacht, see Superyachts and view the information below, in particular the Boating and Anchoring and mooring information.

Before heading out on the water make sure you: have a copy of the zoning map, are familiar with the site specific arrangements for the places you are visiting and the Responsible Reef Practices for boating and yachting and fishing.

  • Generally if your vessel is 35 metres or less:
  • you can access most locations provided you are within the group size limits and use the appropriate anchoring and mooring options mentioned below.


  • If your vessel is greater than 35 metres to less than 70 metres: 
  • see the additional information below about Reef Anchorages.


  • Vessels at least 70 metres in length:
  • you must anchor at a Designated Anchorages with a booking or outside Locations in the Planning Area and use their tender to access the Locations.


Every Location in the Cairns Planning Area is defined for either low, moderate or intensive use, and limits on group sizes apply to all users when visiting the Location.

Some Locations are also designated as Sensitive Locations and have special rules. The boundary of a ‘Location’ is generally 500 metres from the seaward edge of the reef. See Schedule 4 of the Cairns Area Plan of Management for Locations and their levels of use. View the Maps of Locations and Reef Anchorages .

Note: Some sites have multiple localities due to different management needs. For example Lizard Island is surrounded by four localities. Localities are also Locations and are defined in Schedule 3.

  • The following group size limits apply to vessels and aircraft entering Locations in the Cairns Planning Area.
  • Limits on use levels for all users
  • Low: Max people per vessel or aircraft (including crew) is 15
  • Moderate: Max people per vessel or aircraft (including crew) is 60*
  • Intensive: No limit 

* Exemptions apply for tourism operators at some sites to carry up to 100 people to a mooring or a Reef Anchorage. See the Cairns Area Plan of Management.

No access areas - Preservation Zones 

There are a number of Preservation Zone (pink zone)  areas in the Cairns Planning Area. You cannot enter a Preservation Zone, except in limited circumstances as outlined in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Zoning Plan 2003 (i.e. in a life threatening emergency).

  • The following sites in the Cairns Planning Area are Preservation Zone areas:
  • Carter Reef (14-137)
  • Camel Head Reef (15-029)
  • Ribbon No. 6 Reef (15-032)
  • Euston Reef (16-063)
  • North West Reef (16-072)

These sites are protected as they are important long-term monitoring sites for scientists and reliable sources of reef producing larvae (see Report on Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Zoning Plan).

Some Locations have special or sensitive values (nature conservation, cultural and heritage, scientific and or use values) and are defined as Sensitive Locations. These sites have extra management for a variety of reasons.

  • These include:
  • Cod Hole Locality
  • Lizard Island Locality 1
  • Low Island Locality
  • East Hope Island Reef Locality
  • West Hope Island Reef
  • Cape Tribulation Bay Locality 1
  • Snapper Island Reef
  • Michaelmas Cay
  • Green Island Reef
  • Sudbury Cay Locality
  • Frankland Islands Sector

Requirements for Tourism Operators 

Additional rules, such as the maximum number of vessels that can be booked in a day, apply to tourism operations at Sensitive Locations.  

Tourism operators should refer to their permit, the Cairns Area Plan of Management and the Sensitive Location maps (above) for detailed information.

Tourism operators that have relevant permission and a special endorsement or authorisation from us may have greater access.

Coral reefs are susceptible to anchor damage, so it’s important to use moorings where available, observe no-anchoring areas and ensure you use Responsible Reef Practices when anchoring and mooring.

Moorings and No-Anchoring Areas

If your vessel is 35 metres or less you can use a public mooring. Refer to the Lizard Island to Innisfail map for locations of public moorings and no-anchoring areas (reef protection areas) within the Cairns Planning Area. For private moorings view the moorings register.

Within the Cairns Planning Area, anchoring is not permitted within 50 metres of a public or private mooring or 200 metres of a pontoon, except in the following locations: Lizard Island Locality 2; Lizard Island Locality 3; Cape Tribulation Bay Locality 1; East Hope Island Reef (15-065); Low Island Locality; and Green Island Reef Locality 1.

Reef Anchorages

Large vessels (more than 35 and no more than 70 metres) must anchor at Reef Anchorages or outside of a Location and use a tender to access the locations.

There are 87 Reef Anchorages available — see the maps to find out where they are. Schedule 8 of the Cairns Area Plan of Management 1998 lists and defines the boundaries of each Reef Anchorage.

Contact us, ahead of time, if you require access to bad weather anchorages (northerly winds) for large vessels as special requirements will apply.   

To protect wildlife and balance access across all users, these activities are closely managed.

Personal watercraft (i.e. jet skis) are allowed to transit by the most direct reasonable route between two locations. Transiting does not include circling, weaving, diverting, surfing down or jumping over or across waves, swell or wash.

These activities are classed as motorised water sport along with parasailing, water skiing and the use of hovercraft. Motorised water sport is allowed outside of a Location. Hovercraft may be used at Lizard Island Locality 2. Refer to the Responsible Reef Practices for more information on motorised water sport.

The Cairns Planning Area is home to a variety of protected wildlife species, including whales, dolphins, dugong, turtle and seabirds.

Protecting whales and dolphins 

To help us protect whales and dolphins, make sure you follow the rules for whale and dolphin watching, and use Responsible Reef Practices.

Humpback whales are commonly sighted during their yearly migration between May and September each year.

Sightings of dwarf minke whales occur primarily between June and July.  To swim with them is a unique and carefully managed experience which can only be done through a permitted tourism operator.

Protecting dugong and turtles 

Dugong and turtles  are often found in inshore waters which contain shallow and deep water seagrass, particularly between Port Douglas and Cape Tribulation. Avoid shallow seagrass meadows or — if you cannot avoid them — reduce your speed to below 10 knots to prevent boat strike.

View Responsible Reef Practices for when you encounter dugongs and turtles.

Turtle swimming in the Great Barrier Reef – Australia - © QPWS Photographer Victor Huertas

Protecting seabirds 

A number of sites are important bird nesting and roosting sites. Because roosting and nesting birds are very vulnerable to disturbance, these sites are generally designated as low or moderate-use settings.

Special rules apply at Low Island Locality and Michaelmas Cay Locality to protect nesting and roosting birds.

Take care not to disturb birds at nesting and roosting sites:

  • Seabird Islet (Lizard Island);
  • West Hope Island;
  • Woody Island;
  • Mackay Cay;
  • Undine Cay;
  • Michaelmas Cay;
  • Vlasoff Cay;
  • Upolo Cay; and
  • Sudbury Cay.

Refer to site specific management for the Cairns/Cooktown Management Area for more information and view the Responsible Reef Practices for bird watching.

Seabirds photo - QPWS Photographer Victor Huertas

For a self-guided natural experience you can also visit national park islands. Accessible to the public they are:

The Queensland environment department is responsible for managing them. Find out about permits, fees and what camping options are available on each island through the Queensland environment department. Campsites must be booked, as visitor numbers are limited to ensure a quality visitor experience.

Please note camping is not permitted on some islands in the Cairns Planning Area.

Turtle photo - – Australia - © Commonwealth of Australia – (Reef Authority) - Photographer: Johnny Gaskell
Updated 10 Jun 2024
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