Saxon Reef, your Coral Gardens site delivered a lot of highlights for us. While this is essentially a gentle wall dive, there are lots of large, branched finger coral bommies, most of which were home to anemones, and one of which was home to at least 50 tomato anemonefish and several spine-cheeked anemonefishes. Seriously, there were anemonefish for days. We enjoyed some quality turtle time with an inquisitive young green sea turtle, swam by a maori wrasse and found a school of some of our favs, the diagonal-banded sweetlips. There were also masses of paddletail snappers cruising around the bommies and a very large moray eel, mostly concealed under a coral ledge, with the occasional, white-tipped reef shark spotted gliding in the waters off the wall. So Saxon Reef, I say thank you, thank you very much for a delightful Great Barrier Reef diving experience.
We found all of our favourites at Saxon Reef, from the clownfish to the turtles, to the sweetlips, the snappers and more.
The Coral Gardens dive site on Saxon Reef is suitable for divers of all experience levels. It’s a wall dive with lots of coral bommies. The maximum depth is around 18m, but we stayed in the top 12m with our Junior Open Water Diver and there was lots to make us smile. The bommies with a multitude of anemonefish was definitely a standout – you don’t see this at every dive site off Cairns – but other than that, there was plentiful marine life at all levels of the reef. Our highlight was a green sea turtle, as well as being very inquisitive about us, he happily munched away on his breakfast while we just hovered and enjoyed the moment, which lasted several minutes. (Ahh the beauty of unguided diving with Down Under Dive & Cruise, check the full review on our I Love Cairns site). On the day we dived – Saturday 11 March 2023 – the water was a comfortable 28 degrees and visibility was around 15-18m, with little to no current. When we got out of the water, we had massive smiles on our dials and couldn’t wait to get back in!
“Everyone has their own ‘favourite’ thing – or collection of ‘things’ – they like to see when scuba diving. Ours are turtles, maori wrasse and anemonefish, but the diagonal-banded sweetlips are definitely in the top five and it’s unusual to see them all in one dive. That’s what made Coral Gardens at Saxon Reef a delight – we saw all of these and so much more. We did 2 dives lasting 45 minutes each and both times were brilliant, honestly, I could have stayed there all day, so Coral Gardens thank you, thank you for the memories.” – Julie Johnston
So let’s provide a little more information about Saxon Reef and the Coral Gardens dive site. Saxon Reef is about 55km offshore from Cairns, sitting roughly at the halfway point between Norman Reef and Hastings Reef. It’s classified as being one of Cairns’ outer reefs and is a part of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and Marine Park. Saxon Reef has several dive sites, including Coral Gardens, which we visited on a day tour from Cairns. If you want to read more about the particulars of the day, check out our Down Under Cruise & Dive day tour review on our I Love Cairns website.
Coral Gardens is a wall dive, but also has a coral ‘lagoon’ area which is full of coral bommies of all shapes and sizes. Obviously, being a ‘natural’ dive site it’s impossible to guarantee what you will see, however, we have dived here a few times and every time we have seen diagonally-banded sweetlips, anemonefish and white-tipped reef sharks. On this particular visit we saw 4 different types of anemonefish, including the barrier reef anemonefish, classic clownfish (Nemo), tomato anemonefish and spine-cheeked anemonefish. The coral cover and diversity was also excellent, with large table corals, brain corals, boulder corals and more. Other than the fish already mentioned, we enjoyed spending some time with some staghorn corals, watching their resident population of humbug damsel fish move in and out of their protective home. It’s quite mesmerising being able to just hover, breathe and enjoy the ‘dance’ of the fish. As we explored the Coral Gardens, we dived in and amongst large schools of blue green chromis and saw several other larger reef creatures, including a flowery cod, coral trout and a monster moray eel, to name just a few. I would classify the Coral Gardens at Saxon Reef as being an easy and really enjoyable dive site, suitable for divers of all experience levels.
“We have always enjoyed diving unguided and there are only a few Cairns reef tour boats that allow you to do this, Down Under Cruise & Dive are one of them. I was excited to head out and explore Saxon Reef with Julie and Ethan, and it was Ethan’s first-time diving with just Mum and Dad. Having had the pleasure of diving at Saxon Reef’s ‘Coral Gardens’ dive site several times in the past, I can tell you that this place never disappoints. It seems that on every dive I am graced with the presence of my all-time favourite marine creature – the diagonally banded sweetlips. These stunning fish boast an array of vibrant colours and a gentle nature, making them an ideal subject for underwater photography.” – Richard Johnston.
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There are a few reef day tours which have permits to use the Coral Gardens moorings at Saxon Reef. This includes Reef Experience, Divers Den (on their AquaQuest day tour boat) and Down Under Cruise & Dive. We went with Down Under Cruise & Dive on their modern vessel, Evolution. This is a locally owned and operated Cairns reef tour company which has 12 moorings, at 6 different reef sites – Coral Gardens at Saxon Reef – is 1 of them. The actual Coral Gardens site is on the mainland side of the reef, which means the waters are relatively protected and there is usually little to no current, making it a reliable and very pleasant dive site. That being said, they will pick the best reef site to maximise guest experience, pending the wind, weather and tides on the day. They visit 2 different reef sites each day, the second one is usually Hastings Reef, which is where they have a semi-submersible and also provide the option for scenic helicopter flights.
When travelling with Down Under Cruise & Dive you can do 3 certified scuba dives during the day. Two in the morning, at the first reef site and one in the afternoon, at the second reef site. On the day we travelled, they went to Coral Gardens on Saxon Reef in the morning, so we enjoyed 2 dives here. Also, Down Under Cruise & Dive is one of the few reef tours to allow people to go unguided on dives. A bonus for experienced divers and those who like taking underwater photos. The maximum dive time for certified divers is 45 minutes, pending air consumption. That dive duration ensures you can actually ‘fit’ all 3 dives into the day. The Coral Gardens site has a maximum depth of around 16-18m, but there is plenty to see in the top 12m too with the large branched finger coral bommie, home to anemone and around 50 tomato anemonefish and several spine cheeked anemone fish, was in around 8m of water. We had an excellent time at Coral Gardens on Saxon Reef and for more information, videos and photos, please check out our Down Under Cruise & Dive day tour review. Great boat, great dive sites, great day on the Great Barrier Reef.
Normally you get excited if you see one or two anemonefish, but at the Coral Gardens we saw at least 50 tomato anemonefish, living in a coral bommie.
The Coral Gardens mooring is on Saxon Reef, which is about 55km offshore from Cairns. Saxon Reef sits at approximately the halfway point between Norman Reef and Hastings Reef. Saxon Reef is classified as being an outer Great Barrier Reef site.
There is no correct answer to this question. Cairns reef tour operators are all very professional and focussed on sustainability and reef protection, as part of their operations. We travelled with Down Under Cruise & Dive and the boat was large and spacious, with plenty of air-conditioned inside seating, with outdoor seating and sun lounges.
LOTS!!! We’ve been to the Coral Gardens site a few times over the years and each time we have been, we’ve seen diagonal-banded sweetlips and white tipped reef sharks. The anemone fish are a given too. They are in abundance at Coral Gardens and we saw 4 different types – barrier reef anemonefish, clownfish (Nemo), tomato anemonefish and spine cheek anemonefish. On the day we visited, we were lucky enough to have some really amazing turtle time with a young green sea turtle, and chilled with a school of diagonal-banded sweetlips, but this is not guaranteed as they obviously move around the reef. The Down Under Cruise & Dive crew said the large maori wrasse – which they have named Wally – is usually right there waiting for the boat when you arrive, and it was on the day we visited. The marine life was plentiful and diverse, as was the coral cover – Coral Gardens is a really pretty dive site, suitable for divers of all experience levels.
When you are diving with Down Under Cruise & Dive your maximum dive time is 45 minutes, to ensure you have sufficient time in the day to do all 3 dives. Given the time constraint and pending air consumption, the deepest you will get on the Coral Gardens wall dive is around 18m, with plenty to see between 8-12m too.
Yes it sure is. The Coral Gardens dive site is on Saxon Reef, offshore from Cairns and part of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and Marine Park.
There is never a guarantee of what you may or may not see when scuba diving, however white tipped reef sharks are usually seen gliding in the waters off the wall, at Coral Gardens.
Again, no guarantees but when we visited, we had a seriously fantastic time with young green sea turtle.
The Coral Gardens dive site is on Saxon Reef, offshore from Cairns. Down Under Cruise & Dive is one of a few reef tour operators to have a permit to use the mooring at the Coral Gardens site. Water entry is giant stride off their submerged deck, and the Coral Gardens is right there, about a 10m swim from the boat. Coral Gardens is essentially a wall dive, but with lots of coral bommies to explore in and around the lagoon. We ticked the box of turtle, nemo and reef shark and the condition of the reef at Coral Gardens was beautiful. Down Under Cruise & Dive is locally owned and operated and they are committed to safety and ensuring their guests have an awesome time at the reef. This tour is suitable for divers of all experience and certification levels.
© Cairns Dive Guide 2023