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Join this extreme two-week, 21-dive expedition on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.  In your first week, learn-to-dive and get certified as a PADI open-water diver. If you’re already a diver, get advanced certification during a three-day liveaboard dive trip! After 9 dives, enjoy a couple days back on dry land and learn about environmental issues threatening the reef. Then, venture out to sea again on another four-day live-aboard dive expedition to partner with marine biologists and swim with Dwarf Minke Whales! During this exclusive 12-dive expedition, you’ll venture to the far reaches of the Great Barrier Reef to snorkel with whales and record observations on their behavior, which directly contributes to the ongoing research of James Cook University. Disembark at Lizard Island, take a low-level flight over the reef, finish the trip whitewater rafting class III & IV rapids, and have the option to add-on a bungee or skydive!


This program will be lead by distinguished marine scientist, Dr. Olaf Meynecke. Dr. Olaf is a leading scientist in the field of marine ecology. He studied Environmental Science in Germany, specializing in Biology, and worked as a scientific coordinator for the European Union before moving to Australia where he completed a PhD in Marine Biology. During his research career he has worked on bull sharks with National Geographic and collected samples from humpback whales using drones. Olaf has organized marine research expeditions in Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand and is the founder and CEO of Humpbacks & High-rises Inc., an organization dedicated to the protection of marine mammals. Olaf is very passionate about his work and enjoys exploring and sharing his knowledge. To learn more about Dr. Olaf, click here.

Dates listed reflect travel time departing from and returning to the USA. International clients click here.

With our No-Stress Travel Policy, you cancel for any reason up until the day of travel, and escrow 100% of the program fees for up to two years from the cancellation date.

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Program Profile

Community Service Focus

Often dreamed about, rarely visited: one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Stretching for more than 1,400 miles, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem. Comprising of more than 3000 individual reefs and over 600 islands, the reef is home to more than 1600 species of fish and 600 types of coral. There is no better place in the world to study marine biology. This expedition will place you amongst the privileged few that have snorkeled, dived, swam and slept in one of the greatest underwater treasures on the planet with world-leading marine biologists.

Dwarf Minke Whales

Each year from June-August, Dwarf Minke Whales visit the northern Great Barrier Reef in what is the world’s only known, predictable aggregation of this species. The whales are exceptionally inquisitive and often closely approach divers and snorkelers for extended periods of time. Through this expedition, there is a 98% chance of coming eye-to-eye with these magnificent creatures.

The heart of this program takes you on a four-day live-aboard expedition to seek encounters with the minke whales. You will accompany marine biologists from James Cook University, who conduct multi-disciplinary research into dwarf minke whale biology and behavior to evaluate the social and economic values of the whales and the sustainable management of swim-with-whales tourism. Combining snorkeling, scuba diving and marine research, you will experience the unforgettable and return with exceptional knowledge of marine biology and sustainability.

Don’t Wait: Do It Now!

At one point in our lives, we have all wished to have a crystal ball and see what the future holds. Reality, however, is that no-one knows what lies ahead for you, us, and our planet. Warming ocean temperatures, agricultural fertilizers, and plagues of starfish and jellyfish are some of the many threats faced by the world’s coral reefs. Do not procrastinate if this expedition appeals to you. Set the goal, plan well, and make it happen. Don’t let this opportunity pass you by, we’ll see you on the reef!

  • Day 1

    Australia, Here We Come!

    If you are travelling from North America, today you’ll depart Los Angeles for Brisbane in the evening on our escorted group flight. The flight will take about 14 hours – plenty of time to get to know the rest of your group before arriving Down Under.

  • Day 2

    Lost In Transit

    Today is lost as you cross the international dateline, but don’t worry too much – you will get it back on your way home!

  • Day 3

    Arrival into Brisbane, Connect to Cairns and Onto the Reef!

    Touchdown in Brisbane – your gateway to the beautiful Land Down Under. Rustic Pathways staff members will be on hand to welcome you. After collecting your baggage and meeting your leaders, you are off on a connecting flight to Cairns. The view out the plane window will be stunning as you land in far north Queensland.

    In Cairns, you’ll have lunch, settle into your apartments and freshen-up after a long day of travel. Get to know everyone through orientation activities and beach games.


  • Day 4 - 5

    Learn to Dive Course

    If you’re new to scuba diving, you will start a 5-day PADI open water dive certification. These two days are spent learning theory in the classroom doing and taking practical lessons in the pool. We use a 5-star dive facility for our instruction so you’re learning from some of the best.

    If you already have open-water certification prior to the program, you will take an advanced course to further your skills and education in diving.

    In the evenings, learn about the Great Barrier Reef through interactive presentations and soak up the warm tropical nights under palm trees.


  • Day 6 - 8

    Three-Day Liveaboard Dive Expedition

    Spend three days and two nights on a live-aboard dive boat and enjoy 9 dives out on the reef, including night dives! Get close to turtles, parrot fish, maori wrasse and maybe see a reef shark. Students undertaking their dive certification will complete their course with instructors, and in between diving there’s time to chill on the deck or spend more time snorkeling.


  • Day 9

    Critical Issues and Reef Education

    Back on dry land, today has an academic focus with your program leader, Olaf Meynecke, a marine scientist and university lecturer. Spend the day focusing on the critical issues that threaten the health of the Great Barrier Reef. Empower yourself with knowledge, meet with various stakeholders to understand their positions, then debate solutions and challenges that the Australian and international community need to address to preserve one of the planet’s greatest natural treasures.

  • Day 10

    Back Out To Sea!

    After a morning in the rainforest to visit waterfalls and markets, you’ll make final preparations for the next part of this expedition – the four-day trip to the far reaches of the Great Barrier Reef! Tonight we will start motoring to the Ribbon Reefs in search of Minke Whales.

  • Day 11 - 13

    Diving and Snorkeling With Whales

    These three days will be spent on various dive sites in the turquoise Ribbon Reefs. This 55-mile chain of reefs from Lizard Island to Cooktown is the most prized dive region of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It is also where the Minke Whales migrate to each year, to breed and calve. You can see more of the Great Barrier Reef’s fish and coral species here than anywhere else, and there will be opportunities for 12 dives, including night dives!

    Between dives and minke whale encounters, you will spend time with the marine biologists onboard to learn everything you want to know. During the swims with the minkes, help collect data on their behavior and contribute to the research the University is conducting.

    All of this while living aboard a well-appointed dive boat, eating great food and sharing amazing memories with peers from around the world.

  • Day 14

    Lizard Island to Cairns

    Our dive expedition comes to an end today as the boat docks at Lizard Island. Enjoy a swim on one of the picturesque white-sand beaches before ending your epic diving adventure with a stunning, low-level flight from Lizard Island back to Cairns. Half of your 150 mile flight is at a very low 180 meters (600ft) altitude for stunning aerial views of the reef.

    This afternoon there’s the option to add-on a bungee jump or a skydive if you want more extreme adventure!

  • Day 15

    White Water Rafting

    Get ready for an epic day of rafting on the famous Tully River, packed with class III and IV rapids to get your heart pounding. Spend a full day navigating down the river through World Heritage rainforest with expert raft guides. Finish the day with a final dinner along the esplanade in Cairns and reflect on an insane two weeks in Australia.

  • Day 16

    Cairns to Brisbane, Returning Home or Transition Day

    This morning we’ll take an early flight from Cairns to Brisbane. Today will be full of fond farewells as you say goodbye to new friends and prepare for your next adventure. If you are continuing on to another Rustic Pathways adventure in Australia, today is a transition day between programs. You will spend the day on Australia’s famous Gold Coast with other students and leaders transitioning between programs.
    If you are returning home to the USA or traveling on to Fiji or New Zealand, your flight will depart Brisbane this morning. If you are traveling on to another Rustic Pathways destination, your staff will help you with your flight arrangements. Wherever you are headed, we wish you happy travels and hope you return to the Land Down Under soon!

An Important Note About Schedule Changes

Rustic Pathways reserves the right to change, alter, or amend the daily itinerary for this trip at any time. Changes can be made for various reasons including changes in flight or program schedules, changes in the schedules of various external tours incorporated in our trips, the addition of new activities into a trip, or the substitution of an old activity for a new activity.

The itinerary shown here provides a good outline of the anticipated daily schedule for this program. As with any travel program, some changes may occur.

“Optional Activities” are fully included in the cost of your program, but you can choose to not do these activities.

“Add-On Activities” are not included in the cost of your program and must be paid for separately. Add-on activities are rare, but include things like skydiving, bungee jumping, or weekend side-trips. Not every program has add-on activities.

For more information, email australia@rusticpathways.com

Packing the right gear (and the right amounts) is the first step to an incredible travel experience. Follow these tips to pack like a pro:

Travel light. Pack only the essentials. You’ll need less than you think!
Bring the right clothes. Pack clothes that are culturally appropriate for your destination and acceptable for service projects. This means bringing long shorts (think Bermuda and basketball shorts), t-shirts with sleeves to cover shoulders, and appropriate footwear.
Leave your valuables behind. While traveling, it’s easier for things to get lost, stolen, or damaged. Keep any prized possessions safe at home.
Check with TSA. Make sure your luggage complies with TSA regulations, especially your carry-on. Useful tip: Pack an empty water bottle and fill it up after security.
Extra paperwork? If you need additional forms filled out to get credit for your service hours, no problem! Bring these forms with you so they can be completed in-country.

Rustic Gear. Want to get all your shopping done for your program in one place? We’ve got you covered. Check out Rustic Gear and get all the essentials sent right to your door.

Carry-On Luggage

A small backpack is ideal as it will be used for day trips.

  • Passport
  • Photocopy of passport
  • Wallet and money (USD or AUD)
  • Book and/or journal
  • Pen
  • Phone
  • Camera
  • iPod or MP3 player
  • Change of clothes
  • Water bottle
  • Medication
  • Visa documentation (if applicable)
  • Camera
  • Chargers
  • Travel power adaptor
  • Consent to Travel form
  • Rustic Pathways emergency contacts
  • Arrival instructions for Brisbane
  • Scuba certification card

Checked Luggage

One medium-size duffle bag or wheeled bag is ideal for this program.


  • Socks (8)
  • Underwear (10)
  • Pants/capris (2)
  • Jeans (1)
  • Shorts (4)
  • Tank Tops (3)
  • T-shirts (8)
  • Sweater/fleece (2)
  • Pajamas
  • Swimsuit
  • Bath towel
  • Beach towel
  • Sandals or flip-flops
  • Sneakers/running shoes (1)
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat (for hot weather)


(Travel size bottles in Ziploc bags)

  • Shampoo
  • Conditioner
  • Body wash
  • Face wash
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug spray
  • Contacts and solution
  • Foam ear plugs
  • Personal med kit
  • Deodorant (no aerosols)
  • Wet wipes
  • Feminine hygiene products
  • Razor/shaving cream


  • Travel Pillow
  • Headlamp with spare batteries

Scuba Diving and Snorkeling Gear

(**If you don’t own, this is available to hire on boat for additional fee**)
(**Provided by dive company, included in program fee**)
You are welcome to bring your own if you prefer

  • Mask and snorkel
  • Fins
  • Booties
  • BCD, regulators and dive computer
  • Wetsuit or wetsuit top


  • Portable games (Bananagrams, cards, etc.)
  • Musical instrument (guitar etc)
  1. a

    Welcome to Australia! You will arrive in Brisbane, meet your group, then jump on another flight to Cairns.

  2. b

    A vibrant tropical city and a gateway to all adventures on the Great Barrier Reef.

  3. c
    Lizard Island

    Lizard Island is 150 miles north of Cairns, this is where you will leave the dive boat and catch a scenic flight back to Cairns.