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Onboard - Tourism Operator's Handbook for the Great Barrier Reef

Pontoon Operations


Pontoon operations are focused off shore Cairns but there is a small number elsewhere along the Great Barrier Reef. Pontoons allow large numbers of passengers to experience the reef (often in the middle of the deep blue) from a safe and spacious platform.

What permits do I need?

If you plan to operate a tourism program that includes using your own pontoon, you will need Marine Parks permits that allow both the tourism operation and the installation and conduct of the pontoon.

What particular requirements apply to pontoons?

As well as any management arrangements for the area you visit, there are some specific requirements for installing and operating pontoons.

  • The application process for a pontoon is basically the same as for a tourism permit. However, the installation and operation of a pontoon is a major undertaking and your application will be given careful consideration. You may be required to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement and/or publicly advertise your proposal.
  • You will need to supply drawings of your proposed pontoon and its mooring arrangements certified by a marine engineer or naval architect. You will also need to accurately specify its proposed location.
  • Your pontoon permit is developed specifically for your situation. It may include detailed conditions for the installation and operation of your structure. Please make sure that you know your permit.
  • You will be required to enter into a deed of agreement when you are granted a permit to install a pontoon. There will be a requirement to pay a bond to the GBRMPA.
  • A Marine Parks officer may supervise the installation of your pontoon.
  • You must not treat your pontoon structure with toxic compound such as anti-fouling paints.
  • You need to know about the Environmental Management Charge and how much you must pay to operate a pontoon.

Please note that, if you operate exclusively to a pontoon in the Cairns Planning Area, then you may undertake your operation everyday to that pontoon. You are also not bound by any group size limits for the Location (except at Low Isles).

Where can I install a pontoon?

For most of the Marine Park there is a general policy that a proposal for a large pontoon must not be located within 5 kilometres of an existing pontoon. There are no other set requirements about the siting of your pontoon, however detailed assessment will be made of your proposed site and the likely impacts of installing at that location (including impacts on current and future use of the area).

There are some special arrangements for pontoons in the three planning areas.

  • There is a cap on the number of pontoons that can be installed in the Cairns Planning Area.
  • Additional pontoons may be considered in Intensive Use Locations of the Hinchinbrook Planning Area and outside Locations.
  • Additional pontoons may be considered in Setting 1 of the Whitsundays Planning Area and at Hardy Reef.

What if disaster strikes?

If the site of your pontoon is affected by an environmental incident, such as a cyclone or oil spill, there are contingency arrangements in place to help you adjust your operation and temporarily relocate.

How can I help to protect the Reef?

For all the activities that you and your clients undertake at your pontoon site, you can help protect the Marine Park by adopting responsible reef practices.

Image supplied courtesy of Tourism Queensland

© Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority