With the Whitsundays being so close to the Great Barrier Reef, it seemed only right that we visit the worlds largest coral reef system and one of the natural wonders of the world. The Reef is composed of 2,900 individual reefs and stretches for over 2,300km along the North Queensland coast.
After looking into the different tour options we decided on a trip out to Hardy Reef, where we spent half a day on Cruise Whitsunday’s Heart Pontoon, which we had been told provides a unique way to explore the reef. It was an early start, and after a quick breakfast we made the short drive to the Port of Airlie, ready for departure.
The journey out to the reef took just over two hours, and despite the high winds, we decided to brave our chances on the very exposed top deck, taking in some great views of the Whitsundays as we travelled past. Some clearly enjoyed the journey less than others, and we were thankful not to be among the seasick passengers leaning over the back of the boat.
As we arrived at Hardy Reef, we first passed an older Pontoon, now in a state of disrepair having been badly damaged by Tropical Cyclone Debbie in March 2017. The new Pontoon is moored nearby and is located 39 nautical miles off the coast of mainland Australia.
The pontoon offers a number of ways to explore the reef, including swimming and snorkelling zones, an underwater observatory, a semi-submersible craft, as well as a dive station. It also has a large sun deck, although I was puzzled by the idea of travelling all the way out to the reef, just to top up your tan!
The keen divers in our group, Rachael and Paul, were able to arrange a certified dive which they left to do as soon as we arrived at the pontoon. They completed a ‘relaxing’ drift dive for 47 minutes to a depth of 16m, seeing lots of different fish along the way, including Lionfish, Clownfish and the very unusual looking Maori Wrasse.
Lorraine and I decided to check out the semi-submersive, taking the short tour into the reef while listening to the very informative tour commentary. Having watched lots of impressively multicoloured fish swimming past the windows, I decided to take a closer look and go snorkelling.
After putting on my stinger suit and mask, I was soon in the water and was having a great time swimming through the coral and amongst the many schools of fish. However this came to an abrupt end, as the waterproof casing of my GoPro popped open and I was forced to rush back to the pontoon. Despite my rescue operation the camera is unfortunately no more!
Once the divers returned, we all went to the underwater observatory, before boarding the boat for the journey back to Airlie beach. We again sat on the top deck, and enjoyed some more blustery conditions, this time with the added challenge of trying to the eat the provided buffet lunch.
After seeing the Reef up close from the pontoon, we decided to arrange something a little different for our second trip – a scenic flight over the Reef!
We arranged a 60 minute Island and Reef tour through GSL Aviation, with the flight departing from the small Whitsunday Airport, located just a short drive from Airlie Beach. After a quick safety briefing, we strapped on our lifejackets and boarded the plane ready for takeoff.
The airport is also home to the unique Whitsunday Aviation Village, with both sides of the runway lined with impressive residential homes, many of them including attached hangers. I guess helicopter owners need garages too!
Once airborne, we began to make our way over the Whitsunday Islands, with the water having an even more beautiful turquoise colour from above. The pilot provided great commentary on what we could see below us, which included some of the Whitsunday’s luxury accommodation.
Most impressive of all was the luxury and very exclusive Hayman Island resort, the only accommodation on the island, where rooms start from $980 (£615) per night!
After a much quicker and smoother journey than we had experienced by boat, we made it out to the Reef. Its vast becomes far more apparent from above, with the incredible patterns of the coral stretching far into the distance. It was amazing to see, and if the pilots voice was less Aussie, and a little more David Attenborough we could have been in our own episode of Blue Planet.
As the flight reached its halfway point we arrived at the famous Heart Reef, which has a staring role on the cover of most Whitsundays travel brochures. Although it is definitely heart shaped (if you squint a bit), we were a little underwhelmed, with the rest of the Reef being equally, if not more, impressive.
After what had been a very calm flight, we had a slightly more turbulent descent, before landing safely back at the airport for what had been an incredible experience, and possibly the highlight of an amazing holiday.