Up close and personal, the Great Barrier Reef offers just as much to marvel at as I imagine an astronaut might see from space. As a first-time visitor, nothing prepares you for the mind-blowing vastness and immense beauty of this UNESCO World Heritage area. The ever stretching textures and tones link up and extend for thousands of kilometres beneath the Coral Sea coastline. It is the most precious and enormous living structure. To be here, to admire what nature has created, is awe-inspiring. I pinch myself.
Cruise Whitsundays is the most extensive resort transfer service in the region. They’re also the go-to safe and reliable transport choice that delivers passengers to Reefworld, their multilevel reef facility permanently moored 39 nautical miles from shore at spectacular Hardy Reef.
For those who haven’t recently visited the Whitsundays, everything about the Cruise Whitsundays experience feels squeaky clean and new, starting with their bright and expansive new Port of Airlie ferry terminal. Floor-to-ceiling exterior views of the Conway Range and nearby marina add visual interest as we await our boarding call. Large blade overhead fans generate a soft overhead breeze that slowly falls from the acoustically treated cathedral ceiling. The terminal provides families and groups with well-spaced table seating that feels chilled out and also COVID safe. Our youngest traveller picks out a soft toy, Nemo – aka the bi-colour clownfish – from the gift shop; I know, however, that we’re soon to swim with the very same fish species in their crystal reef waters.
After a short wait, we step aboard the ferry Seaflight and begin our sun-drenched journey out to Hardy Reef. Today the wave height is around a metre, producing a slight rocking and rolling as we make the 50-minute journey out to Reefworld. Located in a channel between Hook and Hardy reefs, the ferry reduces its speed to a crawl as we approach our destination. Excitement grows as today’s passengers anticipate exploring what lies beneath.
From the pontoon edge, areas of deep blue water soon switch to bands of bright turquoise – the shallow waters that cover the reef. Fingers of reflective white coral reach up, almost touching the waterline; further below, areas of browns and tan-coloured coral outline the jigsaw puzzle-like structure of the reef. As the morning light shifts higher in the sky, the colours of the coral and water intensify. We marvel at its postcard-like over-saturated depth, which seems visually too wild and concentrated – is this the real world, I think to myself?
As it’s mid-summer box jellyfish season, we slip on the provided stinger suits as well as sterilised snorkels and masks, then don flippers at the edge of the pontoon, seating ourselves at the swim-off platform of its lower deck. Feeling protected from both the searing sun and marine nasties, I dip my mask in the water and set about exploring the reef’s drop-off point – the outer edge where the shallow reef waters fall away into the inky blue depths.
It’s a seemingly fanciful sight to spy arms of coral in bright purple and pinkish tones; some, highly vivid and luminous like the spots on the backs of the coral trouts I discover hiding under a nearby coral shelf. I soon learn how many fish have adapted to these surroundings with intricately colourful patterns mimicking the coral, some in more muted brown and tan colours, while most others are extremely bright coloured. Other fish present with finely painted stripes similar to electrifyingly luminescent arms of coral –clever camouflage that ensures their safety within the habitat.
The reef, of course, is home to a vast array of magnificent creatures like sea anemones and clams. Floating above a giant purple-lipped clam, I notice it flinch as my flippers fan a water current toward it. Hovering over it reveals its large oval-shaped orange and flesh-toned muscular interior. In its centre appears to be what looks like a feeding hole, I push another water current past its massive outer white shell, but I can’t fool it; it instinctively knows I’m not dinner.
Continuing to indulge in the sights below the water, I follow a group of rainbow-coloured parrotfish nibbling on coral as if to choose the freshest tiny pieces, similar to a horse leaning over its fence to find a juicy green blade of grass. The next moment a smaller fish darts in and bites one of the parrotfish on its back, like a child picking a fight. This playful and entertaining scene of the marine underworld becomes my new home for these precious moments. I feel at one with the environment.
Choosing to snorkel with flippers and a life vest makes covering longer distances in the water a breeze. This is easier than I’d imagined. With eyes glued to the passing panorama, I cruise the underwater ecosystem with speed and delight. After reaching the end of the marked dive area, a guide arrives in a boat, instructing me to change direction. The return journey showcases a new group of larger fish.
I spend final moments marvelling at being so close to these slow-moving beauties. The most enormous of these is a rainbow-coloured wrasse whose stunning appearance has also captured the imagination of today’s reef visitors. A little further down-current, yet another school of impressive fish hover beneath a lower coral shelf: one huge red emperor, a family of coral trout and an exquisite multicoloured violet-lined, smaller Maori wrasse. I crudely think how much good eating there is down here, but I tell myself to clear my mind and save these gourmet dining thoughts for another day.
Scenic return cruise through the Whitsundays to the outer reef includes 4 hours at Hardy Reef with all snorkelling gear wetsuits and stinger suits provided. Morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea are also provided. Optional activities (at own expense) include guided snorkelling safaris and scuba diving.
Reefsuites Now Open for Bookings:
Spend a magical night in Australia’s first underwater accommodation and have a front-row seat to the dazzling underwater world of the Great Barrier Reef. Be prepared for an intimate experience that will stay with you forever.
How to Book:
Walkup bookings are possible at the ferry terminal building or book online.
24 The Cove Road, Airlie Beach (Port of Airlie), Queensland.
Telephone reservations 07 4846 7000