Flying into Airlie Beach airport, I was beside myself with excitement for the tropical azure blue sea and my sailing adventure through the pristine waters of the Whitsunday islands.
I was booked on the Prima 12 berth sailboat for two nights and three days. It’s mid-range in terms of luxury and amenities but it suited me for my budget and what I wanted out the trip. There are cheaper options, but the tend to be huge party boats where the main activity is competitive drinking – not really my thing anymore.
My fellow passengers were: a Canadian family with two kids – a teenage daughter and an eight-year-old son, two couples – one from Australia and one from Slovakia, a solo Dutch guy named Koen, a Czech mother and her daughter, named Michaela, and me. We had Ron our captain and Lizzie – for everything else we needed.
We had beautiful weather setting off and after dumping our day bags in the cabin, we got comfortable on deck and sunbathed whilst admiring the view.
Pulling into our first snorkelling spot we were handed stinger suits and told we had to wear them under all circumstances if we were going in the water. At this southern tip of the barrier reef, you get two types of dangerous jellyfish; Irukandji and Box and both can be fatal. Unfortunately, we were in jellyfish season and the boat passed several jellies floating at the surface as we sailed, so we needed no encouragement to get them on! Suited up with masks and snorkels we jumped in.
Well, what a perfect reef we were greeted with. The area is protected from fishing and the variety of the coral and size of the fish is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Brightly coloured parrot fish the size of my forearm nibbled away on the sea floor (they make such a loud crunching noise you hear them before you see them!) Everywhere you look you see life, colour, movement. Fish swim in all directions – in pairs, in shoals, chasing one another or just pootling about.
“Turtle, Turtle!” someone shouted. I looked down and there he was, perfectly camouflaged but unmistakable in shape. Effortlessly gliding through the water he turned in a circle before swimming off into the blue.
We had about four snorkelling sessions over the three days and all of them were outstanding, but I think the best was at Hook’s Island.
The boat moored and immediately there were flashes in the water. So clear and clean is the sea here, that we could see what it was from the deck. Giant batfish. And they are huge! Ron advised we don’t hold our hands out while we were swimming, in case they wanted a nibble.
I warily jumped in and gave out a little shriek. Under the boat was a huge black silvery shadow…
My first thought was – oh cripes it’s a shark! But on second look it was a fish. A giant one. Actually a giant trevally. Fast and muscular, they are the favourite prey for big sharks. And it wasn’t alone – he was being kept company by a humphead wrasse – which was about 2m long. Two batfish lunged towards me, changing direction at the last moment. This really was swimming with giants. There was also a reef here, but we were more interested in these beautiful beasts this time. It was really amazing and one of the highlights from the sail.
Whitehaven Beach – Paradise, or is it?
The other was, of course, Whitehaven beach. Whitehaven is probably the most Instagrammed place in all of Australia. It is consistently in the top 5 beaches of the world list because of its pure silicon white sand – produced by volcanic forces over billions of years. The beach is at the mouth of a river as it reaches the sea – creating incredible blues as the tidal currents merge with river sediment.
The boats drop passengers on the other side of the island and it’s about a thirty-minute walk (via the lookout) through the forest and over the hill to reach the pristine beach. Which is fine…if you cover yourself in Bushman – the highest percent DEET insect repellent on the market in Australia. I didn’t and I suffered for it.
By the time I got to the gorgeous Whitehaven beach it was still very early in the day as Ron had moored Prima in the bay the night before, giving us precious time to beat the day trippers. Walking onto the beach, I looked down to my arm to put on some suncream. My eyes fell on a little black and red spot…I touched it and squashed a tiny fly.
I ran my right hand down my left arm and immediately blood was covering my hand and little red blood spots were springing up and down my arm. I was covered in sand flies! I ran away and tried to squash any remaining flies on my arms and legs. Paradise was not so paradisaical after all…
After my run, it with some hungry insects, Koen and I stopped for some photos and walked over to a long sand spit. Between the beach and sand spit was a wide pool about waist high deep with warm water. Inside the natural pool were shoals of small fish and to our delight, baby sandy sharks and sting rays. We waded in, to get a closer look. With his mounted go pro on a selfie stick, Koen was the photographer chasing down the marine-life shots, while I was the land scout – pointing to where I could see the rays on the sandy floor, or the sharks gliding through the water.
It was great fun and amazing to see up close. My only regret is not hiring my own go-pro or underwater camera. If you can rent one, it is really worth the money!
Despite leaving the boat with over 50 insect bites (yes really!) I had the best time and made some great friends. The food was top notch (thanks, Lizzie) and our makeshift beds surprisingly comfortable.
Flight over the Great Barrier Reef
Not content with seeing the reef from the surface, I booked myself on a scenic flight the next day. I was put in the co-pilot seat to my absolute delight. Scanning the controls and manoeuvring my legs to allow the throttle to be fully pulled up, I started making some small talk with the real pilot, pointing to some buttons;
“What does this do?!”
“Don’t touch that.”
We flew over Shute Harbour, Hamilton Island, circled over Whitehaven and out to the Great Barrier Reef. I booked my flight at low tide (8am) to get the best views of the exposed reef and it was amazing. 100 shades of blue and green, glistening and bright in the sunshine. We flew over huge sections of reef including the aptly named ‘Heart Reef’. It was mesmerising to see it glint and glitter, and the tiny white triangles of sailboats bobbing on the sea.
The Whitsundays were as far north as I made it on my trip up the Australian coast, but I was beyond happy to see the Great Barrier Reef in all its glory – stretching for miles into the distance, the largest living structure on earth. With new reports out every year on its continuing decline, I know I am one of the privileged few on this earth who have witnessed its true beauty.