As well as providing much of the on-water transport between the mainland, the Whitsunday Island resorts and the Outer Reef, Cruise Whitsundays at Airlie Beach also operate three pontoons moored against the edge of the Hardy Reef. The largest and best known is the ReefWorld platform that sports a dive centre, snorkelling, semi-submersible tours and has its own underwater viewing gallery that looks out (underwater) on the coral reef wall of Hardy Reef and all its inhabitants.
The custom-built luxury catamaran Seaflight makes the trip from Airlie Beach, via the Whitsundays to the pontoon and back each day. Departing around 8.30am, Seaflight moors alongside the pontoon at 11am and together they form a floating village offering their temporary residents an incredible array of activities.
The main attraction is snorkelling, and the snorkelling area is marked with surface buoys and ropes allowing snorkelers to explore the reef edge north and south, and at high tide, the reef top.
For those who want to stay dry the glass bottom boat tours depart every half-hour and there are scenic flights every 20 minutes. Other ‘attractions’ include the giant Queensland Groper that hangs out just below the pontoon, Chunky and Nick the two turtles who come daily to nibble the sponge on the side of the pontoon, and there is an underwater viewing platform with information panels to improve the appreciation of the Reef and its inhabitants.
As well as diving for certified divers, there are discover scuba diving tours for those who want to do more than a snorkel. The pontoon has a gantry below it that allows newbie divers to walk into water waist deep, and then sit down submerging them completely whilst still holding firmly onto the handrails.
This gradual entry makes it an easy transition into the watery world and most newbies take to it, well, like a duck.
Lunch is served on the boat, which departs the pontoon at 3pm with the day guests. It is possible to fit two dives in during the stay at the reef, but the smarter move is to stay overnight on the pontoon – an experience call Reefsleep. Not only do you get dinner, breakfast and a night in a swag under the stars, but you also get two dives each day, and a night dive on the Great Barrier Reef.
The Seaflight departs Port of Airlie at Airlie Beach, and Hamilton daily.
Enquiries: please contact Cruise Whitsundays directly on: +61 7 4846 7000 or via their Contact page.
We boarded the almost futuristic-looking Seaflight at Airlie Beach. The three-hour trip passed fairly quickly with a short stop at Hamilton Island and briefings and demonstrations for snorkeling, scuba diving and general ‘coral reef etiquette’.
On arrival, we quickly geared up, and were taken out by one of the tenders, to a more remote section of the reef, well away from the snorkelers and DSDs.
The reef slopes at a comfortable angle and the different types of coral are layered from 20 m all the way to the surface. All the usual suspects are present: rabbits, butterflies, angels and surgeons; plenty of coral grouper and reef lizards. There is big stuff too: Trevally and Jacks, and little stuff like damsels and dascyllus.
After the dive, we enjoy a leisurely lunch which is served on the boat up until 2pm, and although there are almost 200 people around, as they are scattered between the different activities and often in the water, the place doesn’t feel crowded. At 2:45pm the horn sounds to announce the impending 3pm day boat departure.
We watch, and wave, and suddenly we have the place to ourselves. We decide to go for a leisurely dive. Depending on the mild current, we are dropped north or south, and our expert guide Tom, delivers us back to the pontoon at exactly 50 bar.
We also find a variety of ‘macro’ critters, from flat worms to tubular and colourful nudibranchs in quite large numbers. Often the hardest part is finding a place to rest a finger that is not covered in coral or sponge to take a photograph, but when you do and get in and up close you see two or three where at first you thought there was only one.
The coral is in great condition, with small and large acropora tables competing for space between cabbage patches and thickets of staghorn. Most surfaces are covered with encrusting coral or sponge with soft corals and anemones dotted between them.
We surface, we watch the sun sink into the sea with a drink and a few nibbles, and we slip back into the now dark waters to explore the reef at night. Where during the day, much of the coral looks like a limestone skeleton, at night it’s alive with tentacles feeding the animals within. Most of the fish are hidden away, and we find a big Queensland Grouper with his head wedged under a rock, but his rear end still hanging out in plain sight.
After the dive, we’re presented a barbecue dinner of succulent meat and chicken, fish and salad, plus starter and desert served on the rear deck beneath the stars. Around us the Coral Sea is silent apart from the turtles nibbling on the sponge and the occasional splash of a fish somewhere close by. A few drinks and we retired to the comfort of the swag to sleep soundly until dawn. (I dream I’m floating on a Persian carpet!)
In the morning the sun rose from a glassy sea – the whole scene exuding calm and tranquillity. However, realizing the clock was slowly ticking back round to 11am we packed in another dive before our alfresco breakfast and another one afterward before the day boat arrived.
After another lunch – with a beer this time, I set to work reviewing the 1,180 photos. You can see the best of them (grouped by corals, fish, nudis and everything else) via the links below.