Standing on the pontoon, we watch the boat and all the other passengers disappear towards the horizon. The excited chatter of 200 people has gone, and gradually the hum of the engine starts to fade away.
There’s not even a cricket to interrupt the silence as it sinks in. We’ve been left behind on the Great Barrier Reef 50 km from the nearest land. A wave of tranquillity hits. Silence is golden.
We’re here to experience the Reef at night, to explore the reef below us, and the sleep under the stars in swags.
10 minutes ago the Reefworld pontoon was heaving with 200 day-trippers, now there are just 10 of us. It almost feels too good, certainly far too indulgent, to have the whole pontoon and the whole Reef to ourselves.
Our day started ordinarily enough, we boarded the almost futuristic looking Seaflight at Airlie Beach with around 200 fellow passengers, looking forward to swimming, snorkelling and diving on Hardy Reef. The three-hour trip passes fairly quickly with a short stop at Hamilton Island and presentations about the activities in store for us, as well as some general information about ‘coral reef etiquette’.
The Reefworld pontoon is moored against the edge of the Hardy Reef and the Seaflight moors alongside the pontoon. Together they form a floating village offering their temporary residents an incredible array of activities.
Most people have come to snorkel with Nemo. 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. There are even small rest areas with buoyancy aids for those who in their excitement explore too far and suddenly find themselves a few hundred metres from the pontoon.
For the uninitiated there are guided snorkelling tours and for the more adventurous, discover diving tours. 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.
For those who want to stay dry and still meet Nemo and friends, the glass bottom boat tours depart every half-hour and there are scenic flights every 20 minutes.
Other ‘attractions’ include the giant grouper 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’s an underwater viewing platform with information panels to improve the appreciation of the Reef and its inhabitants.
Lunch is served on the boat between 12 and 2pm, and although there are around 200 guests, as they are scattered around 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, thank them for coming, and going!
The Reefsleep guests and few remaining crew breath a collective sigh. It’s time to spread out and enjoy the peace and quiet. We decide to go for a leisurely dive.
The dives follow the same reef edge north and south. 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, damsels, butterflies, angels and surgeons; plenty of coral groper and reef lizards. There is big stuff too: Trevally and Jacks swim past us in the blue.
We also find a wide variety of ‘macro’ critters, from flat worms to tubular and colourful nudibranchs in quite large numbers. Often when you get 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. At night the reef is 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, served on the large rear deck beneath the stars. Around us the Coral Sea is silent apart the occasional splash of a fish somewhere close by. A few drinks and we retire to the comfort of the swag.
After three full one-hour dives I think I could have slept on a bed of rusty nails, but the swag mattress was as comfortable as the best Japanese futon. And I slept soundly until dawn.
The moon was still full in the morning, and the sun rose from a glassy sea. The whole scene exuded calm and tranquillity. We manage to squeeze in another dive before our alfresco breakfast and another one afterwards before the day boat arrived with its flood of new guests desperate to maximise their four-hour experience at Reefworld.
Sure enough, they arrive on the dot; but still, we’d had the whole reef to ourselves for 20 hours of peace and tranquillity – a great night on the Great Barrier Reef.