It’s nearly 3 pm and my husband and I have already had about three hours exploring Hardy Reef, one of over 3000 separate coral reefs included in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. From ‘Reefworld’, a spacious pontoon permanently moored here, we’ve swum 300 metres along a coral wall a couple times, sharing our underwater discoveries with some of the 100+ day trippers who accompanied us here this morning from Airlie Beach and emerging once, to tuck into a buffet lunch of prawns, cold meats, and salads.
And then something wonderful happens. Just about everyone leaves!
Only seven fellow guests remain; with them, we’ll share the intimate magic of the reef until the catamaran returns at 11 am tomorrow.
Delighted, we slide back into the water, again following the ropes and mooring buoys that stretch out from the pontoon.
But this time the only other beings sharing this underwater space have gills.
The other overnight, ‘Reefsleep’ guests have had enough snorkelling for the day and are quite content to enjoy some of Reefworld’s onboard facilities – including sitting on the shady back deck and drinking beer.
Staying overnight at Whitsundays ReefSleep is one of the coolest things to do in Queensland.
It’s better than visiting one of the reef’s pontoons on a day trip and right up there with going on a scenic flight over the islands.
The pontoon also has a sunny upper deck with tables and lounges, change rooms, a waterslide, and snorkelling and dive gear areas.
One of its most compelling features, though, is an underwater viewing chamber, where you can observe a variety of fish, including ‘George’, the site’s 250+-kilogram resident Queensland grouper, and a two-metre-long Maori wrasse.
And, of course, Reefworld’s best aspect is that you only need about three freestyle swimming strokes to move between the snorkelling platform and the reef’s many wonders.
Finally emerging from the water, we take hot showers in the shared facilities and then find the pontoon caretaker on the upper deck, preparing our swags.
The pontoon has one double room available, but the bulk of its accommodation is in single or double premium swags (cosy low tents with a clear viewing panel), which are fitted with mattresses, pillows, sheets, and freshly laundered sleeping bags.
Settling at a blissfully lonely table near the swags, glass of wine in hand, we watch the turquoise waters swallow the sun.
The wine, exercise, and seasickness medication from earlier this morning have cast a spell on my eyelids and body, and I cuddle into the swag, perfectly content until dinner time.
I’m so comfortable and comatose that I don’t really want to emerge till morning, but I’m glad I do.
Catered by award-winning Airlie Beach restaurant Fish D’vine, dinner features seafood chowder; grilled mackerel, steak, chicken, and sausages; and the star palate pleaser: a decadent chocolate and hazelnut cake as well as sticky date pudding.
But the sugar doesn’t stand a chance of keeping me awake.
Following a quick peek at sweet George, who is currently trying to hide near the edge of the viewing chamber, as if we can’t see him there, it’s back to the swag for a brief gaze up at Orion and the surrounding stars… and then the day for me is finished.
I wake after sunrise, around 6 am, well before fellow Reefsleepers but not ahead of the caretaker, who kindly makes me an instant coffee.
My husband and I are disappointed that we can’t jump straight into the water – another crew member must lower the steps and platforms first – but we try to make the most of hour or so wait, preparing camera equipment and looking for surfacing turtles. And when we do reach the reef, we really do have it all to ourselves.
Snorkelling with turtles
Visibility (which was only 10-12 metres yesterday) has improved by a few metres, the morning light is soft and graceful, and we see more marine life than yesterday – several humphead wrasse, a hawksbill turtle, a fleeting eagle ray, and hundreds of colourful fish.
Fellow guests are all awake when we return for eggs on toast, but when we slip into the water afterwards we’re still only sharing this wonderland with two fellow guests.
The others spend the morning lounging on the upper deck, playing on the waterslide, and joining a semi-submersible tour.
A couple of helicopters arrive around8:30 am, delivering a handful of Hamilton Island guests for a snorkel or dive, but these intruders seem to spend more time sipping sparkling wine than swimming, and they’re soon off to their next destination.
By 11am, when the day-trippers arrive on the transfer vessel, we’ve had three good snorkelling sessions.
We’re greedy, though – this exclusive experience has been far too pleasing, and we’re not at all happy to see the packed boat return.
But sharing this piece of coral heaven does have benefits.
As we attempt to shimmy into the water, an arriving staff member approaches us.
“Have you seen the pink anemone fish just under the flag?” he asks.
We shake our heads.
“They’re several metres underwater – you’ll have to free dive down – and make sure to check out the giant clams nearby, too.”
On the cruise back to Airlie, the mass elation of the day-trippers is evident – they really do seem thrilled with their experience.
Still, when you consider that these day guests have paid $230 per adult for approximately three hours of potential in-water time, Reefsleep (which includes 10+ hours of snorkelling time, accommodation, and meals) is quite a good deal.
Reefsleep is approximately 40 nautical miles northeast of the Whitsunday coast and caters for up to 9 overnight guests.
Aside from one double room (from $475 per person), accommodation is ‘Under the Stars’ on the upper deck in comfortable single or double swags ($425 per person).
Meals are included, as are bath towels (bring your own swimming towel).
The minimum age for Reefsleep guests is 12 years old.
Optional extras (for an additional cost) include scuba diving, night diving (if booked three days in advance), guided snorkelling, heli-flights, and massage.
Tip: Make the most of your time here by snorkelling before breakfast. The light is beautiful at this time of day, and you may be the only person in the water.