The Whitsundays are a small group of islands just off the coast of Australia (within the Great Barrier Reef) in Queensland.
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After getting another great sleep in my spacious digs I packed up a small bag for two nights out on the ship. All food etc was provided, all they asked was no giant bags and bring your own booze in cans (or full sized wine and spirit bottles) since bottled beer takes up too much garbage space. A little before three I started walking over to the marina with my daypack and a selection of Australian cider and felt about 300% better than the previous morning. It’s amazing what a bit of sleep can do for you. The marina itself was one bay over from the beach area and to get there I had to walk along a really nicely laid out boardwalk around the lip of the bay and past one of the more fancy resorts in town. Once I got to the marina though, I was at a bit of a loss as to where to go. Annoyingly, the travel agent who’d printed my boarding pass for me (not the woman at the hotel) had given me one that said meeting point at BoatX’s meeting point… which isn’t marked anywhere. You think they could have written “Meeting Point North” since that was clearly indicated on the marina map and on the covered gangway where I eventually found out I was supposed to be.
Confusion aside, a little before four a very tanned younger guy came up and asked if I was Tristan, he then rounded up two young Danish girls as well before introducing himself as Jesse. He said he was skipper of the catamaran On Ice and gave us the amazing news that due to a booking snafu, we were the only 3 on what is normally a 10 passenger cruise. Suddenly that discount became the deal of a lifetime. We headed down into the packed Marina and met the deckhand/cook Craig who took our shoes (apparently the “shackles of civilization.”) The girls got an ensuite cabin (which I suspect they didn’t pay for as they’re travelling much like me) while I got my own cabin with a big queen bed and a mini bunk above with what was basically my own head right next door. The crew took the starboard cabins (often they just sleep on deck or on one of the mini bunks) so they were enjoying the sparseness of pax just as much as us. After a quick safety briefing we were underway.
The catamaran was gorgeous, gleaming white and functional yet with an air of unmistakable class. I wasn’t surprised to find out it had started life as a charter boat out of the millionaire’s resort on one of the islands. Apparently it’s had a few celebrity visitors in its time. All I really cared about was our steady progress out into the emerald green waters of the bay. For a while we put up the sails and went along on wind power, but the wind was so intermittent and erratic that eventually the skipper gave up. The engines weren’t loud though so it was still very peaceful. Even sailing out around Airlie Beach the water was very clear and you could often see a fish swimming up into the shallows. As with everywhere on the east coast now that it’s wintertime here the sun set quickly (but beautifully) and we were soon motoring out into the dark. We eventually moored near the lights of several other boats including the sister vessel of “on ice” the rather shockingly named Iceberg (i suppose that less of a bad luck thing in the southern hemisphere?.)
It turns out that Craig had trained as a chef once upon a time so dinner was tons better than I expected. BBQ grilled chicken with Tzaziki, a fresh salad and pesto noodles were the first night’s meal, absolutely delicious and massive portions. Not surprising I suppose as he’s used to cooking for 10+2 crew, but he said they always served a ton of food. The Danes (Signe and Stine) called it a night not long after dinner, knowing it would be a big day tomorrow, but I headed up to the front decking instead and had a gorgeous view of the stars, miles from the nearest streetlight. Beautiful view of the southern cross and many other constellations that are pretty unfamiliar. I’d just gone back to crack open another Cider and talk with the boys when we saw a zodiac tender coming over and Iceberg’s crew hopped on board for a drink (probably figuring by the lack of people on deck that the whole boat was asleep.) Turns out the guy skipping the Iceberg was named Tristram, one of the two brothers that own the company. Everyone was good fun and we all had a long chat before I finally gave in to the rocking of the boat and headed to bed.
I woke up a little after six with the crew, hoping to make the most of the daylight and the current tide conditions. Snagged a glass of orange juice as we waited rather impatiently for the girls. Given that they’d gone to bed at 9 at the latest they took their time getting up. Jesse had actually given up and was bringing the tender in to take me over to the hike start beach when they finally showed up on deck. All of them missed one of the most amazing sights of the entire trip though as looking over Jesse’s shoulder I saw a Dugong (the aussie sea cow I saw in the Sydney Aquarium) surface briefly, then throw his flippers up and dive when he saw all the boats around. Amazing, and a seriously rare treat according to Craig, even for those who frequently sail here. I don’t mean to sound like I’m annoyed with them, they were very nice and hey I like sleep too, I just didn’t go on the boat to sleep. I had a massive smile on my face as we hopped into the launch and headed to shore, passing a small sea turtle poking his head above water. By the time we got to the beach though the girls had delayed us enough that we were climbing the path to the lookout behind the entire party crew of a 32-person tall mast ship which was rather unfortunate, especially as they seemed to the world’s slowest walkers. We put on our shackles of civilization and headed uphill.
When we reached the Hill Inlet lookout it was worth it though. You get a gorgeous view down into a shallow inlet that just swirls with sand. It wasn’t the ideal combo of tide and sun to get the greatest of the patterns (do a quick GIS for Whitsunday Island and you’ll see what I mean) but it was still gorgeous. Adding to the wonder were the large number of clearly visible stingrays gliding around in the water hunting for the ghost of Steve Irwin. We were up reasonably high and we could clearly see their stings whipping around in the water… definitely don’t want to be on the business end of one. Stupidly enough we managed to time our exit from the lookout to end up right behind the slowpokes again, though this time in between two groups of them. I got to listen to the thrillingly inane conversation stylings of two Brit girls with that really annoying British valley girl thing going on. Instead of ending every sentence as a question (though they do that a lot too) they sort of sort of a singsong-dipthong thing with the middle of the last word of sentence while at the same time extending the middle syllable or vowel sound of the word to four or five times its appropriate length. As in: “Oh, I love that sh-ohhhhhOWWWWWW. So incredibly grating when she did it every sentence and didn’t stop chattering once for 15 minutes. After heading down to boat we cruised around the point and into the beach visible in the distance from the lookout where we tried out stand up paddle boarding (basically a big surfboard with a long canoelike paddle) which I was ok at, and Windsurfing which I continue to be absolute rubbish at.
After an excellent lunch we continued to cruise north up to the other big island in the chain known as Hook Island. Finally it was time for some snorkelling and we came around the corner into a nice sheltered cove called Manta Ray Bay. We all threw on our (soggy from earlier) wetsuits, it’s unfortunately still the tail end of stinger season and the last thing they want is for one of us to be hurt or killed by the nasty poisonous jellyfish. They’re also protection from some of the sharp bits of coral , though hopefully no one touched any. We were in the water almost immediately and surrounded by parrotfish from the instant we dropped below the dark green surface. Visibility was decent though apparently not as good it can be as they’ve had tons of rain lately. I’m not sure how long we swam around that bay, at least 90 minutes I’m guessing. Tons of parrot fish, angelfish, sandfish and many others I can’t remember of smaller varieties… we also saw several quite large grouper type fish, a small sea turtle and just before getting out a massive tuna. The girls went back to the boat before me, but eventually I hopped back on board and we went two bays down to Maureen’s Cove for another round. Both spots had the same types of fish in different concentrations all swimming over a gloriously colourful landscape of coral reef, sponges, clams and sea cucumbers. I’ll be posting some of the video taken with the underwater camera once I’m home and have some editing tools. After a while we were tired and I think Jesse guessed because he came back over on the inflatable raft, pulling himself along using an underwater scooter. We hopped on top and hung over the sides with our masks on. Laziest snorkelling ever, it was especially nice because we were able to get up speed and glide which let us sneak up on a few of the shyer fish.
Once we were back on the boat again we were all exhausted… paddle boarding, windsurfing two long snorkels and a lot of sun meant we were ready for a rest and some food. Unfortunately dinner wasn’t until we reached our mooring for the night which was still quite a ways away so all three of us curled up on the netting and relaxed in the sun with the sea streaming underneath us. I was unfortunately hobbling everywhere. I must have smacked the boarding ladder jumping off the boat because I felt some pain, but was too excited to really notice. It wasn’t until I got back on the boat the first time and it warmed up a bit that I realized I was in a fair amount of pain. My ankle was pretty quickly swollen with a tennis ball sized lump forming above it. I wasn’t going to let it keep me out of the water though so after some ice and elevation I was back in the water. Things weren’t helped by the fact that I sunburned the top of my feet from having them just above the water surface as I held them clear of the coral. Thankfully things were feeling much better by bed and by morning though it’s stiff I was able to walk semi normally, I won’t be hiking for a few days though. The guys were fairly concerned but I’m sure it’s ok, I do think I likely would have broken something had I not had the wetsuit on though.
That Night we moored at a snorkelling spot on the edge of Hayman Island, once a mega resort in the top 10 in the world. It’s still up there but not quite that high, but actually closed for the moment due to cyclone damage. It was getting close to sunset by the time we dropped anchor surround by a few private yachts and a bunch of other charter boats, these ones of the 28-35 person variety I had no interest in taking. They were every bit as loud and wild sounding as I expected. Our closest neighbour actually ended up being what looked like a pair of older couples blasting some Elvis as the sun set to the west. We ate a few nibblies with another gorgeous sunset as a backdrop. It wasn’t until it was dark that we heard some splashing between us and the elvis boat. Eventually we caught the occasional flick of a dorsal fin across the shimmer of their deck lights in the water. Craig figured the dolphin(s) were coming up to see the light. He went and grabbed a powerful torch and we began to shine it into the water. It took a while but eventually a small bottlenose dolphin that looked like a juvenile began to come almost but not quite into the beam then surface. He was a little nervous of the side of our hull, but got his nerve up eventually and came close enough for us to get a fantastic look at him both above and below the water. Eventually he got confident enough that he’d briefly surface in the light and look at us before flipping over and circling again. A magical way to end what was already one of the top five days of my life.
The next morning I was the first one up and I climbed up on deck to just enjoy the silence. No one else was stirring on any boat close to us and all I could hear was the slap of waves and the occasional creak of a bit of rigging in the wind. Eventually Jesse showed up and told me if I got into my wetsuit he’d give me the scooter and I could head over to the reef before any of the bigger boats got there. Sadly the damn thing’s battery must not have charged because it quit halfway in. He had to take me in on the launch instead, he knew I didn’t want to wait for the girls that morning. In the end I spent about 45 minutes on the reef before a group of girls came over from one of the biggies, all with floaties and half of them screaming when fish got close to them. Thankfully before they showed up and scared everything bigger off I saw a parrotfish that probably weighed as much as I do as well as 3 different Moray Eels looking absolutely evil but fascinating. I caught a short glimpse of a really big turtle in the distance but couldn’t catch up to him. Later, our second stop meant one last snorkel over a more open water reef. The girls didn’t want to go back in the water so they took the transparent lexan kayak out instead, but I wasn’t passing up the chance. Lots of colourful fish, tidal conditions weren’t as good though. I did get my other really rare spot though, a very furtive looking octopus (thankfully not the mega venomous blue ring one) briefly disturbed by a reef trout brushing by it scooted across and other a different rock. Sadly hopping back on the boat meant it was time to head back, but I must say it was nice to get out of the wetsuit for a while. I’ll be back in one for pool training starting Friday.
I can’t recommend the guys at Real Sail enough. Even had On Ice been full it would have been spacious and luxurious, we just got the bonus. All of the staff I dealt with were courteous and loads of fun, yet they all have a lot of respect for the island conservation area and everything that lives in it. I heartily recommend you head out with them if you’re in this neck of the woods, either on my two night trip or the one nighter on Iceberg if you have less time.