“If you have a hat on, you should take it off now because you’re gonna lose it in ten seconds.”
That was Brody’s warning as we slowly cruised out of the Abell Point Marina, right before he cranked up the music (Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy”) and punched the accelerator to launch our speed boat forward. I was perched on the edge, staying in place thanks to a hand strap inside the boat, taking in the turquoise waters and emerald islands as we flew through the water (and sometimes launching straight out of it). We danced over the ocean, weaving from side to side, even tossing in the occasional donut, before settling into a more direct path towards the northern Whitsunday islands.
You know those awesome scenes they always have at the end of movies when everything is right with the world and the main characters are off to live happily ever after? This was one of those moments, soundtrack and everything.
I’d been told by several people that I had to visit the Whitsundays and had been assured that Ocean Rafting was the best tour in town. They were absolutely right on both accounts. The islands here are part of the Great Barrier Reef and below the water lies a vibrant and active world. This trip was to be my first experience with this natural world wonder and it did not disappoint.
The Whitsundays are made up of 74 continental islands, meaning they were once the high points of the mainland before the valleys between them were flooded after the last ice age. They are located off the coast of Airlie Beach in northeastern Queensland.
On our way to the first of our two snorkel locations, we passed many islands covered in dense forest, some edged with huge rocks, that are mostly uninhabited by people (although there are facilities on a few). After 40 minutes or so, we pulled into a cove-like area, moored the boat away from the reef, and prepped for our snorkel session. In my past snorkeling experiences, I’ve sometimes been made to wear a life vest (which was cumbersome and annoying, as it kept tipping me upright) and sometimes just floated around on my own. Turns out the best way to snorkel is with a pool noodle. Who knew? I literally just laid there in the water with the noodle under my hips and had to exert zero effort in staying horizontal. Brillant.
The water here was still a bit chilly and I was thankful for my wet suit. The sky was overcast, which cooled things down a bit and also probably reduced some of the coloration in the coral, although I saw lots of yellows, oranges, and purples (my favorite). Unfortunately, there was also what seemed like quite a bit of dead, broken, and bleached pieces of coral on the ocean floor. This was my first time here, so I don’t have anything to compare this to and I’m not sure if this is the big bleaching event that’s been in the news or if this is normal. Either way, it was sad to see and reminded me of the Elephant Graveyard in The Lion King.
There were fish of every size and color, from the tiny, shimmery blue ones who travel in schools to the large, brightly multi-colored parrotfish who swim about solo. There were the dark pink ones, some purple ones, and yes, I did find Nemo. There were huge, boulder-like coral formations, the wavy brain corals, and the several types of fan coral; I particularly liked the sea anemones with their waving tentacles. Everywhere I looked there was something new to see but, unfortunately, I do not have a waterproof camera so you’re just going to have to trust me (or Google pics of the Great Barrier Reef).
When you’re underwater, the sounds from above are blocked out. But it’s not completely quiet down there. You can hear the parrotfish chomping on coral and, apparently, catch a whale song if you dive down a few feet (I tried this three times and didn’t hear anything, unfortunately…I’m not sure if they weren’t singing in those moments or if I just couldn’t hear it).
After about an hour at this location, we moved to a different inlet to have a second snorkel. The second spot had more coral but fewer fish. Both were very cool in their own way and it was nice to have the variety in the experience.
When our snorkeling was over, we got out of our wetsuits and headed over to Whitsunday Island, home of the famous Whitehaven Beach. We pulled up to the back side of the island and headed up a short trail to the overlook point. Whitehaven Beach is so beautiful it looks fake, especially from up high. The sand is pure white and sandbars in the shallow, aqua blue water create a swirled appearance. The most shallow parts of the water are completely clear, allowing you to see the stingrays who live there, their dark bodies a stark contrast to the white sand.
The sand on Whitehaven Beach is 98% pure silica, giving it that bright white color and also keeping it cool no matter how hot the weather.
After taking in the view, we headed down the other side of the island to experience the beach firsthand. We grabbed our picnic lunch from the boat (which had driven around during our hike) and ate on the sand. We had about an hour to enjoy the area, which included some swimming and a lot of selfies. There weren’t many fish around, although we did see a lemon shark swimming near shore.
When lunch was finished, we started to head back home. We were cruising right along for about a half hour when Brody suddenly took a hard turn to the left. At first I thought we were back to our ocean antics, but then I saw a mother Humpback whale and her calf come straight out of the water, directly in front of me. He’d spotted the whales from a ways back and was trying to get us over to see them before we had to get back to the docks. As soon as we made the turn, the first breach happened. We cut the engines and idled while the whales continued to breach several times over the next few minutes. It was completely amazing.
After the mother whale’s tail fluke came out of the water, we knew she’d gone for a deep dive and our impromptu show was over. It was time to head back, although we did catch one more breach from a solo whale behind us. This was the sort of display you always hope to see when you go whale watching, but it’s a rare occurrence. It was a magical end to an incredible day.
If you find yourself in Airlie Beach, definitely check out Ocean Rafting. I could not recommend them more.