Over & Under Oz

Australia’s Whitsunday Islands offer year-round snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing and hiking.

I secure my snorkel and mask, hold my breath and slip off the side of the tender. I’m the first in the water, and I see it immediately: a pair of thick, rubbery lips looming a foot and a half from my face. Two distinctive black lines behind the eyes and a distinguishing hump on the forehead identify my companion as a Napoleon wrasse. A second joins us from my left and, apparently accustomed to human beings, brushes my leg.

It took only seconds for me to understand why so many people say the snorkeling here in Manta Ray Bay, a protected area off Hook Island in Australia’s Whitsundays archipelago, is so fantastic. In other parts of the world, you can snorkel for hours and not see a single fish like that, let alone two of them up close through such crystal-clear water.

The Pinnacles at Hook Island is one of the best dive sites in the Whitsundays to find luminescent hard coral and clusters of staghorn coral.

It’s also a spot that—like so many great spots in the Whitsundays—is easy to reach by yacht. I’ve arrived after a two-minute tender ride from the 92-foot (28-meter) Falcon Norseman, which is moored at Luncheon Bay, also off Hook Island. Norseman is Coral Sea Marina Resort owner Paul Darrouzet’s private vessel, one of a multitude of yachts that use the marina’s 520 berths up to 262 feet (80 meters) as a home port. From the marina, the whole of the Whitsundays archipelago is in reach; its 74 islands span an area a little more than 100 square miles (about 260 square kilometers) in size, part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Luncheon Bay, on the northern side of Hook Island, is one of Capt. Ben Robinson’s top five Whitsunday anchorages. It is a prized scuba diving site where lionfish live among the staghorn coral, and where a swim-through coral formation known as the “tunnel of love” is just inside the bay.

Farther around the island, the Pinnacles is one of the best dive sites in the Whitsundays, with hard corals comparing favorably to those seen on the outer Great Barrier Reef. Happily, the Whitsundays and its more than 400 species of soft corals remain virtually unaffected by the Great Barrier Reef’s recent, disturbing bleaching episodes.

Back aboard Norseman, we cruise west past privately owned Hayman Island, home to the newly opened InterContinental Hotel, and head to our next anchorage: Langford Island. Secluded and uninhabited, it is famed for its long sand spit that all but disappears at high tide. Stretching for several hundred yards at low tide, it is ideal for intimate picnics on the soft sands. It can only be reached by yacht, helicopter or seaplane. A fringing reef surrounds Langford Island, providing yet more incredible snorkeling opportunities, including with turtles that live among the “bommies” (what the locals call clusters of coral). Six of the world’s seven species of sea turtles are found here in the Whitsundays, including green and hawksbill, which are endangered species.

Like many people who cruise in the Whitsundays, I can’t get enough of being in the water, and I am forever thankful that Norseman has a hydraulic swim platform that, when it’s not deploying the tender, is lifting my exhausted body and gear back on board. The open aft deck is just steps away, with uninterrupted views of the surroundings and loungers for enjoying a crisp, post-snorkel glass of Australian chardonnay.

Our itinerary takes us next to the southwest corner of Stonehaven Bay and Eaglehawk Reef, where ospreys nest in the trees and rocky outcrops. During the wet season from December to March, freshwater falls here cascade to life. Hiking amid the rock pools makes for an enticing shore excursion, especially for bird-watchers, since multiple species migrate through here.

“Some fishing is permitted, with lots of spotted mackerel and even Spanish mackerel in the Stonehaven area,” Robinson says. “If northerly winds are prominent, then Mackerel Bay on Whitsunday Island is great. There are underwater caves here for both snorkelers and divers to explore, and it’s a very good location for spearfishing.”

The 92-foot Falcon Norseman, owned by Coral Sea Marina Resort owner Paul Darrouzet, is ideally suited to a day of cruising the stunning bays and inlets found throughout the Whitsunday Islands.

After three years at the helm of Norseman, Robinson favors calm Nara Inlet as an ideal spot for kayaking over coral reefs or paddleboarding above manta rays.

“There is also a fantastic bush track here that leads up to a cave containing ancient Ngaro aboriginal artwork, and it makes for a pleasant walk with a breathtaking view over the inlet,” he says. So too, the fine white silica sands of Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island are a must-visit.

Only five of the 74 Whitsunday islands are home to resorts. Hamilton Island is the most frequented, with its palm-fringed beaches and domestic airport. For a quick overnight stay on shore, qualia resort has pavilions with on-the-water vistas and uninterrupted views of humpback whales during their migration north from feeding grounds in Antarctica. And, it’s a 10-minute tender ride to Dent Island and the Hamilton Island Golf Club, marketed as the only 18-hole championship golf course on its own island in Australia.

But for me, nothing compares to the underwater enticements. Stepping Stones at Bait Reef is another bucket-list dive site. Lying 34 nautical miles northeast of the Whitsunday mainland, it forms part of the Outer Great Barrier Reef with more than 18 flat-topped coral pinnacles, each decorated with sea fans and sea whips and topped by hard coral gardens. Bait Reef also houses the Manta Ray Drop Off, a series of underwater cliffs and a wall of coral that plunges to 82 feet (25 meters).

A few nautical miles east of there is Hardy Reef, home to Heart Reef, a heart-shaped coral bommie with a diameter of 19 feet (5.6 meters).

“The Whitsundays is why we love boating,” Robinson says. “Untouched environments with beautiful pristine beaches, bays, reefs and turquoise blue waters. You can spend years exploring this region and still come across amazing surprises, not to mention the beautiful, dense rainforests with awesome hikes, wildlife and outstanding views.” 

For more information: coralseamarina.com

Wanted: Citizen Researchers on Superyachts 

The endangered hawksbill sea turtle is one of six species of turtles that call the clear waters of the Whitsundays home.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest and longest coral reef system, stretching some 1,400 miles (2,300 kilometers). Composed of more than 2,900 individual reefs, it’s one of the world’s great natural wonders. It is also a delicate ecosystem affected by the warming effects of climate change, land-based runoff and crown-of-thorns starfish.

Hoping to protect the area, Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef is looking for yacht owners. The organization’s latest project, the Great Reef Census, aims to establish a scientifically sound, broad snapshot of the reef’s status. The group is seeking superyachts whose owners and crew can help put trackers on marine animals.

It’s not too late to save what remains one of the world’s natural wonders, according to CEO Andy Ridley: “While the effect of warmer and more acidic ocean water so far has been substantial in some areas, such as coral bleaching, the reef is still extraordinary.” —J.Z.

For more information: citizensgbr.org

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Yachts International.


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