Well, my friends, we made it back from our excursion. Yesterday morning D and I departed from Airlie Beach on a three hour trip by boat to “Reefworld,” a large pontoon anchored off of Hardy Reef, 40 miles from shore. For the trip, we ditched our bags at Hamilton Island.
Reefworld is a permanently moored boat that daily hosts hordes of up to 300 feral humans at a time, almost all of whom are daytripping out to the reef, where after the 3-hour trip, they spend 4 hours snorkeling, sunning, and generally being tourists. After that, they face a 3-hour return ride to the mainland. It sounds absolutely horrendous, and if this is what we were looking at we would never have gone. But it wasn’t – instead we were planning to spend the night on the pontoon, with the expectation that, once everybody was gone, we would have the entire raft to ourselves with just a few others.
Mia was our guide for the evening. She met us on the boat and oriented us. There were four other reefsleepers, students from China who are studying in Canberra. The ride out to the reef was rather rough, and she plied the students with seasickness drugs that also knocked them out. D and I declined, prefering to stay awake and watch our fellow travelers turn various shades of green.
On arrival at the pontoon, there was a mad rush of people going various directions. There were only a limited number of certified divers, and we were quickly shuttled into the water, so as to maximize the opportunity to dive. This picture shows the scuba area, as well as the under-boat diving platform. Beneath the platform, they had numerous lines to guide us to different points along the reef.
I did two dives before the daytrippers left. The brown areas you see in the above picture are the top of the reef, which is completely exposed at low tide, but covered over at high tide. Our dives took us along the side of that structure, the reef wall.
And on both of the initial dives I screwed up a setting on the camera *sigh.* But a few things came out. Fish, incidentally, swim fast when you try to photograph them.
An interesting point that comes up is the reasons we wanted to do the reefsleep. One of those reasons was the opportunity to snorkel when there weren’t hordes of people in the water. But the wind was vicious, the air was chilly, and nobody actually went in the water.
One of the benefits, however, was a private trip in the “semisubmersible,” a boat with an underwater viewing area that the drive out to the reefwall, so people who don’t want to go snorkeling or diving can get a good view of the reef. We sat on long benches looking out the windows, and the entire thing reminded me of the old Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea ride at Disney World. Except we were looking at real live animals. And I wasn’t afraid to touch the water.
As the afternoon grew old, we were greeted by a turtle swimming around the pontoon.
The boat has an underwater viewing area, and he followed us down there. He seems to be grazing on some of the corals that have taken hold on the pontoon.
We missed the actual sunset, but the luminous clouds in the sky still bid us a good evening.
For dinner, we were met by sea birds. Despite their Hitchcock-inspired groupings, these birds are not the most intelligent that I have seen. They kept trying to land on the hot griddle and repeatedly flew into solid walls. I’ve seen birds fly into windows, but never walls. They also frequently were found to be laying on their sides on the deck, looking dead, but the Chinese students proved otherwise, rescuing them and throwing them overboard. Evolution has selected against these birds, but they haven’t figured it out yet.
After a dinner of four proteins, a roll, and a few leaves of lettuce, it was time for my night dive. But before that, let me comment on the meal, which wasn’t an outlier. Australians don’t seem to eat vegetables with meats. We keep seeing one or the other, and we even specifically asked about having vegetables with dinner at one restaurant, where the server directed us to a different main. They don’t seem to understand the concept of a balanced plate with meats *and* vegetables.
The night dive was absolutely amazing, and even the crew was excited (they don’t get to do it often). We descended to the reef from the platform, following the lines quickly down to the reef wall. Although I expected it to be really dark, the flashlights provided outstanding light. The sea fans were phenomenal, with their arms extended to catch plankton floating by in the brisk current running along the reef. We saw lionfish and an epaulette shark, and fire urchins (tip: never touch any animal labeled “fire” – incluing fire urchins, fire coral, and fire ants). We even turned off our lights so we could see the bioluminescent plankton in the water around us. No I didn’t take the camera for this dive – I decided the flashlight would be enought to worry about.
We slept on the upper deck in “swags.” As I fully expected a bird to swoop down and scavenge my eyes out, I made sure to close mine.
At 930 all lights on the pontoon went out, and there was no moon in the sky, so despite scattered clouds, we had a view of the stars unlike any I have seen before. In the absence of light pollution, the heavens were luminous, with the milky way crossing everything. Orion looked down, and the Southern Cross was prominent in our vision. Numerous shooting stars and even galaxies could be seen. It was absolutely breathtaking.
When we woke in the morning, the wind was blowing at half gale and the crew was reluctant to admit this, but I think they were hopeful that the daytrippers wouldn’t make it out. When the winds hit 35 knots, the boat can’t make the passage, and sometimes even in lesser winds they sometimes turn around if the seas are too choppy. Winds that morning were 30 knots.
Still, the boat made it, and I did a fourth dive. This time I decided to set the camera to its most automatic mode. This was also my deepest dive (17.9 meters), so the white balance struggeled the most. Still …
Lots of corals, tipped in putples and blues
They kept handing me these – I still haven’t figured out exactly what they are.
Some of the creaturese of the reef were as fine as the most delicate lace
This giant clam was about a meter (yard) across.
This one was only about 30 cm (a foot), but look at the color of those lips. Absolutely stunning.
And this anemone was luminous. But I never did find Nemo. Sigh
I did find these fish chilling on an outcropping though.
When the dive was done I gathered my things and bid farewell to the crew and our new Chinese friends. Given the state of the seas the boat ride home was sure to be awful, so instead we booked a ride on a helicopter.
We got to see the reef from above.
We flew by heart reef, which is a small area of reef in the shape of a heart. Everybody takes a picture. It’s probably a requirement somewhere.
And finally we said our goodbyes to Hardy Reef
We flew over Whitehaven Beach, one of the top ranked beaches in the world, and finally made it to Hamilton Island, where we gathered our bags and checked into our hotel for our last night on the coast. We had a nice Asian fusion dinner, almost entirely devoid of vegetables, in the grand Australian tradition.
Tomorrow we return to Sydney for the journey home.