The Whitsundays group 74 beautiful islands in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef off the tropical coast of Queensland and taking a self charter boat out in these waters was one of the best ideas we had all year. An unforgettable experience, this is something that Alan and I researched about 6 months prior to our departure from London and decided we would leave money aside for from the start for a nice treat towards the end of our trip. As the year progressed and my parents decided to join us after their retirement, as did my sister for a holiday, we decided this would be the perfect experience for us all to share together. Learning how to manage a boat of that size, sleeping on the water and spending days snorkelling in beautiful sheltered waters is a good way to start retirement if you ask me :)

We researched the layout of the boat carefully, ensuring beds were long enough (for one person in particular! :) ), that the main living space was on the upper deck with lots of natural light, that the water tank was big enough and the kitchen practical..There are many things to pay attention to when chartering a boat and it’s really important to pay attention to all sorts of details so you don’t have any bad surprises. They are all very different inside and out and cater to many different groups, interests and abilities. We chose to hire the boat from Queensland Yacht Charters and were not disappointed by the service. Although we had a bad start as the boat we were supposed to take out was permanently out of service due to mechanical problems…we were provided an even bigger boat for the same price. This turned out to be a great thing and the 5 of us were very comfortable during the entire stay.

On the first day, we were taught how to handle the boat: how to navigate, check power, use the appliances, anchor and moor, empty the toilet tanks, among many other things, taking about 4 hours total. Anchoring was the most difficult for us ladies (we had no length markers for one!) who desperately attempted to do so correctly everytime we had to while one of our captains (usually Alan or Papa depending on who wasn’t sleeping or drinking :) ) parked the boat for the evening. One of the funnier parts of our training was learning to radio in to base every morning and afternoon to let our charter company know we are alive, how things are going and what plans we have for the day and evening. To this day the words still make us all smile: ‘QYC QYC, this is Tropical Sunset Tropical Sunset, do you copy?’. Of course our name was one of the less entertaining ones and listening to the others call in was the real highlight. Each day we heard a call in from ‘Zoom’, ‘Gypsy Rose’ and our favourite, ‘Misbehaven’ :) .

Departing from Airlie, we set out a basic itinerary with the boat charter company prior to departure, in line with our main interest, snorkelling. Although we were supposed to only take a short ride straight across to the first island to a place called Nara’s Inlet that evening, we decided to head straight north towards the Blue Pearl Bay anchorage on Hayman Island, starting our circle around the group of islands anticlockwise. This would allow us to start snorkelling that same day and have a good place to sleep for the evening. Our first snorkel in Blue Pearl Bay was a very fun experience. No one in my family had ever done so before so it was wonderful to be able to share this passion of ours with them. We all got into our tight and uncomfortable cheap hired wetsuits and jumped into the cold water. Late June/early July is one of the best times in the year to visit the Whitsundays, the skies are bright blue and the sun is shining, but be warned, there is still a cool breeze and the water is a bit cold! It was even tough to get in at times, many of us producing unusual high pitched sounds when hitting the water… but it was so worth it. Even my dad, who doesn’t like swimming in the ocean much, joined us that day to take a look at the bright coloured fish and coral. Mom and A-V started out well and got to see their first ray here, a blue spotted one.

Maureen’s Cove, a short 10 minute ride away, was our next snorkelling destination. Here we saw two huge bumphead parrot fish and some beautiful coral. There was also the most gigantic live clam we had ever seen, almost a metre long! (that’s how I remember it anyway). We then hopped back in the boat and moved over to the next bay, Manta Ray bay, where we were quickly surrounded by several tourist boats. This is one of the more popular snorkelling spots in the Whitsundays, particularly for day trippers as it has lots of life and isn’t too far a ride from Airlie. Among the 50 other snorkellers there that day, we jumped in and started investigating. The coral here was beautiful and there were many schools of very small fish just along the surface of the water that were fascinating to look at. I think this is the first spot where mom and AV started to really get an idea of how colourful and diverse the reef is. I also spotted my first giant silver trevally here, which was awesome. About 20 minutes in, the other snorkellers and their guides started getting really overwhelming and rude. Many of the Japanese groups we saw were carelessly stepping on the coral (#1 no-no), the guides were feeding the fish to attract them and one of them almost hit mom in the head with their dinghy. Needless to say, after telling them what we thought, we wanted to get out of there. Alan and AV went to grab our own dinghy and came back to pick us up. Too lazy to jump back in, mom and I decided it would be fun to hold on to the rope at the back and be pulled. We only lasted half the trip but had a good laugh attempting to hold on :) Once over the other side of the rocks, we found ourselves alone in Wrasse Bay, right near a known diving spot, Pinnacle Point. There was some great sea life here but only in a small area, the visibility seemingly quite restricted in the rest due undoubtedly to the wind rustling up the sand. .

After jumping back on board to warm up, we headed off into the blue again. More exposed than ever as we started to head south, lots of choppy waves rocked the boat as we rode along the coast for a bit, unsure of where to go for the afternoon and night. After a bit more research, we decided to brave it and cross a large body of open water to head over to Cataran Bay on Border Island, totally to the east of the main group of islands. Boy were we glad we did. This was by far the best snorkelling of the entire trip and also provided a perfectly calm and sheltered place for the night. We, by luck, also jumped in at what must have been the perfect time between tides as it was shallow enough to see the bottom very well, but deep enough for fish to still be around. We all loosely followed the same route along the bay, amazed at the beautiful underwater world that lay in front of us. Soon after, Alan yelled ‘shark!’, and as soon as he did I swam over to grab mom’s hand and finned a quickly as I could to catch up with him and AV. The shark decided to dive deeper as soon as we got there unfortunately so mom missed out by a minute, but AV got to see her first white tip reef shark!! Spotting things underwater is a lot of luck of course, but it also requires patience and a good eye. As you gain experience snorkelling/diving you start getting better at knowing where to look for creatures (e.g reef sharks are often lying on the sand hidden beneath coral, rays blend into the sand, some fish swim so close to the surface you can easily miss them..) The best thing you can do is to remember to look all around instead of just straight in front of you, not forgetting to check out what’s behind you! :)

The next morning we headed down towards Whitehaven Beach, one of the most famous and beautiful beaches in the world. It really is a dreamy beach, with white silky sand, turquoise water and endless length allowing anyone to claim a spot away from others. To be able to simply jump into our dinghy and ride right up to the beach was an awesome feeling. Alan, AV and I walked around a bit, took some photos and jumped back in to ride back to the boat where mom and papa were waiting. We had little time to stop here as we had to make our way down to Hamilton Island before 4pm and to get there; we had to go through the ‘washing machine’.

Sounds fun doesn’t it? The washing machine is the only body of water we were warned at departure may be a bit more difficult to sail. We had also been told that it should be relatively calm during the week we were out, so we headed with caution, but ease. Not long into the ride we started bumping up and down hard, as we all realised this wouldn’t be as smooth as we hoped, I guess with a name like washing machine you can expect that. Alan grabbed the wheel with a determined look and began riding straight into the huge waves, maneuvering as best he could. We all watched him brave the way as we clung on where we could, some of us more fearful than others, all of us full of sea sickness pills. Just thinking about it now makes me laugh. It was so unexpected. About 30 minutes later, we were finally getting near Hamilton Island, about 45 minutes late.

We were greeted pretty rudely by a staff member who clearly wasn’t happy his day couldn’t end at 4pm like it should have. Once we dealt with him and got the information we needed as to where to power up and fill up on water, we settled in for the evening. Hamilton Island is a beautiful but expensive resort. It’s a great place to add onto any charter itinerary to dump trash, stock up and go out for a nice dinner. The marina is full of boats of all shapes and sizes including spectacular ‘super’ yachts and huge racing catamarans. Everyone staying in a hotel is also given access to the many golf carts parked all around and get to ride around (we were very jealous!) We got some seafood (Alan got a pizza) and had a nice evening on our boat and with our phone/tablet/laptop. That’s right, we had reception for the first time in 5 days and sadly we were all connected in under 30 minutes!

There was still one thing missing though. Mom had always dreamed of seeing a turtle in the ocean and for some strange reason, we hadn’t seen one yet. Alan and I had been on the lookout since the beginning of the trip but the beautiful things teased us and never showed up. I decided to go speak to a nearby boat crew before we left the island to ask if they had any idea of where we could spot one. The first confirmed that our next anchoring for the night, Cid Harbour, had many but that it was not a snorkelling spot, rather to see them from the boat when anchored. They recommended instead that we stay a bit longer and head over to the beach just on the other side of the island to snorkel there. Tides were changing when we got in and there was lots of current so just getting out into the water was a workout. Determined, we looked around endlessly into the murky water (effect of big tide change) until we had enough, about 45 minutes later. Just as we were giving up and getting ready to go Alan yelled ‘got one!’ and hurrah, there it was, Mom’s first turtle. It was a small, pretty little green turtle and although she didn’t come up close to us for long, we got a nice glimpse before she dove back down and we got the hell out of that current.

Happy to have found at least one, we headed to Cid Harbour for our last night, hoping to see even more. Cid Harbour anchorage is very popular for first and last night stops with boat charters as it is only about 2h from the base in Airlie and is sheltered from all winds. As we settled in, Papa and AV went to take naps and mom, Alan and I decided to go on a sunset turtle hunt on the dinghy. We were out there for a bit over an hour, the first 20 minutes spent unsuccessfully going around trying to spot some as well as dugongs (they are shy and more rare to see), until our luck completely changed. All of a sudden, there were turtles coming up for quick breaths all around us to the point that it felt like a Whack-A-Mole game in an arcade, all of us looking as quickly as we could around us to spot the next one that popped its head out! When we weren’t able to see them, we always knew they were there as we could always hear them taking loud deep breaths before going back in. Amazing. The sunset on the way back was breathtaking and the whole evening very memorable.

The next morning, our last morning, began with breakfast and another dinghy ride, in an attempt to see more turtles for Papa and AV. Sadly we went around and around and only saw a couple in the distance, nothing like the previous evening (don’t worry, we got plenty of surprise turtle action for everyone later on in the trip). As we desperately searched, we slowly made ourselves later and later for the 10am boat return and little did we know, things were about to get a lot worse. Dinghy breakdown, arrrrgghh! Everytime we got it to start again, we would move forward one metre until it gave up again. A group of four girls on a dinghy of their own came by at one point and nicely agreed to pull us slowly towards our boat. As we finished setting up and tying the boats to one another, the motor started up again. Of course. Anyway, we rode back to the boat, packed up and headed back to base, enjoying the last couple hours on Tropical Sunset as we raced forward. Our beautiful adventure had sadly come to an end.

Good company, sunny days, blue skies, fresh air, endless snorkelling opportunities, stargazing at night and yummy wine and food, the dream. It was an amazing and liberating experience to share together that I think I am safe to say we will all remember for a long time :)