Into the Deep: Exploring the Great Barrier Reef

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Global Culture, The Great Outdoors

A visit to Australia is not complete without exploration of the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef system in the world (for now), one of the seven natural wonders of the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the largest living thing visible even from space. Stretching over 3000 kilometers (1800 miles), the Reef offers countless options to soak in spectacular sightings of its hundreds of species of fish including sharks, as well as sea turtles and other reptiles, and of course the astonishing textures of the coral reef itself.

The massive, awe-inspiring Great Barrier Reef!

The massive, awe-inspiring Great Barrier Reef!

One stunning and peaceful base for venturing through this watery wonderland is Hayman Island, a petite private island on the north end of the Whitsundays, off the coast of Queensland. Its potential was realized back in the 1940s, and the only resort on the island has gone through a couple iterations, most recently renovated and reopened as the luxe One & Only Hayman Island Resort. We stayed in the older, more classic Hayman Wing, which is fine if a little worn – but we did have room envy of those residing in the newest private pool-accessorized beach villas, which are more modern and seem to be more carefully maintained – with room rates to match, of course.

The One & Only Hayman Island Resort

The One & Only Hayman Island Resort

Getting to the island takes just a bit of extra effort, and it is well worth it. Most likely, you will fly to Cairns, Sydney, or Brisbane, then take another short flight to Hamilton Island, after which you may take either a helicopter ride or a yacht transfer to Hayman Island (the latter leg booked directly with One & Only). Neither is inexpensive by any definition, which is a bit frustrating – but my suggestion is to book the less pricey yacht transfer. If you’re lucky like we were, you may well be upgraded to the helicopter ride anyway, which is faster, likely easier for the resort – and the super modern helicopters offer smooth rides, gorgeous views, and a luxurious and dramatic descent into the resort area, which may make you (almost) forget how much you just paid for the privilege of visiting the island.

View of Hamilton Island from our helicopter en route to Hayman Island

View of Hamilton Island from our helicopter en route to Hayman Island

Mark enjoys the short but very sweet helicopter ride to Hayman Island

Mark enjoys the short but very sweet helicopter ride to Hayman Island

Shades of aqua and emerald as far as the eye can see

Shades of aqua and emerald as far as the eye can see

Yours truly, somewhat reluctantly disembarking our helicopter

Yours truly, somewhat reluctantly disembarking our helicopter at One & Only

The island itself is lovely, naturally outfitted with a private beach and lush with local flora and trees. A quick sunset hike to Whitsunday Lookout offers serene vistas, set to the sounds of the forest. The more ambitious can venture to several other lookout points a couple more kilometers away.

The private beach fronting One & Only Hayman Island

The private beach fronting One & Only Hayman Island

Blue-green waters and colorful foliage on the periphery of Hayman Island

Blue-green waters and colorful foliage on the periphery of Hayman Island

Ever-calming palm trees on Hayman Island

Ever-calming palm trees on Hayman Island

A framed sunset view from Whitsunday Lookout on Hayman Island

A framed sunset view from Whitsunday Lookout on Hayman Island

Hayman also proves rich with wildlife, including a number of species of birds and butterflies. Some of the birds have, for better or worse, adapted to being on an island with people and seem to have developed a keen sense for hotel guests with generous tendencies (including yours truly – I am convinced there is some kind of ‘sucker’ sign on my forehead, visible only to animals).

Abstracted seagull, hovering over our breakfast

Abstracted seagull, hovering over our breakfast

A local butterfly perches on a succulent on Hayman Island

A local butterfly perches on a succulent on Hayman Island

A local on Hayman Island

A local on Hayman Island

A striking Australian raven, keeping watch over...our lunch

A striking Australian raven, keeping watch over…our lunch

Case in point – on one typically sunny afternoon, we ventured to the small sliver of an island called Langford, just a hop, skip, and puddle jump from Hayman. There’s something almost indescribably special about spending time on an island that you know will temporarily disappear with high tide in mere hours. Save for a few other folks briefly enjoying the sea turtle-populated waters, we otherwise had the romantic spot to ourselves – that is, until we opened our customized gourmet picnic basket. Within minutes, a clever little seagull with a broken leg (who I couldn’t help but nickname ‘Monopod’, of course) descended and patiently stood on one leg a few feet away until I (as always) caved and offered tidbits of our sandwiches, which he gobbled up gratefully. It seemed this little guy had incurred his injury quite some time ago and had clearly figured out a way to adapt. I must admit, I quite relished this encounter and even respected his clever approach – despite the fact that a bounty of fish awaited his discovery just below the surface of the nearby ocean water.

Aerial view of magical Langford Island

Aerial view of magical Langford Island

Looking down the long, narrow stretch of Langford Island

Looking down the long, narrow stretch of Langford Island

The only other temporary visitors to Langford the afternoon we visited

A few of the only other temporary visitors to Langford on the afternoon we visited

Mark enjoying his waterside seat on Langford Island

Mark enjoying his waterside seat on Langford Island

Remnant of a coral reef, washed up on Langford Island

Remnant of a coral reef, washed up on Langford Island

You can take the boy out of the Middle East, but you can't take the Middle East out of the boy - Mark protects himself from the sun in a most practical way

You can take the boy out of the Middle East, but you can’t take the Middle East out of the boy – Mark protects himself from the sun in a most practical way

Tales from the past - tiny coral reef bits underfoot on Langford Island

Tales from the past – tiny coral reef bits underfoot on Langford Island

Our picnic companion, 'Monopod'

Our picnic companion, ‘Monopod’

Sulphur-crested cockatoos are a prominent player on Hayman Island, and while unique wallabies  and other wildlife can be found milling about, the yellow-topped, white-bodied avian standouts became a sort of icon of the island for me. No dummies, these creatures are regulars at the main resort restaurant Pacific and poolside lounge On The Rocks, flirting with hotel guests to get a shot at some snacks. As they curiously cock their head to one side, you too may find their charms hard to resist. And while One & Only politely suggests closing the room patio doors to keep them from flying in (a worthy point to note), I did gently lure a few to our outdoor space with an apple or 2, so I could get a closer look. Amusing as they were while bickering over bits of fruit, I also found these birds quite beautiful, particularly with wings spread.

Breakfast companions, in the form of sulphur-crested cockatoos!

Breakfast companions, in the form of sulphur-crested cockatoos!

Sulphur-crested cockatoos add to the ambience of Hayman Island

Sulphur-crested cockatoos add to the ambience of Hayman Island, as they do here on the patio of our room

...and cannot resist the appeal of an apple

…and cannot resist the appeal of an apple

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This sociable chap and aspiring model fanned his feathers for me

This sociable chap and aspiring model fanned his feathers for me

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Hayman also features entertaining sightings of a local celebrity named Jacko, an enormous, 20-something year old grouper who lives a pampered life being fed by staff and guests on a daily basis. Enjoy this mini-event at the island’s marina before embarking on the adventure you are really here for – the Great Barrier Reef.

To dip your literal and figurative toes in the water, take a short trip to Blue Pearl Bay, where you may spot Priscilla (a giant maori wrasse, a fascinating species emblematic of this area), small barracuda, bumphead parrot fish, and a plethora of other tropical fish. Spend a little extra time and warm up after a cool swim by hiking up the hill to bask in sun-dappled vistas over the Coral Sea.

Not Priscilla herself, but perhaps a relative and similarly massive maori wrasse

Not Priscilla herself, but perhaps a relative and a similarly massive maori wrasse

The underwater world of Blue Pearl Bay

The underwater world of Blue Pearl Bay

(Fish) school is in session!

(Fish) school is in session!

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Blue and yellow fusiliers (Caesio teres) at Blue Pearl Bay

An exhibit of fascinating camouflage, disguising these yellow-tailed rabbitfish effectively against the backdrop of the coral reef

An exhibit of fascinating camouflage, disguising these yellow-tailed rabbitfish effectively against the backdrop of the coral reef

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The must-do activity here though is to take the 1-hour trip to the astonishing, sprawling, plummeting Outer Reef. After a somewhat jarring, high-speed boat ride (bring your Dramamine if you’re prone to motion sickness!), we dropped anchor at a private mooring in the middle of seemingly nowhere. My jaw dropped upon stepping out on deck to visually absorb the myriad tones of azure, cerulean, and turquoise waters, punctuated by outlines of the massive coral reef formations.

Mark, just before diving into the depths of the sea surrounding the Great Barrier Reef

Mark, just before jumping into the sea surrounding the Great Barrier Reef

We jumped right in after the divers made their way into the depths of the sea, while I enviously gazed upon them from the surface. But even if you don’t plan to dive, I assure you, you will not be disappointed by the snorkeling. As the crest of the reef is mere inches to a few feet from the surface of the water, snorkelers have the distinct privilege of gliding through sunlit waters while hovering directly over the reef. Plenty of marine life will pass by you, and the reef itself is stunningly beautiful.

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Free diving into the Outer Reef

Mark, free diving into the Outer Reef

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Giant maori wrasse were plentiful in the Outer Reef. For scale, a shrimp would be about the size of half his eye

Giant maori wrasse are plentiful in the Outer Reef. For scale, a shrimp would be about the size of roughly 1/3 of one of his eyes

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I suggest spending a full day in this area, so you have the opportunity to enjoy two sessions (diving or snorkeling), separated by lunch on the boat. Most likely, your 2nd session will take you through the magnificent, gigantic Stepping Stones – coral heads you navigate in a winding fashion. Around the bend is a heart-stopping, 40-meter dropoff that may make even the most water-hearty gasp. It is an experience like few others, truly unforgettable!

Diver envy - looking down at our shipmates who opted to dive instead of snorkel

Diver envy – looking down at our shipmates who opted to dive instead of snorkel

But snorkeling is still pretty damn cool here. Here, we navigate the incredible ?

But snorkeling is still pretty damn cool here. Here, we navigate the incredible Stepping Stones of the Outer Reef

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Unfortunately, the gorgeous Reef you see now is rapidly changing for the worse and may look quite different upon a repeat visit a few years down the line. Since the mid-1980s, the coral cover here has decreased by about 50%, reflecting an alarming rate of decline. The prognosis for the Reef is grim, as the multiple insults of climate change, pollution, coastal development including coaling and coal shipping, as well as overfishing, are significantly threatening the Reef and of course all the marine life it supports. To my shock, the Australian government is approving and even fast-tracking development projects that will directly contribute to this damage, including what could become the world’s largest coal port just 50 km from the Whitsundays. This approach seems so stunningly short-sighted – risking one of the greatest natural wonders in the world for short-term gains from an outdated, dying industry – and yet the Reef itself brings in billions of tourism dollars each year to the Australian economy. [To learn more about how you can help, please see the links below this post.]

So enjoy the Reef fully and really take it all in while you can. And if touring through the Reef is still not enough water-based activity for you, catamaran sailing, sea kayaking, windsurfing, paddleskiing, tube riding, water skiing, wake boarding, fishing, seaplaning, and even Seabobbing are all at your fingertips. What is Seabobbing, you ask? A novel way to explore the underwater landscape in an enclosed bubble powered by a jet – an interesting option, especially for those who may be fearful of swimming in open water (although I’m not sure how environmentally friendly it really is). Or if that is all just too active for you but you wish to remain close to the water, simply enjoy the private beach or lounge around with a poolside cocktail or mocktail. Or even better, indulge in the Ocean Dreaming floating massage treatment at the spa, a unique, 90-minute treat that will mentally prepare you to continue relaxing over some wine and creative, haute-Australian fare at fine dining restaurant Fire, or casual East/Southeast Asian cuisine at Bamboo.

Happiness, after a glorious day of snorkeling on the Outer Reef

Happiness, after a glorious day of snorkeling on the Outer Reef

Mark, with our super-friendly boat crew and reef guides

Mark, with our super-friendly boat crew and reef guides

We enjoy a final breakfast at the One & Only Hayman Island

We enjoy a final breakfast at the One & Only Hayman Island

Poolside cabanas at the One & Only Hayman Island

Poolside cabanas at the One & Only Hayman Island

A young brother and sister roam the One & Only Hayman Island private beach

A young brother and sister roam the One & Only Hayman Island private beach

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Getting ready to board our unintended but much appreciated private helicopter ride back to Hamilton Island, so we could continue the rest of our Aussie journey

Getting ready to board our unintended but much appreciated private helicopter ride back to Hamilton Island, so we could continue the rest of our Aussie journey

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A final view of the gorgeous area between Hayman and Hamilton Islands

A final view of the gorgeous area between Hayman and Hamilton Islands

On and around Hayman Island, there is no shortage of excursions and escapes to keep everyone entertained, kids included. Just 3 short days of exploring this aquatic nirvana was not enough for us, but one thing is as crystal clear as the surrounding waters – the Great Barrier Reef is indeed great. Let’s hope (scratch that, let’s ensure) it stays that way, with a lot of help and protection from us.

All images © 2015 deb fong photography

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All opinions are my own. I was not paid or sponsored to visit One & Only Hayman Island.

Learn more about One & Only Hayman Island. Or if you are seeking an alternative luxe option, check out Qualia on Hamilton Island.

To learn more about the Great Barrier Reef, the challenges it is facing, and how you can help save it, view the World Wildlife Fund’s article, Threats to the Great Barrier Reef, and Greenpeace’s overview on the Reef at Risk.

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Globetrotter based in Hong Kong, travel and street photographer, Getty Images contributor, award-winning blogger of WanderFong.com - seeking true beauty in travel and life!

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