An Instagrammer's Guide to Cruise Whitsundays' Reef Sleep Experience
Did you know that it’s possible to sleep out in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef? That’s right, not only can you snorkel the reef and fly over it but you can also SLEEP out there as a part of Cruise Whitsundays’ incredible Reef Sleep experience!
Cruise Whitsundays offers this unique overnight trip every day from Airlie Beach and I’ve just returned from this awesome outing and put together my Instagrammer’s Guide to help you get the most out of this once in a life time experience!
What to Pack
As with all trips to the Great Barrier Reef it’s a good idea to bring a change of clothes, towel, sunscreen, sunglasses and of course your camera and spare camera batteries. As you’ll be staying out there overnight don’t forget to pack a toothbrush, toothpaste and phone charger but apart from that everything else is supplied! Meals, drinks, a swag with a comfy mattress, linen, blankets, pillows and all the snorkelling gear you’ll need including a wet suit are ready and waiting for you on the pontoon.
The Cruise Whitsundays boat departs from Airlie Beach with a stop at Hamilton Island to pick up guests. The boat ride from Airlie takes about 2.5 - 3 hours and during the winter months, if you’re lucky, you might be able to spot humpback whales making their way north.
The main base for all your activities out on the reef is Heart Pontoon. It’s fully equipped with a semi sub, underwater viewing room, kitchen, showers, toilets, chairs, tables, diving equipment and incredible views!
You’ll be sharing the pontoon with all the other day guests up until about 3pm when they leave. It’s a good idea when you first get to the pontoon to find a table to leave your bags and eat your lunch at and there’s tables both downstairs and up on the top deck.
Once you arrive at the pontoon it’s really up to you as to how much or how little you’d like to do. There’s diving, scenic helicopter flights, sea-bobs, semi-sub tours and of course lots of snorkelling! If you’re keen to try out diving but never dived before then there’s also the option of doing an introductory dive with an experienced Cruise Whitsundays diver. Alternatively, you might just like to kick back and relax on the top deck of the pontoon, soaking in the sun and the magic views over the reef.
It’s not a trip to the reef without getting a few photos for your Instagram account! Don’t worry if you haven’t got an underwater camera, you can hire one of these on the pontoon. There’s lots of unique and amazing instagrammable opportunities out here including:
Maggie the Maori Wrasse
Maggie is the resident Maori Wrasse that calls the reef around Heart Pontoon her home. As soon as you set foot off the pontoon and your head dips below the surface you’ll be surrounded by thousands of fish and Maggie will be right there amongst them. She’s very easy to spot, at almost a meter long she’s the largest and also the friendliest fish here.
Maggie is also very fond of getting a selfie or 2 and is quite happy to pose alongside all the snorkelers and divers. A wide angle lens is quite handy for capturing these selfies as Maggie is so large and for the best shots try to stay close to the surface unless you have underwater filters. The deeper you got the more reds, oranges and yellow colours you’ll lose. If you have filters this will help to bring those colours back out.
The best time of day for these photos is generally between 10am and 3pm when the sun is nice and high in the sky and if you can, try and keep the sun directly above you or behind you.
If you’ve seen Finding Nemo (who hasn’t?!) then you’ll most likely want to find your very own clown fish on the Great Barrier Reef. There’s a couple of spots to see them on the reef around Heart Pontoon. If you head out for a dive or an introductory dive, then your guide will point them out to you. If you’re snorkelling then keep an eye out for the anemone coral that the clown fish live in. These are found in the deeper waters out the front of the pontoon or if you snorkel along the reef wall to the right you’ll eventually come across a couple of families of clown fish that live in the shallow waters there. If you’re having trouble spotting them, don’t be afraid to ask the friendly Cruise Whitsundays staff who will gladly point you in the right direction.
Coral and Other Fish
The best place to get photos of the fish here is right next to the pontoon. Cruise Whitsundays have a special permit from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority that allows them to feed the fish here and they do this right off the pontoon. Keep an eye out for when the staff are doing the feeding and you can swim right amongst them and get some amazing photos. Throughout the rest of the day, you’ll see lots of fish right along the coral wall, there’s a line of buoys in the water that you can follow and snorkel along.
As the name suggests, Heart Pontoon is very close to the world famous Heart Reef! The only way to see Heart Reef is by air and the scenic helicopter flights take you right over the top of it!
Want to see the reef without actually getting wet?
That’s not a problem either with the option of doing a guided semi sub tour along the reef wall or you can simply walk down the stairs on the pontoon to the underwater viewing room. It’s a little more challenging to get amazing photos on the semi-sub tour or in the viewing room but you still get a great experience and it’s a fantastic way to get up close to the reef if you’re not confident in the water.
The best part of the Reef Sleep Experience
Once 3pm arrives and all the day guests depart, you’ll have the whole pontoon and reef to yourselves! Several Cruise Whitsundays staff are on hand to make your stay comfortable and to cook up your fantastic meals whilst you’re free to relax and enjoy the best of the reef without the crowds. Snorkelling is available up until about 5pm and then again from around 8am the next morning and there’s nothing quite like being the only people in the water with all those fish and colourful coral.
At night you’ll sleep in the swags on the top deck and it’s a breathtaking sight to see all the stars above you whilst the sound of the water lapping at the side of the pontoon sends you to sleep. A charging station is also available downstairs so you can charge your phones and camera batteries for the next day. There’s no need to set an alarm out here either, the spectacular sunrises will have you up and excited for another day on the reef!
On the second day, the next reef guests arrive at around 11am which gives you plenty of time to do any of the activities you might not have had a chance to do on the first day. At 3pm it’s then time to jump back aboard the Cruise Whitsundays boat and head back to Airlie Beach.
As far as experiencing the Great Barrier Reef goes, this really is the ultimate way to do it. With snorkelling, diving, semi-sub tours, underwater viewing rooms, scenic helicopter flights and being able to sleep out on it under the stars, this is a trip you’ll never forget!
If you’ve got any questions about the Reef Sleep experience or want any tips on underwater photography please feel free to ask away in the comments below!