When you envisage the Great Barrier Reef, you no doubt think of diving and snorkelling, but there are so many other unique ways to experience this World Heritage beauty.
By Paul Chai
Whether you're picnicking on a secret tropical island that only emerges during high-tide, walking along the sea bed in a modern-day diving helmet, or spending the night on a pontoon under a sea of stars, there is more to the Great Barrier Reef than just diving.
One of the best ways to get the reef all to yourself is to take part in the Reefsleep Experience. Cruise Whitsundays takes small groups of visitors to its Reefworld platform moored on the edge of Hardy Reef for a full day of snorkelling, diving, boat and helicopter rides. And unlike all of the other day trippers who head home at about 3pm, Reefsleepers get to stay behind. In the afternoon guests can submerge in the reef again. Come evening, it is time for a barbecue, and possibly a night dive, before everybody on board tuck themselves into their designated swags (a low tent with an in-built mattress, designed for the Australian Outback) under the star-filled sky. Reefsleep departs from Airlie Beach, Daydream Island or Hamilton Island.
Great Barrier Reef Submarines lets visitors explore the beauty of the reef in a three-man mini-submarine, just 45 minutes on a fast catamaran from Cairns. Taking a mini-sub ride is less hassle than suiting up for a snorkel or dive. Two guests just jump in the mini-sub with the guide and then launch straight from the beach. In minutes you are submerged among the coral, tropical fish and sea turtles of the Great Barrier Reef.
Green Island, a coral cay about half an hour offshore from Cairns, is home to the Seawalker experience, in which visitors can walk along the sea floor wearing a diving helmet. The helmet is shaped like an old-school metal diving helmet, fully enclosing your head in a bubble, and connected to the surface through an air hose. But unlike the old metal helmets, the Seawalker helmets are almost completely clear, offering unrestricted views of the amazing sea life of the reef. This is a great way for non-swimmers to experience the underwater wonders, and for those who wear glasses, because they can be left on inside the helmet.
Taking the helmet walk one step further is this novel way to explore the reef, aboard the Scubadoo, a small yellow motorised scooter with a large viewing dome that acts like a diving helmet and is supported by a float from the surface. Just climb on the scooter at the pontoon, just off the coast at Cairns, put your head in the dome and off you go. The scooters are easily manoeuvred and a guide dives alongside you for the whole journey.
Vlasoff Cay is a small streak of sand in an ocean of blue. This tiny sand island appears only at low tide and is the perfect setting for a castaway picnic. You can be dropped off at your own stretch of Great Barrier Reef sand by helicopter or chartered boat and left alone with a picnic hamper and a bottle of champagne. This is the ultimate in reef romanticism, with not even a tree to spoil your 360-degree view of this natural wonder of the world. You can swim, snorkel or just relax on your own private - and temporary - island. Helicopters depart from Cairns.
There is nothing quite as indulgent as chartering your own private yacht - especially when it comes with its own crew. Low Isles is a spectacular island teeming with bird and marine life, just off the coast of Port Douglas. You can recruit a group of friends and cruise around onboard the Aquarius, a luxury sailing vessel with a huge upper deck on which you get to enjoy a seafood buffet. Then just jump off the side for some of the best snorkelling on the reef.
Seeing the giant living wonder that is the Great Barrier Reef from the sky gives you an understanding of just how immense it really is. The different shades of ocean blue, the secluded islands, and the patterns of the coral beds all laid out before you as you hover above is something you're bound to never forget. You can cover more of the reef from the air than you can ever hope to discover at sea level. For more information visit operators such as Air Whitsunday.
Witness the unique phenomenon of the dwarf minke whale migration which takes place each year between June and August. These friendly mammals travel north to Queensland's coast each winter to breed, birth and swim in the tropical waters. This incredible wildlife encounter is available to experience with a limited number of tour operators: Mike Ball Expeditions, Eye to Eye Marine Encounters, Deep Sea Divers Den, and Spirit of Freedom are among a few permitted tours that offer snorkelling and diving trips. The curious minke whales are known to approach swimmers and linger for extended periods, providing an unforgettable nautical experience.
Sea turtles, including the endangered loggerhead turtles, nestle ashore Mon Repos Beach in Bundaberg (about a four hour drive, or one hour flight north of Brisbane). They lay their eggs between November and January, and then from January to March, the hatchlings begin to leave their nests bound for the ocean. You can witness this magical spectacle with Mon Repos Turtle Encounters, who operate nighttime tours seven days a week. Their guides are environmental scientists who will teach you about the conservation programs that are being run in the area, as well as all about the lifecycle of the majestic sea turtles.
If you are an adrenaline junkie and want to have a spectacular birds-eye view of the Great Barrier Reef, the sky is the limit – literally. Skydiving at Mission Beach is a unique opportunity to witness the reef, surrounding beaches as well as the rainforest as you fly from 4570 metres (15,000 feet) above. The exhilarating freefall experience is available with Skydive Mission Beach who have expert sky masters ready to guide you on the ultimate adventure. Mission Beach is roughly two hours from Cairns, so you can self-drive or book a shuttle bus through Skydive Mission Beach.