Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Whitsunday Islands

If you have not read about why we decided to visit the Whitsundays, you can read that post here. Once the decision about where to go was made, we had to choose which boat to sail on during our trip. There are probably close to 100 tour operators of boats that sail around the Whitsunday Islands, so the task of narrowing down which operator we would choose was not an easy one. We wanted a smaller boat, without the backpacker/party-all-night-long vibe, and we were somewhat limited due to our dates, because each boat only sails a few times per week. In the end we choose to go with "On Ice", a 46 foot sailing catamaran with ten passengers and two crew.
"On Ice"
Our boat set sail at 4pm on Saturday and we quickly got to know our fellow passengers. On board were an Italian couple on their honeymoon, two young German backpackers, Australian sisters originally from the Sydney area, an American who currently lives in Manly, and his girlfriend who lives in San Francisco. Our skipper was Phil, a Kiwi who comes to Queensland in the winter months to work, and Bo, a native South African who spent much of his life sailing around the world. A good group can probably make or break your trip, and we were fortunate to have a fantastic group of people on our boat!
Our private room on the boat
The first evening was spent making progress away from Airlie Beach. Soon into our trip, we enjoyed snacks while watching the sun set out on the open ocean. We anchored in a small cove off of Whitsunday Island (the largest in the group of the "Whitsundays"), and enjoyed meeting our fellow travelers over dinner and beers. All food is included on the trip but alcohol is BYO and we did not have a shortage of drinks on this trip!
Sunset #1
The boat gets moving early on these trips, as there is a lot to see in a couple of days. We set sail for the passage between Whitsunday Island and Hook Island, and due to the tide coming in and a bit of wind, the boat was rocking. I was actually on the front of the boat hanging out with Jonas, one of the German guys, and we unexpectedly got soaked from a massive wave! I think I decided it was a good idea to take some motion sickness medicine at that point. :) Footage from that passage is included in the video at the end of this post, but do not watch if you are prone to motion sickness!
Before the massive wave engulfed us!
Bo preparing our brekkie
Our first stop of the day was at Tongue Bay, where we walked up a small hill and were greeted with a breathtaking view of Hill Inlet and Whitehaven Beach. The beach is known for its "swirling sands", and even though it was high tide, we could still see that phenomenon occuring.
The Germans and I with Whitehaven Beach in the background

We then sailed around to Whitehaven Beach so that we could set foot on the amazingly soft sand. The sand is actually 98% silicon, which is what gives the sand that gleaming white color. Needless to say, it is stunning!
Our boat approaching Whitehaven Beach
We had a few hours to hang out on the beach, and Erik remembered a hike to a lookout that he did when he was in the Whitsundays ten years ago. We went in search of that trail and ran into this:
1 of 3 goannas that we saw on this short walk!
The view at the top was nice but not spectacular, as the trees were overgrown, so there was no view of the beautiful beach. It was worth the hike just to run into the goannas, though!

Once we returned back to the beach, Erik did some stand up paddleboarding while I enjoyed the soft sand.

From Whitehaven Beach, we took off for Hook Island, where we got in an early evening snorkel session. This boat has a sea scooter, which is essentially like a fan that you can use while snorkeling to get you around faster. Erik and I used it and found that it was a great way to cover a lot of ground but that it made us cold quickly because we were not using our muscles to swim! After a hot shower (a luxury not found on many of the sailing boats), we enjoyed another beautiful sunset from the deck of the boat.

Sunset #2

In the morning we set off for a prime snorkeling spot off of Hayman Island called Blue Pearl Bay. This spot is known for its fish and in particular, a large Maori Wrasse fish named Elvis. Fortunately, "the king" made an appearance for us, which you can see in the first snorkeling video below around 1:25. Shout out to my parents, sister, and brother-in-law, who sent us a GoPro camera for our birthdays this year!! Hopefully the videos do not make you seasick...it was our first attempt using the camera and we did learn some good tips for next time. Both the fish and coral were impressive at this location, though you can definitely see how tourism has affected the coral and the colors are clearly not as vibrant as they once were.

Snorkeling in Blue Pearl Bay from Ashley Hanson on Vimeo.

We then set sail for Langford Reef to try to spot some sea turtles. That was a successful venture, and in addition I spotted two black-tipped reef sharks in the shallow surf while walking along the beach! This video is mostly snorkeling with the sea turtles (we saw a single turtle and a family of three), but if you have sharp eyes you can spot the reef sharks at the 20 second mark . They are extremely skittish and swam away quickly when I entered the water near them.

Langford Reef Sea Turtles from Ashley Hanson on Vimeo.

After our snorkeling session at Langford Reef, it was time to head back to Airlie Beach. The sail went up and we arrived at the pier on Monday at 2pm. We said goodbye to our fellow travelers and hopped on a bus to the airport, where we flew back to Melbourne that afternoon.
Erik enjoyed helping on the boat when he could. He has some experience sailing with his grandparents around the Great Lakes.

Although it was a quick trip, I felt like we were able to see and do many things because we were cruising around the islands on a boat. I think the choice to take the boat trip instead of to stay on one of the island for a few nights was the right decision, and I would absolutely recommend a sailing trip around the Whitsundays as the best way to see all that the area has to offer.

Whitsunday Islands from Ashley Van Doren on Vimeo.

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