How you can stay the night right above the Barrier Reef
PROBABLY the most alarming thing about spending the night in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef is not that you're 40 nautical miles from land, but the realisation that you can barely hear the ocean, even though you're basically lying on top of it.
All I can hear from my comfy swag under the stars on the pontoon is the wind and the odd creak from this clever structure, Reefworld, which has been anchored next to Hardy Reef for 20 or so years.
At 3pm the eight other "Reefsleepers" and I waved off Cruise Whitsundays' luxury catamaran Seaflight, and the 280-odd passengers and crew we'd spent the day snorkelling and scuba diving with on the reef. We couldn't wait to get this tiny slice of the 2300km-long natural wonder all to ourselves.
The three-hour ride out to Reefworld through the 74 beautiful islands that make up the Whitsunday Islands National Park had flown by.
Once we left the calm of the national park and entered the open waters of the Coral Sea shipping channel, Seaflight started rolling about in the waves, and the crew handed out sick bags.
Luckily the ocean was flat again by the time we tied up to the pontoon, in a deep river tunnel on the reef wall adjacent to a postcard-perfect expanse of turquoise water.
Reefworld is basically a large floating barge with showers, toilets, a sundeck, staff quarters and kitchen, a shop, an underwater viewing chamber and an area for divers. Several metres away is a second pontoon used for weddings, and there are two helipads nearby.
All snorkelling and scuba gear is provided, and optical masks are available.
It's stinger season (it runs from November to May) so we don "stinger suits" (light wetsuits) to lessen the minute chance of running into one. The stingers, irukandji, are tiny and not deadly, but an attack is very painful.
I've signed up for an intro scuba dive, $119, and have a weight belt and heavy tank added to my get-up before I descend to a semi-submerged platform and practise breathing for 15 minutes. And then we're off - dive leader Taylor grabs my hand tightly and leads me and another rookie to the reef.
The water temperature is 27C, the visibility eight to 10 metres. We pass vibrant purple, orange and teal clams, multiple shades and varieties of coral, and hundreds and hundreds of brightly coloured fish with silly names: foxface rabbitfish, yellow-tail fusiliers, spotted sweetlips. It's busy down there. I feel disoriented but exhilarated.
Later, my first real snorkelling experience is just as much fun as the diving, but gets better when the tide is low - the coral is so close to the surface that in some places it pokes out of the water.
The current proves quite strong along the reef wall, but there are a couple of rest stations on the guide rope system and usually at least two lookouts on duty, so it's hard to get into trouble.
Apparently the odd harmless reef shark pops by from time to time but the scariest fish I see is George, the three-metre giant grouper who's been hanging around these parts for 30 years. He's so special he has his own open area of the pontoon, where he's often visited by several girlfriends. Skye, our Reefsleep host, tells us later that one of the crew plays the saxophone to him because he likes the vibrations. Anything to keep George happy: I imagine he's the grouper equivalent of a grumpy old man.
If you've had enough of the water, there's plenty of other stuff to keep you entertained. A masseuse works her magic, there's a large underwater viewing chamber, shuttle tenders take people to the helipads for scenic flights, and every half hour there's a 25-minute trip in a semi-submersible submarine.
But that 3pm departure of the day-guests can't come soon enough for me and the other Reefsleepers: a couple from Melbourne, a mother and daughter from Sydney, two Taiwanese blokes, and a young English couple, Kyle and Gemma.
As we were sitting around chatting and watching the splendid sunset, Kyle got down on one knee and asked Gemma to marry him. Cue much excitement, congratulations and champagne. We got so carried away with the moment I would have married George the grouper if he'd proposed right then, even if he is an old grump with several girlfriends.
When it's time to hit the sack, each swag has been set up on the top deck with a comfy mattress and linen. It's clouded over so there are few stars, but the moon is full and bright.
After breakfast we get a few more hours of the pontoon to ourselves, then huddle together as Seaflight ties up once again - we feel quite territorial. There aren't as many people today but it feels like an invasion after almost 20 hours of peace.