With a little trepidation, Lynley Bilby immerses herself in the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef.

Perhaps it was the seat-of-your-pants, high-speed raft ride zipping through churning ocean waters off the coast of Queensland, zig-zagging without warning as some of the more daring perched on the vessel's outer tubes holding on to nothing but a wrist rope.

This ocean adventure was already promising to be much more than I expected or ordinarily would ever try.

Even at 8am the temperature in Airlie Beach, gateway to north Queensland's Whitsunday Islands, was soaring to a crazy 28C with the best place to escape the heat under an air conditioning unit or in the water.

With the mainly young throng of backpackers seeking a day out exploring the inner Great Barrier Reef I signed my life away and was kitted out in a wet suit designed to protect us from irukandji, a tiny box-shaped jellyfish.


A sedate day of paddling on the ocean? Not likely. As we boarded our rafts it was then I realised this was not to be the low-impact, quiet encounter I had imagined. Where were the oars? The lifejackets? The helmets even? Instead people were clambering on the outside of the craft with nothing but a hand rope between them and the ocean, while this ocean semi-rigid inflatable — once a rescue boat — bounced over the inky blue sea.

Given I was possibly the most cautious adventure customer that day on the Northern Exposure tour I planted myself at the back of the craft and held on for dear life wondering how on earth none of us had bounced overboard as the craft turned sharply in a series of zig-zags to make sure everyone was awake.

There are 74 islands making up the Whitsundays. The majority are uninhabited national parks. Four have been turned into destination resort islands ranging from the high-end tropical luxury Hayman, to family-friendly Daydream and Hamilton Islands.

With Airlie Beach now long disappeared into the distance we pulled up near a white sand shoal and got our first sight of a turtle swimming in the ocean. It was a little difficult to see with the slight chop in the ocean but I think I caught a glimpse of a leg or a head before it ducked under the water. It wasn't really interested in hanging around for photos.

After passing by Hayman Island, its resort frequented by the rich and famous now temporarily closed after Tropical Cyclone Debbie powered through the region in late March leaving a trail of destruction, our craft finds a quiet cove off Hook Island and sets anchor.

"Snorkelling's going to be good. The water looks beautiful," our skipper tells us.

He's not wrong. This is the moment my world expands.

Hidden beneath the inky blue water of Stonehaven Bay lies a marine wonderland — nothing short of a stunning natural kaleidoscope.

I floated face down on the surface of the tepid ocean surveying the stunning canvas beneath, mesmerised by the ever-changing palette of the vibrantly coloured coral reef swaying in the current like lush tufts of long grass bending when the wind blows.

Fish darted playfully in and around the coral bushes hiding, feeding, chasing, as the marine eco-system unfolded undisturbed beneath me.

As I fully immersed myself in this experience I realised why the Great Barrier Reef, the ocean's largest and most complex expanse of living coral, is one of the seven wonders of the natural world. Even this small inner fringe reef with just a portion of marine and coral species found in the outer reef is staggeringly beautiful.

We head over to Mantaray Bay, a cove on the same island, where a school of yellow-tail fusiliers swarm around us. Still harbouring a slight mistrust of deep ocean water, I am a little unnerved when a monster Humphead Maori Wrasse decides to join the fray, encouraged by handfuls of fish food thrown into the water surrounding unsuspecting snorkellers.

It might be harmless enough but I am more than happy to clamber back on the boat and watch from a safe distance ready for the next adventure — visiting the iconic white silica sands of Whitehaven Beach.

To get there you must navigate a turbulent passage of ocean known fondly as the "Washing Machine". It's a lumpy ride but there's magic at the end when the colour of the water changes to teal and flattens out to the glistening white beaches.

We feast, anchored in the shallows of the crystal clear water of Hill Inlet, and laze on the sands. Then we take a short trek to the highest point of the island under the rainforest canopy, a cacophony of cicadas and native bird call filling the air, marvelling at the giant golden orb spider webs strung across branches like hammocks.

The gentle trek on the Whitsunday National Park walk some 200m above sea level is rewarded by a coastline view that is postcard perfect and arguably the best view in Australia.

With the day drawing to a close and the risk of never having the chance to do this again, I make my boldest move, forgoing the safety of the raft's back seat for the scariest perch on offer. My hand firmly in the rope loop. I wiggle in place.

It takes a few false starts but finally I am sitting comfortably on the side of the speeding inflatable throwing caution to the wind, rafting Whitsunday Island style.

Lynley Bilby is surrounded by yellow-tail fusiliers. Photo / Daniella Cox
Lynley Bilby is surrounded by yellow-tail fusiliers. Photo / Daniella Cox


Getting there:

Air New Zealand

flies daily from New Zealand to Proserpine via Brisbane with partner airline

Virgin Australia


Further information: See queensland.com