Our sail trip through the Whitsunday Islands
"Whitsunday Escape, Whitsunday Escape, Whitsunday Escape this is Regina, Regina, Over!" So began our morning ritual. Calling in our next passage plan as we readied the Leopard 40 ft catamaran to depart from our sheltered bay of choice for the night. We raise anchor, hoist the sails and head out to find some clean wind. The sails billow and fill with air as we pick up speed and cut through the water, tell-tails flying true.
For 10 magical days we sailed from island to island diving and snorkeling at every chance. The waters teamed with colorful fish of all sizes as well as sea turtles coming and going as they pleased.For a few nights we anchored in the Nara Inlet on Hook island where if you paddle gently enough (by kayak or SUP) into the mangroves you will find the breeding ground for many fish including baby sharks. Baby sting rays hid in the shallows, moving only when they think they've been spotted. The wind stands still and the only noises are birds singing and the water sliding off your paddle.
In case the area wasn't stunning enough already, it is home to one of the top 5 most beautiful beaches in the world - Whitehaven Beach. It stretches over 7 km where it becomes Hill Inlet, a beautiful tidal river where the sand and sea seem to dance together forming beautiful colours and shapes. If you stop in tongue bay you will find the start of the track that takes you up to the lookout high above giving you an amazing vantage point of the inlet. Its also a great place to spot turtles!
For those who love the idea of sailing the islands but not the prices that come with it, there is another great option. Sailing tours come in different shapes and sizes much like the boats themselves with a wide range of prices and itinerary from the cheapest being a few hours to the more expensive multi day cruises which provide food and accommodation. The multi day tours work out to be cheaper than most hotels (as there are no budget hotels on the islands themselves). They are amazing for diving and capturing the true feeling of the Whitsundays from the water.
All of this being said the unfortunate and saddening reality is that the beautiful coral reef of the Great Barrier Reef are dying and if the current bleaching rates continue they will not recover. More than half of the reef is in a critical state with all but a few areas being negatively affected. The depletion is mostly due to coral bleaching cause by adverse changes in the water temperature. When temperatures are too warm (or cold) the coral expel an algae (zooxanthellae) which lives in their tissue. This turns them white and puts them in a severely weakened state. From this state they will easily die out if conditions do not improve. The coral bleaching in Australia is getting exponentially worse with 2016 being the worst year to date. Coupled with a devastating cyclone last year another harsh warm summer or a repeat of the storm will severely set back the possibility of recovery.
We planned our trip for late December so that we could get together with family and do Christmas a little different. This is the low season for the Whitsundays, with peak times being April-Sept (southern hemisphere winter) as with most tropical/sub-tropical areas. This is because its the period of driest and most settled weather and not quite so mind numbingly hot.
There are pros and cons to being in this area through summer. One of the cons being that it is monsoon season so weather can be more unpredictable and a little rougher. The other is that the region is home to locally spawning box jelly-fish which can leave you with a nasty sting making it necessary to wear stinger suits (thin wetsuit type swimming suits that protect you from stings). Plankton also spawn this time of year enjoying the elevated sea temperatures. This is a pro and a con because while they do give the water less clarity during the day, at night they put on a magical light show when the surface of the water is disturbed. Also the cheaper prices and less tourists to fight with for the best mooring spots is a strong plus and with an average of 274 days of sun a year we were destined to have some nice weather.
Each one of the 74 predominantly uninhabited islands has something to offer and many are dotted with hiking trails taking you through thick rain forest. Inside these tracks the blue ocean disappear and you find yourself in a different world. Surrounded by massive trees and the noises of cicadas trying to out sing the birds. Each path ranges in distance and difficulty. Many end at a beach where you can jump into the clear blue water and rinse off the sweat of your hike.
With the Whitsundays being so heavily visited, there are many different options on how to do it. While they all vary both in price and experience our first recommendation is to bare-boat charter a sail boat. If anyone in your group knows how to sail and is up to the task they will be the captain on your adventure. If not, no worries! Sail guides can be provided by the charter companies. They do come with an extra price-tag but in our experience it was well worth the money. We had a guide on board for two days and it provided us the opportunity to anchor in places normally off limits to bare boats as well as boundless amounts of local knowledge. With your own boat comes the freedom to go where you want and see much more than most get to. Plus if you've got a larger group to split the cost by it becomes more affordable.
If resort life is more your style then you have come to right place. The Whitsundays host some of the most exclusive resorts this side of the equator. The One&Only Hayman Island resort is top of the list here with others including Palm bay resort, Qualia resort and Peppers Airlie Beach following close behind. Another stand out is The Beach Club on Hamilton Island which commands a stunning waterfront view with exceptional staff.
Hope is not yet lost as the reef is still in a savable state but real action must begin now. Bipartisan support to meet our environmental responsibilities in reducing greenhouse gas emissions must happen for change to eventuate. Individuals must stand up and hold their governments responsible to effect the change they want to see in the world and consumers must vote with their wallets. Choosing not to support corporations who treat the planet as their personal garbage bin. The time has past where individually we can reduce CO2 emissions. Change must come in the form of environmental treaty's and laws from our collective governments. This will only come when public pressure can meet the political lobbying power of corporations head on.