It is always exciting when you sail somewhere new that demands a fair bit of effort and an outer reef escapade rates high in our book. Sailing to secluded Great Barrier Reef sections most other visitors never get to see is a wondrous experience.
A bit about the reef
Often called ‘rainforests of the sea’, shallow coral reefs form some of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth. They occupy less than 0.1 per cent of the world’s ocean surface, about half the area of France where I hail from, yet they provide a home for at least 25% of all marine species.
Of all the coral reefs, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest in the world. It comprises over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands stretching for over 1400 nautical miles along the Queensland coast. between 10nm and 80nm offshore. It goes without saying that during our wanders around the reef, we only saw a tiny portion of this natural wonder, but enough to get us hooked on exploring more.
Scientists generally divide coral reefs into three major classes: fringing reefs, barrier reefs, atolls. Fringing reefs grow near the coastline around islands and continents. They are a submerged platform that extends to the sea. Barrier reefs also parallel the coastline, but are separated by a deep and wide lagoon. Coral grows on both the calm waters of the lagoon as well as the seaward reef front. They form a barrier to navigation. Atolls are rings of coral that encircle a central lagoon and are usually located in the middle of the sea.
When sailing to the reef, because you may be going 20nm to 80nm offshore, you are heading off to an area which is exposed. You therefore need to be mindful of the weather before you leave the coast.
Whether you intend to anchor behind a small island or inside a lagoon there is little shelter, so it is advisable to avoid going when winds are expected to be over 15kn. Not only will it be uncomfortable and possibly dangerous, but you will not be rewarded for your bravery with superb snorkelling or diving: water clarity, good visibility and a calm environment are unlikely to be found in stronger wind conditions and an agitated sea. It is exhausting work snorkelling when wind and chop are up.
As you approach, the first hint of a reef being there, apart from looking at your charting software, are the breaking waves in the distance and the change of colours in the ocean. Once next to the reef wall you see the characteristic layers of colour: dark ultramarine in the deep water, aline of white breaking waves, the brown of the shallow reef, the stunning turquoise of the lagoon or shoaling water over sand and then in the distance those same colours in reverse order. The graduation of colours is remarkably beautiful.
The optimum time to arrive at a reef is at low tide in the middle of the day when the sun is high in the sky so you can clearly see the bottom and what is around you. This is because the reef wall might be called a wall but it is a jagged collection of platforms, coral outcrops, gutters and pinnacles with areas of clear sand.
Bommies, or single coral boulders which can be higher than the surrounding platforms, may be partially exposed at low tide and tend to dot the edges of the reef wall. They are very attractive to snorkellers, but dreaded by yachts!
If you arrive at high tide, you are never too sure whether you will clear the bommies as the tide ebbs. Plus, if you get there very early in the day or late in the afternoon, the light is not good enough to navigate safely. Of course it is only always possible to have the perfect conditions, so if you have to compromise, pick the middle of a bright sunny day. It is also a good idea to record your track and anchoring point for later reference.
The right weather window
Being at the reef in your own boat is sublime. A few moments stand out in our mind as exquisitely beautiful and unforgettable. We were sitting inside Hook Reef at high tide, there was not a soul about; it looked like we had dropped the pick in the middle of the ocean. The next morning, the sea was totally flat: a millpond as far as the eye can see, not a breath of wind, not a ripple in the water. It was surreal, otherworldly.
On days like this, the outer reef is incredibly serene, the water clarity stunning, the snorkelling superb. It is also what you are looking for when spending time in such an unprotected spot.
Ideally you want no more than 10 knots of breeze. A period of light and variable conditions is what you are looking for to head out. Even in calm conditions, when anchoring along a coral reef, you have to be prepared for some chop and current which means some boat movement.
On a gentle day it is a really special experience to be out there in such a beautiful, if a little exposed, spot. What is not so special is when the night weather is 180° from what you had during the day: the breeze kicks over 15 knots and you end up spending an unnerving and uncomfortable night rock and rolling with the water noisily slapping at your hulls and the boat stern to the reef!
Believe us, when it blows over 15 knots it gets very uncomfortable, particularly at high tide when there is no shelter.
So the weather window to be out there safely and comfortably is often short, particularly during the trade winds season between July and September. If the breeze is forecast to pick up, you have to beat a retreat. The advantage of Hook, Bait and Hardy Reefs is that they are not far from safety, you are only about 20nm 25nm from the northern tip of the Whitsunday Islands and about 40nm from the mainland.
Anchoring at the reef
Some areas might be a few metres deep at low tide. At Hook Reef we anchored in three metres of water at low tide. It can take a little while to find a spot that allows you to be close to the coral, but not so close you end up hitting a bommie.
Being on a catamaran has its advantages and we like to get close enough to the coral to be able to jump off the back of the boat for snorkelling. But sometimes it is not possible and you need to be prepared to anchor in greater depths, say 10m and have plenty of scope.
The anchor chain is not much use in the locker. You will sleep better at night if use it all.
Generally you are anchoring on a sandy bottom with good holding. You need to allow a full 360° swing, free of bommies. Remember there is about 2.5 metres of tide between high and low water.
One of the warnings about anchoring near a reef or in a lagoon is that dragging anchor in stronger winds can be disastrous. You want to ensure your anchor is well and truly set in broad daylight. Once the sun is low or at night, moving safely is impossible. Navigating around bommies demands bright sunlight.
If a fresh breeze is expected, use two anchors in tandem or a buddy: a lead weight that lowers the angle of your anchor chain and makes it harder to dislodge. But, as mentioned before, you should not be there if strong winds are forecast.
Snorkelling at the reef
Because the reefs are on the outer edge of the continental shelf, not close to rivers and run off that comes after rain, they enjoy clean waters and healthy coral. The waters at the reef are exceptionally clear with an average visibility of 20+ metres.
Snorkelling at low tide amongst coral reef and tropical fish would have to be one of the most amazing experiences of cruising. The diversity of shapes and colours are such a treat, especially after spending weeks in the turbid waters of the Whitsundays.
You know the reef is healthy when you see three main types of marine life: firstly an abundance of herbivorous fish, like parrotfish or surgeonfish because they keep the algae population in check. Secondly, the presence of larger fish like snappers, groupers, barracudas are the sign of a healthy balance of fish in the reef.
Sighting a shark is also a prime indicator the ecosystem is thriving. The largest fish on a coral reef in decline are usually the first to go. Thirdly, seeing giant clams is also a good sign of a healthy reef. They are highly sensitive to changes in water acidity and temperature and perish if conditions are less than perfect.
So a combination of these will tell you right away that you can expect to return to this reef and dive again next year. That was very much the case at Hook Reef.
The grand tour
You have got the right weather window, now let’s explore a group of reefs which are near the Whitsunday Islands. The local fishermen must have named all of these: Bait, Barb, Hook, Line, Sinker … and Hardy because you have to be hardy to get there!
Bait Reef is the nearest of the outer reefs to the Whitsundays. Hook Reef lies in the middle of the complex, with Bait to the west, Hardy to the north-east and Line Reef to the north. Two smaller associated reefs are Sinker, immediately north of Hardy and Barb Reef, west of the western end of Hook.
Unfortunately in March 2017 Cyclone Debbie inflicted significant damage to the fringing reef in the Whitsundays and the outer reef was also affected, although not as severely. You will see some rubble and areas of dead coral. However there is still plenty of soft and hard coral to see and the fish life is abundant.
If you like your privacy, enjoy anchoring on your lonesome away from commercial tour boats and are looking for a safe entrance, then Hook Reef is your spot.
Finding the way in is easy as the western end of the southern wall is marked with a cardinal marker. The entrance into the ‘hook’ is wide, clear of bommies and deep. The current can be strong between Bait and Hook, looking a bit like a pot boil, but once out of the passage, the water calms down.
You can take your pick and anchor on the southern side of the ‘hook’ or cross over to the northern side, close to Hardy and Line Reefs. We followed the southern wall for about a mile and anchored in sand in three metres of water at low tide with ample room to swing between bommies. This allowed us to swim off the boat.
Of course if you stay further out, you can anchor in clean sand and dinghy closer in, anchoring in sand at the edge of the reef wall. The snorkelling there is magic.
You are also allowed to line fish or go spearfishing. There is a wide variety and size of fish and the coral is healthy and colourful.
There is some storm damage in places, but overall it is very beautiful and thriving.
Bait Reef is the nearest of the platform reefs from Hook Island, about 16 miles from the north east of the island.
This is a fascinating spot which attracts commercial dive boats to the wonderful site of The Stepping Stones. These are 18 flat-topped coral pinnacles which have an abundant variety of fish and corals. The pinnacles rise from a depth of 15 to 25 metres and stop within one metre of the surface. There is also a small lagoon and platform reef.
Definitely worth a look for the novelty of the pinnacles, especially for a dive with tanks.
You cannot anchor there, but there are eight public moorings available for two hours inside the Stepping Stones and one on the outside at the Manta Ray Dropoff. You may not be able to settle there for the day if it gets busy and you have to share the spot with lots of tourists.
The moorings are, however, right inside of the Stepping Stones and small lagoon, so you can just jump off the back of your boat for a snorkel or use the dinghy to explore further.
The Stepping Stones are like coral gardens, lots of soft coral and fish swarming around. The platform reef is reasonable only and although the fishlife is abundant there is more storm damage there than at Hook Reef, with lots of rubble.
The colours and scenery from your deck are breathtaking at Bait Reef. This site is really spectacular. Being in a Green Zone, or Marine National Park, you can look but do not take.
We stayed there overnight and enjoyed multiple snorkels. A local tuna befriended our boat, spending a lot of time beneath our hulls.
You get to Line Reef by going across the edge of Hook Reef and through the deep channel that runs between Hook, Hardy and Line Reefs. The natural channel is very deep, 60m+, so there is a lot of current.
You go over the edge of the wall to get inside Line Reef and anchor in 12m to 14m of water at high tide. The current runs fairly swiftly along the wall.
It is scenic because you clearly see the graduation of colours and the deep channels. The difficulty with this site is that you have to anchor in deep water. We visited but chose not to anchor there.
Hardy Reef is accessed by following the deep channel between Hook and Line Reefs right into the lagoon. You need to work the tides.
A word of warning, you do not go there for privacy.
It is heavily used by dive charters, fast catamarans with loads of tourists, which go there and tie up at pontoons. You will even see helicopters and light planes flying over.
But you can anchor in 5m to 9m of water as near to the channel wall as you feel comfortable. Coral is visible on both sides of the lagoon entrance.
One of the features of the Hardy Lagoon entrance is The Waterfall, an impressive sight when water is emptying from the reef. It becomes stabilised about one hour after low water during neap tides and about two and a half hours after low water in spring tides.
Hardy Reef is a Marine National Park, so no fishing. Being a highly-frequented lagoon, we chose not to stay there.
We have been to these parts twice and would love to return and explore further, to Black Reef. But this will have to wait for next season.
Going to the outer reef in your own yacht is the ultimate adventure. If you charter a yacht in the Whitsundays, the outer reef is out of bounds. But you can still enjoy the area by going for a day trip or overnighter with one of the companies which run motorised catamarans or fast launch tours.
Whichever way you go, it will be an unforgettable experience and one you will want to repeat again and again. ≈