by Phoebe Smith, The Telegraph, January 16, 2019
It’s easy to lose track of time snorkelling along the Great Barrier Reef. Like a Where’s Wally? cartoon, it demands you take your time because the longer you look the more you will see. What appears at first as a static blanket of colourful coral suddenly reveals itself to hide an array of life – white and orange clownfish snuggling through the tentacles of venomous sea anemone, the purple lips of giant clams protruding from a shell, or the stationary rock that magically morphs into a hawksbill turtle before your eyes.
I thought I had only been floating amid all this for about 10 minutes but as I raised my head out of the water to point out the fin of a whitetip reef shark to anyone who happened to be nearby, I saw the boat that had brought me here beginning to pull away. It was heading back to the mainland without me.
You might expect this to have induced a moment of panic, a call for help and an attempt to swim faster towards the vessel than I’d ever swum before. Ever since the 2003 horror film Open Water, in which a couple are unwittingly left in the middle of the ocean after scuba diving, it’s been the kind of scene that most visitors to coral reefs dread. Instead, I simply smiled.
That’s because this wasn’t the mistake of a lackadaisical crew member who had inadvertently miscounted me. Being left behind was a planned affair, as I was taking part in a new Reef Sleep experience – the chance to overnight in the middle of the ocean. This was Moore Reef, a two-hour boat ride from Cairns, 30 miles away. During the daytime on a standard trip you share the pontoon at which the boat docks – complete with waterslide, sundeck, kids’ pool, underwater observatory, glass-bottom boat tours and touch-tank presentations – with around 200 other reef seekers. If you opt to overnight, you will share it with a much smaller party.
That particular night it was just me, a woman from Argentina called Valeria and two of the Sunlover by Starlight crew members, there to look after us during our night offshore. I swam back towards them as they stood waving the boat off. It was only 4pm and while the day-trippers had enjoyed their standard four hours to make use of all the activities on offer, we now had much longer to enjoy them completely crowd-free.
First, I decided to have a whirl on the waterslide, which had been completely overrun by children just minutes before. I screamed like a banshee on my way down, plunging into the water with an almighty splash. Next, we were offered a trip on the glass-bottom boat. We bobbed above the underwater world, getting unrivalled views of starfish, clams and huge spheres of brain coral.
“There’s time for another snorkel, if you like,” said crew hand Jake, “while we start making dinner.”
Quicker than you could say damselfish, Valeria and I were back in the water, happily bobbing around looking for the giant Maori wrasse and spying more and more turtles, which seemed to emerge now the mass of humans had left their domain.
After about an hour (during which a fully charged GoPro battery was used up) we both decided to get out, at which point Jake surprised us with an unexpected blast of luxury – hot showers. During visitor hours, there is only cold fresh water, but now we could rinse the salt from our bodies in heated bliss. Emerging refreshed, we sat and watched curious white-capped black noddy birds as they perched on the pontoon railings less than a yard from us, while the sun began to slump on the horizon.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get more paradisiacal, Jake presented me with a cold beer and announced that dinner was ready. We feasted on fresh salad and warm bread before tucking into a proper Aussie barbecue of steak, fish and vegetarian kebabs, followed by cake and coffee.
While busy with the dessert, Jake was up on the pontoon roof setting up our swags. More like individual tents than the sacks I’d slept in before, they consisted of a comfortable mattress, real pillows and plenty of blankets.
“You can stay downstairs, if you like,” offered Jake, as we went to check out the sleeping apparatus. “I think a storm may be headed our way…”
I followed his eyes to the open water of the Coral Sea and saw a build-up of darkening clouds above where the sunlight illuminated the land further north. A sensible woman might have gone with his suggestion but, being a wilderness lover, I couldn’t forego the chance to fall asleep with the open sky above me.
As I said goodnight to Valeria, I climbed into bed and lay down, purposely leaving my swag open to the sky. For half an hour I watched the cluster of stars visible outside the gathering cloud as they twinkled.
I’m not sure at what point I drifted off to sleep, but I was woken a while later with water dripping on my face. At first I struggled to remember where I was and what I was doing – all I could hear was the flapping sound of my canvas door being swayed and swished by the increasingly strong wind. The predicted storm was beginning to move overhead.
I reached up to the swag’s zip and pulled the fabric over me, zipping myself in against the elements. I was worried I’d feel as though I were suddenly cocooned in a body bag but, happily, both ends of the swag were made of mesh material so I could still see outside and feel the air rush through, allowing me to relax. Any concerns I might have had about getting wet were no match for the sheer delight I felt at hearing the rhythmic pitter-patter of rain falling around me while feeling cosy and warm inside my bed. Within minutes, I was asleep again and awoke just as the sun was starting to rise – the silence, after that noisy wind, caused me to stir.
“Morning,” whispered Valeria as I unzipped my swag and looked out at the new day breaking. There was no one else up there to disturb, but the muted colours and barely audible sound of the sea’s waves meeting the solidity of the pontoon seemed to evoke a sense of quiet in us both.
I’m not sure how long I lay there, but every minute of it was utterly blissful, watching the sun rise higher in the sky, miles from anywhere, with birds and fish all around us.
While Jake’s assistant cooked up breakfast, Jake took us on a guided snorkel tour outside the confines of the sectioned-off lagoon within which the day visitors have to stay. There we swam among giant potato cod, pastel-coloured parrotfish and blue and red spotted coral trout. Jake pointed out nudibranchs (very brightly coloured tiny sea slugs), sea cucumbers (resembling large gherkins) and tiny starfish we otherwise would have missed.
After a leisurely breakfast, we sat in silence waiting, knowing that soon the next boat bringing excited day passengers would arrive. We would join them, undertaking scuba and helmet dives and listening to presentations by marine biologists, but we were somehow different.
As our time on the pontoon drew to an end, we glanced at one another knowingly. For a night on the reef may only, in real time, take around 38 hours, but the memories of being alone on the Coral Sea will last a lifetime.
How to do it
Sunlover by Starlight can be booked through Sunlover, based in Queensland. The two-day, one-night stay costs A$499 (about £280) per person, including travel between to and from Moore Reef and from Cairns, deluxe swag accommodation, meals, night-time marine presentations, stargazing, a private snorkel safari (including gear rental for use throughout the stay), a glass-bottom boat tour and free use of all facilities enjoyed by day-trippers.
Qantas offers return flights from London Heathrow from £835 return, with stops in Singapore and Melbourne.