Ocean Raftin The Great Barrier Reef.

Do you know that moment when you close your eyes and feel the wind in your hair and the sun soaking into your skin?

The author rafts the Whitsundays.

That moment happened more than once while I was gliding through the Whitsunday Islands in beautiful Queensland, Australia, onboard with Ocean Rafting.

If you’re short on time and your pockets are almost empty but you don’t want to miss out on seeing the best the Whitsundays have to offer, Ocean Rafting is a great option. Ocean Rafting visits the “Wild Side” of the Whitsunday Islands and is advertised as 3 days in 1. It’s a thrilling fast ride to the most pristine, undisturbed areas of the Great Barrier Reef. I saw firsthand the multicolored coral and marine life.

On our Ocean Rafting tour, a guided hike by our Eco Host Courtenay was included to the world famous Hill Inlet within Whitsunday Islands National Park.  Not a bad deal for the price of $129 AUD!

The fastest way around the Whitsunday Islands.

The Ocean Rafts themselves are 11 meter, semi-rigid inflatables, originally designed and built as rescue crafts but are now driven by powerful 500hp engines. The Ocean Rafting tour is the fastest way to get around the Whitsundays. The price is low and the experiences are priceless. Prices range from a mere $84 (child) to $389 (family, 2 children, and 2 adults).

The reef teems with life.

They offer two different tours: the Northern Exposure tour and the Southern Lights tour. The Northern Exposure tour is geared for those who want to spend most of the day in the water checking out the thriving coral and marine life; the Southern Lights tour is for those who want more beach time as opposed to snorkel time.

I chose the Northern Exposure tour because dang it, I was in the Great Barrier Reef and I wanted to see it!

We were picked up from our hotel and brought directly to the Airlie Beach jetty.

The sky was clear, the weather was warm and breezy; I was ready for anything the day was going to throw at me. I was greeted in the typical Aussie way, with smiles, How’re ya goin’? Nice to see ya! You guys ready for a wild ride?

After signing up we loaded into our large raft; there was room to sit and space to place our things under the seats. I strategically sat in the front row with my husband; the unobstructed view was perfect for photos. Tim, our skipper, was welcoming and gave us lots of information before we sped off.  Since 1997, when Ocean Rafting started up, it has dedicated itself to the preservation of the reef, winning several awards for eco-tourism.

Now comes that moment I described in the first sentence, wind in your hair, sun soaking into your skin . . . Ahhh . . . life is good. Not only is life good, it’s about to get even better.

Snorkeling in the coral.

We were taken on a fast wild ride. We quickly accelerated from 0-25 knots and I held on as Tim weaved about in the water, all of us in tow, laughing and enjoying ourselves. It took us about 40 minutes to arrive to our first snorkel stop, Butterfly Bay & Maureen Cove, which is off the coast of Hook Island. I was itching to get in the water. Courtenay, our Eco Host, offered snorkel instruction to those who needed it but I’ve done my fair share so I jumped in the water as soon as I was in my wetsuit.  Since it was June there was no need for stinger suits. The water was quite cold, much colder than the Thai waters I had just come from. As soon as I adjusted my mask my head was in that water and no one saw my face again for an hour.

I saw so many species of fish and marine life that I had never seen before! The colors were vibrant and captivating. The Great Barrier Reef is the only living organism that is seen from space. It’s also included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The Great Barrier Reef contains a huge diversity of wildlife, including over 1,500 species of fish, about 360 species of hard coral, 5,000 species of mollusks, and more than 175 species of birdlife, plus countless types of sponges, anemones, marine worms, and crustaceans.

Dive with Green Sea Turtles.

After an hour exploring the reef we moved on to our next snorkel spot, Mantaray Bay. Again, I jumped into the water and after about 20 minutes I heard my husband Martin call me with a yell — Turtle! I’m not a fast swimmer but I felt like I had a propeller attached to me. I did not want to miss this, and neither did Courtenay. She dove into the water, GoPro in hand, and shot video footage for the media package that we could purchase after the tour.

I kept an eye out while swimming; suddenly, the majestic creature was in my sight. I tried to stay calm so I wouldn’t spook it. I swam above it as it glided through the coral. I observed it as it observed me. We found ourselves in a spot where the turtle would have to swim between two corals and very close to me. He looked right at me and I’m sure it was deciding if I was a threat or not. After a moment it looked down and swam between the corals; I was close enough to touch it. We swam until I was getting too far from the raft. I had just checked yet another thing off my bucket list. Number 24: Swimming with a Green Sea Turtle, and what a place to do it - the Great Barrier Reef!  I had also swam incredibly (almost frighteningly) close to a Parrotfish that was as big as I was.

Our next stop was one of the most acclaimed and awarded beaches in the world, Whitehaven Beach.

The beaches are pristine in the Whitsunday Islands.

We all unloaded from the raft except for Tim who piloted the craft to the other side of the island. Ocean Rafting is the only tour company that has the permit to drive right up onto Whitehaven Beach. Our guided hike across the island brought us to the Hill Inlet Lookout, with the best view of Whitehaven Beach.

The aboriginals named it “whispering sands”, but today it is known as Whitehaven Beach. Tourists come from all over the world to experience the alluring beauty of Whitehaven Beach’s renowned 7km (4.3 miles) stretch of sand that is 98% silica. The sand has a fine, flour-like consistency, and is a sparkling white color. The origin of the sand is a mystery. Geologists say that the sand is not of a local origin because the rock found in the area is of low quartz quality. The sand is millions of years old and once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.

Step into the good life on Whitehaven Beach.

We gazed at the postcard beauty that was our reality, and of course we had to take photos in front of it. I walked the short trail in silence as my feet were massaged by the pristine sand. I was in a tropical paradise. This had to be what heaven is like! I swam in the warm shallow water and little sand-colored fish scattered around me.

All the action from the day gave me quite an appetite and lunch came just in time. We all made a line and piled our plates with a wide variety of fruit, pasta, chicken legs, bread etc.; sodas can be purchased onboard. Some chose to eat on the raft and other took their meals to the beach. The optional buffet lunch costs an additional $15; those with special allergies or money restraints can chose to bring their own meals. 

We had another hour to enjoy the beach before we journeyed back to Airlie Beach.  The hour flew by as we took photos, talked to our fellow Ocean Rafters, and swam about. The sights were absolutely stunning: the juxtaposition between the rigid rock faces of the islands, the greenery, and the deep blue waters made me take photos nonstop. Courtenay made her way around the raft talking to everyone and answering any questions we had, she also told tidbits of fun information about the surrounding islands.

The ride was calm until we approached Airlie, then Tim shouted, HOLD ON!!!! We were rocked in our seats as Tim suddenly became a speed demon; the raft swerved back and forth and jumped wakes. My heart was racing and my cheeks hurt from smiling! What a way to end a flawless day.

The wild crew.

Back at the jetty the photos and footage taken throughout the day by Courtenay was shown on a large television. The optional Memories Media Pack was available for purchase and includes high resolution photos on a USB and the footage is edited with soundtrack and formatted to play all over the world. What a special souvenir for yourself and a great way to show your friends and family what you did in the Whitsundays!

Ocean Rafting was everything it promised to be. It was the fastest and most exhilarating way to see the Whitsundays – we experienced 3 days in 1. We cruised, we snorkeled, we frolicked around on one of the top ten beaches in the world, and all of this with the help of our friendly Ocean Rafting Skipper and Eco Host. There is no question in my mind as to why they have been awarded and accredited by numerous organizations in Australia.

— Feature and photos by Kristin Rist, Jetsetters Magazine Correspondent living in Norway.