Ellie’s journal says it all: "We went snorkelling and saw stripy fish and bright blue fish and yellow fish and very big black fish and we saw a blue starfish. It was good fun. There was lots of fish."
There was indeed. Reefworld, a pontoon moored on Hardy Reef off the Queensland coast, is quite possibly the most exciting undersea adventure any six-year-old could dream of having – except, perhaps, coming face to face with The Little Mermaid herself. Just getting there was a thrill: a helicopter whisked us from Hamilton Island in the Whitsundays, then swooped low over squeaky clean Whitehaven Beach and 15 minutes of dark, forbidding sea before abruptly crossing the turquoise threshold of the Great Barrier Reef.
Circling above tiny Heart Reef (which really is a perfect heart shape), we spotted manta rays and turtles cruising above cerulean-coloured reef flats. Then it was touchdown, crested terns scattering as the helicopter alighted on a raft no bigger than a tennis court. A short boat ride and we reached Reefworld itself.
It was late afternoon and the day-trippers had already left. Reefworld was deserted, except for the small team of staff who kitted us out in stinger suits (think Spiderman meets the Teletubbies), lifejackets and snorkels. Although Joe and Ellie are good swimmers, it was crucial that they wore lifejackets since there was bound to be odd mini-panics when water seeped into their masks or slopped over the tops of their snorkels.
First to take the plunge, Joe – Ellie’s twin brother – took one peek underwater, squealed and shot back onto the pontoon quicker than a flying fish. It didn’t bode well – but I could see what had caused the consternation.
A huge Napoleon wrasse (or 'double-decker fish' as Joe later described it) had come to check us out. It took a bit of persuasion to reassure both Joe and Ellie that it wasn’t going to eat them and soon we were happily bobbing over the reef holding hands, pointing at corals and giant clams and watching the technicoloured procession of fish. Lots of fish.
By sunset we were back on the pontoon and being introduced to George, a 3m-long Queensland grouper that has adopted Reefworld and lurks under the pontoon waiting to devour any hapless children who fall in.
Actually, George is a gentle giant. Joe and Ellie were fascinated by him, particularly when they got to feed chunks of mackerel to the 280kg ‘monster’. They spent the entire evening running back and forth between the open hatch where George hung out and the underwater observation chamber where you could watch mean-looking jacks patrolling the floodlit waters.
After dinner the twins fell into a deep sleep lulled by the slosh of waves against the pontoon. Disturbing images of sleepwalking children did little to ease their parents’ sleep, but in the morning it was straight back to snorkelling, breakfast for George and a ride in Reefworld’s semi-sub before the helicopter returned to collect us.
“Not a bad way to see the Reef,” said our pilot in a perfect example of Aussie understatement as he whizzed us back to Hamilton Island.
William Gray’s trip was arranged by Bridge & Wickers (www.bridgeandwickers.co.uk); for details of Hamilton Island, go to www.hamiltonisland.com.au; Wanderlust contributing editor William Gray is the author of the recently published Travel with Kids - The Definitive Guide to Family Holidays Worldwide (published by Footprint)
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