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Spend a magical night sleeping under the stars at the Heart Pontoon on the Great Barrier Reef

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coral hardy reef

Unique reef experience Hardy Reef

The aquamarine waters beckoned me to leave the land.  It had been quite some time since I’d made it back to the Whitsundays.  I grew up in a regional town not far away, so Airlie Beach and the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef always felt like it was in my own backyard.  So much has happened to this piece of paradise along the way, not the least of which was the hammering it received on the wrong end of a category five cyclone in 2017.

Check out our underwater experience in the following video.


The huge winds and rain devastated the small coastal community, causing significant damage to property and livelihoods both on the mainland and on the small islands dotted throughout the Coral Sea.  It’s taken more than 12 months for many to get back on their feet.  Some are still in the process, and the natural scars on the landscape are still highly visible in some areas.  However, as the former Premier of Queensland, Anna Bligh once said, “We are Queenslanders; we’re the people that they breed tough north of the border.  We’re the ones that we knock down and we get up again”

blue waters of the whitsundays

The Whitsundays – gateway to the Great Barrier Reef

The Whitsundays has long held the heart of many visitors both from Australia and overseas and for good reason.  It is one of the most beautiful locations to visit in the world and should not be missed.  It’s incredibly difficult to pick out any one part of the area as being the best, such is the breadth of natural beauty, resorts, activities, and experiences.  However, a visit to Hardy’s Reef and an overnight sleep on a pontoon is unlike anything in the world and a definite must visit whilst in the Whitsundays.

With every part of my body that was visible to the sun protected with sunscreen and a lightweight overnight bag, I boarded one of Cruise Whitsundays spacious catamarans, ready to head out to the Heart Pontoon at Hardy Reef, 39 nautical miles off the coast.  It’s quite a windy day but it’s just not right (well not for me anyway) to go and sit inside for the duration of the cruise.

cruise whitsundays catamaran

Cruising to Hardy Reef

Notwithstanding a small stopover to pick up/drop off passengers at Hamilton Island, the trip takes about three hours.  That’s plenty of time to sit inside in the air-conditioned cabin.  If you are in the Whitsundays you need to be able to feel the wind in your hair.  Or, in this case, the wind in your hair, your face and everywhere else!  It’s blowing about 15 knots on the upper deck so there’s no mistaking that you are out in the elements.

It’s fantastic though.  You feel alive.  The wind is fresh and it brings with it that familiar smell and taste of salt.  There’s some swell about too, as one would expect with the onshore winds, but these big vessels slice through the waves effortlessly.  Being up on deck gives you time to reflect with nothing but the sea and the odd island surrounding you.  It’s where you can feel free and for a time at least, you can be uninterrupted aided by the lack of cellular reception out here.

If hanging out in the fresh air isn’t your thing, there are two levels of comfortable seating downstairs, with huge windows all around to ensure that the view is still yours to be had.  There’s a bar come coffee shop as well to keep you refreshed throughout the journey.

cruise whitsundays cat

Tip:  If you are prone to seasickness, be sure to take some medication at least 30 minutes before the cruise starts.  I used Kwells, just to be sure, but you should always consult your own doctor before taking any of this medication.  The shop onboard also sells this in case you forget to take your own.  

During the ride out to the reef members of the Cruise Whitsundays team will come and discuss all of the available activities with you, to ensure they have everything ready to go once you arrive.

Activities include:

  • Diving (for certified divers only)
  • Snorkelling
  • Seabobs
  • Swimming
  • Helicopter rides
  • Semi-submersible boat

Medical release forms must be completed and signed before participating in any of the activities also.  This is to ensure any known allergies or medical conditions are advised of.  Competency levels for such things as diving, snorkelling and swimming are also important.  There is a safe swimming area attached to the boat for those who are not confident swimming in the open waters or for children.  This allows for them to be part of the experience without their safety (and those of others) being put at risk.

Heart Pontoon – Hardy Reef

heart pontoon
Heart pontoon

It’s high tide as we approached the Heart Pontoon and the hundreds of passengers onboard are eager to get off the boat and into the water.  For the day-trippers, they have roughly four hours out here to explore the reef.  The pontoon is a three-level hulking structure, on one hand at odds with the simplicity of nature out here and yet necessary to be able to fulfill all of the activities in an easy, coordinated way.

Hardys Reef The Whitsundays Qld full tide
Hardy Reef at high tide

Snorkelling and diving on Hardy Reef

Diving and snorkelling are the most popular things to do on Hardy Reef.  The divers are sectioned off into one area, allowing them to get all of their equipment together and to be briefed.  For those wanting to snorkel, the generous number of staff on hand to assist makes for a very efficient transition from the pontoon to the water.  Safety is taken very seriously here.  All passengers are counted twice on this one-way trip.  Once at Hamilton Island, as the number of passengers changed with the incoming and outgoing people, and once again as we disembarked the catamaran onto the pontoon.  Numbers will be counted once more when the daytrippers leave in the afternoon.

Lifeguards sit atop high chairs on the pontoon whilst another keeps a lookout from the rubber ducky that circumnavigates the snorkelling zone on the reef.  Guide ropes are also found out in the water, an easy to access safety feature should it be required out in the water.

As a late starter in the world of snorkelling, I couldn’t wait to get out there.  Hardy Reef is one of the premier spots to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef, with hundreds of hard and soft corals and a plethora of marine life.  Its proximity to the sweetly shaped Heart Reef also makes it a compelling place to visit.

As everyone started stripping off their day clothes, exposing their swimwear, the levels of excitement started to manifest in giggles and squeals of delight.

Kerri going snorkelling
Ready to go snorkelling

Wear sensible equipment

Although, I think the squeals were most likely directed at those of us who had braved the wrath of the fashion world to don the “stinger” suits.  If you hail from Queensland, you’ll be very familiar with these lycra suits that look like you are ready to run a 100-metre sprint in the Olympics.  For those not so familiar, these suits are what protects us all from the dangerous Irukandji and Box Jellyfish that are known to frequent these tropical waters.  Pretty they aren’t, but safe they are and they keep everyone protected so that you can snorkel in peace.  Fail to wear one and I can totally guarantee you that the stories you will have heard before entering the water will see you scratching and freaking out every time something benign touches you ever so slightly.

Diving tanks and snorkelling equipment is provided and all is kept sanitised and well maintained.

stinger suits ready for snorkelling
Ready to snorkel

Tip:  Don’t be a fashion diva.  Leave your fashion for out of the water and be safe in the water.  Besides, we all look just as ridiculous as each other anyway.

As time dissipates, so too does the tide, leaving us with more and more exposed reef and more shallow waters, bringing us closer to the underwater life.

Hardys Reef The Whitsundays reef coming out at high tide - reef experience hardy reef
The reef starting to come out as the tide drops

Underwater Observatory

The pontoon is set up well for those visitors who may relish the chance to get out onto the reef but not comfortable being in the water.  It’s great for kids too.  On the lower level of the Heart Pontoon, an underwater observatory provides the opportunity to be exposed to the marine life that call Hardy Reef their home.  I especially loved seeing all the activity as night fell, particular as the gropers, weighing hundreds of kilograms came to say hello.

Seeing turtles, like the one below is also very special.

Hardys Reef The Whitsundays Qld turtle
A turtle as it appears through the glass

Semi-submersible reef boat

Another great way to see a different side of the reef is to jump aboard the semi-submersible boat. With a glass bottom, you can sit inside and watch the water world float by.

submersible viewing


At around 3 pm each day, the magic starts to unfold out on Hardy Reef.  This is when the waters surrounding the Heart Pontoon and the pontoon itself starts to empty itself of all the day trippers.  Blessed with an amazing day full of aquatic adventures, most of them are tired and gratefully welcome the arrival of the catamaran which will take them back to the mainland at Airlie Beach.

For eleven of us, however, the first glimpse of the catamaran heading our way barely causes a blip on our radar.  If I am to be completely honest, I’ll be happy when the day trippers have retreated, leaving us all alone on this beautiful reef.

Welcome to Reefsleep where you get the chance to sleep under the stars, out in the middle of the ocean.  With only the sound of the ocean waves, gently pushing over the reef to rock you to sleep, this is as close to heaven as you can get.  Depending on the time of year, you might also find some very noisy seabirds wanting to time your morning rise with that of the sun.

Tip:  If you are susceptible to noise, I’d recommend taking some earplugs.

A maximum of 12 guests means that this is a very private experience, unlike during the day when the area is throbbing with people.  With everyone gone from the reef, we took advantage of clearer waters to get back out and do some more snorkelling.  With fewer people, the staff on hand on the pontoon are also then able to dedicate more time to the small number of guests.  This meant that we could venture a little further afield and into a different part of the reef.  Even though this is all part of the same reef, so many factors come together to make all of it different in some way.  Being able to snorkel in different areas brings new corals and new marine life into view and really just adds such a richness to the whole experience.

purple coral hardy reef

As day gave way to night, champagne corks were popped as we looked for the perfect spot to sit and take in the sunset.  It’s a surreal moment.  We are all tired from a huge day of water activities and it’s a “pinch yourself” moment to think that we were actually staying so far out at sea.  There’s a peace out here that feels impossible to explain.

sunset drinks
Sunset drinks

Tip: Drinks must be pre-ordered on the boat before you arrive at the pontoon.  Bringing your own alcohol onto the pontoon is not allowed due to licensing reasons.

Dinner is a wholesome affair and whilst not five-star, it’s good food and after being active in the water all day, I can assure you it will taste like the best food you’ve ever eaten.

dessert on reef sleep
Dessert is always a favourite

Our beds for the night are double swags.  With a good mattress underneath and plenty of gauze to keep the bugs out but the breezes in, they are a quintessential Aussie way of sleeping.  There’s plenty of room inside for two people along with access out of both sides, meaning you don’t have to crawl over one another.  On a beautiful evening, there was nothing better than to have all the breezeways open, driving home that feeling of being out on the ocean.  Once inside, you can see through the gauze to the stars above, shining brightly.

As the sun gently awakens you in the morning (provided the birds don’t get to you first), you’ll have to stop and pinch yourself for a moment before you remember where you are.

Hardys Reef The Whitsundays Qld reefsleep
Reefsleep swags

Before breakfast, we jumped in the rubber ducky once more, to head out into Hardy Lagoon, a sand-bottomed part of the reef and a chance for a different snorkelling perspective once more.

Hardys Reef The Whitsundays Qld reefsleep swags - reef experience hardy reef

Take a helicopter flight

As if this experience couldn’t get any better, you can well and truly put the icing on the cake with a helicopter flight.  Short flights can be taken from the Heart Pontoon over the surrounding reef and the unique shaped Heart Reef.  Alternatively, you can do what we did and take a chopper all the way back to Hamilton Island or the mainland.

From up here, you can see the pure white sands of Whitehaven Beach, as they stretch on seemingly for miles.  The islands of the archipelago that make up the Whitsundays and the stunning formations of reef is a once in a lifetime experience.  To have this view and this perspective is hard to surpass.

For more information contact Cruise Whitsundays.

flying over the reef

Having spent the previous day exploring the reef from within, it was fantastic to now see it from the air.

Where is Hardy Reef?

Hardy Reef is part of the Great Barrier Reef located in the Coral Sea.  It can be found 39 nautical miles off the coast, with the most regular starting point being Airlie Beach.  Boat trips take roughly three hours.

How to get to Hardy Reef

Getting to Hardy Reef couldn’t be more simple.  Cruise Whitsundays operate daily catamaran transfers to the reef from the Port of Airlie Marina via Hamilton Island.  They can also arrange helicopter transfers as well.

If you need to stay overnight, or are planning a stay at Airlie Beach prior to heading out to Hardy Reef, we can recommend the Mantra Boathouse Apartments.  You can read the excellent reviews on Trip Advisor.

What to take to Hardy Reef

The great thing is that you don’t need to take much at all, but there are a few necessities.

  • Make no mistake, the Queensland sun is fierce.  High SPF sunscreen in an absolute must, as are sunglasses and a solid, broad-brimmed hat.
  • Swimwear.
  • Hairbands are highly recommended for girls with long hair if you are going to snorkel or dive.
  • Goproor waterproof camera – you don’t want to miss a minute of that underwater life.
  • Camera or iPhone for all the above water shots.
  • Towel or if you are packing light, a microfibre towel.
  • If you are a professional, your own diving or snorkelling gear.

What to take for the Hardy Reef Reefsleep

  • Spare change of clothes for the next day.
  • Clothes for sleeping.
  • Basic toiletries for one night.
  • Earplugs/eye mask if you are a light sleeper.

Beer and Croissants was a guest of Tourism and Events Queensland.  As always, all editorial content, images and opinions are entirely our own.

4 thoughts on “Spend a magical night sleeping under the stars at the Heart Pontoon on the Great Barrier Reef”

  1. This would be a great experience. I love the thought of sleeping in the swag at night. Having so many different areas to explore and not many people around would fantastic.

  2. I would love, love, love to do this! However I’m wondering how the recent shark attacks in The Whitsundays is going to impact on their tourism. But I think I would still be pretty game to give snorkelling a go at Hearts Reef.

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