Parks and Squares in the Whitsundays
It would be tempting to approach the Whitsundays as a 'sun-lounge by the pool with a good book' kind of holiday, which it does perfectly well. But you'd be missing out on much of the fun. The Whitsundays is full of incredible parks to explore. Most of these are, of course, the marine kind, which come brimming with technicolour fish and eye-catching corals.
When it comes to the Whitsundays' marine parks, it's hard to know exactly how many dive and snorkel sites there are in there, but there are certainly more than enough! Sites can be logically divided into two, whether island or outer reef, with a myriad of day trips exploring both. Take note: it's about two hours to the outer reef by boat from the main marina at Airlie Beach (much less by seaplane or helicopter) and the very best island sites are mostly found around the north of Whitsunday Island where open water flushes the reefs with nutrients. Here's a guide to the best dive sites in the Whitsundays:
Cruise Whitsundays maintains a permanent pontoon at Hardy Reef, about two hours from Airlie Beach. A day trip tosses up multiple reef viewing options. Take an introductory or an open water dive, snorkel the reef, view it from a glass bottom semi-submersible or view it from a helicopter. If that's not enough you can spend the night with their unique Reefsleep opportunity.
Gary's Lagoon at Bait Reef is a favourite stopover for dive boat operators. The lagoon offers protection from ocean swells so it's a good spot for newbie divers or snorkellers. Dive depth is between 4 & 18 metres and is known for large soft corals, wobbegongs and the odd manta ray if you're lucky. The Stepping Stones and Manta Ray Drop Off are other popular sites.
Want a deep wall dive to knock your socks off? Caves and Canyons at Hook Reef is just the place. A 60m wall with a 20m shelf, this dive site is little documented with most of its treasures remaining a closely held secret. Those that have dived it talk in awe about coral gardens strung with extraordinary overhangs and fantastic gorgonian fans. Humpback whales have also been sighted here!
A central lagoon surrounded by reef, Fairey Reef is home to multiple dive sites. Henry's Bommie rises 15m from the sea bed with exceptional coral cover, schooling fish, a narrow slash that opens into a cave with its own resident turtle. Nearby Little Fairey Inlet is equally appealing with a 16m wall, overhangs, nooks and crannies inhabited by angelfish, cod, sweetlip amongst countless other species. One of the best!
Chalkies Beach, Haslewood Island
Often overshadowed by its media tart neighbour across the bay (Whitehaven Beach), Chalkies Beach is unfairly overlooked by many. The upside for those that do venture eastwards from Whitehaven is that you'll likely have the place to yourself. Fringing reef drops off sharply inshore and there's pretty good snorkelling at the northern end of a magnificent beach.
Bali Hai aka Black Island
Sheltered from south easterlies by Hook Island, Black Island is more popularly known as Bali Hai. There's significant reef stretching northwards from the sandy beach. Little known as a snorkelling spot (oops we've spoilt it now!), you're likely to have the whole island to yourself. Wade in from the beach for an easy snorkel perfect for newbies.
Blue Pearl Bay, Hayman Island
One of the best known snorkel and dive sites within the islands, Blue Pearl is on the northwest coast of Hayman Island. Water clarity is usually pretty good, dives max out at 18m and the best coral gardens are found near the southern beach or the northernmost point. Don't be fooled into laying out a towel on the two beaches. They're coral rubble and tough underfoot - wear your reef booties if you venture ashore.
Manta Ray Bay, Hook Island
Manta Ray Bay is one of a handful of worthy dive and snorkel sites on the north coast of Hook Island. Underwater caves and valleys, swim throughs to a depth of 25m and resident Maori Wrasse and manta rays are highlights, so too stunning hard and soft corals. Nearby Luncheon Bay and Maureen's Cove are also worth donning a mask for.
The Pinnacles, Hook Island
Also on Hook Island, The Pinnacles is a serious contender for 'best island dive site', with hard corals to 18m comparable to those seen on the outer Barrier Reef. Enormous coral bommies, boulder corals and massive towers are the big ticket items. If you're diving during the cooler months you might be lucky enough to share the water with a giant manta ray. White tip reef sharks are regular visitors too.
Catsey Bay, Hamilton Island
Not a regular nominee on 'best snorkelling' lists, we've included Catseye Beach as a last resort for those who've checked into Hamilton Island for the longhaul and are reluctant to set foot on a boat. Fringing reef stretches across the bay with respectable hard corals towards the outer edge. Snorkel here if you must in order to tick snorkelling of your list. But we'd recommend that you get yourself on a boat and jump into one of the magnificent sites above.