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Experience the Great Barrier Reef from the Air

It’s difficult to imagine wanting to leave Hamilton Island in the heart of Queensland's Whitsundays, but after a few days here, I just couldn’t wait to get back to the airport. As boarding procedures got underway, I was beaming from ear to ear. And having left the cool air conditioning of the terminal behind to step outside into another beautifully sunny day, I pretty much had to stop myself skipping to the aircraft.

In fairness that aircraft, I should explain, was part of Hamilton Island Air’s helicopter fleet and my upcoming flight would not be taking me back to mainland Queensland. Instead it would take me on a round trip that I knew I would never forget. 

We were about to get an appreciation of the sheer scale of the world’s largest living organism. We were about to experience the Great Barrier Reef from the air.

Quite honestly, I could barely contain myself. So it was fortuitous then that I’d called shotgun and the front seat came with a full body safety harness. Having already introduced himself, our knowledgeable pilot Bryce made sure we were all comfortable as he performed his last flight checks and, with a few words to the air traffic controller, we were airborne.

Seeing Hamilton Island itself from above was our first treat. We passed Coral Cove, an idyllic looking beach on Driftwood Bay, and immediately it was obvious why it had been cited by almost everyone we met who lives here as their favourite out-of-the-way spot.

We continued past Escape Beach and, as we rounded South East Head, Bryce pointed out Passage Peak. It was easy to recognise the craggy outcrop that we’d scaled the previous morning to watch a beautiful sunrise over Perseverance and Dungurra Islands. Now we flew directly over these islands, spying tiny coves on our way to Whitsunday Island.

Even though Whitsunday dwarfs Hamilton Island, save for six campgrounds, it is uninhabited these days. And while it’s accessible by boat from the mainland, Hamilton Island clearly offers the most effortless way to experience this heavenly part of creation.

Keeping the island on our left, we were afforded a magnificent view of legendary Whitehaven Beach as it stretched out before us. And I mean stretched. A light sprinkling of lucky day trippers, freshly arrived from the fast catamarans anchored off shore, spread out on the epic four-mile beach below us. While other helicopter tours also touch down on Whitehaven – with some bubbles onboard no less – we had a different agenda and instead flew along the shoreline towards Hill Inlet.

Now this truly is something to behold from the air. The signature swirling sands and aqua green waters at the mouth of the inlet look like they have been painted in broad brush strokes by some higher power. The colours combine into one giant, beautiful, abstract canvas.

“Wow,” I found myself saying out loud involuntarily.

We pushed on across the Coral Sea towards the Great Barrier Reef. With just the odd tiny island and small bursts of reef between us, the horizon was barely distinguishable. Everything suddenly was eye-wateringly, beautifully blue – pristine waters blending with the sky above. Pretty white clouds were the only indication that this was not, in fact, one uninterrupted expanse. The aspect was overwhelming.

“Let me just dip under these clouds,” Bryce said after a few too-short minutes, pointing up ahead. As he did so Hook Reef and Hardy Reef revealed themselves before us.

On seeing Hill Inlet, I had begun to question whether that view could actually be bettered. I needn’t have. As we reached the leading edge of the Hardy Reef, the colour of the water changed from blue to a milky aqua green, returning to pockets of deeper blue wherever the coral fell away.

Strand upon squiggly strand of reef extended in every direction as far as the eye could see. The sheltered waters were mirror-like, reflecting the sky directly above. Coral and clouds appeared together in the water beneath us and, thanks to the intensity of the light and the momentum of the helicopter, this resulted in an incredible, shimmering visual phenomenon that I couldn’t seem to get my head around – and clearly still can’t quite explain. I, literally, couldn’t believe my eyes.  

It was a slightly bewildering, but in no way unpleasant, feeling that built into a mild euphoria that would stay with me long after landing. All this and we hadn’t even seen Heart Reef yet. Another star attraction on this helicopter tour, it’s a small but undeniably cute part of Hardy Reef, which we happily circled twice. I wondered to myself how many proposals have happened at this location and at this precise altitude.

Reluctantly turning to head back, we flew along the channel that separates Hook and Hardy reefs and above the pontoon that will be your leaping off point when you sail out here to dive and snorkel amidst the colourful sea life.

It’s incredibly hard to compare seeing the reef from above and seeing it from below and you really must grasp your chance to do both while here. I’m momentarily jealous of the flippered swimmers spread eagle in the crystal-clear water. But, were they to look up, I know they’d be thinking the same thing about me. And, without question, quite rightly so.

Chat to one of our Travel Experts about adding a Great Barrier Reef helicopter tour to your tailor-made Queensland holiday.

Written by Phil Murray

With parents in the travel industry, I was pretty much born with one of those take-off sweets in my mouth. I’m very fortunate to be close to clocking up my 50th country - not that I’ll slow down after that. No matter how many places I visit, I don’t think the excitement that comes with boarding a plane will ever wear off. Flying, for me, is one of the most extraordinary things we get to do as human beings and I’ll always be first in line for that window seat!

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