Our second trip around the Whitsunday Islands was vastly different to the first. This was our purely tourist tour to the must-see destination of Whitehaven Beach. How we got there was less important. Which isn’t to say that we wouldn’t have loved to travel there on the Domino, but unfortunately the only option for doing the top tourist picks was to get on one of the laden-down tourist boats. Once more we arrived at Abel Point Marina where this time we boarded what was basically a large jet boat that could carry about 60 passengers for the day. It was a family-run business, and in this case the family happened to be Irish. And business it certainly was. There were a lot of extra costs like stinger suits or drinks of any type. Welcome to the tourist trap.
After a late departure it seemed like the captain was doing his damndest to make up for lost time. Being one of the last pickups, we were seated in the worst area for feeling the motion of the boat, right at the front of the lower deck where there was little fresh air because the windows were shut against the sea spray. As we raced across open water it seemed the captain (who was up top in a well-covered cabin) was trying his utmost to drench any passengers that were exposed on the benches up there. From below all you could see out the window was wave after wave of displaced water raining down on the boat. As the deck lurched and our stomachs became more and more unsettled it seemed that a far more apt name for the boat would be the vomit comet. Not one for feeling sea sick normally, I was definitely feeling the worse for wear as the waves buffeted the boat. The crew shouting yeehaw like they were in a rodeo after any particularly bad patch wasn’t really helping.
The sensation of travelling across the water couldn’t have been more different than on the Domino. The crew were hugely proud of the speeds the boat could reach. While jetting around at top speed does sound like fun, it’s far better in a small jet boat where you’re out in the fresh air. On a large boat like this one it was mostly sickening every time the boat pushed on through a wave and came down hard on the dip at the other side. The whole boat juddered as it actually gained air on the far side of each wave and crashed down on the next incoming one. The destination had better meet expectations to compensate for the pain of the journey getting there.
Eventually we reached our first stop off – Hill Inlet Scenic lookout. We moored close to Whitsunday Island and were boated over to the start of a trail leading up to the lookout point. From this vantage point you could see clear across the island to the pristine white beaches and blue waters. It was a stunning view and every tourist had their camera out snapping away. Whitehaven Beach stretches about 6km along Whitsunday Island which is the largest island in the group. The sand is a clear bright white, formed as coral broke away from the Great Barrier Reef and created mounds of ground up sand. This was what boatloads of tourists were here to see and it wasn’t hard to understand what all the fuss was about. The breathtaking views beat all expectations.
When everyone had dragged themselves away from the view we returned to the boat and continued on around to Whitehaven Beach itself. This is the most famous beach at the Whitsundays and it’s easy to see why. A long beach with the whitest of silica sand and crystal clear blue waves lapping gently at the shore. There were boats dotted all along the water with groups of tourists spilling out in stinger suits and small boats like an invasion force. We strolled along the quieter sections of the beach and couldn’t resist a dip in the waters though we decided we were safe enough without stinger suits. Up near the picnic area a huge gouna had been spotted. When the lunchtime barbeque was set up and everyone was eating steak and burgers he was the star attraction as he made his way around the benches. After a couple of hours it was time to pack up and leave the hordes of day trippers soaking up the sun in their blue bubble sun loungers.
After Whitehaven Beach our next stop was Mantaray Bay up at Hook Island. We risked a soaking and clambered up to the top of the boat for a better view and some fresh air. The motion of the boat as it bounced along the waves was definitely a lot better up there. Unfortunately we were called below for a snorkel briefing and had to slip and slide our way back down conscious that letting go of a handhold for even a second could have disastrous results with the boat jolting about so much. The snorkelling instruction consisted of a lot of funny mimes showing which way to wave to indicate if you were ok, wanted a pickup, or thought you were drowning. After the entire audience had demonstrated that they had all the different communications committed to memory, it was time to suit up in stinger suits and gather all the snorkelling paraphernalia.
This time we exited straight from the boat into the water. The coral in the bay wasn’t as extensive as at Bali Hai and the water was very crowded between our boat and a couple of others in the area. We did a quick loop around the coral and identified as many fish as we could. The biggest attraction for us was the larger shoals of fish in the area. As the crew turfed the leftover scraps from lunch overboard it was clear why so many fish chose to stick around. And of course when the smaller fish gather in a particular area, you can be sure there’s a few larger ones close behind. An absolutely huge Maori Wrasse fish floated up from the depths along with an equally big dark fish that we didn’t manage to identify. These fish were longer than me and as wide as a few people put together. Seeing something that size surfacing right by you is more than a little disconcerting. While I’d love to get up close to a playful dolphin, these bug-eyed fish with their thick generous mouths weren’t enticing me any closer. The sight of turquoise giants with their cold eyes rolling about as they peered through the murky depths wasn’t the most attractive.
A short distance from the boat we stayed submerged to watch the monsters rise from the deep every time they thought there might be some food on offer. Watching them pass right in front of you it felt like you’d been shrunk and placed in an aquarium. They were infinitely more interesting than the shoals of small fish we’d already seen plenty of in the bay. As the non-snorkellers got brought around in a glass bottom boat, fish food rained down around us as the crew tried to encourage more fish to come closer. Within seconds of being pelted with pellets, a swarm of fish were flitting around me. There was nothing to do but wait for the cloud of fish to settle and disappear off in search of more food, their fins smoothly pushing them where they wanted to go.
After a while the colder water had the inevitable effect and we were glad to haul ourselves back onto the boat and start the process of drying off. Another long episode of lurching about in the belly of the ship brought us back to the marina. With a captive audience, the crew started the processing of collecting money for all those hidden extras. We’d abstained from any drinks so it was just the stinger suits for us. We’d debated whether they were really necessary, but had both seen gobbets of clear jelly pellets with small dark seeds floating through the water at one point. Whether this meant there was any real danger of getting stung or not, we were glad not to have taken any chances. Besides which, the stinger suits also conveniently prevent you from getting any kind of sunburn while in the water.
And so our trips around the Whitsundays ended. We were happy to have done both and had such different experiences. Each catered for a completely different type of of tourist and had their highlights. We’d recommend both again, although our stomachs had a lot of complaining to do about the XPress voyage. It’s just a shame that such a beautiful beach as Whitehaven is inevitably overrun with so many people at the same time.