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Visiting the Great Barrier Reef is a must for many travellers. But what if you could experience it with just nine other people, instead of on a large day tour with 300 other travellers?  Reefsleep allows visitors to stay overnight on Reefworld, the day tripper pontoon, sleeping in tents with just a handful of others after the day tour returns to Hamilton Island. Here are five tips for getting the most out of your Cruise Whitsundays reef sleep experience, from what to bring to how to manage your time while you’re on the pontoon.

Reefsleep transfer

Only a maximum of nine people are allowed to stay overnight on the pontoon. Hanging out on the Great Barrier Reef with an interesting group of like minded travellers from around the globe is one of the great joys of this experience. You can start the process of getting to know each other on the trip out to the reef as you have your own dedicated ‘Reefsleep Only’ seating area in the air-conditioned top deck of the catamaran. Just remember to bring some seasick medication if you are inclined to get queasy as you will almost certainly feel ‘the motion of the ocean’ during the trip. It’s hard to enjoy a lively conversation with fellow travellers when you are not feeling well.

Great Barrier Reef
Get to know everyone on the way to the pontoon

Don’t join the crowd

Reefsleep is combined with the day trip to Reefworld so you will have to share the pontoon with up to 300 day trippers from 11am to 3pm each day. It can feel a little overwhelming with so many people hurrying around the pontoon, eager to get into the water to snorkel and explore the reef. Resist the temptation to join the crowd. This is the time to hang out with your fellow Reefsleepers and chill as you will have the whole reef to yourself after the boat returns to the Whitsundays. A delicious buffet lunch is served on the ‘mother ship’ (aka the Cruise Whitsundays catamaran) which also provides toilet facilities and a comfortable, air-conditioned place to relax throughout the day.

It’s a great idea to have lunch as soon as it is available at around 11.50am as the dining area is empty, there are plenty of seats and you don’t need to queue up. After you have had lunch, head to the semi-submersible and take a trip around the reef or check out the big fish and snorkellers and divers doing crazy things to get the perfect selfie in the underwater observatory. There will be plenty of time for snorkelling after everyone else has left.

Hardy Reef pontoon
It can get busy on the pontoon during the day

Reefworld snorkelling tips

Are you a first-time snorkeler or not that confident in the water?  If so, it is money well spent to pre-arrange a guided snorkel tour so you can relax and make the most of your time on the reef. If you are travelling with friends, you can do this as a group. If you are at Reefsleep with someone special, you can opt for a snorkel tour for two. During the trip to Reefworld, there will be an onboard announcement on the catamaran inviting interested passengers to come downstairs and book a time for a guided snorkel. If possible, try to organise this for after the catamaran has left so you aren’t in the water with 300 of your new best friends.

Hardy Reef
Snorkel in peace after everyone has left

Whether you are doing a guided snorkel or exploring the underwater wonders of the Great Barrier Reef independently, get your stinger suit, mask, snorkel and fins ready to go so you can get in the water as soon as the boat leaves. If you tire easily or aren’t confident in the water, a foam noodle or life jacket for extra floatation is a good idea. Don’t worry if aren’t a great swimmer. It is easy to explore the reef as there are ropes anchored to the ocean floor so you can pull yourself along. If the tide is flowing the right way, you can even let the current take you along the edge of the reef and use the ropes to pull yourself back to the pontoon if you don’t want to swim.

Camping on the reef pontoon

You won’t have to set up your bed, cook, clean or dig any holes to use as a toilet. However, this is definitely a camping trip. There is no option to upgrade to more upmarket accommodation so the best idea is to embrace the experience as an ‘adventure’ and make the most of it. After the day trippers have gone, your host will set up nine swags (small personal tents) which include a mattress, pillow and sheets or a sleeping bag if it is cold.

There is the option to share a tent but you will be much more comfortable if you have your own. Sharing a tent/swag won’t save you any money so make sure you book a single. The swags are reasonably comfortable, offer a great view of the stars and can be opened up fully on steamy nights. Just remember to wear your best PJs as there is not much privacy with the side canvas flaps open. Also, you should definitely bring ear plugs to block the noise from any snoring Reefsleepers and the sound of the sea birds who like to serenade everyone throughout the night.

Reefsleep dinner
Your friendly Reefsleep host cooks, cleans and even makes your bed

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Reefsleep packing tips

This is only a two-day trip so just bring the essentials such as a pair of swimmers, a change of clothes (nothing fancy), basic toiletries, sunscreen and a towel. Leave any jewellery and valuables back at your accommodation. While the Reefworld gift shop can store a small bag for Reefsleepers, you won’t be able to access it from 12pm to 2pm which can be inconvenient. It is easier to not bring valuables and simply leave your bag on the pontoon. An underwater camera and/or GoPro is great to have. However, I wouldn’t go out and buy one especially as they can take some time to master. If you’re not super-keen on underwater photography, it is probably better to simply enjoy the unique opportunity to snorkel around Hardy Reef with just a handful of other people.

Disclosure: The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Whitsundays and Cruise Whitsundays. 

If would like to know more about visiting the Great Barrier Reef, we also have tips for visiting Heron Island, Orpheus Island, the Whitsundays, and Cairns which is one of the popular jumping off points for the Great Barrier Reef.

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Dr Tiana Templeman is an award-winning food and travel journalist, travel author and media industry academic. She is the creator of The Travel Temple, writes for Australian and international media outlets and appears on radio talking about where to go, what to see and travel industry trends.