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Articles Blog

Whitsunday Islands, Australia

Karyn Planett

The Whitsundays are a magnificent stretch of islands that lie sprinkled off Australia’s Queensland coast like a shower of pebbles. Mariners the world over know of this waterway where 74 islands are studded with palms and wrapped in white sand. Some are little more than coral outcroppings, other boast world-class resorts. The real attraction for many, however, lies just beneath the waves.

Great Barrier Reef

The Whitsundays are a cluster of offshore islands stretching 200 miles between Townsville in the north and the town of Mackay in the south. Together, these coral specks form the Whitsunday Island National Park, part of the Great Barrier Reef.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is acknowledged as the world’s largest living thing for, after all, it is alive. Washed by the warm waters of the Coral Sea, it stretches more than 1300 miles from the Torres Strait in the north to the Tropic of Capricorn off Queensland’s city of Rockhampton.

This reef was formed by countless millions of microscopic polyps whose skeletal remains stacked upon one another to form the structure. Live polyps continue the process to this day developing into such unique formations as “wrinkled brain,” and something called “elkhorn.” All this becomes the basis for other marine life including algae and a rainbow of tropical fish. Snorkelers and divers can easily identify such beauties as red emperors and butterfly fish, not to mention the angelfish we all know and love from our childhood tanks at home.

As discoverers and cartographers struggled to chart and name all these countless specks forming the Great Barrier Reef, they let their imaginations run wild. A close inspection of these charts will introduce the observer to the likes of Magnetic Island, Great Palm Island, Heron Island, Lizard Island, even Daydream Island. Then, not too surprisingly, there’s Shark Reef, Wreck Reef and Osprey Reef. It seems as though their creative genius ran a bit dry in short order.

Captain Cook’s Catastrophe

Everyone knows of Captain Cook’s accomplishments, few know of his missteps, so to speak. During his command of HMS Endeavor from 1768 through 1771, Cook and crew spent time in these waters charting the islands. While here, his ship suffered substantial damage after hitting a patch of coral. It was uncertain for a time, whether the craft could even be saved. Cook was forced to beach the vessel at nearby Cooktown, as it is now known, to make necessary repairs. The spot where Cook’s vessel actually suffered this humiliating accident is, today, called Endeavor Reef.

The Passage

The Whitsunday Passage is a narrow waterway, some 30 miles in length that stretches north-northwest from Cape Conroy to Double Cone Island. A mere two miles wide at its narrowest point, it requires the skill of learned seafarers to successfully navigate these waters. The broadest expanse measures only six miles across.

Waters here are as shallow as 84 feet deep, but also reach depths of 360 feet. Today’s navigational aides have done away with the need for look-outs perched high atop the ship’s masts or in crow’s nests, spyglass in hand. Our Captain maneuvers from the comfortable luxury of the bridge, surrounded by the highest-tech equipment found at sea.

Simpler crafts, such as sailboats and gorgeous yachts come to the Whitsundays in numbers. For their captains recognize that a cruise through this magical island maze is, according to many who have sailed here before them, one of cruising’s most rewarding experiences.