Imagine camping out under the stars on The Great Barrier Reef. It sounds crazy, but it’s possible! Sunlover Cruises offers a two day, one night Outer Reef tour called Sunlover by Starlight. This tour includes two days snorkelling out from their activity pontoon based at Moore Reef with an overnight stay camping on the pontoon where up to 18 guests can experience specialised treatment with their own hosts away from the large crowds of the day trippers once they have all left in the afternoon.
I recently took the opportunity to give this unique experience a go, and I came back on a natural high! I wanted to shout out to everybody I knew how awesome it was! There is no other tour that I can compare it to as it is just something completely different to what other tour operators in Cairns have on offer.
My husband and I have camped before, however my husband is still fairly new to snorkelling and familiarising himself with the recreation. He came away from the tour very confident in the ocean and it was the longest I had ever seen him in the water. I guess it helps when you have access only metres away from you over a 36 hour period.
Our “Sunlover by Starlight” experience started with a check in at the Reef Fleet Terminal at 8.30am for a departure of 9.30am on the Sunlover catamaran to their Moore Reef pontoon platform.
The total time on the cat was approximately 90 minutes. In the first 20 minutes cruising to the reef we were greeted by our hosts, Luke and Ellin, who introduced us to the other four guests staying overnight with us. They briefed us with the itinerary for the next two days with some formal signing of medical forms and going through safety measures. At first this made me a little nervous but it was later when I could appreciate the thoroughness. Every precaution was taken to keep us safe and confident with our stay overnight. We were reminded that once the day cat returns to Cairns the only way off the pontoon was by helicopter at our own expense until the cat departed the next day. We had the opportunity to bring it to their attention before the catamaran left at the end of the day if for some reason we didn’t feel comfortable about being on the pontoon for the night. I can understand how a person who may suffer from agoraphobia or a similar condition could have a change of heart.
Once the formalities were out of the way, we found seats on the outside deck for the remainder of the cruise. I always like to be on the outside to avoid sea sickness but I also love taking in the fresh air and sights. We saw several whales swimming close to the cat on the way out as well as a dolphin which jumped completely out of the water along the side of us! I felt that seeing them was a good omen for our trip.
Once we arrived at the pontoon we wasted no time getting our snorkelling gear on to explore the reef around us. It was the first time I had hired an underwater camera with thanks to Cairns Digital Photography and I was keen to play with it and capture the beauty that lies beneath the Coral Sea.
I was amazed by the variety of hard and soft coral. I would say it was 50% soft and 50% hard. There were different colours, some of the coral garden’s flat on the floor of the sea and others like mountains under the water. At times I felt like I was snorkelling past walls of coral. There were so many fish of all sizes and colours. My favourites were the large Maori Wrass and a Scribbled Mappa Puffer Fish. They had the most stunning lines and patterns on them. I took as many snaps as I could before we returned to the cat moored at the pontoon for a buffet lunch. We were served mixed cold meats, vegetable curry, beef curry, chilled prawns, pasta salad, potato salad as well as garden salad and coleslaw. We had a quick lunch so we could get back in the water again! There was so much to explore out there. My husband and I started venturing out separately on the reef as he was becoming more confident in the water. I felt comfortable knowing there were several life guards keeping an eye on us all so I could continue enjoying myself without having to worry about my hubby running in to difficulty.
As the day progressed to afternoon we saw the day trippers leave at 3.30pm. We waved good bye to the cat and looked at the other guests staying with us for the night with an expression of “This is it…Just us now!” It was surreal seeing the Sunlover catamaran head back towards Cairns leaving us behind on the Pontoon. At this time our hosts brought out a platter of assorted gourmet cheeses, fruit and nuts to nibble on with some “chill out’ music in the background. We had all pre-purchased our alcoholic beverages on the catamaran and had them stored in an esky that was put aside for us. This was the time to bring our cold beverages out to celebrate the moment. We were all buzzing with excitement by this time thinking how crazy it was to be sleeping on a pontoon in the middle of the Coral Sea for a night! Crazy as in “good crazy”.
"We were all buzzing with excitement by this time thinking how crazy it was to be sleeping on a pontoon in the middle of the Coral Sea for a night! Crazy as in “good crazy”."
Before the sun was due to set we had another last snorkel, this time a personal guided snorkelling tour with Luke and six of us guests. He was very informative and I think this amount of people in a guided snorkelling group was perfect. The fish at this time of day were a little quieter and still compared with earlier in the day so it was a different feel down there. While we were snorkelling Ellin was preparing our set up for the night bringing out the swags and linen and preparing for our BBQ dinner. We had a choice of sleeping under the pontoon’s canopy or out in the open. We chose to be out in the open so that we could see the stars above us. We knew that this was a “once in a lifetime” experience and wanted to make the most of being out there.
Once we were back from snorkelling we had warm showers and changed in to dry clothes and got settled for dinner. Dinner consisted of steak, fish and sausages cooked on the BBQ and for me who doesn’t eat meat had vegetarian kebabs and felafels. There was a range of gourmet style salads accompanying the cooked food, all of which was served on black table cloths on the tables. It was very elegant as much as a BBQ set up could be. It was lovely to sit down with our hosts and enjoy the great food and chat about our day, what we saw and did. It was our opportunity to ask questions about the marine life and snorkelling and scuba questions in a small group environment. We were treated like VIP’s. Both Luke an Ellin were wonderful hosts and worked well as a team. They were thorough in their job, approachable, informative and great to be around. The food variety and quality was fantastic both at lunch during the day and the BBQ for dinner. I was pleased to see there was plenty for me to eat as a vegetarian.
Before it was time for the generator to be turned off for the night, we were given lanterns and torches to use when required. Luke advised us of a few apps that we could use on our phones to stargaze so when the lights were out we could play with the app to get an understanding of which stars we were looking at. We all had chosen different areas of the pontoon to sleep and my hubby and I went to the East Southerly side and positioned ourselves so we would see the sunrise in front of us in the morning. We snuggled in to our swags and listened to the sound of the water lapping up against the side of the pontoon. There was the occasional sound of seabirds which were hunting fish at night time from up on the buoys nearby.
Just as we had hoped for, the sun rose directly in front of where we were facing. We watched as it slowly lit up over the horizon. The wispy clouds caused colourful radiation of light. It was such an exquisite sight. We all slowly woke up to enjoy it together. It wasn’t long until Ellin, being such a wonderful host, came around offering tea and coffee and a light cereal for breaky. As we were drinking our cuppas a sea turtle popped its head out right beside us in the water for a big gasp of air as they do! It swam along the surface for a little while before it disappeared in to the sea below. The turtle was another unexpected bet enjoyable surprise for us.
Our first activity for the day after this was a tour on the Glass Bottom boat with her. We had a little wind in the morning however it settled down within an hour to suddenly becoming calm on the water until it looked flat and glassy. Perfect for a day out on the reef! Once we returned from the Glass Bottom Boat we were served a hot breakfast that Luke had been preparing. There were scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns and grilled tomatoes with toast. It was a hearty breakfast to keep our energy up for the day ahead. We then packed up our swags and returned for another snorkelling adventure. It was great being out there with the small number of guests in our group. We savoured the moment until the day trippers arrived at 11.00am and continued our day similar to the day before until we departed on the 3.30pm catamaran to return home. On the return trip we relaxed with a couple of alcoholic beverages and conversed with our new friends that we had made reflecting on the amazing time we had. The bonus on the trip back was seeing some Humpback Whales in the distance breaching out of the water and putting on a show. It really couldn’t get much better!
Already I was thinking about planning to do it all again with a group of mutual outdoor loving friends. I highly recommend this tour to anyone who loves the ocean, snorkellers and divers who appreciate the outdoors and open spaces. Value for money as you get to spend more than two days on the reef with all food included. If you like a more personalised experience this tour is for you.
Thank you Sunlover for coming up with this unique tour experience!
Written by Jenni Tofia, 12th Sept. 2016