Reefsleep – The Best Great Barrier Reef Tour from Airlie Beach, Australia

The Great Barrier Reef is an unmissable destination for anyone visiting Australia. During our recent trip to Australia, we got the chance to experience the Great Barrier Reef up close on a unique  Reefsleep Experience with Cruise Whitsundays.

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Despite being caught in bad weather, we spend two days and one night out on the reef snorkeling, swimming, and enjoying the biodiversity of the reef. Read on to learn more about the Great Barrier Reef and our experience on Reefsleep. 

But first, allow us to bust a few myths and share a few facts about the Great Barrier Reef…

Reefsleep – The Best Great Barrier Reef Tour 1

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Where is the Great Barrier Reef?

As the largest reef system in the world, the Great Barrier Reef is internationally famous. It runs along nearly the entire length of the east coast of Queensland and covers around 344,400 square kilometres ( 13,2973 square miles).

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It is possible to visit the reef from nearly every coastal town north of Fraser Island, but Cairns, Port Douglas and Airlie Beach are considered the top getaways for trips to the Great Barrier Reef. 

Great Barrier Reef Facts

Most people know that the Great Barrier Reef is the largest in the world, but many are not aware of what the exactly entails. Aside from being the longest and having the largest area, the Great Barrier Reef encompasses over 900 different islands.

The Great Barrier Reef sits in the middle of the Coral Sea and is comprised of around 2,500 individual reefs

Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Heart island on Great Barrier Reef, Australia

One of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef is the only living organism that can be seen from space.

Under the surface, you’ll find one of the planet’s most diverse ecosystems. You’ll find more than 400 species of coral, 1,500 different types of fish, and thousands of different mollusks. If you’re lucky, you’ll see turtles, whales, dolphins, sharks, and more during your visit.

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Is the Great Barrier Reef Dead?

Many people are concerned about whether or not it is still worth to take Great Barrier Reef tours when so much of it has been destroyed.

The Great Barrier Reef has suffered greatly from agricultural runoff, the effects of climate change, and warming ocean temperatures. This has resulted in severe coral bleaching that took place in 1998 and 2002. The most recent incident in 2016 was the worst and most rapid coral bleaching that has ever occurred. About half of the reef has experienced some level of bleaching. You can recognize the affected coral by its bright white colour.

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Coral at the Great Barrier Reef

These instances do not mean, however, that the Great Barrier Reef is entirely dead. Yes, it is struggling for its life and needs our protection more than ever, but there are parts of the reef that are still very healthy.

Generally speaking, the reef is more damaged in the north and healthier in the south. However, as more and more damage occurs on the reef, the ecosystem is losing its ability to recover.

Reefsleep, the most sustainable great barrier reef tours
Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia

The deterioration of the Great Barrier Reef is a tragic matter, but we as tourists can make a difference and have a responsibility to do so.

The reef sees more than 2 million visitors each year which can cause great harm to the ecosystems there. While on your Great Barrier Reef tours, make sure to use a reputable and environmentally conscious tour operator and not to touch or feed anything on the reef.

Do all you can to be an eco-friendly traveler and the Great Barrier Reef will thank you.

Reefsleep Experience on Heart Pontoon

We decided to travel to the Great Barrier Reef with Cruise Whitsundays not only because of their excellent reviews but because of their great commitment to sustainability.

They did an excellent job living up to their promise to take care of the reef while showing the best of it to visitors.

What is Reefsleep? 

The Reefsleep experience was unlike any other Great Barrier Reef trip we’ve ever taken. It involves a two-day tour with an overnight at Heart Pontoon, a boat that is permanently moored at Hardy Reef.

This part of the reef is easily accessible from Airlie Beach and offers an opportunity to experience the corals, countless fish, and larger marine life such as turtles and wrasses. Hardy Reef is most well known for the heart-shaped coral structure that can be seen from the air.

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Reefsleep Schedule at Heart Pontoon

Activities on Heart Pontoon

Our Reefsleep experience began like any other Great Barrier Reef Day Tour, with a few hours at the Heart Pontoon with dozens (if not hundreds) of other day-trippers.

Heart Pontoon at Hardy Reef. Photo courtesy of Cruise Whitsundays
Heart Pontoon at Hardy Reef. Photo courtesy of Cruise Whitsundays

The pontoon offers a number of activities on the reef, making it easy to get up close and personal to the marine life regardless of your comfort level. 


Snorkeling is by far the most popular activity of the pontoon. Fins, masks, and stinger suits and life jackets are readily available for all pontoon visitors making it easy to jump into the water at any time throughout the day 

Snorkeling at Heart Pontoon, Reefsleep with Cruise Whitsundays
Day-trippers jumped straight into the water to make the most of their time on the Heart Pontoon


The semi-submarine offers a great way to see the reef without getting in the water. The semi-submarine makes a couple of trips per day with a reef interpreter providing an informative commentary on all the interesting things you’ll see along the way. 

Semi-submarine at Heart Pontoon
Semi-submarine at Heart Pontoon

Underwater Observatory

Another spot on the Heart Pontoon for fish spotting is the Underwater Observatory, located just below the pontoon. It’s opened all day and all night and offers an amazing view of the large school of giant trevally that live near the pontoon. 

Discover Scuba Diving

The Heart Pontoon is a fully certified dive shop, offering introductory dive and certified dives to those interested in going deeper during their time at the Great Barrier Reef. It’s an awesome place to do your very first Scuba Dive!

Reefsleep Exclusives

While we thoroughly enjoyed all the activities on Heart Pontoon, in our opinion the best part of the experience was when we finally said goodbye to the day-trippers and got to enjoy the Great Barrier Reef without the crowds. 

We had the reef to ourselves from mid-afternoon until mid-morning the following day and were lucky to witness a lot of action in the water during that time. We got a chance to swim with turtles, with schools fo fusilier fish and giant trevally fish and even the resident Napolean wrasse, came to say hello. 

Chip, the turtle, hanging out in the water near Heart Pontoon
Chip, the turtle, hanging out in the water near Heart Pontoon
Snorkeling with Chip, the turtle. Great Barrier Reef. Heart Pontoon
Snorkeling with Chip, the turtle
Snorkeling with Napoleon Wrasse at Heart Pontoon. Great Barrier Reef
Snorkeling with Napoleon Wrasse at Heart Pontoon

Reefsleep Sleeping Arrangement 

The best thing about Reefsleep is that you’ll get the chance to sleep out under the stars right on Heart Pontoon. It’s essentially camping on a boat in the middle of the reef. The pontoon is perfect for this with its wide, flat deck.

Reefsleep tents set up on the pontoon
Reefsleep tents set up on the pontoon

We didn’t get great weather during our time on Reefsleep, so our tents were set up on the main level, undercover. 

But usually, the tents are set up on the top level of the pontoon. The tarps can be pulled back so you can lay down and look up at the sky without obstruction. The stars on the Great Barrier Reef are unbelievable and if the weather cooperates, stargazing can be a huge highlight of the Reefsleep tour. 

Food on our Reefsleep Experience 

Reefsleep Experience is an all-inclusive affair, so all meals, tea/coffee and snacks are included in the price. We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food onboard! 

Lunches were served on board the transfer boat and consisted of a buffet-style meal with a great selection of healthy veggies, grains, seafood and meats. The meal was good but it wasn’t as good as the exclusive meals served to Reefsleepers on the Pontoon. 

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Afternoon tea was served shortly after the day-trippers departed and consisted of healthy veggies, meats and cheeses. 

Dinner was by far the most elaborate meal. We had a chance to select our meals ahead of time and could choose a variety of great dishes such as local reef fish, chilled Australian seafood, or fresh ravioli.

Reefsleep, the most sustainable great barrier reef tours
Fancy Reefsleep dinner set up on Heart Pontoon


Breakfast was another lovely meal, consisting of a selection of fruits, pastries, eggs along with tea and coffee. 

Reefsleep – Is it Worth it? 

We would definitely recommend Reefsleep as a great way to experience the Great Barrier Reef. We loved the opportunity to spend some time in the water without the crowds and to enjoy a night out on the reef. 

Our experience was a bit tainted by the weather, as it did rain for the majority of our time on the pontoon, but even that didn’t ruin our time on the Great Barrier Reef. Luckily, marine life didn’t mind the rain and continued to be active, rain or shine! 

We would have loved the opportunity to experience Reefsleep on a clear night, to sleep under the stars and enjoy the beautiful sunsets/sunrises that are common in the area.

So if you are visiting the Great Barrier Reef during the dry season and have a chance to experience Reefsleep on a clear day, we highly recommend it!

Have you ever visited the Great Barrier Reef? 


Disclaimer: Our Reefsleep experience was arranged courtesy of Cruise Whitsundays, but as always, all opinions expressed in this article, are our own. 

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