Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Australia September 2013 - Three Days Sailing The Whitsunday Islands & The Outer Great Barrier Reef

***This post is part 12 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Choosing an overnight Whitsunday Islands sailing vessel was probably the most frustrating part of planning this trip. Strangely enough, it was very similar to the dilemma I faced while researching different ships for the Halong Bay overnight cruise when I visited Vietnam in 2011.

What it all boils down to is this: anytime there is an overabundance of operators, none of whom have a solid, user-friendly online presence, partnering with dozens of third-party travel agents who are all hawking identical tours at a mind-numbing variation of prices, what you get is an absolute cluster#&^*.

While the Whitsunday tour operators are slightly more tech-savvy, many of their websites are still primitive and informational only. Most still depend heavily on travel agents, who aggregate dozens, if not hundreds, of different day tours, overnight tours, adventure tours, diving tours, etc., all on an even wider variety of sailboats, ferries, catamarans, rafts, etc. Take a look at this website and see if you can make any sense of the options!

My first task was wading through all of the fragmented reviews on websites such as TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet. Gradually, I narrowed down my options. I then emailed a few online travel agents for quotes. If a specific tour operator has their own website, my first choice will always be to book directly with them, not only because they typically have the best rates, but also because changes and cancellations are much easier when dealing directly with the source.

There are Whitsunday Islands tours at just about every price point, but I had a few requirements that I knew I wouldn't deviate from:
  • Diving at the Outer Great Barrier Reef
  • Smaller, non-party boat with fewer passengers
  • 3 days/2 nights to maximize my time in the area
  • Preferably a sailing tour
I finally settled on the Kiana, a smaller sailboat with a maximum capacity of just 14 passengers. It was fully equipped for scuba-diving, and even included the first dive in the price. A second dive cost $70 AUD, a third was $50 AUD, and any additional dives were $30 AUD. They set sail every Monday and Friday for 3 days/2 nights, and the Outer Great Barrier Reef was part of the itinerary.

The primary reason why the Great Barrier Reef is typically not included in most Whitsunday Islands tours is distance. As you move south along the chain, its proximity from shore stretches further and further. From the Whitsunday coast, it takes approximately two hours to reach the reef, depending on conditions.

The Kiana itinerary

Since September 2013, Kiana has increased the shared room price from $649 to $669 AUD per person, while private rooms now cost $719 AUD. When I reserved my spot, I received a 10% discount for booking directly with them online, but I don't know if this discount still applies. There is also an additional 2% credit card fee (many merchants in Australia charge this).

While it was not even close to being the cheapest option available, I felt that for this specific itinerary, low-density layout, and scuba-dive inclusion, the Kiana was worth it. On the day prior to departure, all passengers were required to check in at the Whitsunday Sailing Adventures office in Airlie Beach by 5:30 pm. The next morning, I walked to Abel Point Marina and arrived at the meetup point at 8:00 am sharp.

Abel Point Marina

Remarkably, there were only seven of us total. I think we were all were extremely happy with the low number of passengers (and luckily, seven people was the minimum required to set sail). After turning in our dive forms and going through a few more formalities, we walked to the Kiana and boarded our home for the next three days.

The Kiana

There are a few rules that apply while on board the Kiana. First of all, no shoes are allowed, not even flip flops. They are collected when you step on the boat, and given to you whenever you step off. No backpacks or luggage of any kind are allowed. At check-in, you are given a linen bag, and all of your belongings for the next three days must fit in the bag (this is mostly a health precaution again bed bug infestations). Finally, you may not bring your own alcohol, as the Kiana is a licensed vessel and has drinks for sale on board.

I would highly recommend bringing bottled water, as the tap water on board has an unappetizing taste. The other passengers were none too pleased about this, but luckily, I had brought my own liter jug. Definitely bring a beach towel. If you forget, one can be rented at check-in. Nights on the water can be a little chilly, so be sure to carry a light jacket and perhaps a pair of long pants.

The boat itself is in good shape, but it isn't new by any means. There is plenty of wear and tear, and the humid salt air has taken its toll on some of the older wooden fixtures. However, I never felt like it was run-down, and I could tell the owners had put a lot of care and attention into their investment.

At the end of the day, this is still a cramped sailboat, so don't go in expecting a cruise ship with luxury amenities. Shared rooms are tight and feature bunk-style berths, and the bathroom definitely takes some getting used to, especially when taking a quick two-minute shower!

Large shaded aft deck

Coffee, tea, and personal cups


Skipper's spot

This was my first time on a sailboat, and I felt like a kid again exploring all the hidden nooks and crannies of the vessel. From the wheelhouse, there were two opposing ladders, one leading down to the stern cabin and the other leading to the saloon and forward cabins. The saloon served as a shared common area where guests could relax and socialize, although I hardly used it since I found the exterior aft deck to be much more comfortable.

Also located in the saloon was a large cooler where we could help ourselves to bottled water & soft drinks ($2 AUD), beer ($4 AUD), wine ($5 AUD), champagne ($20 AUD), and a variety of snacks. An honor system was in place, and all we had to do was mark what we took on a notepad.

Ladder down to the saloon


I shared the stern cabin with a young couple. There wasn't much privacy, but at least there were curtains separating our two sides. With only seven guests on board, I ended up having an entire double berth to myself, and the single bunk above remained empty. If the boat had been at full capacity, I'd imagine it would be awkward sharing a bed with a complete stranger. Two private cabins were located in separate rooms toward the forward section.

There were two bathrooms on board. I believe the bathroom I shared was quite a bit smaller, judging by a picture of Kiana's layout, although I can't be sure since I didn't want to poke my head in and invade the other guests' privacy (the other bathroom was located next to their forward cabin).

Taking a shower was an interesting proposition. To prevent water damage on the cabinetry, a 360° curtain is drawn in a tight three square feet area within the already small bathroom. Thankfully, the water pressure was surprisingly strong and there was plenty of hot water (perhaps owing to the two-minute time limit per guest). The electric flush toilet worked great, although it felt a bit like sitting on a pedestal due to its unusual placement on a large metal block.

My double berth

Private cabin

Aft bathroom and shower

Electric toilet

Our three crew members included the skipper Chris, host Jeff, and dive instructor Louise. Each had a distinctive personality, which made for an interesting group dynamic. Chris was gruff, old-school, and no-nonsense. He didn't talk much, but I could tell we were in safe hands with him leading the crew. Jeff was the most friendly and conscientious of the three. He was in charge of food preparation on board as well as helping Chris with boat operations. Louise was a bit curt, but as a dive instructor, she was proactive and completely professional.

Funny enough, the other six guests were all from Germany (a family of four and a young couple), and their English was decent, but not great. This made me the odd American out. Although I naturally felt sidelined at times, I really appreciated their efforts to speak English and include me in their conversations.

The Kiana

Our first destination was the famous Whitehaven Beach on the main Whitsunday Island. The weather was absolutely stunning, with hardly a cloud in the sky and virtually no winds. As a result, sailing was unfortunately not an option. In fact, the windless weather stayed with us for the next three days straight, and Chris didn't even bother opening the sails at all, opting for motors instead.

Beautiful calm weather

Those of us who were not certified but wanted to do introductory dives gathered around Louise for safety instructions and our first lesson on how to use the gear. She then spoke separately with the two certified divers on board to give them a brief refresher course.

I was unaware of this before the trip, but you can do as many introductory dives as you want. The only difference between a certified dive and an introductory dive is that the instructor must always accompany introductory divers, and we were not allowed to go below a certain depth. I debated whether or not to get certified prior to visiting Australia, but ultimately decided against it since I had no plans for future dives after the Great Barrier Reef.

Louise with the introductory divers

Helping the certified divers

Preparations for lunch soon began, and while it was nothing fancy, the taste was great and there was more than enough food for everyone on board. There were three types of salads, several cold cut options, bread rolls, and fresh fruit. I really have to compliment Jeff on food preparation, as he cooked everything himself in a compact kitchen over the course of three days.


Upon arrival at Whitsunday Island, all of us boarded the small raft for a short ride to shore. Our first order of business was a quick and easy hike up to Hill Inlet, a nice vista point with incredible panoramic views of the entire Whitehaven Beach.

Raft to Whitsunday Island

Whitsunday Islands National Park

Hike up to Hill Inlet

Whitehaven Beach is regularly voted as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It is unique because its sand consists of 98% pure silica, which gives off a brilliant white color. It is also extremely fine-grained, making it comfortable to walk on, but a hazard to electronic devices such as cell phones and cameras.

From above, Whitehaven Beach appears as a breathtaking palette of blues and whites, owing to its shallow depths and miles of accumulated sand. The best time for pictures is during low tide in the afternoon hours, when swirls of pure white sand become fully exposed across the entire bay. Unfortunately, we arrived at Hill Inlet a few hours before low tide, but even then, the views were impressive.

Whitehaven Beach from Hill Inlet

From Hill Inlet, we descended down to the actual beach, and Louise took us on a guided tour of some of the more interesting sights in the area. We waded into a shallow lagoon, where dozens of small sting rays were resting peacefully. We then walked around the perimeter of the unusually-shaped peninsula and took a dip in the ocean. Jellyfish season ramps up during the summer months, so we were required to wear stinger suits before entering the water.

For the next couple of hours, we were free to sunbathe, swim, and explore the beach. I noticed that low tide was occurring, and wanted to hike back up to Hill Inlet to take a few more pictures, but when I told Louise where I was headed, she immediately shot down the idea and said I was not allowed to go there on my own. I was disappointed, but didn't bother challenging her edict.

Whitehaven Beach


String ray

Where tides meet

Sand bubbler crab artwork

The raft met us directly off of Whitehaven Beach and we returned to the Kiana in the late afternoon. We proceeded to make our way to the anchor location for the evening off of Hook Island, and the crew got to work preparing the boat. In the meantime, Jeff brought out an awesome tray of sliced fruit, along with chips and snacks, as we gathered around the aft deck and enjoyed the sunset.



Anchoring the boat

Enjoying the sunset

A few of us took quick showers, and when we returned, dinner was served. In the late evening hours, some guests stayed in the aft deck for a drink and chatted, while others retired to their cabins early. The waters were very calm throughout the day, but the current became noticeably stronger in the evening. I remember waking up several times that night feeling a bit seasick. One of the other guests actually vomited before feeling better.

The next morning, we woke bright and early at 6:00 am and a simple breakfast of cereal, toast, and fruit was served at 6:30 am. Soon after, we began our first dive along the fringing reefs of Hook Island. This sheltered cove was the perfect place for an introductory dive, and Louise did a great job guiding us novices through the somewhat scary process.


Diving at Hook Island

I'm fairly used to open water, and I don't have any problems swimming, but even then, there is a lot of information to process during a dive, all of which is made even more complicated with communication gestures and constant equipment monitoring. I think I was too distracted during that first dive to really even notice the coral reef. I really just wanted to remain calm and remember to breathe!

When everyone had gotten their first dives in, we returned to the Kiana and set off for the Outer Great Barrier Reef. As we approached open waters, we began to witness the glassout phenomenon, which is caused by a complete absence of wind and waves. It was astonishing to see this mirror-like effect on the surface, with clouds being perfectly reflected. Chris commented about how unusual this was on the open ocean.

Amazing glassout conditions

Reflections of the clouds

Drying the wetsuits

Enjoying the beautiful weather

We arrived at Bait Reef right before noon, and while we couldn't see anything besides open water surrounding us, it was clear that there was an entire world of marine life just below. Even before we anchored, huge Maori wrasses, parrotfish, angelfish, and others swam up to the side of the boat, looking at us inquisitively.

Anchoring at Bait Reef

Maori wrasse

Prior to heading out for our first dive on the Great Barrier Reef, Jeff prepared a delicious lunch featuring chicken with Thai peanut sauce, three salads, and rice. Following a brief break, we got suited up and hopped onto the raft for a short ride to the dive location.

I was much more comfortable during the second dive, and I was able to take in all of the amazing reef and sea life around me. We followed Louise as she guided us along the side of a massive vertical wall of stunning coral, and we went slightly deeper and stayed underwater longer this time.


Ready to dive

Off we go

Getting towed back in

Sea turtle

My biggest regret of this trip was not investing in an underwater camera, or even a waterproof case for my existing camera. In an effort to cut down on expenses, I sadly left both the Whitsunday Islands and Cairns without a single picture of the truly wondrous and awe-inspiring Great Barrier Reef.

Not that pictures could possibly do the reef any justice. It would be impossible to capture the size and scope of everything we saw: a technicolor smorgasbord of coral stretching as far as the eye could see, huge schools of fish swimming right under our feet, whitetip reef sharks prowling the sea floor, turtles, giant clams, and countless other species.

While on our dives, Louise did carry an underwater camera with her and offered to take some pictures. A DVD was made available to us for $35 AUD at the end of the tour, although I opted not to buy it since it was really just a compilation of photos from previous tours and a few from our own.

When the dives were complete, we returned to the Kiana and settled in for late afternoon snacks again. An absolutely breathtaking sunset filled the skies, and I think we were all content with a spectacular day on the Great Barrier Reef.

Afternoon snacks

Sunset over the Great Barrier Reef

Jeff worked his magic again in the kitchen, prepping a hearty dinner of spaghetti with meat sauce. He even whipped up a tasty dessert crêpe with apple filling and crème fraîche. Later, we lounged in the aft deck for a bit before slowly retiring to our cabins. Despite being anchored on the open ocean next to Bait Reef, the waters here were much more calm than the previous night.

Jeff cooking up a delicious dinner

Spaghetti with meat sauce

Dessert crêpe and crème fraîche

The next morning, we were treated to a beautiful sunrise over Bait Reef. Then guests who wanted to do a third dive began their preparations, while the rest of us decided to snorkel instead. Although you can definitely see more things up close while diving, as someone who was a complete novice, I felt like snorkeling actually provided me with greater freedom to experience my surroundings since I wasn't constantly worried about my breathing, depth, pressure gauge, etc.

This is also probably why I seem to remember the last snorkel session the most vividly out of all our time in the water. We traced along the edge of the reef wall, swimming above and beside some of the most colorful and unique corals I had ever witnessed. The amount of sea life teaming throughout the entire ecosystem was simply mind-boggling.

Sunrise over Bait Reef


Last dive

After almost an hour of snorkeling, we returned back to the Kiana, satisfied and exhausted. While preparing to depart Bait Reef, one of the most incredible and memorable moments of the trip happened: an enormous manta ray actually leapt out of the water near our boat. It caught all of us off guard, but the extraordinary sight is forever imprinted in my mind.

We were all yelling and pointing and running around the boat, hoping the manta ray would make another appearance. This was something none of the crew had even seen before, and we could sense how truly rare it was when Chris, who had been somewhat reticent throughout the trip, began jumping up and down and hollering with excitement.

Finally, it was a straight shot back to Airlie Beach. During our return journey, we were treated to yet another gorgeous day with partial glassout conditions. Using some of the leftover vegetables and meats from prior meals, Jeff cooked up a mean casserole for lunch, along with two salads, some cold cuts, and bread. For the remainder of the trip, we relaxed on the aft deck, sunbathed on the forward deck, and enjoyed the wonderful views.

Return journey

Relaxing on the aft deck


On the way back, we packed up our belongings, and took care of the incidental charges with Louise. Including the extra dives, drinks/snacks from the cooler, and DVD purchases, additional costs can add up very quickly, so don't forget to bring along some extra cash. Credit cards are not accepted on board.

Upon arrival at Abel Point Marina, we were greeted by the owners of the Kiana, an older couple who seemed to be quite friendly. After saying our final goodbyes and exchanging emails, we went our separate ways. Before heading back to my hostel, I walked to the Whitsunday Sailing Adventures office to return my rented beach towel.

Airlie Beach in sight

Final view of the Kiana

Overall, I was very happy with our tour aboard the Kiana. Even though I was the only American, and the other passengers spoke mostly German, everyone was incredibly friendly and welcoming. The staff ran a smooth ship and was extremely professional.

This was by no means a luxury vessel, but I believe it was far better than a vast majority of the other options out there. I'd heard stories of bed bugs, unsanitary conditions, horrible food, crowded cabins, and worse. Unfortunately, you often do get what you pay for, and for slightly more, the Kiana was absolutely worth it.


  1. Hello! I found your blog while looking around for sailing the GBR. Kiana is the one we think we are going to do. Your blog was very helpful in helping us decide! Question for you...is there a place to leave luggage at the office? We obviously don't want to pay for a hotel and this tour just to keep our belongings somewhere? We will ben traveling around Australia for a month coming from the US so we will have carry-on luggage with us. So, just wondering if you have any suggestions or information about that. I will email them as well.

    1. Hi there, thanks for reading! Glad to help. Yes, I do believe there is a place to store your luggage at the Whitsunday Sailing Adventures office. They will charge you a few dollars for the storage fee.

      Are you staying at a hotel in Airlie Beach before or after the Kiana tour? If so, they usually allow you to keep your luggage there for a small fee as well.