Great Flight or Greatest Flight Over The Great Barrier Reef?

Ask around and you’ll find that a visit to the Great Barrier Reef is on most people’s bucket list. I’m not really a “bucket list” kinda guy, but other than Mars, it’s the consistent place I’ve always wanted to travel ever since I can remember. This week, that long-held desire was realized. But not in the way I thought it would be.

Since getting my scuba certification at the wizened age of 18, I'd assumed that my view of the reef would be from below, literally swimming with the fishes. But that didn’t happen. Instead, I saw it from the air. And any assumed disappointments about not diving the reef quickly vanished when I looked down from above.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As fate would have it, our temporary home in the Whitsundays is conveniently located across the runway from GSL Aviation. No, not across the street. The runway. We’re staying in a “hanger home” at the Whitsunday Airport, an aviation aficionado's dream come true. (For the rest of us, it means no sleeping late, as the planes start buzzing at around 6:30 in the morning.) Among other offerings, GSL has a “Reef and Island” flight for only $199 per person that fit our needs perfectly. Window seats, a knowledgeable and friendly pilot, and a little over an hour buzzing the best two natural beauties in the Whitsundays -- The Great Barrier Reef and Hill Inlet. The other islands were just a bonus for us.

We left at 8:00am sharp, and the quick transit time the 20-some kilometers to the reef promised to get us there right at low tide. That’s a critical piece for the best viewing: High tide means more water between the plane and the coral, which would have diminished our view. But as you can see in the pictures that accompany this story, we nailed the timing. The pilot even commented on the perfect conditions. Though who knows? Maybe he says that to everyone.

As we flew over reef after reef, my awe deepened. More importantly, I grew to realize that this vantage point was the best way to view the reef. Sure, boats can give you a closer look, but only at the edges. As a scuba diver, I know of the magic feeling of sea life up and close. But the Great Barrier Reef is vast. Much larger than human-scale. Perspective is required.

Breaking through my fugue, the friendly pilot mentioned that the Heart Reef would be coming up in just a few minutes. Much hullabaloo is made about this natural feature. It’s on billboards, t-shirts, postcards, and even tour companies in Airlie Beach. It has the air of Horseshoe Bend in the Grand Canyon about it, so I perked up and paid attention. And I’m glad I did, or I would have missed it! It’s a tiny little coral outcropping sitting in the middle of lots of other coral. Very much like 3D chalk drawings, you must approach it from the right angle to see it.

After both sides of the plane a got a good look at the Heart Reef (everyone gets a great view with GSL), we made our way towards another amazing natural feature of The Whitsundays; Hill Inlet. Which, by the way, is the worst name ever for a place this stunning. It’s hard to believe the same people who came up with names like Wollongong and Goondiwindi also came up with buzzkills like “Hill Inlet”. Australians are weird

Speaking of weird… Hill Inlet. Typically, areas where rivers, streams, or runoff meet the sea lead to cloudy, murky water. At Hill Inlet, they work to create an ever changing masterpiece. The sand has an incredibly high silica content, making a super-fine white powder that shifts with every low tide, creating the biggest (and most literal) sand painting we’d ever seen. Truly magical. And again, must be seen from the air. There’s an on-ground lookout on one of the hills that does a decent job. Until you get the view from a thousand feet up. Magical, I say.

There’s no shortage of activities in the Whitsundays. Seventy-four islands. A hundred or so beaches. Snorkeling. Sailing. Diving. Dining. Fishing. You won’t run out of things to do. But do yourself a favor and book a flight that gets you over the Great Barrier Reef and Hill Inlet. Because it truly is the only way to see these stunning examples of the awesome power and art that is nature.