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Conservation meets luxury aboard this superyacht

More than a chance to island-hop, chartering a superyacht is an opportunity to join a citizen science project aimed at surveying the Great Barrier Reef.

The only footprints on this sand cay belong to a colony of crested terns. It’s low tide when the sparkling waters of the Coral Sea recede to reveal a narrow sandbar that leads to Langford Island, one of 74 islands in the Whitsundays. This fleeting landform, dubbed One Foot Island, will be reclaimed by the high tide in a few short hours. But for now, as the midday sun embroiders the scene with its gilt thread, we have it all to ourselves.

Playing the role of desert-island castaway comes easily. Here is a rare chance to explore a spot as ephemeral as it is beautiful. I yield to the impulse to run, and the terns take flight. I trace ripples in the sand as if learning a mysterious cursive script. I clamber over rockpools filled with shells, coral fragments and sea snails. Hermit crabs scatter as my shadow falls on them. I wade into the translucent water to watch a green turtle floating in the shallows, grazing calmly under my gaze.

Soon lunch is served on the beach in the shade of a marquee. Its tent legs are wedged firmly into the sand and positioned so the water laps at our feet. We pull up comfortable camp chairs at a table dressed with white linen and set with elegant crockery, glassware and silverware. Ahead of us is an exquisite feast prepared by chef Nigel Syme: miso salmon, oysters with wakame, papaya salad, eggplant tempura and shiitake and shimeji mushrooms tossed in butter.

I close my eyes, committing every mouthful to memory so I have a catalogue with which to console myself back home, when the closest thing I’ll have to a private chef is the number of the local fish and chip shop.

Just hours earlier, we were spirited from Hamilton Island Marina to the 42-metre superyacht De Lisle III, on loan through charter company Ocean Alliance. The polished vessel was refitted in 2019. It sleeps nine guests and has seven crew members. Typically, it spends six months gliding around the Whitsundays, and the rest of the year in the South Pacific, including Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. Tashi Matthews is one of the affable crew members who greeted us this morning, offering refresher towels, cold drinks and a wicker basket for our shoes. “Have you eaten?” she asked with concern. “Nigel has prepared a fruit platter, but he can make you a hot breakfast if you like.” I nodded appreciatively.

A tour of the boat’s lavish interiors followed, from the lower staterooms to the top sundeck complete with outdoor jacuzzi spa and collection of ocean-going “toys”, including kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and jet skis. As we found our sea legs, our captain, Chris Jordan, took us 35 nautical miles (65 kilometres) past the silica sands of Whitehaven Beach and the Cornetto-like turquoise swirls of Hill Inlet – which is how we came to be anchored off Langford Island by lunchtime.

Chartering your own superyacht ticks off many boxes. “It’s one of the most private and curated travel options,” Ocean Alliance’s Joachim Howard tells me. “Guests can be secluded for the charter period if they wish, or immerse themselves in the local culture.” Demand is spiking among younger travellers, while multi-generational yachting holidays are also trending. Itineraries can be tailored to include everything and (almost) anything your heart desires – from fast-paced adventure to laid-back island-hopping. In my case, it was a chance to combine the Apollonian (a citizen science project) with the Dionysian (the grandeur of a private vessel) in a beloved setting. I’m joined by Nicole Senn, an environmentalist at Cairns-based not-for-profit Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, and marine scientist James Unsworth from tour operator Ocean Rafting. Getting up close to the Great Barrier Reef has rarely been as urgently compelling. Increasingly, Unsworth finds that people climb aboard his boat saying something to the effect of, “I want to see the reef before it dies.”

In the Whitsundays we’re positioned about two-thirds of the way down the reef, which follows the contours of Queensland’s coastline in a 2,300-kilometre stretch from the tip of Cape York Peninsula to Bundaberg. This World Heritage-listed marine wonder is often described in breathless superlatives: it’s bigger than the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Holland put together, with 1,500 species of fish, 400 types of coral, 4,000 types of molluscs and 240 species of bird. It’s the world’s most extensive coral reef ecosystem, and, for heaven’s sake, it’s one of the only living structures on Earth that’s visible from space.

But experts warn the Great Barrier Reef is facing an existential threat from climate change. A recent study published in Current Biology notes that only two per cent of its coral reefs have escaped bleaching during five mass events since 1998. Lead author Professor Terry Hughes from James Cook University says that global warming is changing the frequency, intensity and scale of climate extremes. “We no longer have the luxury of studying individual climate-related events that were once unprecedented or very rare,” he notes in a statement. “Instead, as the world gets hotter, we have to understand the effects of sequences of rapid-fire catastrophes, as well as their combined impacts.”

Bleaching occurs when tiny coral polyps, stressed by spikes in sea temperatures, expel the microscopic photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae, which otherwise live symbiotically within their tissues and give reefs their kaleidoscopic colour. Some corals subsequently starve and die, but Unsworth tells me this is not inevitable. “I’ve often heard that – ‘Bleached coral is dead coral’. It’s not. I’ve seen bleaching here and I’ve seen amazing recovery.” However, Hughes’s paper makes it clear that recovery depends on many factors, with more frequent and severe bleaching undermining reefs’ resilience over time.

Back on board De Lisle III after lunch, we head south to Hook Passage, keen to snorkel despite tropical storm clouds massing overhead. The sight prompts Senn to note that climate change also brings more extreme weather events, such as cyclones. “They’re a massive issue,” she says. Powerful waves pulverise coral reefs; floodwaters bring nutrient run-off linked to outbreaks of the venomous crown-of-thorns starfish. The effects aren’t uniform. “Part of the reef is recovering and part of it is thriving. It’s such a nuanced story,” she adds.

We get the opportunity to see for ourselves, for Senn has enlisted our participation in the second annual Great Reef Census, which involves citizen scientists – skippers, snorkellers, divers and dog-paddlers – jumping in the water and taking survey images of the individual coral reefs they visit. She hands me a GoPro with a floating handle and instructs me on technique. “It’s easy. People don’t even need to know what they’re looking at,” says Senn. “It’s more than signing a petition – you’re taking part in meaningful action.” These snapshots are later analysed and used to help inform scientists’ decision-making about where to prioritise resources and recovery efforts.

We slip on wetsuits and plunge into the waters of Saba Bay off Hook Island. The looming storm limits visibility to five metres, and I register a fleeting jolt of cold before a captivating underwater tableau eclipses all other thought. A school of electric-blue fusiliers swish their sunshine-yellow tails. Nestled into the soft coral below is the pleated shell of a giant clam, its iridescent mantle exposed. Coral trout, dour expressions at odds with their gaudy spots, dart out of crevices. Shoals of delicate angel fish drift by.

All I can hear is the sound of my breath, slowed to the meditative rhythm imposed by a mask and snorkel. It’s not until I resurface, reluctantly, that I realise it’s raining. As we step onto the teak platform at the back of the boat, I wrap myself in a proffered Turkish towel and turn to see a trillion fast, hard raindrops hit the water, creating a pointillist painting of ocean and sky. I go in search of the sundress I placed over the back of the lounge earlier in my haste to enter the water. It’s where I left it, neatly folded.

My master cabin downstairs is fitted out with a king-sized bed, an ensuite, a walk-in wardrobe, a flatscreen TV, and a desk bearing tomes such as the Super Yacht Bible – a collection of photos, not commandments. It’s a stylish cocoon, decorated in deep nautical blues and white, with timber panels, strategically placed portholes and an antique spyglass on the side table. I run a deep, warm bath, float like kelp among the bubbles and start to drift off. The sound of distant clattering and the sight of whipped waves outside the porthole are the only signs the storm has intensified. Later, Jordan tells me that we’d passed through a serious squall, with 50-knot winds. Most boats won’t venture out in 35 knots or more – which is classified as gale force – but De Lisle III takes it all in stride.

“I can’t stop snapping photographs because it’s teeming with so much marine life: porcupine rays, sea cucumbers, barramundi cod, moray eels and trochus shells the size of human skulls.”

Lunch is a seafood banquet served on the upper deck – plump prawns, crab cooked in saltwater, eggplant chips, and a selection of tasty salads. Sated, I stretch out to bask in the sun. A wedge-tailed shearwater swoops by seeking scraps, but the crew members clear plates before she attempts a second sortie. I’m tired from the morning’s exertion and tempted to take a nap or (marginally more appealing) to ask the captain to fill the spa bath upstairs. But there’s one last chance to snorkel before the boat returns to the waters surrounding Hamilton Island. The plan is to anchor there for the night before making for land the next morning.

We head for a different site on Circular Cay Reef. I can’t stop snapping photographs because it’s teeming with so much marine life: porcupine rays, sea cucumbers, barramundi cod, moray eels and trochus shells the size of human skulls. In the dappled late-afternoon light, caves and fissures, from which startled fish emerge as we swim by, open up every few metres. Coral rubble, the legacy of cyclonic activity, lies in long valleys on the sea floor. The abundance of new growth, however, is encouraging and the much-anticipated coral spawning, due to occur on the upcoming full moon, adds a further note of optimism. I’m chuffed to learn about it, and beam as though I’m personally responsible. My contribution is, of course, a drop in the ocean. Yet those few dozen underwater photos have provided a sense of achievement that I’ve helped, in some small way, to document the reef.

The writer travelled as a guest of Ocean Alliance. Charter rates for De Lisle III start at $165,000 per week.

This story appeared in Travel & Luxury magazine. Read it there.

© 2022 Denise Cullen