It's the largest living object on Earth, 2300 kilometres long, comprised of 3000 reefs and 900 islands, and it's ours. As old reef hands up here in Queensland like to say, "It's not called the Good Barrier Reef, is it?"
Two million people visit the Great Barrier Reef every year, dropping a cool $6.4 billion into the economy to canoodle among coral, snorkel with sea life and dive its depths. So, even cold-hearted "jobs-and-growth" penny pinchers should be able to see a reason to maintain its health.
At nearly half a million years old, with corals of up to 8000 years old atop ancient reef beds, it's a struggle being an icon. In the past few years alone, the Great Barrier Reef has had to battle a spate of devastating cyclones, on top of a slew of headlines announcing its death due to coral bleaching.
"Don't give up on the reef," begs the Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, an ocean conservation organisation that asks us to connect with and conserve the reef. It recently partnered with Uber and Vancouver-based Aquatica Foundation to explore, restore and educate about the ocean with its little bug-eyed submarine, Barry, aimed at luring us back to the Great Barrier Reef. And the refrain along the coast is that the moment people stop visiting it, they stop appreciating it, and our reef dies.
"I've never seen such big fields of coral," says Harvey Flemming of Aquatica Foundation, and he's seen some coral fields. While Barry has moved on from its month-long stay off the Queensland coast, two new luxury experiences supply easy reasons to compel us to head north for the winter.
WE LOVE HEART REEF
The gunmetal-grey helicopter skims effortlessly out to sea. Heading north-east from Hamilton Island, the unmistakable swirls of Whitehaven Bay pass beneath us, until a lonely pontoon comes into sight.
The seven-seat chopper touches down gently on a giant H, painted on the flat roof of the tiny, new Hardy Reef pontoon. Champagne awaits, as does an equally slick, custom-built boat, which is hidden away inside the pontoon, ready to slip out onto the reef.
Roughly 75 kilometres offshore, there's not a soul in sight, just us, the Piper-Heidsieck and the turquoise sea. It's all so Bond.
It's a 30-minute helicopter ride from the helipad at qalia, Hamilton Island's most upmarket resort, to the pontoon. On the way to Hardy Reef, we fly over Whitsunday Island – the biggest island in the group – and countless coral reefs that print a pretty pattern on the Coral Sea. We map the prosaically named reefs – Bait, Barb, Line – and eventually, I spy the floating town that is the Reefworld pontoon. It sees up to 400 visitors a day in peak season, then at night turns into the far more interesting Reef Sleep.
However, we're talking luxe loveliness on our new pontoon: just six people are allowed on the Hardy Reef pontoon at any one time, along with a bubble-pouring, boat-driving host.
It's taken Hamilton Island Air owner Brad Graves 10 years of plotting and planning permissions to build his solar-powered pontoon in the national park. Cloaked in mirrors to blend into its natural environment, it is dwarfed by the vastness around us.
We watch the corals appear from the glass bottom of the nine-metre boat, before diving in to snorkel through the warm waters, sheltered by a massive, dark blue corridor between two reefs, with walls plunging 70 metres into dark blue ocean.
And it doesn't disappoint. Lilac-coloured staghorn corals and layers of plate coral provide refuge for shy clownfish and brash surgeonfish, while vivid purple-lipped clams dot the ocean floor. Baby bait balls swirl in a silvery roil, safe in the knowledge that the low, low tide has held off the biggest of its predators.
Ironically, despite the solitude, we're just a stone's throw from one of Australia's most distinctive destinations, Heart Reef, a tiny, 17-metre heart-shaped coral outcrop that seduces sweethearts to hover above it, "popping the question" to the beat of a chopper's wings. Love is definitely in the air.
HELI AND HAMPER
It takes only a handful of minutes for the red helicopter to skim over the reef from Heron Island to Broomfield Cay, but the natural coral outcrop, which really shows its hand only at low tide, seems to have been waiting for us.
One of eight cays that comprise the Capricornia Cays National Park, Broomfield Cay is at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, off the coast from Gladstone.
On the 10-minute flight to the sandy strip, we spy Wreck Island and then leafy Wilson Island, whose nine glamping tents have just opened for the season. Past these islands, encircled in their pretty, pale blue lagoons, the next stop is New Caledonia, some 1500 kilometres to the west.
Broomfield is the only cay in this group that isn't a seabird breeding site, so we touch down in the helicopter before running untrammelled down the length of the sand strip. It's pristine save two extremely large – unnervingly large – avian footprints, and a couple of pieces of heavy-duty electrical wiring, which will leave with us.
These waters are renowned for loggerhead and green turtles, and while I don't see them while snorkelling, I do spy them from the helicopter, along with dugongs and the torpedo-like forms of what my untrained eye seems to be sharks: another month and there will be humpback whales in these waters, on their long migration north.
To picnic on Broomfield cay is one of the world's great postcard moments: you, a fringed beach umbrella, a hamper which Heron Island's chef packed with antipasto, fresh pastries, tropical fruits or cheese. And, hello, a cheeky bottle of wine.
Also tucked away is reef-safe sunscreen, snorkels, sombreros and sunnies, though we're careful to leave nothing but footprints. Anything left here will simply join the world's flotsam.
By the time our helicopter leaves, the waters lap at our ankles as the cay shrinks into the water once more: a little secret that is reborn anew, every time the tide turns.
Belinda Jackson was a guest of Tourism & Events Queensland, Uber and Hamilton Island.
The three-hour Hardy Reef pontoon experience costs $999 a person and includes return helicopter flights to Hamilton Island, use of snorkelling equipment, snacks and drinks. See hamiltonisland.com.au
The Broomfield Cay heli-picnic costs from $509 a person (minimum two people) and includes return helicopter flights to Heron Island. Transfers from Gladstone also available. See heronisland.com