While Orpheus Island offers an unparalleled sense of understated luxury, diving from this national park affords you another kind of privilege: having the Great Barrier Reef all to yourself, writes Dan Down.

Twenty metres below the surface my dive guide, Ashley, is doing a fist-pumping motion, looking wide-eyed at me through her mask.

I wonder if it’s some emergency hand signal I’m not aware of; perhaps my tank has sprung a disastrous leak, or there’s a big shark looming up behind me. But then the rasping noise of my breathing is interrupted by a haunting, drawn-out horn of a sound.

It happens again, and I realise that we can hear humpback whales conversing. My guide is expressing her sheer excitement at the sound of these magnificent beasts as we glide along, light filtering down from the surface and dancing off spectacular coral gardens.

The Great Barrier Reef, one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, is in our own backyard. Yes you can don a snorkel and float above it, but diving let’s you become a part of it.

It would be the equivalent of flying a small plane above that other biodiversity hotspot, the Amazon; spectacular, certainly, but put on a pair of hiking boots and you can get in the thick of it, see its denizens up close.

And away from the reef’s busy tourist hop-off points of Cairns and Townsville, diving from the exclusive Orpheus Island Resort and its namesake island, one of the Barrier Reef’s stunning natural havens, affords another kind of luxury that’s so often missing on our easily accessible planet: seclusion.

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Flying above the Barrier Reef

Making your way to Orpheus is an adventure in itself, and two days earlier I’m boarding a helicopter at Townsville Airport. We rise over Nautilus Aviation’s impressive heritage-listed hangar, a vast wood and steel structure where American bombers were once stationed for operations against the Japanese.

Gaining altitude, we head straight out towards the Coral Sea’s many islands that comprise the inner reef region of the Great Barrier Reef. I would be diving off one of these spectacular slices of green before heading to the outer reef, the Serengeti of the Barrier Reef, if you will, where large ocean-dwelling species like to patrol.

We haven’t even reached our destination before the bonanza of wildlife begins. “Whale!” exclaims pilot Matt over the radio. I can’t see anything, but he’s spotted the tell-tale smudge of a humpback hundreds of metres below.

He pulls the joystick to the right and we’re swooping down to get a better look at it. A nervous air passenger at the best of times, I hold on for dear life before noticing a large Navy vessel.

“What happens if we get too close to that warship?” I yell over the noise of the rotors. I can almost picture its large cannon pivoting towards us; a subordinate’s hand poised over a red button waiting for the order. “They’d radio in and tell us to move on,” says Matt.

The whale apparently saw us coming, so we reset our course for Orpheus; a sailor’s hand relaxes.

Orpheus’s island neighbours

The islands here are steeped in the kind of curious histories only Australia seems able to produce.

We fly over Magnetic Island, so-called for messing with Captain Cook’s compass, before passing Palm Island, home to an indigenous community that hunts for crayfish off the surrounding islets as well as, controversially, sea turtles.

On my last day on Orpheus, en route to a snorkelling spot, I would exchange waves with two skiffs of indigenous Palm Islanders, jetting off at high speed, perhaps in search of their quarry.

Then there’s Fantome Island, which remarkably was a leper colony right up until 1973, whereupon it was completely incinerated to destroy any trace of the disease (they moved everyone off first).

Aboriginals call this island Goolboddi, but in 1887 it was named after the ship HMS Orpheus, which had sunk off the coast of New Zealand. Orpheus is an 11-kilometre-long stretch of bush comprising 1368 square kilometres of national park.

The secret station

James Cook University has a small research station here, to study the 1100 or so species of fish and the hundreds of types of coral found in its waters but, approaching from the air, the only sign of human habitation is its luxury resort.

A fine base of operations for any expedition to the reef if ever there was one, its villas sit perched along the white crescent beach of Hazard Bay, interrupted invariably by leaning palms and bisected by a timber jetty leading out to a beautiful white boatshed.

A straight channel was carved through the bay’s coral in the ’70s to allow boats access to the island paradise; horrifying to modern-day sensitivities but thankfully our attitudes have changed somewhat since.

Nowhere is this more evident than with the resort’s enthusiastic dive team, who have backgrounds in marine biology and an encyclopaedic knowledge of life on the reef.

After making a Hollywood star’s entrance and being introduced to the resort’s talented chefs beside an awesome slab of an infinity pool, it would be very easy to do nothing for a few hours.

Seemingly the staff know you by first name immediately and are more than happy to serve cocktails at a lazy, beachside bar, or get you straight out on the waters surrounding this remarkable place. I’m here for the latter, and it’s not long before the dive team of Ashley and Tegan are fitting me out with scuba gear in the resort’s quaint dive shop and we’re heading out to sea.

Wild waters

There’s commotion on the boat; humpbacks have been spotted, a mother and calf, their dark backs glistening in the sun as they arc just above the surface off one of Orpheus’s beaches. It’s exhilarating to think that I’d soon be sharing the water with them, diving along a fringe reef off adjacent Curacoa Island.

Later that night over dinner, the ship’s skipper, Ashley, would tell me that she once had to slam the engines into reverse as a humpback rose up suddenly, arrowing out of the water directly in their path. Wildlife here doesn’t care much for personal boundaries.

A relatively shallow dive of about 15 metres’ depth, Tegan and I are cruising along the face of a vast coral cliff just off Curacoa’s shore. A dream sport for the lazy, diving is all about being as relaxed as possible, trying not to exert oneself in order to conserve air. Here I’m finding that difficult. There is such an abundance of life that it’s hard not to let the heartbeat quicken.

On the towering wall of coral to our right Tegan points out masses of finger-like anemones; the branching forms of staghorn corals; primary-coloured Christmas Tree worms, their fan-like tentacles catching what they can before disappearing in a flash if you get too close; and the occasional psychedelic patterning of a nudibranch, the vibrant sea slugs of the reef.

Layered on all of this are striking angel fish; a shoal of juvenile barracuda; a very large barracuda, its fearsome head keeping an eye on us; and countless multicoloured damsel fish darting in and out of the protective coral. It’s all topped off by the biggest lionfish I’ve ever seen, nonchalantly hanging in the water, surrounded by its elegant, but highly toxic, spiny fins.

Having lost track of time and all sense of location, absorbed in this underwater Eden, we’re greeted at the surface by a cacophony of birdsong coming from the island, its golden beach and dense forest beyond. It’s a startling transition from one spectacular natural world to another.

“If you thought that was good, you won’t believe tomorrow,” says Tegan back on the boat.

Secluded reefs

Orpheus is very good at making you do absolutely nothing, but with access to such plentiful waters it’s geared up for you to do everything from kayaking to snorkelling and sailing. But diving from such an exclusive resort means you have access to reefs that aren’t on the radar of the big tourist boats.

It was this sense of seclusion that I experienced the next day following a very sound sleep in a vast, modern beachside apartment. There’s an understated seaside charm to the rooms; a pair of oars adorn a terrace, while inside big black-and-white photos of people frolicking here in the ’50s betray the resort’s rich heritage.

I wake early and enjoy a breakfast served on the half-hour journey out to Bramble Reef, one of the outer reefs of the Coral Sea.

Tegan’s optimistic prediction was spot on. To a whale-song soundtrack I drift along with Ashley, my fist-pumping guide, admiring the multi-tiered platforms of colourful table coral and the silhouettes of net-like fan corals.

As I hang suspended in the water, the slightest kick of a flipper sends me forward effortlessly, such is the unique feeling of scuba diving. I look out into the blue abyss trying to imagine the giant animals making that sound, but instead catch sight of a rather skittish green turtle that immediately darts for cover.

Ashley later explains that they’re perhaps more nervous around humans here because of the proximity of Palm Island and its traditional hunting practices.

On our return to Orpheus, a huge humpback breaches in the distance and the crew change course to try and get closer. With the engines off I’m scanning the surface for the whale but instead catch the rather horrifying sight of a large pale worm wriggling across the surface straight towards the boat. It’s a metre-and-a-half long and thick – as chunky as my wrist.

“What the hell is that?” I shout. “Oh, it’s a sea snake,” says skipper Paul. “They’re highly poisonous, but in the water you can play with them; they’re quite friendly, really.”

I watch intently as the creature suddenly dives, disappearing from view. After a fine dinner looking out over Hazard Bay, the jetty lit by flaming torches, I take a walk up to a lookout at the crest of Orpheus Island. With torch in hand I make my way through the bush, disturbing the occasional echidna.

From the top I survey the Coral Sea, and imagine all the forms of life I’d seen over the previous days living under its inky black surface. On Orpheus you can have moments like this to yourself, on land or at sea.

The Details: Orpheus Island

Getting there: Flights to Townsville leave regularly from all major cities. Transfer to Orpheus via a 30-minute helicopter flight with Nautilus Aviation ($275 per person one way).

Staying there: Accommodation, which includes all alcohol, meals, and a daily nature-based experience, starts from $1200 a night for a South Room which sleeps two, up to $2800 a night for the North Beachfront Villa, sleeping four. Orpheus.com.au

Australian Traveller magazine 66

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