On the 40th anniversary of the discovery of Heart Reef, Dan Down catches a seaplane to see the true extent of our greatest natural treasure.

Swooping over the alien, cobalt blue landscape of the Great Barrier Reef, an almost luminous azure of coral forming a tangled lattice, I’m looking for the unmistakable shape of Heart Reef.

But the thing that fascinates me most are the sizeable black diamonds that keep appearing. “Look, look. Manta!” I shout to my fellow passengers over the drone of the engine – no matter that we all have radio headsets on and I am actually yelling into everyone’s ears.

This is maybe why I am seemingly being ignored, but to see so many of these most remarkable of creatures in this startling environment is a privilege.

I’m here to pay homage to Heart Reef 40 years after its ‘discovery’. Of course, the reef has been here for perhaps thousands of years, but when pilot John Ramsden of Air Whitsunday was looking for an icon to help promote the seaplane service in the region back in 1975, he saw the conveniently shaped collection of corals and promptly bestowed upon it the amorous moniker.

We’re in a six-passenger seaplane and captain Mark Muscatt is making passes of the reef, coming in low at adrenalin-inducing angles to allow us to get a good shot, Heart Reef only being 17 metres across.

The reef is fun to spot and snap, yes, but it’s merely a part of the much larger Hardy Reef, which is in turn a puzzle piece of a wider, staggeringly epic landscape.

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It’s little surprise that Sir David Attenborough describes the Great Barrier Reef as “one of the most magical places on the planet”, having returned here to shoot a new ground-breaking documentary set to air this year.

There’s something very Indiana Jones about boarding a seaplane in the tropics. Twenty minutes earlier we had taken off from the palm tree-lined runway of Whitsunday Airport, a curious residential address where homeowners have small aircraft instead of family cars parked on their front lawns.

On the flight out we roar over the Whitsundays and Mark is an encyclopedic guide, feeding us snippets over the radio such as, “That mansion there used to be George Harrison’s,” and “Hazelwood Island down there was used to film Pirates of the Caribbean”.

We pass over Hook, Hayman, Daydream and Hamilton islands, over people lazing on the beaches of the luxury resorts dotted below. Once we’ve admired the expanse of the Great Barrier Reef our ultimate destination is one of the world’s most beautiful beaches on Whitsunday Island; not bad for an hour’s aerial sojourn!

As Whitehaven Beach appears on the horizon, I recall seeing it in friends’ countless Facebook photos who’d been travelling here as backpackers. It’s brilliant-white, thanks to the sands of its seven-kilometre stretch being comprised of 98 per cent pure silica, and it justly deserves its oft-touted claim as being the world’s most spectacular beach.

Soaring over Whitehaven’s north end, we pass the iconic cove of Hill Inlet, famous for its tidal shifts that create a pattern of wonderful, shifting channels, which merge the aquamarine and green waters with the whites of the sand.

I’m eagerly anticipating landing on the sea just off Whitehaven to have a lounge on that famous beach, but due to adverse weather conditions we’re regrettably left with making a couple of low passes. Exhilarating as it is, our faces are still pressed against the glass as we watch gloating tourists wave at us from their beach towels.

Flying back to Whitsunday Airport I realise that Ramsden’s naming of Heart Reef all those years ago was a stroke of genius, for here I am 40 years later having admired its beauty.

The little heart-shaped reef has become synonymous with the Great Barrier Reef, a symbol of our love for the place, if you will, and a handy promotional tool used to draw visitors to this precious ecosystem.

With an increase in the number of tourists comes an increased awareness of its fragile beauty; perhaps Heart Reef will help ensure that the Great Barrier Reef remains a national treasure for another 40 years and beyond.

The details: Heart Reef

Getting there: Air Whitsunday is based at Whitsunday Airport near Airlie Beach. Jetstar, Virgin and Tiger run flights to nearby Proserpine Airport from Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney.

Playing there: Air Whitsunday runs a number of flights, including scenic reef tours, a Whitehaven Beach landing and a reef landing and snorkelling flight. From $295. airwhitsunday.com.au

Australian Traveller issue 67

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