Imagine watching the sunrise on the Great Barrier Reef from your bed then sliding into the water for a dive or snorkel before the day-trippers arrive. An eco-sensitive pontoon at the southern end of the Unesco World Heritage site is offering a new way to experience Queensland’s iconic marine wonder – without the crowds. Sarah Reid signs up for a sleepover.

An upper-deck, queen bed on the Lady Musgrave Experience pontoon
An upper-deck, glamping bed on the Lady Musgrave Experience pontoon © Lady Musgrave Experience

Glamping on a pontoon

It’s just before sunrise when I’m roused by the gentle lapping of the Coral Sea, blinking my eyes open to a panoramic view of the full moon setting in a fairy floss pink sky above Lady Musgrave Island. 

“Sleep well?” grins skipper Brett Lakey when I pad downstairs shortly afterward, lured by the aroma of barista coffee.

The brainchild of Lakey, owner of Southern Great Barrier Reef operator Lady Musgrave Experience, the Lady Musgrave HQ is the reef’s newest glamping experience. Permanently moored in the lagoon surrounding the Great Barrier Reef’s second southernmost island, the three-level pontoon provides a base for Lady Musgrave Experience day-trippers as well as an overnight escape for up to 30 guests. Opt to glamp in one of eight queen beds on the upper deck, or bunk in the underwater observatory, which morphs into a 20-bed dormitory for groups by night. 

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Kayakers explore the southern edge of the Great Barrier Reef, deploying from the Lady Musgrave Experience pontoon boat
Kayakers explore the southern edge of the Great Barrier Reef, deploying from the Lady Musgrave Experience pontoon boat © Lady Musgrave Experience

Sustainability first

With climate change now posing the greatest threat to the future of the Great Barrier Reef, this new experience is among the reef’s most sustainable

“The pontoon was designed to have zero footprint,” explains Lakey, who founded Lady Musgrave Experience in 2015 after 20 years’ operating luxury yacht charters and eco-tours. Completely wind and solar-powered, the carbon-neutral HQ is Advanced Ecotourism certified (which recognizes Australia’s leading ecotourism products), and serves as an education platform and a hub for research and citizen science.

On top of getting involved with reef surveys, guests can also interact with local Indigenous Gidarjil ‘sea rangers’ who come aboard regularly to share knowledge, stories and perspectives on the sustainable management of the marine park. Lakey also has a coral planting citizen science program in the pipeline and hopes to harness green energy (eg hydrogen) to power his boats when the technology is more accessible to further reduce the company’s emissions. 

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Scuba diving just off the Lady Musgrave pontoon
Scuba diving just off the Lady Musgrave pontoon © Tracy Olive / Lady Musgrave Experience

Social distancing, Great Barrier Reef-style

I could lie in my four-poster glamping bed all morning admiring the idyllic views. And guests are welcome to until a buffet breakfast is served on the main deck at around 8 am with fruit, yogurt, eggs, bacon and more. But it’s worth rising early to enjoy a dive or snorkel on this thriving corner of the reef before up to 200 day-trippers arrive from the mainland hub of Bundaberg, two hours away.

I take the opportunity to plunge in at a site called Camp Grounds, a dazzling section of the outer reef encircling the 35-acre island where our dive party of three is buzzed to spot half a dozen turtles, two manta rays a supersized moray eel amongst a myriad of other marine critters. Only an Open Water Diver certification is required to dive outside Lady Musgrave’s lagoon, though Advanced Divers have a greater choice of sites including the ex-HMAS Tobruk, scuttled off Bundaberg in 2018. Beginner dives are available in the island’s 7m-deep (23ft) lagoon.

Overnight snorkellers, on the other hand, can enjoy the protected lagoon to themselves in the early mornings and late afternoons. In between, you’re free to enjoy the pontoon at your leisure (tip: the upper deck tends to be the least crowded), joining day-trippers for a buffet lunch of cold meats and fresh salads, locally sourced. 

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Studying the science of the sea

Waving off the day-trippers at 2:30 pm, a sense of calm ripples across the pontoon. I’m tempted to kick back on the deck in the warm afternoon sun, but opt instead to participate in a reef survey led by marine biologist Leah Crake, which sees us canvas a section of the reef for significant species, coral impacts and marine debris. 

“We upload the data to an online database used by scientists, so these surveys are actually really valuable,” says Crake. I’m not sure if it’s the lack of tourists or my focus on the task at hand, but the lagoon’s marine life seems to be particularly abundant this afternoon. 

Other overnight guests opt to relax with a book or a glass of wine, or chat with the relaxed but professional staff on-hand to assist with whatever you need. Unless you’re after wi-fi, but if you’re desperate you might be lucky to pick up a bit of cell reception.   

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A sea turtle makes its way to nest
A sea turtle makes its way to nest @ Gerard Soury / Getty

Turtle time

Walking tours of the Pisonia tree-studded island located less than a kilometer from the pontoon, which doubles as an important nesting ground for seabirds, are included for all visitors. But only overnight guests can take a night-time tour during turtle nesting season from November.

Following a sumptuous Greek mezze-style dinner, we’re ferried to the island, where under Crake’s guidance we observe an army of turtle mamas shuffling towards the dunes to lay their eggs. From around January to March, tours focus on spotting the hatchlings of the four marine turtle species known to nest here.

By 9pm I’m tucked up in bed, exhausted from the day’s activities. This probably explains why I quickly fall into a deep sleep. Guests are welcome to stay up, mindful of others sleeping. Though stargazing rounds out the activity options. 

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The dining area onboard the Lady Musgrave
Dining is casual, fresh and delicious onboard the pontoon © Lady Musgrave Experience

The moon's your night light 

Glamping beds come with a dim light (tip: bring a headlamp for reading) and are spaced for privacy, though in good weather you’ll want to roll up your bed’s waterproof canvas sides when you ‘check in’ after the day-trippers leave (there are lockers for daytime gear storage). If you’re staying in the observatory, the lights are turned off at bedtime (as agreed by your group), but you might still make out a turtle gliding past your bed. 

The lower deck is an under-water observatory, great for watching the marine life
The lower deck is an under-water observatory, great for watching the marine life © Lady Musgrave Experience

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With simple, functional bathrooms blocks (including hot showers) located on the pontoon’s middle level, the Lady Musgrave HQ isn’t as luxe as Reefsuites, the Great Barrier Reef’s en suite underwater hotel rooms, near the Whitsundays. But with a two-night/three-day glamping stay starting at AUD$900 per person (including luxury catamaran transfers, all meals, snorkeling and glass-bottom boat and island day tours), the rate is more accessible. In my opinion, it’s worth it for the dawn views from bed alone. 

Sarah Reid traveled on the Lady Musgrave by invitation.

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