After our super early morning flight, Mom and I arrived in Cairns around 9:30am. When we arrived at the hotel we were told that we had been upgraded to a room with a balcony (though no ocean view rooms were available at this point). My dad travels a lot for work and I believe he has a Holiday Inn Gold Membership, which comes in handy sometimes! Later on in the week we asked if an ocean view was available, and it was! For a few nights we had a nice open balcony overlooking the water.
The weather in Cairns was much warmer, and our first afternoon we wandered down the boardwalk. The tide was out when we went down, and there was a massive mud flat. I was slightly fascinated, since mud flat habitats had been included in my studies as part of our Marine and Coastal Ecosystems class.
Even though it looks pretty barren, mud flats are actually highly productive and important ecosystems. Many fish and birds for example rely on these areas as a food source. They munch on the invertebrates and other creatures that burrow into the sediments. These areas also have very little wave energy, allowing birds to use them as resting areas. You’ll also generally find quite a few crustaceans (like crabs), polychaetes (worms), and molluscs (like mussels). I’ll save you from going into too much detail, but there’s generally more to an environment than meets the eye, especially when the organisms burrow into the sediments.
We also found this warning semi-entertaining… Welcome to Cairns!
Apparently saltwater crocodiles have been known to inhabit the area, though we never saw any along this particular stretch of beach.
There was also a friendly pod of pelicans (yes, that’s the appropriate group name) that seemed to gather in the same spot every afternoon. Being from Wisconsin, I though it was pretty awesome to see pelicans in their natural environment.
I think I enjoyed Cairns a bit better than Sydney, simply because the air was cleaner and there was less city surrounding you. It was also a bit more tourist-focused, which made shopping a bit more fun. Sydney was nice, but we didn’t do much shopping in the ritzy stores that seemed quite common. As we walked around, Mom found the Sushi Train. She loves sushi and was quite entertained since she’d never seen it served in this way before.
Basically, the little train goes around pulling cars with sushi on various plates. You choose the plate that looks most tempting to you. Prices are indicated by the design on the plate you choose.
The next day we looked for E Finger, which was the name of the pier that we would be meeting at for our dive on the Great Barrier Reef. We explored the shoreline for a while and soaked up the wonderful sunshine that we hadn’t seen in a few days!
When we got back to our hotel room, we had this nice little visiter…
Apparently they come with the room free of charge along with some sugar ants. In tropical climates, its hard to avoid!
The night after my dad arrived in Cairns, we had our dive scheduled for the Great Barrier Reef! We woke up early in the morning to get to our dive boat. We went with Tusa Dive T6.
Once on board, we filled out paperwork and signed waivers. The other vacationers on the boat were fellow divers, trying to get certified to be a diver, or simply there to snorkel. They went through safety information and off we went! The entire trip out to the reef took about an hour and a half. Once we started going, all divers had to go upstairs for a briefing about our dives.
We participated in 3 dives throughout the day at two different locations.
Our first site was at Flynn Reef (the top orange spot–you can see a larger version if you click on the photo). Here, we dove at a section known as Tennis Court.
Our first dive was around 10am. It was a bit tricky getting suited up and remembering where everything goes. Tusa provided all of the gear, though we had brought our own masks and snorkels. They gave Mom and Dad cut-off wet suits, but graciously gave me a full-length one, since I tend to retain my body heat rather poorly. It had been quite a while since any of us had dived! Between the three of us though, we figured it out. They took a photo of all of us before we made the plunge!
To speed up the process, we weren’t allowed to put on or remove our own fins. When you reached the back of the boat (teetering with the weight of your tank), you had to hold out one foot at a time, and they put your fins on for you. Once you were all clipped in to your awkward footwear, you stood on the edge of the back of the boat. Holding your regulator (breathing apparatus) and mask to your face with one hand and your BCD (buoyancy control device–the vest-like things that your tank clips into and controls your floaty-ness) with the other, we stepped into the water while looking straight across the water (NOT down!–your mask tends to fly off your face if you’re looking down into the water).
This diagram helps break down the dive gear for the non-divers out there:
My first thought when we jumped in was, “It’s warm!” It wasn’t bath water by any means, but it was a hot spring compared to the Wisconsin lakes I did my open water testing in towards the end of October! The water was 24˚C (about 75˚F for the Americans out there). Once our entire dive group was in the water, we emptied our BCD’s of air and followed a rope from the boat down to the bottom. One of the first things I saw as we went down the rope was this little fish swimming in front of my goggles. I don’t know what type it was, but it had this metallic blue sheen on the front of its head. I knew the dive was going to be unlike anything else I had experienced.
Once we all made it to the bottom, our guide started to lead us around the reef. My mom, who had problems equalizing (balancing out her ear pressure with the pressure of the water) during her open water dives didn’t struggle with it this time! Since it was our first real dive though, we all had issues at one point or another with staying neutrally buoyant. Mom and Dad both randomly floated to the top at certain stages. It’s rather humorous to be swimming along and then oops!… there they go! Figuring out how much air you need in your BCD just takes some getting used to. At one stage, someone had floated up (I can’t remember who at the moment) and I was watching Mom. I didn’t realize I was floating upwards, because she was at the same level as me, but the next thing I knew everyone was deeper than we were! Oops! We had both floated up! That was the only time I started to float upwards. I paid more attention to where the bottom of the ocean was after that!
Another one of the first things I noticed were all of the sea cucumbers! They were everywhere! I know other people probably weren’t very impressed with them, but I was fascinated and super excited to see them! I sort of wanted to see a pearl fish, but no such luck (for more information about the pearl fish, check out the video about sea cucumbers on my previous blog post: Echinodermata: Those with the Spiny Skin).
The reef itself was so cool! It’s difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t been there to see it for themselves, but the colors and structures are unfathomable.
Throughout the dive, our guide would regularly turn around and signal to us that we should tell him how many bar we had left in our tank (the pressure of air remaining). We started at 200 bar, and when we got down to 50, we needed to surface. Dad ran out of air fairly quickly and had to surface early, so they gave him a bigger tank for our next dive.
All too soon our first dive came to an end and we all had to surface. Our dives were roughly 30 minutes (though I think our last dive was 42 minutes). They offered us fruit and gave us 15 minutes at the surface before descending again around 11am. I was given a cut-off suit to put over my full-length one. I was fine once I was in the water, but once I was at the surface and in the wind I’d start shivering uncontrollably. I have to admit though, the second layer in the water did insulate quite a bit more!
For our second dive we did a free descent. In other words, we didn’t use a rope. I think I was more buoyant because of the second wet suit, but when my BCD was empty, I was still stuck floating at the top. Our dive guide put some more weights into my BCD and the problem was rectified! This dive was at the same location and pretty similar to the first, though at this stage, we were all a bit braver and ready to investigate things a bit more.
At one point, our guide pointed out a giant clam to us. He touched the inside and it snapped shut. I had to try it out! It felt rubbery and slippery. The clam was just trying to catch some food with its efforts, but it was fascinating. It’s like watching a venus fly trap close around a fly.
This YouTube video gives you an idea of what it was like:
We saw so many fish. I couldn’t tell you what types they were; I’m no ichthyologist, but we’ll suffice to say they were awesome! I know there were some parrot fish, clown fish, some that looked like Gill from Finding Nemo (most likely a Moorish Idol), and lots, lots more.
It was amazing to see all of the fish disappear as you swam over the coral. There would be little schools of fish all around a grouping of coral, and all of a sudden they would be gone… retreating into the nooks and crannies of the reef. I also found the little micro-ecosystems fascinating. There would be little clumps of coral surrounded by vast areas of sand. Over these tiny clumps of coral there would be high concentrations of fish, all of them sticking to this little clump of coral for protection. It was interesting.
I also got really excited when I saw a camouflaged fish that we were swimming over. Again, I don’t know what type they were, but while the other fish swam for cover, these masters of disguise simply sat at the bottom, relying upon their coloration for protection. All sorts of different defenses were used. I would have been stoked to see an octopus, squid, or cuttlefish, but these guys can pretty much become invisible when they want to. You really have to know what you’re looking for when they decide to use their camouflage.
On this dive Mom struggled to stay down at the bottom again, so our guide ended up towing her with him for a lot of the dive. I’m sort of jealous, since he was able to point things out to her from this position that I was unable to see. For example, she saw a nudibranch (a colorful sea-slug)!
One of my biggest memories on this dive, was when Dad hit me in the face and knocked my regulator out! It is rather difficult to control your body movements in an underwater environment, and it’s difficult to see where people are around you. Thank goodness I’m not a panicky person! I just sort of laughed, stuck my regulator back in my mouth, cleared it, and kept on breathing as Dad looked at me with bulgey eyes! Underwater communication is fantastic. Expressions can say so much sometimes.
The second memory (and my favorite) was when we saw the green sea turtle just before surfacing. Tusa has a photographer that dives with us, and she was holding pieces of seaweed to tempt the turtle into photogenic positions. Dad missed the sea turtle because he had to surface a bit earlier again, but Mom got in there for a shot. I had to surface at this point, but Mom said she was able to touch the turtle and hold out a piece of coral for it to munch (… again, jealous!).
I saw Wally on my way up to the surface. He’s a Maori wrasse that often visits divers from the boat. I didn’t get any photos with him, but he was massive! If I’d have to guess, I’d say he was only slightly longer than I am tall.
After our second dive, we had to change into our normal clothes to go inside for the lunch they served. We tried to soak up some sun as they drove us to our second dive site.
This dive site was Milln Reef, which is right next to Flynn Reef. Our guide told us we dove at Club 10, but when I google that location I don’t find anything, and according to the Tusa Dive site, we dove at Canyons… so I’m a bit unsure of what part of Milln Reef we were at.
When we arrived, we suited up again and jumped in! This was another free descent dive and at this stage, we were all pretty good at remaining neutrally buoyant!
One of the most remarkable pieces of coral was this metallicy blue stuff. I’m not sure what type of coral it was, but it sure stood out on the white sand. I also saw some thin threads coming out from the coral. I’m not sure what they were, but they reminded me of the thread-like extensions from a spaghetti worm. I still want to look into that a bit further. (Check out my post, Annelids: A Rather Squirmy Lab, for more information on spaghetti worms.)
On this dive, Mom decided it was her turn to hit me in the face! Apparently there was a target on my goggles that I was unaware of. She didn’t manage to dislodge my regulator, but the expression on her face when she realized what she did was priceless.
We found another giant clam on this dive (I couldn’t resist touching) and another green sea turtle! I turned around and signaled to Dad that there was a turtle up ahead! He wasn’t going to miss this one! I made it my personal mission to make sure of it!
By the end of this dive, I was starting to get chilled, but I wasnt ready to get out of the water. When we did surface, someone started removing my flippers before I was even seated! It’s slightly unsettling to be in the water and all of a sudden have something grab your foot. Amazingly, the thought of sharks never bothered me on the dive. I actually would have probably been pretty excited if we did see one (minus a great white).
When we were all undressed/redressed we went upstairs to fill out our dive log books as the boat drove us back to shore. It was about 4:30pm when we got back in. What a day! I wish we had dives every day, but we got the last bit of nice weather before the ocean got a bit rough throughout the week. I can’t wait to get back into the ocean again.
The next morning, after all of us had gotten some much-needed sleep, we went down to see the sunrise over the ocean. The clouds blocked the sun a bit, but it was still beautiful.
This was a full-on vacation day for us, with no tours planned. The next day, however, was another highlight, our tour of Daintree Rainforest!
We were up around 7am for our tour pickup. We went with Billy Tea Safaris. After we picked up several other tour group members from their various hotels, we began the drive up to Daintree. We drove along the ocean coast, so we had lots of beautiful views. Mom and Dad even got to see a field that was covered in dozens of wallabies! Our guide was quite the talker. I’m pretty sure he never stopped talking all the way to the rainforest (the drive was probably over an hour).
In order to get to the rainforest, we had to cross the Daintree River on a cable ferry. We literally drove onto a platform that moved back and forth across the river. It was rather interesting. According to our guide, part of the reason they hadn’t built a bridge was in an attempt to keep the number of visitors and traffic in the rainforest at a minimum.
Once we crossed, we drove to the Alexandra Range and walked along one of the National Boardwalks. My mission for the day was to find a cassowary! That was the main reason I had selected to do this tour, and I wasn’t leaving until I found one! As we walked our guide talked on (and on, and on) about plants. He told us the scientific names, what the scientific names meant, how old the plants supposedly were, etc. I suppose it was interesting… but it wasn’t a cassowary. We did, however, find lots of cassowary plums. Apparently they love to munch on these things.
The buttress roots from the trees were pretty neat. The area reminded me a lot of my trip to Costa Rica. They’re basically really wide roots that don’t go very deep into the soil. The design is supposed to help give the tree support and strength while helping it gather more nutrients in the nutrient poor soils of rainforests.
We also came across a gigantic orb spider that I was rather fascinated with.
Our next stop was Emmagen Creek for our “morning tea” and an optional swim. On the way there we came across this altered cassowary crossing sign. The bottom sign was supposed to be for a speed bump… Instead it indicated what would happen if drivers didn’t slow down and keep their eyes peeled for unawares birds.
Our tea consisted of a tropical fruit tasting, damper, and Billy Tea. For the fruit, we tried Amazonian custard apple (which was my favorite it was really creamy, like custard, and had a mellow sweet flavor), custard apple (which was a bit more grainy and tasted rather like strawberry preserves), lemonade fruit (which was supposed to taste like lemonade but didn’t taste like much of anything to me), sugar banana (which tasted like banana… go figure), yellow sapote (which was pasty and did not agree with my taste buds), chocolate pudding fruit (which I’m pretty sure wasnt ripe enough it’s supposed to be completely brown when you eat it and taste like chocolate pudding… ours was green and pasty and didn’t taste like anything), and passion fruit (which has a really strong lemony, pineappley, odd flavor… I’m not a fan of all the seeds).
The Billy Tea was cooked in a billycan, a cooking pot designed to be placed over the campfire.
The billycan is thought to get its name from the time of the exploration of the Outback, when the cans that were used to transport bouilli or bully beef. According to another line of thought, the term comes from the Aboriginal word “billa,” which means water. Either way, the tea is made by throwing fistfuls of tea leaves into the pot of water and boiling them over an open fire. When the tea is ready, you’re left with the problem of leaves floating in your tea. To get them to go to the bottom, our guide explained that you simply swing the billycan over your head, which he proceeded to demonstrate, swinging his arms over his head like the arms of a clock. Thank goodness he swung fast enough that it didn’t all come sloshing out on his head.
The tea itself was okay. I’ll stick with my chai and peppermint tea though, thank you.
Afterwards we headed down to Cape Tribulation Beach. I found the vinegar station quite entertaining, though I’m sure it comes in handy!
We saw lots of little holes in the sand surrounded by these perfectly spherical balls of sand on our way up to the photographers platform. It turns out they were made by these itty-bitty little crabs. We were somewhat puzzled as to how they made the round globs of sand.
There were also mangroves all along the water, which were quite beautiful.
Mangroves themselves are quite fascinating. They have very wide, odd root structures as well as pneumatophores. Pneumatophores are basically aerial roots. The trees grow upwards, out of the sand in an attempt to get more oxygen. They come in handy especially when the tide is up and when the soils are saturated.
Many of the trees we saw also had spikes sticking off of them. It seems to be a common theme with rainforest plants, as I saw many similar trees in Costa Rica. The vines here also get these crazy shapes.
We found these birds that looked like turkeys but had bright red heads… I googled, and come to find out they’re brush turkeys… Go figure…
After our half hour on the beach, it was time to head to Lync Haven, an animal refuge center for some lunch. Steaks were on the menu, but they kindly made me a veggie patty.
They had some snakes and birds for us to check out, but the highlight was definitely when we went for a little walk and found some cassowary!!!! They were back behind the trees at first, with our whole tour group there. After catching glimpses of them behind the trees for a while, it was time to go feed the kangaroo and wallaby.
By this point, I had already fed kangaroo twice, so I was less than enthusiastic to leave the cassowary. I decided to stay behind (the kangaroo area was pretty close by) and see if they would come out of the trees when everyone was gone.
It was a male and a female with a chick! I was so excited and fascinated. Cassowary are beautiful, but they also have beautifully long, 3-inch claws that they can use to disembowel anything they view as a predator. Knowing that males can be quite defensive of their young, I tried to maintain my distance and resist getting as close as possible! It was so awesome to see though! I never expected to see a chick! It kept walking towards me, and I kept backing up (as much as I didn’t want to!). Definitely a highlight of the trip!
Our guide said it was extremely rare to see them traveling in groups like that. In all his years here, he’s never seen it. The male usually takes care of the chicks individually, without the female present. His interpretation was that the male might have been trying to woo the female by showing that he can raise a healthy chick.
Seeing them totally made my day… The only thing that could make it more prefect, would be finding saltwater crocodiles!
After they were done feeding the kangaroo and wallaby, Dad told me it was time to go and we hopped in the vehicle to get to our Daintree River Cruise.
We hopped on a boat for an hour with a river guide. The first animal we found was a juvenile saltwater crocodile. We found a total of 3 juveniles throughout our trip. We also found 2 adults. They’re such awesome, powerful animals. They were all sunbathing in an attempt to warm up their body temperatures.
We also saw several rare birds. The first was a Rufous/Nankeen Night-Heron (Nycticorax caledonicus).
We also saw two different types of kingfisher. According to our guide, these were also quite rare to see. There was an azure kingfisher (Alcedo azurea) and the second was a little kingfisher (Alcedo pusilla).
The tree snakes we saw were also pretty cool. Our guide saw the larger one up top, and I pointed out that there was also a smaller snake down below. (All those days of pointing out animals to guests at Disney and the Houston Zoo come in handy sometimes.)
Our river cruise came to an end and it was time to head back to the hotel. It was quite the day!
For the rest of the week we didn’t have anything booked, so we made our own schedules. One night, Mom and Dad decided they wanted to sample the local cuisine of kangaroo and crocodile. Being vegetarian, I passed on this little venture, but took advantage of the Kodak moment…
According to them, the kangaroo was very tender and along the same lines as venison, while the crocodile flavor reminded them slightly of fish.
They also sampled the octopus one night…
I guess it was rather chewy. We got the food from the Night Market, which was just down the street from our hotel. It was basically a little tourist trap. They had a bunch of vendors set up in the front, selling trinkets and souveners, and in the back they had a little cluster of eating places. They had everything you could think of in the shops. There were sweatshirts and t-shirts, opals, kangaroo and crocodile jerkey, kangaroo pelts, wood carvings, a pouch made out of kangaroo placenta (I didn’t ask), a crocodile arm backscratcher, a kangaroo arm beer opener, jewelry, honey, candles and incense, disco lights, and all these people offering massages. Mom and Dad really needed to learn how to not make eye-contact! Haha, Dad got at least a dozen offers. He must look like the sort of guy who needed a message!
I’m not a big jewelry person, but I did find an orca ring (I’m rather fascinated with the species) that I couldn’t resist taking home with me. My first Australian souvenier!
While on the Daintree tour, we learned about the existence of the Cairns Botanic Gardens, so we decided to walk there one day. It was quite the hike, but there were some interesting plants there. We also saw this massive spider web. I started counting the spiders that were in it, and there were at least over a dozen! It was too difficult to get a picture, but there were a lot of spiders!
Pitcher plants lure in insects to their slippery edges often with colors or nectar. When the insect approaches the edge, they generally fall in. On the inside of the plant, the walls are coated with a slippery layer and backwards pointing hairs, so the insect finds itself trapped and only able to climb down… right into the liquid at the bottom of the plant. This liquid usually contains digestive enzymes and both drowns and digests the insect. It’s not a pleasant way to die.
We also found a little lizard.
I was mesmerized by all these odd spiders we kept seeing. I looked it up, and it was a spiny orb-weaver spider (Gasteracantha geminata).
It had quite the odd body covering. It is thought that the spines might offer some form of protection.
One day, we decided to go to Palm Cove, one of the locations we had picked up some people for the Daintree tour. We hopped on the bus (which in itself proved to be an adventure). None of us were very experienced with busses as a form of public transportation. Dad thought there was a pick-up location at the mall… there wasn’t. We were at the wrong mall! Oh well!
Eventually we found a driver to talk to who told us our best bet would to be to walk down the street a way to the next bus stop, so off we went.
We checked out a few of the small stores in Palm Cove and Mom and Dad stopped at a bar for some food and beverages.
We also walked out on the pier, but it was super windy! Once we got out there, it started to rain! What a lovely Australian day! Cold and wet, we were ready to go back to the hotel. Flagging down a bus though proved to be another trial. Apparently the first one we tried to catch we were on the wrong side of the street. Then we were at a corner, so apparently they couldn’t stop. When they finally did stop, the lady told us we had to wait 20 minutes when they drove back to Palm Cove because they weren’t going straight to Cairns. Why we couldn’t just hop on for the extra 20 minutes, I’ll never understand. So wait we did! In the wind and rain! The good news is, in the end, we made it back to our hotel!
One of the days (another rainy day), we went to the movie theater in the mall and saw Monsters University. It was pretty cute and a nice backstory to the friendship between Mike and Sully. I had to get my dose of Disney in there somewhere!
On our last day, we purchased a boomerang crafted by a local Aboriginal artist.
It has a sea turtle on it as a memento to the sea turtles we saw on our trip.
All too soon (a common theme on this trip) we were packed up and headed in various directions. Dad flew out the day before Mom and I. Our flight path took us to Sydney, where we spent a night at a hotel near the airport before she flew home and I flew to Warrnambool to start my second trimester.
Rain seems to have followed me here, and it’s rained everyday since I’ve gotten back. I found out though that we’ll be expected to be out of the dorms on October 26th, so my flight has now also been changed to the 26th, meaning I’ll arrive home just in time for my birthday on the 27th! I love the experiences and adventures I’ve had in Australia, but coming home for my birthday sounds like the perfect present!
Now that I’m back, it’s time to start counting down for my final Australian adventures to complete that list of My Top 5 Australian Must-Do’s… the Outback and Steve Irwin’s zoo (The Australia Zoo).