Operation Cassowary: Always Check Your Tail In the Great Barrier Reef

After leaving Cape Trib, our itinerary takes us to the cities of Port Douglas and Cairns, where I pet, feed, (and taste) some of Australia’s wildlife. From Cairns, we visited the Great Barrier Reef and experienced some of the best waters on the planet.

Welcome back to Operation Cassowary.

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Port Douglas is, according to our leaders, the Boca Raton of Australia. Or, for any Australians, Boca Raton is the Port Douglas of the United States. After returning from the magnificent Cape Tribulation, we arrived in a small town with an amazing beach and large retirement community with nearly everybody jogging along the shore. We were here to visit the town’s accurately named Wildlife Habitat, an establishment similar to a zoo, but showcasing all of Australia’s indigenous fauna.

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Rustic Pathways, our tour outfitter, treated us to a great lunch in close proximity to the facility’s aviary. Then, we pitched in a little by helping to reinstall mulch in one of the habitats using pitchforks and wheelbarrows. We resumed exploring and sat down to enjoy a presentation featuring a few of the habitat’s koalas. They rested on a little eucalyptus tree, and rubbed their stomachs against it. Afterwards, all of the tourists lined up in a queue as part of an additional photo opportunity… this was our chance to hold one of the koalas, if only for a few moments. We were informed how to hold it, where to stand, and how to hand it back. The employees made sure that the process was quick and that the koala was at no risk. Soon, it was my turn to meet the resident marsupial, Kodi.

Now, when you see koalas on TV or movies, don’t let them deceive you. They look fluffy. They look cute. And they are, but they are also rather gruff. Perhaps the koala was grumpy because he was being held by a bunch of strangers while he was trying to relax (one of the staff mentioned they spend lots of time asleep.) Don’t get me wrong, they appeared very well attended to by the workers and Kodi the Koala wasn’t scared as far as I could tell, but once you hold it, you notice a thing or two. First, its fur is soft, like a dog’s or a carpet’s. Second, its has sharp claws. Third, it growls at you while you hold it, as if to say, “Next.” I suppose if I were to be pulled out of my room and asked to be cuddled by a bunch of random people, I would be upset too. I noticed all of these observations during the shoot, but for the whole five seconds, all I could think of were the pinching claws digging into my skin, almost hitting the bone. I made sure to hand it back to the secure hands of the staff as soon as possible because I was concerned I would drop the koala as a result of the acute pains in my forearms. I can’t blame it, though; those claws are meant for trees, they have a right to use them!

In addition to the close encounter with the koala, there were locations where you could interact with birds, as well as wallabies and kangaroos. The aforementioned two were in separate enclosures, separated by double mesh doors reminiscent of air locks. We could pet some of the kangaroos, and one of the staff gave me and a few of us some almonds to feed to them. They enjoyed them, and we were able to touch their fur, which was rough but soft at the same time.

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After departing the Wildlife Habitat, we stopped in downtown Port Douglas to have lunch. While most of the others went to a vegan cafe, but I preferred to take a risk. I went into the nearest pastry shop and chose a meat pie-like dish… made of crocodile. I have to admit, as much of a cliche it is to compare strange meats to chicken, the crocodile tasted close to poultry. I was astounded by how this reptilian meat is like chicken, of all meats. Now that I think about it, a ferocious animal being so similar to a chicken… is bizarre.

En route to Cairns, we stopped at a huge adventure sport complex, Cairns AJ Hackett. They had bungee jumping, however I decided skydiving (later on in the trip) would be a much cooler thrill, and I instead opted for for the Minjin Jungle Swing, one of the world’s fastest and highest. (I forget the exact statistics, but any way you put it, it’s exhilarating.) I have the videos and photos somewhere, but they aren’t the most flattering to my face, because it swings you back and forth, your stomach churning the whole time. I don’t know where they are, but my face probably looks like Chad from Friday the 13th: The Game. (If you don’t play that reference went over your head.) If swinging like a pendulum and falling while secured to ropes in the middle of lush Australian jungle isn’t your strong suit, don’t go out of your way to visit, but if they are, give it a shot. I won’t say this was the best part of the trip, but the jungle swing was a great shot of energy on the return trip to Cairns.

So on to Cairns pronounced “cans,” where we checked into the Queenslander, a hotel and apartment building with good breakfasts and comfortable two-person rooms. Proceeding into the main tourist and nightlife area, we went to Reef Teach, an education center that informs and engages future visitors to the Great Barrier Reef about the dangers, wonders, and wildlife. I do advise anyone with the time beforehand to check this place out, because for a few hours you hear lectures about what you should be looking for. It was incredible; you see how much of a natural barrier the reef is, acting as a channel for ships to move in sheltered waters all the way up the Queensland coast. The speaker said that even with modern cargo ships, it would take about three days to sail from end to end. It is the world’s largest coral reef, and the only living organism in existence visible from space. We learned about the two types of coral, hard and soft, as well as many of the creatures we encountered. A big topic of discussion was about the clownfish, also known as the anemone-fish or “Nemo” fish. (You know when a film makes an integral impact on culture when a whole species is identified with it.) Many of my associates were shocked to discover that clownfish are able to change genders after a mate dies, so if “Finding Nemo” were to portray the reproduction of the fish accurately, Marlin would become a female and mate with his son, Nemo, to reproduce. Perhaps the boardroom at the animation studio decided not to teach complex biological function lessons to their preschool-aged audiences, which was probably a good call.

The Reef Teach talk was a great time, although I was unnerved after the speaker had a segment about sharks and other aggressive animals. Sharks bother me, and it was not pleasant to hear about sharks, as well as the box jellyfish. The man told us that if we were stung by one of those, he wouldn’t even swim back to try to rescue you because you’re done. But the sharks worried me more than the jellies, and this clouded my thoughts for a large portion of the talk. I asked him what I should do in the event of me seeing a shark, and he replied by saying (I think he was talking about the tiger shark so that’s the type I remember it as,) “Oh, you probably won’t see a shark. Tiger sharks attack from behind.) Aside from the obvious cleverness of this statement, it did not help to calm me down, and this mood settled into my mind as we woke up the next morning and left from Cairns’ Reef Fleet Terminal for two sites of the world’s largest barrier reef.

The boat we took brought us to two reef locations that day, accessible via a two hour ride from the city, and provided us with sterilized snorkel sets, goggles, and fins… flippers? I don’t know which one they’re called. But whatever they were, I was incompetent in using them. Anyhow, I have no experience in diving, so I decided to snorkel, and since I was a novice I rented a wetsuit. Joining a few friends and a guide, we strolled to the back of the ship with everybody else, waited, and stepped off into the ocean.

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It was an embarrassment. As it had been over a year since I last swam, and in the first place I am slow and uncoordinated at nautical locomotion. If I had to jump off an exploding oil tanker and make it to shore, I could do it, but it would be slow-going. The addition of the snorkeling gear further put me behind my colleagues, most of whom lived on the coast. The moment I touched the water, it was cold, salt flew in my face, and I was looking all around to ensure no sharks were tailing me. But I managed to trail behind the other guys, and we moved along submerged walls of coral. These were hard corals, which aren’t bright colors, but rather lighter colors one might see in an Impressionist painting. Light and clear yellows, pinks, and others tinted in light blue. Pop culture and tour brochures teach us that the Great Barrier Reef is all neon colors. In reality, they are mostly more toned down corals, but they are nonetheless fascinating.  I saw a rabbitfish (or a parrotfish, one of the two) as well as several banks of corals in strange shapes. However, after awhile I had lost all my stamina and had to return to the boat. I was unsure of how the second and final reef would prove to be, but I soon learned I would not be disappointed.

If my memory serves me right, the second reef was the Hastings Reef, a few minutes away from the first one. The setup for this one was humiliating. After my graceful swimming performance (someone even asked me if I knew how to swim,) I had to be towed using a life preserver in a tugboat-like fashion for several stretches of the reef. This made holding my underwater camera even more difficult, so a few of my pictures were blurry. But anyways, I was hoping this reef would be an improvement, and it definitely was. Not that the first reef we saw was bad, but because I could maneuver this one in an easier fashion. There were many wonderful hard corals in shapes and shades, and I found the yellow ones eye-catching in particular. There was one of those gigantic yellow ones that look like a massive, bulging sponge that blew me away. But it was one fish that made the largest imprint of the reef into my mind.

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On my one day on the Great Barrier Reef, I was fortunate enough to encounter not one clownfish… but two of them. They lived on the side of a steep coral hill, prospering with corals. Hidden away in a cave, the guide from the ship led a few of us to this possible hangout of the fish and we saw them. It was the most bizarre, magical thing I had ever seen out of an aquatic animal. The color alone rattled me. Anemone-fish look amazing in the pictures, but nothing beats the real ones. Yes, it was white and orange, but it had some sort of aura surrounding it, perhaps the sun reflecting off of it in the shallow ocean waters. The parts on the fishes’ bodies where the white and orange segments met had almost a bright, purple tint that made it pop out like a neon sign, an Andy Warhol painting, against the corals in soft-toned colors like a Claude Monet Impressionist kind of artwork. By far it was the best, most extraordinary thing I had seen on the reef. And while some details of this adventure become a little bit fuzzy, perhaps because of the fact that I was terrified of sharks and drowning and for short segments my mind was in panic mode, seeing those clownfish dart around those small corals made the most profound imprint in my mind. It was the icon of the Great Barrier Reef I will always keep with me.

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On the boat ride back, between bouts of seasickness, I recall how I struggled to take my mind off of the adrenaline rush I received by being in the live presence of those fish, the true stars of the Great Barrier Reef. Some of the scuba divers didn’t even see clownfish, and I, a novice snorkeler, did on my first visit. When I wrote my rating in my 1000 Places book and gave it a four out of five stars, a close relative laughed at me. In hindsight, it deserves a five out of five. This was likely because of my fear of the water and the animals that made it a bit terrifying, but that was my opinion at the time and this reef deserves all of the stars. All five of them. It also deserves the hype and the international attention it has. I want to go back (and also take out the Coral Sea half of this entry) one day, and I know it’ll be there waiting because so many great people speak and care about it. The man at Reef Teach said there are not many second-time visitors to the reef, however I hope it will not be a one-and-done thing. Everybody should see this location. Don’t worry about the coral bleaching. I was worried the corals I saw were dying because some of them were a bit grey and dark, but those corals, hard corals, are like that, and I think sometimes they appear differently because of light and water that darkens them. Now, I’m not denying that coral bleaching is a thing and it exists, but when I saw it, it was in excellent condition, and I am hopeful that there are many people who want to save it. The media likely blows it out of proportion for the story, when in reality it is pristine. Don’t think it’ll die within a few months. Just be aware of how you behave around it and respect the fragility of this underwater masterpiece so more novice snorkelers can admire the entirety of the Great Barrier Reef.

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