Published: January 24th 2011January 24th 2011
Despite having been to Cairns before, I have never flown further north than Townsville. The route to Cairns is ocean bound, and we were in an incredibly small plane (with rather large seats considering) that even had two propellers on each wing instead of jet engines. The flight was loud, rickety, and immensely enjoyable.
Since we were in a small plane, we flew at a relatively low altitude. I found myself peering out of the window trying to catch a glimpse of a massive shadow. Townsville, and the magnetic islands especially, have a reputation for being the shark capital of the world. Of course, I have yet to see a shark here – something I’m rather dismayed about. Today’s plane ride didn’t oblige with the view of shark shadows or even whales. Apart from a large, whale-like shadow, throwing a huge wake (which could have just been a boat) I saw noting of interest. The massive amount of rain and flooding throughout Queensland have resulted in the outpouring of nutrients and other chemicals from the highly developed coastlines. Thus most of the ocean we traipsed across was overburdened with the tell-tale greenish hue of a massive phytoplankton bloom.
In the States, which is largely lined by seasonal seas, phytoplankton ebbs in the summer (when nutrients are limiting) and in winter (when sunlight is limiting), instead blooming in the spring and fall when nutrients are just right
. In tropical north Queensland, where sunlight is constantly available for at least 12 hours a day, it’s likely that only nutrients are limiting. Although seemingly unintuitive, coral seas are low nutrient zones - their high biodiversity occurs for a myriad of other biological reasons.
Yet the plane ride still held surprises for me. For starters, I had the pleasure of viewing a network of reefs in the Great Barrier Reef just as we were descending into Cairns. Miles from the shore, long after the sea had deepened to the darkest blue, there suddenly springs an expanse of crystal blue oceans, breaking waves, and golden corals. It was also pleasant to see the gorgeous, winding, coastal road that I had traveled on my way to Mission Beach from above. The dark green rain forest, surrounded by drier, Eucalyptus dominated forests, finally ending in desert like beaches were a joy to behold. The ecologist in me was admittedly gesticulating about the distribution of moisture and temperature from the visual transect I was making from above ... anyway. I also enjoyed comparing the shape of the rivers here, which largely flow over very flat land, and spend half a year being dry, to the raging rivers I see crushing rocks in the Smoky Mountains. I may have even spotted a couple of large Crocodiles, since the two large "logs" were nearly identically shaped, and in an area of river that was so smooth and gentle that it was hard to imagine them floating their. If they were crocodiles, they were the first I've seen in the wild.