Granite Gorge to Great Barrier Reef Cruise 5 - 14 August 2012

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August 23rd 2012
Published: August 25th 2012
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We left Granite Gorge where we had so enjoyed the lovely Rock Wallabies and stopped in Meereba to do some shopping before heading out of the Tablelands towards the coast. On the way I passed Paul a mint that we kept in the front of the van to keep him focussed on the road............but he shouted and said he was ‘eating ants’ ...... I had not noticed but the whole packet of mints was crawling with the horrid little creatures and I was also covered in them. He stopped the van as quickly as he could (not easy) and we both jumped out - it took forever to get rid of them............Anyone driving past must have thought ‘those mad people jumping up and down on the side of the road’! We finally managed to get rid of them and continued on stopping several times to look at the lovely views down through the rainforest and out towards the Barrier Reef, with little ‘floating’ islands in a clear turquoise sea.

We booked into a caravan park at Port Douglas and met up with Ken and Judy, our Melbourne friends who were going to join us on a repeat of the Barrier Reef cruise which had ended so disastrously last year. They picked us up and took us into PD where we had a stroll around the town and marina . We visited St Mary’s by the Sea, perched right on the seafront, an historic 1880 fully restored non-denominational church with stunning views through the large picture window directly behind the altar out over the reef beyond. Later we watched the sun go down and the boats come into the marina as we had a fish supper in the Tin Can Restaurant - a nice relaxing day.

Port Douglas has lost its ‘buzz’ as many of the shops have closed down due to lack of tourist to this rather up market town. Although the caravan park was busy the area was not getting the ‘high spending’ tourist of the past, mainly due to the world recession which was a shame as the town had a lot to offer as well as its lovely four mile beach of golden sand. We left Port Douglas and stopped for a couple of days at Ellis Beach which was quiet and peaceful and in an idillic position right on the beach where we swam and walked and rested up before heading into Cairns to pick up our cruise. As we passed by near Trinity Beach we saw two huge Black Necked Storks enjoying a freshly cut Sugar Cane field. The Black Necked Stork is the only stork found in Australia. With black and white body plumage, glossy dark green and purple neck and massive black bill, it is easily identified from all other Australian birds and is a truly colourful bird. The legs are long and coral red in colour. Both sexes look the same but the female is distinguished by its yellow eye - the male’s is brown. In Australia it is often called a Jabiru, although that name refers to a stork species found in the USA. We had scanned many a large lake to see these birds with no success and here they were right by the side of the road.

It was a sad goodbye to our motorhome which had travelled a long way with us since Sydney all those weeks ago. We pulled into the AAM dealership and it was the same member of staff we had met last year. He said that business was extremely slow and Kea, one of the big motorhome companies had recently gone into receivership - a sign of the times....... We had so enjoyed our time in the van but were really looking forward to some luxury in the Sebel Hotel particularly a proper full size bed with en suite facilities (no getting lost in the dark trying to find where the loos are) not to mention someone cooking our meals for us........Our room in the Sebel was massive, all that space we will not know what to do with it. Next day we lazed around the pool all day and later met up with Ken and Judy for a meal on the main thoroughfare.

Cairns was founded in 1876 as a service town for the goldfields and has evolved from a rough frontier outpost (where the pubs outnumbered the people) to an international town with the closest access to the Great Barrier Reef. Like Port Douglas the town was suffering from limited tourists and although the main seafront shops and restaurants were busy, not much was happening elsewhere and many shops behind the main road had closed down.

The next day we boarded our cruise ship the Coral Princess II and met up with Ken and Judy again as well as about thirty other passengers of many nationalities including Australians, Americans, Italians, the Hayman family from Exeter and Ulrike and her daughter Theresa from Vienna in Austria. None of the crew were from our trip last year which was a shame. All was well this time though with clear skies and calm seas. We soon settled into our cabin, we had upgraded this time and it was huge with plenty of space for our luggage not that we had much though. The Coral Princess cruise ship is not large with the capacity of about 40 passengers but provides all the comforts of larger cruise ships, yet is still small enough to enable access to reef and island sites inaccessible to other vessels. We had opted for a 7 night cruise but actually it was a 3 night and 4 night cruise joined together with a return to Cairns in the middle. We cruised out of Trinity Wharf and out into the open seas. The next morning our first stop was Fitzroy Island which ironically was where our last cruise had ended and where we had sheltered behind the island as we waiting for parts to be shipped down from Cairns when the boat developed mechanical failure - this time all good though. We were transported to the beach in the Glass Bottom Boat which was lowered into the water whilst the passengers were all seated and the crew managed this extremely easily. The beaches on the island are not soft sand but piles of white bleached coral fragments and quite difficult to walk on. We had a short walk through the rainforest around the side of the island to Nudey beach and yes there was a ‘nude’ bather but this did not detract from the lovely scenery elsewhere.......... This beach was also just coral and shells but not quite as sloping as the main beach. We walked back to the main beach and had a short snorkel, but the water was extremely cold so we did not stay in the sea long. As we left the island behind us we spotted several Humpback Whales passing by which was a great bonus.

The weather conditions continued to be good which was quite a relief and later we arrived on beautiful Pelorus Island, our own private island with only a caretaker and our fellow passengers for company.......... The island is on a 90 year lease to the Coral Princess Cruise company, so the only people that visit the island are those on their cruises. The fringing reef here was quite pristine and there were a huge number of giant clams just a few feet off shore, we had last seen these in Aitutaki in the Cook Islands and were amazed at their size. We had a short walk around the island which had numerous colourful butterflies before having a barbecue lunch cooked by our Captain. We tried barbecued kangaroo meat again and must admit it was much better than the last time we had eaten it, although it is rather a strong tasting meat and quite gamey (Maisie you would not like it) - and they are such cute little critters.......... The Captain said the important thing is to marinate it well before cooking.........

Ken had seen a photograph on one of our recent blogs showing the lovely intricate patterns that crabs leave when they bury themselves in the sand. They must have very big crabs here though as Ken showed me a very large hole with a huge pile of discarded chunks of coral and stones. Down by on the shore line several of the passengers were feeding fish and their legs were surrounded by colourful reef fish particularly the turquoise ones with bright yellow tails. The group stayed there for ages, entirely engrossed with their task until finally all you could see was the rear end of one elderly gentleman and a young lad, each still enjoying the feeding (boys will be boys came to mind). Whilst we were on the island we saw a couple of humpback whales and the caretaker said that it was a mother and her calf who was born about a week ago - he frequently saw them swimming together around ‘his’ island. He had been a caretaker on the island for 14 years and was the envy of many on board - not sure I would like the isolation though..........but location, location, location........

After our transfer back to the Coral Princess we travelled to our overnight anchorage crossing the Lucinda Bar, the shallowest section of the Hinchinbrook Channel. With the dramatic landscape of Hinchinbrook Island and the mangroves all along both sides of the channel it was an enjoyable journey as we watched the sun set over the rugged peaks. The Hinchinbrook Channel is a part of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and is recognised as being the last stronghold for the southern population of the endangered Dugong species. It is also home to other endangered species including the Irrawaddy Dolphin and the Green Turtle. We scanned the waters but we did not see them or any crocodiles which frequent the waterways. We were invited to the Captain’s table for dinner and enjoyed meeting Captain Glen as well as Sheila and John from the Gold Coast, Sheila was going to be celebrating her 70th birthday on board.

The next morning we went ashore to Dunk Island which was devastated by Cyclone Yasi last year. You may remember it from the news which showed this lovely resort with its swimming pool covered in sand and most of the buildings destroyed and the palm trees stripped of their foliage. Luckily no-one was hurt as they were all moved off before the cyclone hit the area. Speaking to the Captain later he said that both Coral Princess cruise boats had been moved further north to avoid the storm and suffered no damage. Many ships took refuge though in the Hinchinbrook Channel as mangroves are a good shelter during storms as they easily absorb the storms forces. Chris, our Trip Director told us that in 1897, an early Queensland pioneer Edmond Banfield became the original ‘Beachcomber’, a name now used by many. He moved to Dunk Island with only months to live, enjoying a simple life amongst the aborigine people. However he lived for nearly 25 years until his death, living a life many, then and now, only dream about writing books and articles for the local press. He is buried on the island with his wife and has a fitting epitaph ‘If man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer - let him step to the music he hears’. Dunk Island is slowly being rebuilt after the cyclone but it is going to be an exclusive resort with less numbers and probably the cost will be out of reach of most tourist which is a shame as it is a lovely island and one can see why Edmond Banfield spent all those ‘extra’ years there.

In the afternoon we continued cruising to Nathan Reef which appeared out of nowhere right in the middle of the ocean. Several large turtles were swimming amongst the corals as the crew moored the boat really close to the reef. We donned our fins and masked and jumped in and straight away were surrounded by really colourful fish and bright soft and hard corals. There are two main types of coral - Hard Coral and Soft Coral. Sometimes mistaken for and referred to as plants or rocks, corals are actually made up of small Marine Invertebrate Animals known as Coral Polyps and their exoskeleton structure that acts as a home. That is what we see as the hard chalky structures that join together to form coral reefs, most coral polyps have clear bodies and their skeletons are white, like human bones. Generally, their brilliant colour comes from the zooxanthellae algae living inside their tissues - several million live and produce pigments in just one square inch of coral. Sometimes when corals become physically stressed, the polyps expel their zooxanthellae cells and the colony takes on a stark white appearance which is described as ‘coral bleaching’. If the Coral Polyps go for too long without zooxanthellae, coral bleaching can result in the coral's death. We saw many different corals at Nathan Reef and the colours were indeed very vivid so no coral bleaching here.

Chris collected some marine animals for the passengers to see up close before returning them back to the reef. He brought up various types of Sea Slug or Sea Cucumber as they are mistakenly thought to be a vegetable as they stay so still on the ocean floor. The Pineapple Sea Slug was really heavy and a lovely shade of orange - you could not hold it for long. When you see them on the ocean floor they look flat and brown but are actually quite spectacular to see up close with star shape points. Not so the other two specimens that Chris brought up though as these were black and slimy, one was quite firm to touch whilst the other was really squiggy - you could not call them pretty. The phrase Sea Slug is often applied to Nudibranchs which are really colorful and are a noticeable part of the underwater fauna. Later everyone was invited to fish feeding off the glass bottom boat platform. Chris handed out bait fish to those brave souls that then dangled their fish above the water line waiting for a ‘bite’! Chris gave specific safety instructions, mainly to keep ones hands above the waterline as some of these fish were huge. Disaster struck though when one decided to swim right on to the platform and before anyone noticed it took a large bite out of Charley’s leg. Charley was with his family from Exeter and was only eleven but kept a very brave face as his leg poured with blood. Chris got the platform raised quickly and you could quite clearly see four large teeth marks on the top of his knee and matching ones below, he had been bitten by a Giant Trevally and I mean giant...... This large fish is classed in the Jack family, normally silver in colour but mature males are often black and this was definitely a mature male. They can grow to about 170cm and weigh up to 80kg. Charley will probably tell all his friends back at school the tale of when he was bitten by a fish on the Great Barrier Reef - and I am sure the fish will get larger and larger and probably turn into a shark! I am just so glad that I did not participate in the fish feeding that day. However not long after being bitten I saw Charley donning his wet suit and going off for a dive in the same water where he had been bitten - a very brave young lad.

On our last night of this first part of the cruise (3 night) we participated in the Coral Princess Quiz with Ken, Judy, Ulrike and Theresa and were very disappointed to come joint second. We had won the quiz on our previous voyage last year and were hoping to set a ‘coral princess record’! Our team name was the Auspoms (our joint nationalities of Australia, Austria & UK) which we thought quite apt - but it did not give us the winning prize..... Theresa was particularly disappointed as she so wanted to win and did not like being second best particularly as she had ‘swatted up’ on the different species of fish, even leaving the dinner table to check out the different main groups - but it was ‘Coral’ that let us down not ‘Fish’. In fact, Lunar Coral, none of us will ever forget what this is but we were thrown by Chris saying it was predominately yellow in colour and we had seen mostly blue Lunar - Chris if you read this blog take note. We are much more knowledgable now though about the different types of coral and fish. We were surprised that the bulk of Reef Fish belong to just a few family groups. Damselfish, Wrasse, Butterfly Fish, Angelfish, Cardinal Fish, Groupers, Parrotfish, Surgeonfish, Triggerfish and Anemone or Clown Fish but commonly known as Nemos. There are also Blennies and Gobies which are bottom dwellers and the Lionfish which you would not mistake. We had enjoyed snorkelling on the reef and thanks to Chris’s tuition it had become easier to not only recognise these fish groups but also start to categorize them, by their shape, colour as well as behaviour.

The next morning, all too soon we arrived back in Cairns and said goodbye to some of the passengers who were disembarking here including Charley and the Hayman family from Devon, Ulrike and Theresa from Austria and Pam from Australia and we wished them a pleasant onward journey. We were staying on board for the next part of our journey north to Cooktown and Lizard Island - see you there.

Additional photos below
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30th August 2012

Great round-up!
Hi Paul and Sheila - great round-up of the cruise - ahhh fond memories! Charlie was delighted at his mention in your blog - and he is inordinately proud of his scar (in fact he was disappointed when it started to heal, as he wanted it to be bigger!). Was so much fun to spend time with you, and it's great to read about your further Australian adventures - I'm off to read what the second part of the cruise was like! Di

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