While the police in our (last) home town of Gainesville, Florida were busy electrifying a protester , we were blissfully snorkeling over the Great Barrier Reef. For those of you not up on your Australian geography, the city of Cairns is the international gateway to Queensland, home to many significant natural attractions. Its airport sucks in hordes of tourists from Japan, Europe and the U.S., and packs them into huge hotels and boats.

We rented a small car and fled north, to the chic, relatively quiet little town of Port Douglas. The rainy season is a month or two off and the lethal, stinging jellyfish are still out to sea, waiting for their cue to come toward shore and scare the living daylights out of swimmers. As if the huge, saltwater crocodiles weren’t cranky enough to do the job.

We chose a relatively small, snorkelers-only boat to visit the reef. A limit of thirty passengers meant we were unlikely to get left behind and we were virtually guaranteed individual attention. A chance conversation with our friendly marine biologist unearthed the unlikely news that he would soon be heading for Florida for a year, accompanying his spouse, a nursing student. He reassured us that we were in good hands.

WavelengthThe trip out on the Coral Sea was an all day event, starting with a briefing on equipment and safety, followed by an hour of powerful motoring. Port Douglas is the closest town to the reef, but it is still thirty miles off shore. There are 2900 separate fringing reefs that make up the World Heritage area. We visited three sites.

Fortunately, the weather was fine. Unfortunately, the brand new underwater housing I had purchased for the trip did not allow me to actually see what I was shooting. I aimed, shot and hoped for the best. Pixels are cheap. It didn’t occur to me that I might actually snap the shutter 150 times and then spend hours on the computer trying to turn fairly drab results into sparkling, colorful photos.

The reef stretches for about 2300 kilometers, supporting the most diverse ecosystem in the world. All thanks to a tiny critter called the polyp. Its proclivity for warm, clear water and the sturdy support of Australia’s large continental shelf make these ideal waters.

Despite its poor soil base, the rainforest covers about 1200 square kilometers. Its plant diversity is unrivaled in Australia. Some species date back 110 million years, when the continent was much more humid than it is now. There are trees that may be unchanged from the time of Gondwana.

While the trees, ferns, vines and other greenery is stunning, the animal life inhabiting this world is difficult to spot. A private zoo in Port Douglas makes all but the shyest creatures accessible. We arrived in time to see a stork making lunch out of another bird’s chick, so the visit was not entirely without distress, but it was fascinating.

Cassowaries are among the few diurnal creatures in the rainforest. They are huge, scary- looking birds. The males raise the young. Since they have the talons, size and sometimes the inclination to rip your entrails wide open, visitors are encouraged to keep their distance. They are a key species to the rainforest, the only animals capable of eating large fruit, such as cassowary plums, and dispersing the seeds with a nice pile of fertilizer.cassowary sign

After our trip to the reef, we headed north again, up into the Daintree area of the rainforest. We settled in at our lovely B&B within walking distance of Cow Bay beach. There are no hydroelectric lines north of Daintree river. Every home and business has to have a generator or solar power. Needless to say, we turned in early, grateful for the sunlight that fed the batteries that powered our reading lamps.

We took advantage of our carefree days of relaxation and exploration to go swimming, walking, bicycling, hiking, snorkeling, horseback riding, and kayaking. It seemed like each beach was more inviting than the next; each boardwalk through the rainforest beckoned with an air of mystery. It was our first major expedition out of Melbourne, an enchanting visit to the land at the top of the continent down under.