Reef exploration with refinement in Australia

Iridescent parrotfish and coral formations in the Great Barrier Reef. Blue Dive Port Douglas offers Professional Association of Diving Instructors courses as well as guides to explore the reef.
Iridescent parrotfish and coral formations in the Great Barrier Reef. Blue Dive Port Douglas offers Professional Association of Diving Instructors courses as well as guides to explore the reef. Photo Credit: Jorg Van Santvliet

As you drive north from Cairns, Australia, toward Port Douglas, the signs of civilization begin to drop away. Neighborhoods and shops disappear, then cross streets, until you're left with wilderness and water — Kuranda and Mowbray national parks to the west, the Coral Sea to the east — broken by sugar cane fields, occasional hotel turnoffs, scenic lookouts and a river of asphalt snaking up the coast.

Signs on the beaches warn about marine stingers, highly venomous jellyfish that make waters without safety nets off-limits from November to May. People grumble about saltwater crocodiles, and you're vaguely aware of the need for a flashlight to get back to your hotel bungalow at night, lest you surprise a poisonous snake.

However, while the proximity of deadly creatures might seem a deterrent, it hints at what makes this corner of Australia so enticing: Surrounded by rain forest and reef, the dividing line that separates wild and developed in Tropical North Queensland is razor thin and gloriously porous.

That doesn't mean roughing it. Port Douglas — a posh tourist enclave that's home to Pullman, QT and Sheraton hotels — makes a comfortable base for exploration. With a stately marina, sprawling resorts and a main drag filled with boutiques and restaurants, it's a low-key, sophisticated alternative to bustling Cairns an hour south and the last outpost before development almost entirely disappears.

The city is also a launching point for the Great Barrier Reef. It's a 90-minute boat ride from the marina aboard the Poseidon to the Agincourt Reef, where snorkelers and scuba divers float among immense coral bommies. Blue Dive Port Douglas hosted me for a day underwater, and over the course of three dives with a private guide, we marveled at parrotfish, hulking malabar cod, a whitetip reef shark and green sea turtle and saw both healthy coral and the obvious effects of widespread bleaching, spiky staghorn coral that glowed ghostly white.

The region's land-based species are on display at the Wildlife Habitat, a zoo where animals live in expansive enclosures that visitors can walk through, and keeping invaders out is harder than keeping residents in. Along with other guests, I followed zookeeper Alana on her morning rounds, passing through zones holding black-necked storks, eclectus parrots and Cass the cassowary, a mighty, ostrichlike bird with a triangular horn, thick legs, hooked claws and a brilliant blue throat.

Next, we headed north to Mossman Gorge, part of the 400-square-mile Daintree Rainforest, where members of the indigenous Kuku Yalanji tribe welcome visitors on guided walks. Our 90-minute, Ngadiku Dreamtime Walk ventured down a former hunting trail as guide Jenny Carson taught us about edible plants, shared legends and explained how her ancestors buried their dead among the enveloping roots of the strangler fig tree.

Carson's uncle started the tours more than 10 years ago to create employment for local aboriginal people and give visitors an appreciation of how indigenous tribes lived.

Just outside of Port Douglas, an ecoresort set on a former sugar cane plantation exemplifies the region's balancing act. At the Thala Beach Nature Reserve, comfy bungalows are nestled amid thick vegetation; a colony of wild wallabies lives on site; and sea turtles, dugongs and snubfin dolphins are spotted regularly off the coast. Naturalists lead walks around the property, guests can check out binoculars from the front desk, and recent animal sightings are noted on a lobby whiteboard.

One morning as I chatted with the receptionist we heard a rustle on the loading dock. A lace monitor lizard, 4 feet long with intimidating claws and bearing a resemblance to a dinosaur, had gotten into the trash. While I stared in awe, the receptionist hopped up and chased away the offending reptile with a broom. Then she went back to her post as if nothing had happened, and I got ready for a massage.

Private instruction and guiding with Blue Dive starts from $490 and includes gear rental and three dives on the Agincourt Reefs. Rates at the Thala Beach Nature Reserve start at about $150, double. See


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