Tuesday, September 13th: Port Douglas, Australia
Port Douglas, located at the northern edge of the Great Barrier Reef area, is also the closest port to Cairns, the largest city in Northern Queensland. Our shore excursion today would take us about 30 kms south of here to Hartley’s Creek, about half the distance to Cairns, and to Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, a crocodile farm and animal park.
Arriving into Port Douglas on the ship’s tender, the marina was quite nice with many boardwalk waterfront shops and boutiques. Unfortunately, we didn’t have too much time to look around at the start of our day, as we were in a mad dash to find and board our transportation with BTS Tours to Hartleys. Though we arrived to our anchor point on schedule at 7:00am, and were on the very first tender boat of the day, things moved a bit slowly, and following a wait to board other tour passengers and make our way into the sheltered harbor, it was already a couple minutes past 8am. Our coach was to pick us up at 8am, so we knew that we were going to have to make a run for it, and as we reached the edge of the marina, we saw our bus pulling out of the parking lot and headed down the street towards us.
Flagging down the bus, we hopped aboard and the driver, courteous and very kind, got us taken care of, and off we went. The Port Douglas area is a large tourist and vacation spot for many Australians, so services like BTS provide transport to and from the Cairns airport, along with touring packages to the many sights and activities in the area.
We had purchased in advance transportation and entry tickets to Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, an animal park and crocodile farm that is well reviewed and provides a very up close and personal interaction with the crocodiles, along with a number of other Australian animal species.
Our drive in the mini-bus down the coastline was quite beautiful as this area claims “where the rain forest meets the reef” and the description is quite accurate. Tropical mangroves continue right down from the lush rain forests on the interior into the ocean waters on the coast and huge green canopies of trees and plants cover the interior side of the road as the two lane highway snakes its way around the cliff edges as the natural separator from the Coral Sea.
Our drive to Hartley’s took about 40 minutes and we had arrived shortly after opening. We converted our vouchers into entry tickets and received a pass to board the 9:00am lagoon boat. We weren’t entirely sure what this would entail as the map simply showed a small lagoon and that the boat ride would last about 25 minutes, allowing us to then proceed to other activities within the park.
A few minutes before nine, we arrived at the small boat marina (only 2 berths), but these were certainly different from what we were used to seeing while on our travels. Large metal sets of bars were in place about a foot above the waters edge all around the lagoon and to board our specialized lagoon boats, one must pass through two metal gates and down a metal walkway, all locked by padlock and key. As we soon came to learn, these were more than suitable precautions to board our modified pontoon boats to take the loop around the lagoon, home to 19 estuary or saltwater crocodiles.
Growing to over 22 feet in length from head to tail, weighing over 1000 pounds and with the distinction of being one of only two animals to be able to identify, select, and stalk its prey (polar bear is the other), these animals are not to be taken lightly. Our guide for the morning ride, Jason was a great guy with a fun sense of humor along with many years of experience working at the park. His first priority was clearly our enjoyment and safety, but he ensured that the next 30 minutes would certainly be memorable.
Within moments of leaving the tiny boat marina, we had a chance to see “Big Ted” the oldest and largest croc in the lagoon. He was massive and when he floats by and is actually longer than the boat we are on, we clearly know that we are simply there as guests and to watch. Jason, however, working with the crocs for as long as he has, provided a number of interesting facts and stories about the crocs in the lagoon, how some of them got to be at Hartley’s and explained many of their habits, diets, mating processes, and more.
In this particular lagoon, there were 19 crocodiles, 15 females and 4 males. The fact is that male crocodiles are larger than their females counterparts so they require much more territorial space, and getting too many males together in the same place causes vicious fighting amongst the crocs, generally to the death, so the park will keep the males as separated as possible. In this lagoon, we got to see about a dozen of the crocs, including Psycho and Honey, amongst others, and along the way, Jason had the responsibility to feed some of the crocodiles, using a long bamboo pole that would allow us to see crocodiles in action finding, approaching, and launching themselves at their prey.
These incredibly powerful animals use their tail for nearly all of their movement in the water, propelling themselves swiftly through the water at over 20 kph without displacing a single ripple of water on the surface. Their hunting ability was something of an artform as they glided through the water undetected, able to feel the vibrations of their food from quite a distance away, getting to the location and then using their tail, springing straight up out of the water to a height of more than 8 feet.
Our boat (since it was the first of the day) only had about 10 passengers, and with a regular capacity of 36, we had plenty of space to move around and take a ton of pictures — crocodiles launching themselves out of the water at food, sunning themselves on the beach, swimming towards the boat, curious to see what might be found. The 25 minutes passed by much too fast, but Jason made the most of the time and we had an amazing adventure and we were only in the first 30 minutes of our day!
Once we returned to the lagoon marina, we exited our boat and headed to the Cassowary area to see and handfeed these beautiful, but endangered, native Australian birds. Like a funky colorful cross between an ostrich, dinsosaur, and a turkey, these large birds have a bony structure protruding from their heads, along with a huge bright red dangling warble like a turkey. They eat primarily fruit and we got to not only learn about them from the ranger at this location, but also were able to hand feed them. As we were feeding them, one of the birds began to bend over and began to made massive deep bass sounds that carried like an echo through the forest. Known as “the sub-woofers of the forest” the sound was both beautiful and strange given the already unique combination of size, color, and diversity of this unique animal.
After getting a chance to feed these birds (they were quite friendly and appreciated the meal), we made our way back to the center of the park, where we met up with another guide who would take us through the crocodile farm section of the park.
Crocodiles were nearly hunted and poached to extinction for their highly valuable and prized skins for handbags and clothing, along with some of the eastern medicine prescriptions that various parts of the crocodile were believed to cure in humans. Because of this and a constant threat from farmers in the area who were concerned for their crops and livestock, a conservation effort was taken up to protect the species by commercially farming crocs for export to allow the native crocs to thrive and survive in the wild. These days, if you want a crocodile skin handbag, it is more than likely that the crocodile was born, raised, and humanely killed on a farm. Hartley’s has thousands of crocs on the property from tiny little hatchlings to nearly full grown adults (averaging about 2 meters in length). This is deemed the ideal size as beyond this age, the amount of growth begins to slow and the skin can be more susceptible to damage as the croc ages.
As we were toured around the facility, we were able to see hundreds of crocs in various stages of life sunning and cooling themselves in very large pens. Along with seeing all of them, the guide brought out an 18 month old crocodile that we were able to pet and interact with. The guide proceeded to answer a number of questions from the tour group and then folks were able to continue back into the main area of the park to enjoy the rest of their day.
We wound our way through the park, taking the opportunity to see a number of Australian species, including koalas (only a handful here, but great to see nonetheless), kangaroos, wallabies, quolls, snakes, birds, and some more crocodiles that were brought to the park.
From here, we headed down to the main ponds of the park where a large number of “salties” were situated (separate from the earlier lagoon to ensure that males have a very large area from which to distance themselves). Here, our zookeeper, Mike introduced himself along with a number of the crocodiles in this area, including Spartacus and Chomper as he and his collagues proceeded to feed the crocs by hand in this area.
We continued through the park and got to see freshwater crocodiles as well. Though similar to the salties, these crocs have a much more narrow mouth and as such have a different diet. One of the more interesting characteristics of these crocodiles is that because humans can’t fit into their mouths, we are not seen as a threat, but more of a helper to provide food to these crocodiles. This allowed Mike and the other team members to actually enter the pens with the crocs vs. being behind large steel enclosures for their safety.
This allowed them to get much closer to the crocodiles and to show more of the features of these ancient and powerful animals. It was also great to hear them discuss the true realities of working with and dealing with crocodiles and how common sense is far more powerful a weapon then jumping into a pit with crocodiles and trying to wrestle around with them (which pretty much everyone at Hartley’s agreed is just plain dumb).
We had a little more left in the day before our transportation returned to pick us up, so we were fortunate enough to be able to do another boat tour around the lagoon (they had some extra tickets for the 12:30pm boat) and we were again able to get within inches of these amazing and powerful animals while feeding and floating around the lagoon on the specialized boats.
When our mini-bus returned, we made our way back into the port and took care of some picture uploading and website updates, and finally made our way out to the last tender of the day back to the ship. As the day progressed, the conditions in the bay has deteriorated and we instead of taking the ship’s lifeboats, we took a local ferry/catamaran back out to the ship, and even though we were on a much larger vessel, it was a roller coaster (much more fun than scary) ride back to the ship as we tossed, rolled, and flew over 10 ft waves. It made for a more than difficult approach back to the ship and to reboard, which required nearly an hour of delay and repositioning of the ferry boat and the cruise ship, but before long we were back onboard.
It was a great day in Port Douglas and we are even more excited about our return to the area in November!