|Airlie Beach; courtesy of Google Maps|
To make swimming matters worse, the entire coastline is subject to swarms of Box Jellyfish (Chironex fleckeri) from October to April. This almost-invisible menace is arguably the world's most venomous animal,
with a severe sting causing death in as little as two minutes. They are not little jellyfish either - their tentacles are up to three metres long when fully extended. To deal with this threat and the lack of suitable swimming beaches, the town's shoreline features a man-made beach that is fully enclosed from the ocean, and it is here where all bathing takes place.
|Great Bowerbird, Airlie Beach|
|Helmeted Friarbird, Airlie Beach|
Walking further along the foreshore footpath, a stand of eucalypt trees also contained bird species that were new to me. Most conspicuous were the Helmeted Friarbirds (Philemon buceroides), which were no less boisterous than the Noisy (P. corniculatus) variety I've written about before. They shared their surrounds with Figbirds (Sphecotheres vieilloti), which I expected to be the yellow northern race, but were instead identical to the ones I see in Brisbane. Most intriguing, however, was a metallic creaking noise coming from some eucalypts further back in the park. Treading carefully over dry leaves and scanning the trees above, I suddenly saw movement out of the corner of my eye and turned to see this magnificent Red-tailed Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus banksii).
|Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo, Airlie Beach|
For the rest of the trip, we based ourselves at the lovely Island Gateway Holiday Park at nearby Jubilee Pocket, only a short walk back into the town of Airlie Beach. The grounds of this caravan park were lush with tropical vegetation, and I was impressed with the abundance of birdlife there as well. My favourite avian residents were the Plumed Whistling-Ducks (Dendrocygna eytoni) that were always on the lookout for an easy meal. Gathered around a feeding table, they reminded me of a certain blog I like to follow.
|Plumed Whistling-Duck, Jubilee Pocket|
These bold birds became regular visitors to our corner in the park, and their daily schedule seemed to mostly involve wandering from camp to camp while whistling for food.
|Plumed Whistling-Ducks, Jubilee Pocket|
My sister welcomed them more than the Shield Huntsman Spider (Neosparassus species) she found hiding on the back of her camp chair.
|Shield Huntsman Spider, Jubilee Pocket|
A more dangerous animal was to be seen on one of our day trips to the nearby Proserpine River.
Joining a Whitsunday Crocodile Safari tour, we set a course down the mangrove-lined waterway, with expert guide Col doing his best to find us an Estuarine Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) or two. Being a cloudy, cool and showery morning, I had my doubts about spotting one for the first ten minutes, until we rounded a bend in the river and my jaw dropped.
|Estuarine Crocodile, Proserpine River|
It was a strange, humbling and unsettling experience to meet an animal that was in some ways my superior. I felt suddenly silly, standing on a metal float with my fellow mammals, all of us pointing at a creature that existed when our ancestors were just rodents. As the morning progressed, however, we spotted more of these females basking on the mangrove banks and I began to feel comfortable again... until I saw this appear for just the briefest of moments.
|Estuarine Crocodile, Proserpine River|
It's only in the water that the power, grace and potential of this species becomes apparent. Without the boat and the mobile phone and the bottled water and the supermarket food, I wouldn't stand a chance against this thing. Civilisation exists so that we don't have to deal with this basic survival aspect anymore. If we did and we happened to share our territory with a predator of this size (up to seven metres long, weighing two tonnes), we would lose the contest easily. I don't mean to say all this to promote the fear and persecution of Crocodiles - rather the opposite in fact. My time on the Proserpine River left me feeling a level of awe and reverence that I've never felt for an animal before - and I am someone with already healthy levels of respect for nature. But in the presence of a King like this, how could I not feel that way?
|Black Kite, Proserpine River|
Also on the wetland tour, I saw my first Agile Wallaby (Macropus agilis). This species is restricted to northern Australia and is also found in Papua New Guinea.
|Agile Wallaby, Proserpine River|
Back at the Holiday Park, the wildlife sightings continued with a Black Butcherbird (Cracticus quoyii) seen skulking in the thicket behind my tent, and a tiny Stony-creek Frog (Litoria wilcoxii) spotted jumping around the toilet block one evening.
|Stony-creek Frog, Jubilee Pocket|
Island Gateway Holiday Park also offers daily bird-feeding sessions at 4pm and because of my busy tour schedule, I only had time to see this on my very last day. I was glad I made the effort though - as you can see, I got to know the locals very well!
|Rainbow Lorikeets (Trichoglossus haematodus), Jubilee Pocket|
The only thing more colourful than these birds were the fish I saw whilst diving off the Whitsunday Islands - you can see them in the final part of my trip report tomorrow!