Dangerous Destinations: Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

In the Off-Season

By Eileen Cotter Wright on October 12th, 2015
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Before leaving on a week-long trip to the Great Barrier Reef of Queensland, Australia, I had many strange dreams. Smiling sea turtles waved at me under the ocean while I giggled along with Nemo. Diving through clouds into turquoise waters full of shimmering neon fish.

When we finally arrived in Oz, I was told immediately not to go in the water, as it was the season for tiny jellyfish that will kill you within hours.

The inner and outer reefs are colorful playgrounds of marine life and vibrant underwater landscapes, but the creatures aren’t exactly friendly. The good news is that if you leave them alone, they most likely will leave you be as well. In order to have a safe and unforgettable experience, it’s well worth preparing for the unpredictable atmosphere of Tropical North Queensland, whether you plan to SCUBA dive the depths of the ocean, or hike through the rainforest.

Dangers on Land: Big & Small


Snakes & Spiders


australia snake
To get a feel for what was in store before encountering things in the wild, a visit to the Cairns Tropical Zoo was helpful for some demonstrations and information on local animals. The zoo also lets people pet and cuddle koalas, kangaroos and wombats, to name a few.

Expert zoologists explained that snakes in Australia rarely bite or attack – and the ones who end up in the hospital are mostly drunk people, who are foolishly provoking the reptiles. Nearly 100,000 fatalities happen from snake bites every year – but only about three are in Australia, due to shy snakes and plenty of anti-venom available in clinics and hospitals.


“Expert zoologists explained that snakes in Australia rarely bite or attack…”

The insects and spiders can be a little more hazardous if you plan to try some bushwacking outside. Black widow and redback spiders are not super common, but can be found in outside lavatories. The small size of potentially deadly bugs is what makes those bites happen unpredictably, however simply avoiding hacking at webs can cut down the risk of stings and bites.

The Thala Beach Nature Reserve and lodge, found just outside Port Douglas, in Cairns, is another place to get familiar with the wildlife and learn. While we were delighted to see the roaming kangaroos in the coconut farm, I was less than thrilled to discover a juvenile python laying across the front stoop of our cabin. Snakes are very common in tropical environments like these, but most are not deadly to humans, even if they are long, large and jarring to see unexpectedly. These are not venomous, nor really dangerous, but the snake was only one of many close encounters with wild animals we had during our stay.


Larger Creatures


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Large animals are my thing, so I felt little threat from what we might see up close and personal. For instance, kangaroos are adorable – until you spot one of the big, muscular males glaring at you only a few feet away. Stay in the car and observe from a distance, as they tend to roam in packs around sunset in open fields and even on golf courses. Even those who feel comfortable around creatures should always keep a very healthy distance unless they are professionally trained at handling wild beings.

“…kangaroos are adorable – until you spot one of the big, muscular males glaring at you only a few feet away.”

Local authorities do a fantastic job of advising tourists on what to expect when trekking and what to do if they happen upon a large animal. For instance, cassowaries are like colorful ostriches that roam through the forests of Cairns. The chance of seeing one in the wild is rare, but they are endangered and might charge if startled. There are signs in many parks, including Mossman Gorge, warning hikers of the birds’ presence.

If you’re camping on the coast, or even out for a day’s adventure, pay attention to the signs posted for the presence of crocodiles. Much of the coast of Queensland is home to crocs and they are a very real, and present, danger. The signs are there for a reason. Stay out of the water, and away from the edge.


Food


I hadn’t expected possible danger from local and wild food. Obviously Cairns the city and the surrounding towns serve up delicious cuisine, often incorporating fresh seafood and other locally sourced ingredients. More than once we spotted people on trails and by the ocean sampling greens or harvesting shellfish when they were not from the area. While most people would not do this, there are many plants and animals in Cairns with poisonous elements. Any food foraged should be prepared by trained chefs; even the fruit hanging from trees could have been touched by harmful bugs or other creepy crawlies.

Several locals warned of not cleaning found food while bushwhacking or camping as people can get sick from pesticides, waste/dirt or simply having a weaker immune system not used to plants in the area.

If you do collect food, or bring your own, while outside, be aware of wild animals that can go after your supplies, like local bandicoots and dingoes. This might be your only interaction with marsupials and canines like these, as they tend to flee when feeling threatened. But that does not mean a sick or injured dingo won’t turn aggressive – and all might go after your food under the cover of nightfall. If you do see one, don’t run, rather stand facing the dingo with your arms folded to assert authority.

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Protect Yourself at Sea


australia sea

Jellyfish & Coral


During Queensland’s “Off-season”, roughly between November to May, there are two types of jellyfish that are found in the ocean water. The Irukandji are rare but can be deadly. The issue with this species is they are very tiny and hard to spot with the naked eye. The bigger ones are Box Jellyfish and are much more dangerous. Warmer water attracts these deadly creatures and causes a bit of panic among swimmers who are unaware of the risks.

Beaches will often have netting around the areas you can wade in, but even a few locals I talked to said they’d avoid swimming and stick to the pools. Just because the nets sometimes help deter jellyfish, it does not take away risks of crocodiles that congregate along the shorelines.


“Most accredited snorkeling and diving excursions will provide everyone on the boat with a “stinger suit.””

Luckily, there are perfectly safe ways you can still enjoy the reefs during this season. Most accredited snorkeling and diving excursions will provide everyone on the boat with a “stinger suit.” You can ask ahead of time if this is standard procedure with whatever catamaran or cruising company you choose. I was given one on our day trip to the inner reef leaving from Port Douglas to use. The woman running the trip also wore one and assured us it was more a precaution than necessary. If you’re used to snorkeling in a bikini, these suits can be bulky and the mitts for your hand are especially cumbersome. But they are lighter than a wetsuit and easy to put on.

Hopefully you’ll heed the warnings and not try to stand on the coral either, but in case of an emergency these suits can protect from those types of stings as well. Digitate and fire coral are both found in the inner reef and can seriously inflame your ankles or arms by even a light brush up against the outer branches.


Fish & Tides


What these suits won’t protect against is the bigger guys. As warm water tends to attract giant marine life, the reefs are a perfect breeding ground for dangerous underwater beasts.

The same rules go for these animals as the ones on land – keep your distance. But trained tour professionals will instruct you how to enjoy the company of big fish and mammals properly. For instance, our tour brought bait to the same area every day, luring in several reef sharks and car tire-sized fish with very sharp teeth. But these animals know we’re not food and simply swim by the snorkelers if unprovoked. They cautioned us not to search for these reef dwellers on our own, or try to feed them by hand, of course.


“The same rules go for these animals as the ones on land – keep your distance.”

Some people might feel inclined to try to stand in the ocean, as the currents can be strong and overwhelm even strong swimmers. Riptides take lives in Australia among snorkelers and surfers annually. It’s better not to attempt standing though when the water is deep and rather float along with the current parallel to the shore. You may end up farther from the beach or boat, but the undertow most likely will not pull you under that way. Even in fresh water places, like Mossman Gorge, there are very strong currents and slippery rocks to watch out for when taking a dip. Always take posted signs seriously.

If you plan a more in-depth diving adventure (or even just want to know more about Australia’s oceans), consider a class through Reef Teach, in Cairns. Professionally trained marine biologists are on hand to help educate the general public about the incredible marine life found in the reef and how to best approach a dive.
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Overall Safety Strategies


australia safety
Here’s a quick recap to keep your awareness levels high and risks low when encountering Australian wildlife.

  • Always stay calm. Know that,99 times out of 100, nothing will happen when you encounter a wild animal.
  • Control the situation as soon as possible. This might mean removing food, asserting authority through your body language or simply getting in your car and bouncing in a hurry.
  • Seek medical attention. If you are bitten, stung or hurt in any way, get to a Dr. immediately.
  • Package food properly. Store everything in smell-proof, airtight containers. Store food in RVs or campsites securely.
  • Pack essentials to avoid illness and injury. This can include bug spray, sunblock, anti-venom, antibiotics and wound cleaning solution.
  • Invest in safety equipment if planning to do dives and/or be outdoors often. Stinger suits for the reefs and sturdy hiking clothes/tents are helpful ways to avoid disaster.
  • Do not eat anything found in the wild unless you are professionally trained to know it’s safe for human consumption.
  • Stay educated. Do your research and ask questions. Get in touch with the Australian Marine Conservation Society or local dive/research groups. Choose reputable, sustainable tours and stay within your physical abilities.

Overall, I had never experienced such an incredibly diverse landscape so closely. It’s full of flora and fauna, so beautiful – and deadly. As with any place that has dangerous natural wonders, just be smart about what you’re doing. We escaped bodily harm while in Cairns, as do millions of travelers and locals every year.

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