Saturday, November 15, 2014

The skinny on 'stingers' and 'salties', or what you need to know about jellyfish and crocodiles at the Great Barrier Reef

Four Mile Beach, Port Douglas

We recently returned from a quick get-away up to the Great Barrier Reef area. The airport is Cairns (pronounced ‘cans’) but we picked up a rental car and took the lovely, one-hour drive up to the town of Port Douglas. Described by many guidebooks as swankier than Cairns and a ‘foody’ town that is ‘packed with resorts’, we thought it was more our speed than the back-packing, all-night party-town of Cairns. 

Port Douglas is truly up there - only about an hour’s drive from the village of Cape Tribulation, and beyond that, the paved road ends. You are getting close to the north-eastern tip of Australia.  But I digress, this post is about salt-water crocodiles and jellyfish, or ‘salties’ and ‘stingers’ as they are called here.  The stinger nets went up on November 3rd this year in Port Douglas. They tend to go up around the end of October, beginning of November. The goal is get them up BEFORE the stingers show up. 

Now, I had imagined long lines of invisible nets that keep the jellyfish out, sort of like the shark nets at some beaches. In the case of the Four Mile Beach at Port Douglas, there is one area that is netted, and it is supported by long metal pipes. Very visible pipes, which I guess is good. That also means that it leaves about 95% of 4-mile beach with no nets. Bummer. Fortunately we left before the weather conditions that bring about the stingers started.

Speaking with some locals on one of the boats we took out to the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) there are two kinds of jellyfish to worry about in the area. The first, called Box Jellyfish, are deadly. A person badly stung by a box jellyfish can die within minutes. It is fairly large with up to 15 long tentacles.  The folks who check the nets know if they are in the area or not. The Box stingers, like their troublesome but much smaller cousins, the Irukandji jellyfish, breed in the creeks and inlets. It takes a large tropical rain at the end of the dry season to flush them out. While the large Box stingers are not usually found out at the Reef (neither the inner nor the outer reef), the Irukandji, which are as small as the fingernail on your pinkie and not visible, are out on the reef. Given that the Low Isles, which are part of the inner reef are 16 Km out from the shore, those are some pretty industrious little guys, or maybe they get some help from the wind conditions.  

If stung by one of the Irukandji jellyfish, the good news is that you don’t die. The bad news is that the pain is so intense, you need to be hospitalized for days, and on a morphine IV drip.  If you go to the GBR during the shoulder season as we did, you want to get out of there before the big rains start that will flush the stingers out of the rivers and inlets. Once you hit the middle of November, and up until the end of May, no sane person would swim without a full body stinger suit. 

Now we turn to the other dangerous inhabitant of the tropical Queensland area … the saltwater crocs, or salties. They are bigger than the fresh water crocs (up to 13 feet long), have a rounded snout instead of a pointed one, and are more aggressive. 

Unlike most dangerous creatures in Australia that do not see humans as prey and only attack if surprised or bumped into (e.g. snake, spider, jellyfish) the crocs see people as fair-game in the food chain, and are devious about getting at them. 

They will lay in wait for a person who washes at the creek at the same spot every day, and they can leap up and out of the water very quickly to grab somebody on the bank of the creek. Notice that I say creek, because their normal habitat is in the rivers, inlets and mangrove marshes. The bad news is that these connect up with the ocean, and therefore so do the crocs. 

Daintree River outlet

Note this beautiful connection between the Daintree River and the Coral Sea (which is what the ocean is called up there). A perfect place for those big crocs to swim on down and see what is available for lunch. There are also lots and lots of small mangrove swamps that connect with the sea and therefore provide a nice outlet for the crocs. 
Mangrove swamp/creek

I was optimistic that much of the croc exposed beaches were up in the Daintree Rainforest area (just north of Port Douglas) and was sad to find that they have been seen in the Port Douglas area as well. 
A four meter croc was sighted swimming along 4 mile beach in October, which caused the beach to be closed for the day. 

Common: Croc Warning
The Croc warning signs become a familiar site along the beaches. I even saw them on the southern end of Four Mile Beach. 

There is good news in all of this. 

a. they like murky water where they know they are hard to see. If you are in sparkly clear water you are better off. 

b. they tend to be close to exit areas for the inlets and rivers.

c. you wont find them out on the reef.

And if you've really had it with worrying about the crocs spoiling your delightful swim, bear in mind that you can go into town and order up some Croc Fritters. The ones shown below come from a great restaurant in Port Douglas called Seabean. 

It's only fair that humans get to eat them from time to time as well. 

Croc Croquettes. Yum!