When you’re stepping on pure silica sand so white and powdery, or swimming face to face with bat fish out on the reef you don’t stop to think about how the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland was formed or protected.
The last thing on your mind are mangroves and silty water so dark and murky you’ll never have a chance of spotting the 4 metre croc holding its breath on the bottom of the river bed patiently waiting.
Why would you?
You’re finding nemo amongst the anemones. It’s what everyone comes to the Whitsunday Islands for right?
Snorkeling, sailing adventures, scenic flights and the most beautiful beach in the world.
But, there is another side to the Great Barrier Reef that deserves exploring and one just as equally as important.
The Other Side of the Great Barrier Reef: The Mangrove Forest
The mangrove forests are essential for the health of the reef. They trap sediments and absorb extra nutrients, and their complex root systems filter the water before it moves out into the ocean.
The roots slow the movement of water and cause the sediment to fall to the bottom instead of depositing on the coral as the water moves past it. The reef in turn buffers the heavy seas, which allow the mangrove forests to grow.
What a loving relationship they have!
Mangroves have never been high on the must-see list. In fact, at one stage they were so underrated they were ripped up and their swampy homes were turned into housing estates and cemeteries.
The damage we do when we don’t take the time to understand and appreciate the value every living thing holds.
It’s like the small flowering plant our croc tour guide Steve told us about on the wetlands out the back of coastal Airlie Beach on the Proserpine River.
Small rose coloured flowers imported from South America that are seen to be weeds. Little did we know that this small little plant actually saves the lives of many in South East Asia who suffer the fate of a cobra bite.
Or the sandpaper fig, a flowering tree that many find to be pests growing in their back yards, yet to the Aboriginal people it was like the greatest market in town. From the tree, they would pick their fruit, catch their meat by way of bats and possums that made it their home, use the twigs for creating fire, and turn multiple parts of the plant into healing potions.
Whitsunday Crocodile Safari Tour
We were driving through the Goorganga Wetlands in a tractor train as part of the Whitsunday Crocodile Safari tour. Steve stopped as we drove along to talk about the native plants growing in the flood plains that have gone under many times in the past 6 years.
It’s thriving ecosystem that many forget to experience, so fixated are they on the coral and sea life of the reef.
A reef that is totally dependent on the wetlands area we were just in.
Earlier that morning we’d spent two hours motoring up and down the Proserpine River on a barge. It’s one of the healthiest rivers to support croc life on the Eastern seaboard.
Only the week before we’d had a fabulous education about the crocs at the Koorana Crocodile Farm. Now we were learning all about them in their natural habitat.
We saw hundreds of baby crocs sitting on the edge of the water on the muddy banks, sunning themselves on logs, or scurrying into the water at the sound of our approach.
Sometimes mum lay close by. Her body stretched out in the mud, her head comfortably down enjoying the warming of her blood.
She barely blinked, so comfortable she was with the presence of our boat. Steve’s been running these tours for 16 years so the resident crocs know him well and don’t feel threatened by him. We could get as close as you would want to get in the wild.
Steve told us it was extremely rare for us to see a mother so close to her babies in the wild and they generally abandon them after one month. But many of these little-uns were sticking close to mum even a year on.
As we puttered along, Steve picked out the crocs small and large from afar, calling them by name, baffling us as to how he could even see them, so well camouflaged they were.
“When you’ve done it as long as me, you know them very well. I can tell each one apart from the other. What you don’t realize is that we’ve passed over about 10 – 12crocs so far that you haven’t seen.”
Oh that made me feel slightly sick.
Crocs terrify me, especially knowing that my girls are with me. It’s hard to be so alert to make sure they aren’t sticking their hands over the side, or moving around or going anywhere near the edge.
They got the “this is serious” talk from me before we got in the boat. They were to sit in the middle and don’t move.
After Steve’s safety talk about how infested the river was with crocs and going in the water was not a smart idea ever, I think they got the picture.
It’s a shame many other people don’t.
Steve shared with us a few stories of completely stupid people deciding that testing their fate by outswimming the crocs was a fun idea. One guy was bet $10 by his mate to swim to the other side of the Proserpine River and back. Just to see if he could make it without getting eaten. What an idiot. I wouldn’t even do it for a million.
OR the tourists who had slung their towels over the sign warning people not to swim in the croc infested river, so they could go swim in it.
As Steve said,
“People wonder why they get into trouble with crocodiles. And then idiot people like this cause governments to bring in laws to cull and kill to remove the threat of the monsters!”
He also shared a statistic that more people get killed each year by vending machines than crocs, sharks and snake attacks combined.
Vending machines?? Yep, apparently when people shake them and they fall on them they die. Who knew?
And in 90% of croc deaths, the victims had traces of alcohol in their system.
Not only did I enjoy seeing the crocs in the wild, at a safe distance, I loved the respect and love Steve had for them. He had a name for each one and could tell us the story and temperament of each croc. There was Fish Lips, Fat Guts, Boof head, Dorothy and Pearl.
It made me feel a little attached to the crocs and I began to see them with new eyes.
Read more: Warning Australia is full of deadly animals
End with good tucker
The Whitsunday Crocodile Safari just doesn’t open up the world of estuarine crocodiles and wetlands for you, it also gives you some mighty good tucker.
In between the boat and the wetlands tour we had a lovely BBQ bush lunch: sausages, steak, fish and chicken with lovely salads.
Then at the end of the day a mug of billy tea and some damper and honey. It doesn’t get much more Australian than that. I tell ya, that was some good damper too!
I enjoyed the crocodile safari and seeing a different side of the Whitsundays.
I don’t think you can fully appreciate the reef until you spend time understanding one of the reasons it’s so damn magical. Go inland for a bit, get to know the wetlands, the mangrove river life, and the beautiful crocodiles that call almost half of Australia their home.
Proserpine Eco Tour Details
Location: The Proserpine River is a short drive from Airlie Beach in the Whitsundays. Your full-day tour includes return transfers from Airlie Beach.
Costs: Adults $103, Children $60 includes a BBQ lunch plus morning and afternoon tea.
Tripadvisor: Read what other travellers have to say here.
Disclaimer: Our croc tour was in partnership with Tourism Queensland