Cairns, Australia: The Barrier Reef and Mangroves

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Cairns, Australia: The Barrier Reef and Mangroves

Growing up in Cairns was idyllic. At the time, it was a small town that was just starting to understand its appeal to tourists. For families and children living there year round, this made for a backdrop that was peaceful and serene. But it also had quick and easy access to one of the greatest sites in the world. Holidays, birthdays, school trips – they were all spent exploring different parts of the Great Barrier Reef. For anyone who hasn’t been to this amazing site, it truly does live up to its hype.

Cairns is located in the far northeast of Australia. This area of the country is tropical, with warm and humid conditions almost year round. There are only two seasons in Cairns, the wet season in summer and the dry season in winter. There’s not a lot of variation in the temperatures between these two seasons. There are no large cities in this part of the country, only small towns and huge stretches of rainforest. Cairns is about one hour and forty minutes by car south of the Daintree.

When I was growing up there, large sections of the town were hemmed in by dense mangrove swamps. These wet, somewhat smelly areas were home to fish and mud crabs, the most delicious variety of crab on the earth. The mangroves grew close together, clustered around tangled chains of water fed by the ocean. Somehow the mangroves managed to thrive on this salty mix, and most of the time seemed to grow out of the water rather than out of the thick, sticky mud.

Sitting in a little dinghy, pulling crab traps up from the dark, dense water, was like visiting another world. External sounds were muffled in this wet world, and the strange, echoing sounds from within the grove were magnified and fraught with peril. This was a world of mosquitoes, sand flies, and the occasional crocodile sliding from the bank into the water. Being in the mangroves was like seeing back into the past, to a time before human cities, when swamps covered the earth and were full of hungry, glittering eyes.


Cairns – Mangrove Swamp

But it wasn’t all bad smells and the threat of crocodile attacks. Cairns has beautiful beaches, though it’s risky to swim there during the summer. In the summer, the ocean is taken over by millions of box jellyfish, a venomous jellyfish with a very painful and often deadly sting. These jellyfish come close to the shore during the warmer months and it’s still fairly dangerous to swim despite the stinger nets. Cairns locals never swim in summer; however, visitors often do despite the danger, and sometimes pay a high price. But there are better places to swim near Cairns that are out of reach of the jellyfish and well worth a short boat ride.

The Great Barrier Reef is a long strip of coral reef off the coast of the Northeast of Australia. This colourful coral range is actually the largest living thing in the world, and stretches over 2,300 kilometres. It is home to a wide variety of sea animals such as tropical fish, dolphins, sharks, and turtles. And it’s easily accessible by boat from Cairns.

As a child, the wonders and marvels around me seemed normal and even boring.


There are countless companies and boats that will take you to various parts of the reef. As a child, I spent a lot of time on Green Island. This is one of the more popular and built up islands, with restaurants and hotels amongst the dense, tropical forests that swallow the land. Building is strictly regulated on most of the islands around the reef to ensure that the natural landscape is impacted as little as possible. This means that staying the night on Green Island was like living in the middle of the rain forest.

But the real appeal is the reef itself. So many colours, fish and coral and growths that I could never name. When you take a boat out to one of the islands, you can usually hire scuba gear if you’re licensed and experienced, or snorkelling gear if not. With a pair of fins, goggles, and a snorkel sticking up in the air so you can breathe and keep your head underwater at the same time – you can spend hours just staring at the colours and vivid, flashing life.


Cairns – Great Barrier Reef

Unfortunately, this may not be the case for much longer. The Great Barrier Reef is dying. Pollution, overfishing and damage to the reef have injured this enormous organism, perhaps beyond repair. There are vast stretches of the reef that are now completely void of life and others that are slowly dying, their bright colours turning grey and brown. It is a true tragedy, and a damning indictment on our greed and lack of care for this fragile ecosystem.

Cairns was at the same time a magical and very normal place to grow up. As a child, the wonders and marvels around me seemed normal and even boring. It is only as an adult that I can look back on the environment and experiences I had and see the marvels that I was privileged to take for granted.

If you’re interested in visiting mangroves closer to home, check out New Orleans swamp tours.

Gayle Aggiss

Gayle Aggiss

I’m a freelance writer and a rabid traveller. When I’m not on the road, I’m planning to be, or wishing I was. I’m also a proud nerd who loves to study and learn.