Australia: Animal Lover’s Paradise

There’s an animal for everyone where the rainforest meets the sea in Tropical North Queensland.

I’ve been to Tanzania, roaming Arusha National Park in a jeep and by foot in search of zebra, giraffe, baboon, and other beautiful African creatures. But when it comes to amazing, eclectic wildlife, nothing beats Australia.

In just over a week, I saw hundreds of animals – some in the wild, some in zoos and reserves, and some in research facilities.

Here are three ways to spend quality time with Queensland’s native fauna:

Dive (or Snorkel) the Great Barrier Reef
The longest reef system in the world is teeming with fish of all colors and sizes, as well as sharks, turtles, sea snakes, dolphins, whales, and other magnificent sea life.

"Bonnie," one of the patients at Fitzroy Island's Turtle Rehabilitation Centre. (Photograph by Carolyn Fox)
“Bonnie,” one of the patients at the turtle rehabilitation center on Fitzroy Island. (Photograph by Carolyn Fox)

If you snorkel or have your diving certification, you can hop on a day boat or book a ticket on a live-aboard expedition for up to a week to explore all this underwater wonderland has to offer. I hooked up with Cairns-based Mike Ball Dive Expeditions for a three-night live-aboard adventure on the Spoilsport.

Visit an Island
Queensland’s coast is lined with islands worth checking out. I recommend Lizard Island if you are looking for a home base. While it’s a quick boat ride to popular dive site Cod Hole, you’ll be just as happy snorkeling around the luxurious white sand beaches there.

Just a 45-minute ferry ride from Cairns, Fitzroy Island is home to a recently revitalized resort that provides the perfect back drop for a relaxing overnight or weekend stay. The charming island also features a new sea turtle rehabilitation center. Just watch your fingers, these guys, though friendly, can snap a piece right off!

Hike the Rainforest
You’ll find the oldest rainforest in the world in Daintree National Park — along with the fluttering blue butterflies, cool bugs, and Boyd’s forest dragons. Visit the recently opened Mossman Gorge Centre and go on a Dreamtime Walk with an Aboriginal guide or stop in at one of the great animal parks outside the park.

Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, a haven for problem crocs in the area, offers boat tours that can get you as up-close-and-personal with the dinosaur-like creatures as you’d ever want. You can also mingle with kangaroo, hold a koala, and visit the cute, but carnivorous quoll.

Animal Superlatives: Highlights From My Trip to Oz

The facilities at the Mossman Gorge Centre. (Photograph by Carolyn Fox)
The facilities at the Mossman Gorge Centre. (Photograph by Carolyn Fox)

Ugliest: Pink and orange stonefish at Steve’s Bommie, a dive site on the Northern Great Barrier Reef
Richard Fitzpatrick, a marine biologist and filmmaker at James Cook University, has been poisoned by a stonefish 13 times. The cure, he says, is “loads of hot water.” Ease the water temperature up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit if you’re ever stung.

Cuddliest: Scribbly, the baby koala
Queensland is the only state in Australia that has a program for holding koalas. There is nothing quite like cuddling a koala like a baby in your arms. Meet Scribbly for yourself at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures.

Most Surprising: Olive sea snakes
Growing up as I did in Southern California where rattlesnakes roam, I’ve never been a fan of running into the slithering creatures on land. But diving with these beautiful, pearly white olive sea snakes gave me a newfound appreciation for an animal that can move with such grace in the water.

Smelliest: Gray kangaroo
While it was fun to feed ears of corn to a group of friendly kangaroos, I couldn’t shake their smell all afternoon. It was worse than petting cows on a farm.

Scariest: Crocodile
Watching the largest species of crocodile in the world go from perfectly still to snapping in a blink of an eye made me grateful I was on a boat with metal bars. They may look like they are snoozing, but these massive reptiles are just waiting for the right moment to strike. See them at at Hartley’s.

A crocodile swims next to a tour boat at Hartley's Crocodile Adventures. (Photograph by Carolyn Fox)
A crocodile swims next to a tour boat at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures. (Photograph by Carolyn Fox)

Coolest (animal I didn’t know existed): Lumholtz tree kangaroo
The tree kangaroo looks like an adorable miniature bear with an extra long tail. After watching Barney (full name Bernard) hop from tree to tree, we were all delighted when he jumped down to the ground to greet his favorite zookeeper. Meet him at Wildlife Habitat in Port Douglas.

Most Playful: The parrot fish
While snorkeling near Nudey Beach on Fitzroy Island, colorful parrot fish came out to play. One swam near my face long enough for me to ready my underwater camera, then flitted away before I snapped a frame. We repeated this dance five or six times, and though I never got a shot, I had a lot of fun playing my part.

Most Enchanting: Dwarf minke whales
Australia regulates how many divers can participate in expeditions to find, and swim with, dwarf minke whales, and I was fortunate enough to be one of them this year. Tip: When one of these beautiful black and white marine mammals suddenly appears a few yards below you, remember to keep breathing.

Relieved I did not see: Box jellyfish
Richard Fitzpatrick calls these the “the ferrari of invertebrates.” Box jellyfish have 24 eyes but no brain, and can kill you in 90 seconds. Terrifying.

Carolyn P. Fox manages digital content for National Geographic Travel. Follow her story on Twitter @SeaFox4.



  1. Ann Shirley
    September 19, 2013, 3:11 pm

    Nice post! I like the tips that you included about how to get up close and personal with the incredible wildlife featured throughout Australia. I have never been diving but I am looking into getting a license since diving has always been on my bucket list. I’d love to be able to swim with the dolphins and see all of the marine life from down under.

    I really loved the pictures you included! I’m incredibly jealous of the fact that you got to feed a kangaroo! It is adorable! I saw some of them when during my Blue Mountain day tour from Sydney but they weren’t very approachable when I went. I did, however, get to cuddle a koala like you suggested trying. I’m definitely a big fan of those!

    I look forward to trying out some more of the tips you suggested next time I’m in Australia. It’s such a beautiful place to visit and I never grow tired of the amazing wildlife it has to offer.

  2. Rex Gibbs
    South Australia
    August 8, 2013, 7:29 pm

    “Queensland is the only state in Australia that has a program for holding koalas. ” – this is just wrong. I can take you to 4 places within 1 hour travel from my home which is 1300km from the nearest point in Queensland where you can hold a Koala and pat a kangaroo. I hope the rest of this article is not that full of errors. I expect beter from NG

  3. Ross Best & Beth Best
    Calgary , Alberta Canada
    August 8, 2013, 12:20 pm

    We were in Australia in 2004,stayed in Brisbane. Went to the Great Barrier Reef loved it. Also visited Whitsunday islands,and Airlie Beach. Would go back in a heart beat.

  4. Wendy Schatz
    August 8, 2013, 11:39 am

    It is good to see so many who are impressed with different parts of the world and obviously there are many magical places with special animals. Being from Australia, and taking so much for granted, I do admit I like to hear when someone is enthralled with its wildlife.

  5. Renate Porsche
    Rochester NY
    August 8, 2013, 9:42 am

    Borneo Is another magical place and animal lover’s paradise. Borneo has its own unique fauna. Seeing Orangutans, proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephants, the different types of hornbills for the first time is magical!

  6. Yellena Radnich
    August 5, 2013, 4:57 pm

    Yes, I do agree. And also invite:
    Give yourself a chance and see the beauty of Serbia, Europe:

    Montain Cer and whole Vojvodina…Fruska Gora, Zlatibor…it is really great, worth coming to see and explore. Do give it a chance

  7. verticalpharmacy
    United States
    July 31, 2013, 6:19 am

    Germany , Philippines keep talking. Biggest Rain forest is in India :)

  8. Debbie Delim
    July 24, 2013, 5:08 am

    I beg to disagree with both of you. With 7100 islands nothing beats the Philippines’ flora and fauna.

  9. Willms, Heinz
    Hamburg, Germany
    July 23, 2013, 5:02 pm

    don’t forget Tasmania ! My daughter has been there a few month ago, she sent wonderfull pictures and informations about tassie-land !

  10. wim
    arusha, tanzania
    July 23, 2013, 3:38 pm

    Well… I have been travelling all over the world. I hope you don’t mind that I disagree with you. Arusha NP is a nice small park but how on earth would you compare that to Australia. Please next time around check out the rest of Tanzania and judge again.