Day 5 - May 16, 2014 - Naturalist Island and Hunter River
By Mark Watson, General Naturalist
Co-ordinates: 15° 01.40’ S and 125° 20.6’ E
Weather: Sunny with scattered clouds
Air Temperature: 35ºC
Pressure: 1013 hPa
Wind: 5 knots
Our adventure started quite early for our Hunter River trip. We headed off in our Zodiacs as the sun slowly made its way over the horizon looking for the most famous of reptiles -the estuarine crocodile. It did not take long before we spotted our first one gliding through the shallow mud bank looking for its breakfast. I could see its open mouth biting at all the small fish as it silently made its way into the deeper water.
A great start to the morning and after only a few more minutes I spotted something swimming in the distance -as we got closer I could see it was another small crocodile swimming towards the mangroves. As we slowed down I was surprised to see it stop and swim slowly towards the Zodiac and then stop only meters away. After only ten minutes out we already had spotted two crocs! It was floating in the water just meters away, as interested in us as we were with it. I then explained how they hunt and are able survive in this ancient land. They have incredible power in their jaws so we didn’t want to get to close.
We then headed out past a large rocky out crop named Indian Head which towered overhead, and covered us in a cool shadow. As we sat there marvelling at its structure a small pod of snub fin dolphins cruised past chasing a school of small gar fish just meters away -totally oblivious to us.
As the sun started to rise, the heat of the morning started to hit us as we made our way into a small alley of mangroves where two more crocodiles were spotted. One, a large male about three and a half metres long was sitting on a beach with its mouth agape, looking very menacing indeed. I couldn’t believe the amount of wildlife around in this harsh land, we spotted six crocodiles in total, twelve different species of birds, fiddler crabs, mudskippers and one big eagle ray that nearly jumped into the boat. Three hours had gone by so quickly and before we knew it we headed back to the Silver Discoverer for a well-earned drink.
We met the first groups of guests back from their Mitchell Falls helicopter flights. They were full of descriptions of the spectacular scenery seen from the air, the falls themselves, and the excitement of flying in helicopters with no doors. We heard some guests even managed the "Mitchell Falls Marathon" – photographing the falls from all three lookouts and having a freshwater plunge.
I was keenly anticipating the afternoon cruises up the Hunter River and Porosus Creek as it was likely to produce another wildlife show -and we were not disappointed. The first fleet of seven Zodiacs set off and soon stopped to see an Osprey flying around its nest. It then swooped down and caught a small fish and flew over towards its nest to feed its small chicks that were hiding inside. It did not take long before it finished feeding the chicks and it was off to find some more fish for the always hungry chicks.
Next it was crocodile time: a ‘nice’ croc was cruising in the shallow water near a large mud bank unconcerned by our presence. Still another was basking on a small mud island with its mouth open to regulate its temperature. I manoeuvred the zodiac closer for photographs. The croc watched us with its yellow eye and twitched a leg to show it was not a statue.
During the second cruise a crocodile allowed us to watch it fish along the water's edge and get close enough for dramatic pictures, without us getting grounded on the soft mud.
I nosed the Zodiac close to a mud back so we could watch mudskippers in action. These amazing fish take water into gill pouches and then walk, using their leg-like front fins, onto the exposed mud to feed and display colourful fins. This is truly a fish out of water..
Birds were not prolific but were highlighted by six Buff-banded Rails, a Great-billed Heron and three Mangrove Herons. These are the largest and smallest of the Australian herons.
By now the sun was lowering and the cliffs surrounding us were glowing. The combination of iron-rich sandstone and the bushfire smoke helped the sun turn the cliffs first bright orange and then red.
I love this time of day.
As I pointed the Zodiac towards the Silver Discoverer, highlighted against a yellow sky, I felt privileged to have experienced another day in the remote and spectacular Kimberley.
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