We then boarded a 30-passenger semi-submersible boat, half in the water, half out. We sat in a long, narrow row, Roman galley style, with thick windows on either side. The skipper skillfully guided us through little notches in the reef, never damaging the precious live coral and, more important from my perspective, never breaking one of those windows.
During our half-hour trip, we glided over staghorn coral and brain coral, looking just like their names suggest. We also saw fish in Busby Berkeley formations. Their intense colors confirmed for me that there must be a creator and that he must spend his weekends painting.
Back on the platform, Janice prepared to do what she does well--swim--and I to do what I do well--go to the buffet. The platform is essentially a large picnic shelter and has no kitchen, so the catamaran had transported supplies, using its winch to lower huge containers of cold food to the assembled throng.
As I dined, surveying my companions, it occurred to me that besides the many nicknames Australia already has (Down Under, Oz, Sunburnt Country), everyone had missed an obvious motto: Australia, Land of Dorky Hats. Big, wide-brimmed contraptions that tie on, Paul Hogan specials with crocodile teeth in the band, a leather bush hat called the "oiled squashy." Australia is a land preoccupied with not frying the noggin. For good reason too: The ozone layer has thinned, and Australians have among the highest skin cancer rates in the world.
Janice, wearing a wetsuit and two coats of SPF 45, was mask-down in the water, paddling above the coral, prying into the home life of fish. Another of the group members, who declined the offer of a wetsuit because she wanted to "get some color," certainly got some, and the color was scarlet.
Janice had taken an optional tour, led by a marine biologist, that went by boat to a quieter section of ocean away from the splashing of neophytes, where they could view sea cucumbers, multiple configurations of coral and clownfish, which change sex depending on the reproductive needs of their community.
Back on the platform Janice invited me to join her group as they watched the underwater video that a crewman made of their trip. There was my mermaid wife, holding a sea cucumber and never once uttering, "Ewww, gross!"
The Quicksilver cat took us back to Port Douglas, where we chose boat rather than bus to return us to Cairns. We found a spot on the afterdeck that sheltered us from the breeze as the coast slipped by. I could see why the area is popular with honeymooners, and even old married couples clung together, watching the sun set over the silhouettes of the trees.
Back in Cairns we searched for dinner. Cairns may be mainly a jumping-off point, but it's a good place for dinner once you've jumped back. Its small downtown is home to cuisines as diverse as Italian and Thai. If there is little uniquely Australian cuisine to be found here, the Red Ochre Grill satisfies the curiosity of the gastronomically adventurous with crocodile fritters, emu pate and kangaroo steak. "Bush tucker," our guidebook called it. The chef also uses native-grown seasonings to enliven otherwise more traditional dishes--eucalyptus salmon, for example. It was one of the best meals we had in Australia.
Cairns' rectangular layout of low-rise, workaday buildings and its informal pace are reminiscent of an American Midwestern town. Until tourists discovered Far North Queensland, it was a somnolent seacoast village that depended on the mining and sugar cane industries nearby. Nevertheless, today Cairns definitely is aware of its role in tourism: The arcades and waterside avenues are filled with souvenir stands.
Earlier in our trip, when I told a fellow tourist we would be visiting Cairns, he just muttered something like "T-shirt capital of Australia." But I wasn't disappointed that Cairns wasn't Monaco, although it does have a casino.
My only disappointment was the absence of animals. Apparently misled by the books of my childhood, I expected to see koalas in every tree, kangaroos loitering at street corners. Perhaps that is true somewhere on the continent, but here on the east coast, while the famous beasts are present, they are reclusive, and you may have to go to a zoo or special park to see them.
Thus a trip to Kuranda, 22 miles northwest of Cairns, is more for scenery than for wildlife. Kuranda is the terminus for a railroad built in the late 19th century to get supplies from Cairns to the miners and loggers of the Atherton Tableland through territory that was nearly impenetrable. Those were 22 difficult miles, climbing through jungle and along deep gorges, and construction took five years and required 15 tunnels.