The Tour Specialists Blog

Animal Encounters in Cairns

Sophie Tabouel on November 24th, 2021

Photo Courtesy of Cairns Zoom and Wildlife


As an animal enthusiast, an encounter with some of the local wildlife is usually a highlight of any holiday for me. While I am particularly partial to reptiles, I am also extremely fond of almost any kind of fauna and on my various adventures around the world I have swum with dolphins, seals and Minke Whales, hand fed elephants, giraffes and cassowaries, cuddled koalas, snakes, lizards and (baby) crocodiles, ridden horses through the bush, as well as horse riding bareback in the sea, taken a donkey ride up winding cobbled streets in Greece, enjoyed the view from high up on a camel’s back, both on the beach and in the Sahara Desert, and even tickled a tarantula’s tummy.


We are certainly not short of captivating creatures in the Cairns area either, and working in the tourism industry has given me many opportunities to come in contact with our local animals. Some are cute and cuddly, and some have big teeth or a venomous bite and are best viewed from a safe distance. However, they are all fascinating in their own way and I have listed a number of great options below for both wild and captive critter encounters.


It’s a safari, not a zoo:


The Great Barrier Reef: There is no shortage of marine life out on the reef and, along with the usual, but still stunningly beautiful, fish species, you may be fortunate enough to see turtles, sharks, stingrays, dolphins or even whales. Whether snorkelling, diving or cruising around the Great Barrier Reef in a glass bottom boat or semi-submersible, the opportunities for close up wildlife encounters are almost endless.


Photo Courtesy of Sunlover Cruises


Dedicated twitchers can even choose a day tour that will take them to Michaelmas Cay, a beautiful location for snorkelling on the reef, but also home to large numbers of breeding and resting seabirds.  A variety of terns share the cay with smaller numbers of visiting brown boobies and frigatebirds, as well as migrant waders, and all of the birds can be clearly seen from both the boat and close up on the beach.


Cape Tribulation: Visit the world’s oldest rainforest and you will see rare plants that have survived and thrived since ancient times. In fact, the Idiospermum species branched out from the first flowering plants over 120 million years ago, which makes it twice as old as Tyrannosaurus Rex. While you won’t come across any dinosaurs in the Daintree Rainforest, you could see an animal that shares a common ancestor with them and is the world’s largest living reptile species; the estuarine or saltwater crocodile. The earliest fossil evidence of the saltwater crocodile dates to around 4.5 million years ago and these beasts have remained largely unchanged physically since then. Well deserving of the title ‘living dinosaur’, these prehistoric predators can be viewed basking on the banks of the Daintree River from the wildlife river cruises that are included in tours to Cape Tribulation. You may also see water birds, as well as reptiles such as snakes and lizards in the tree branches above the river, and fresh water turtles swimming about in the water.


Photo Courtesy of Billy Tea Bush Safaris


While travelling through the rainforest, don’t forget to keep an eye out for a cassowary; Australia’s modern-day velociraptor. This huge, black, flightless bird with the bright blue head and dagger like claws can swim rivers, jump up to 1.5 metres and run up to 50 km/h. Now that’s wild!


The Atherton Tablelands: This fertile plateau, part of the Great Dividing Range behind Cairns, is a nature and wildlife lover’s paradise and home to some of Australia’s rarest animals. Visitors to the tablelands may be fortunate enough to see a platypus, a cassowary or a tree kangaroo. Do a wildlife spotting afternoon and evening tour and you will be taken to see the beauty of the rainforest in the day, before going spotlighting for our nocturnal native animals once the sun has set. Common sightings include wallabies, possums, sugar gliders (small ‘winged’ possums), tree kangaroos, flying foxes, reptiles and frogs, and you will learn about the rainforest itself, as well as how local indigenous tribes use the plants as medicine for common ailments. Guided night walks are also available in the Daintree Rainforest for anyone staying overnight in Cape Tribulation.


Photo Courtesy of FNQ Nature Tours


Cairns: Even though you may be staying in the centre of a city, there are still opportunities to view wildlife as you walk around the streets and stroll along the Cairns Esplanade. Many waders and waterbirds can be seen searching for tasty treats in the shallows just off the esplanade boardwalk and pelicans are always a popular sight as they gather together on the shore, or bob about on the water when the tide is in.


And on the subject of tides, the Trinity Inlet is an expansive tidal estuary of mangroves and winding waterways that covers over 300 square kilometres and is home to a diversity of wildlife. This area is only accessible by boat and, as well as learning about Cairns harbour’s history and taking in the stunning scenery, passengers on a Cairns Harbour Cruise may also see saltwater crocodiles basking on the mudflats, particularly in the afternoon and in the cooler months.


Photo Courtesy of NQ Watersports - Crocodile Spotting Jetski Tour


Another crowd pleaser for visitors to Cairns is the local population of spectacled flying foxes that, quite literally, hang out near the public library and take wing in their hundreds in the early evening; a sight definitely worth charging the camera for. Most Cairns locals know that flying foxes are noisy and smelly, but many people don’t realise just how important these bats are to the health of the rainforest and the ecosystem in general. Their diet consists of fruit and nectar and, as such, a variety of tree species rely on the flying foxes for pollination and to spread their seeds.


We also have the very colourful, and very cheeky, rainbow lorikeets and a variety of beautiful butterflies including the electric blue and black Ulysses and the Cairns Birdwing, the largest butterfly in Australia. The male is the most eye-catching with black and green wings, a yellow body and bright red thorax. The female’s body is the same as the male’s but she lacks the green on her wings. She makes up for this however with her greater size and wingspan of over 16cm.


Photo Courtesy of Australian Butterfly Sanctuary


It’s a zoo, not a safari:


If you’ve done the reef and the rainforest and you still haven’t filled your animal quota, the next stop has to be one of the fantastic animal parks in the area.


At Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, the focus may be on ‘mud geckos’ or ‘leather undertakers’, as the Hartley’s team affectionately call the saltwater crocodiles in their care, but this park is an eco-friendly, award winning attraction that offers visitors the chance to get up close and personal with a huge variety of animals, both native and exotic, including marsupials, reptiles and birds.


Photo Courtesy of Hartley's Crocodile Adventures


Visit the onsite crocodile farm and take a boat cruise (both included in admission) on the crocodiles’ own wetland lagoon where you will learn about the local residents, as well as crocodile behaviour in general. Wander along the many boardwalks and paths that take you past each of the animal habitats, stopping to hand feed kangaroos and wallabies or watch the cassowary, quoll, crocodile and koala feedings at various times throughout the day. Take a seat in the open-air theatre for the educational, but very entertaining, animal presentations including the ‘Crocodile Attack Show’, where you will learn how to stay safe in crocodile territory and see demonstrations of the notorious death roll. There is also the option to cuddle up to a koala, baby crocodile or snake for a photo* and, if that’s not close enough, book yourself in to pole feed a freshwater crocodile* or ‘go large’ and do the Big Croc Feed* at either 10:30am or 1pm where you can pole feed a saltwater crocodile and hold a juvenile crocodile (photo included).

*Additional fee applies.


Only one block away from the Cairns Esplanade, at the top of the casino, is the Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome. This city centre wildlife attraction is home to a wide range of birds, reptiles, marsupials and amphibians and offers educational animal presentations throughout the day as well as the opportunity to have photos taken with a koala, snake and crocodile. The Zoom Dome is also the first wildlife park with a challenge ropes course. In fact, visitors looking for a little more excitement can even zipline over the pool of Goliath, the 4.5 metre estuarine crocodile.


Photo Courtesy of Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome - Meet Goliath


If you’re planning a trip up to Kuranda on the Skyrail and Kuranda Scenic Railway, make sure you leave enough time in Kuranda village to visit the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, the largest butterfly flight aviary in Australia. All butterflies in the sanctuary are reared on the premises and a behind-the-scenes laboratory tour offers the opportunity to look through the viewing windows to see the caterpillars at their varying stages of development and learn about the lifecycle of butterflies. What’s more, if you are in the aviary at the right time, usually around 11:30am and 2:30pm daily, you may even see butterflies, freshly emerged from their cocoons in the laboratory, taking their first flight. To make friends with these beautiful creatures, dress like a flower; preferably in red, white or hot pink, and you will find them fluttering down, and even landing on your shoulder or hat, as you make your way through the exhibit.


Further north, there is the award-winning Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat, where you can have breakfast with the birds and lunch with the lorikeets, or even visit at night for a 2-hour guided tour by torchlight. The park features 4 distinct habitats; wetlands, rainforest, savannah and woodland, and each area provides an immersive animal experience, including hand feeding kangaroos and birds, walking the ‘predator plank’ over the crocodile billabong and a number of interactive presentations and experiences.


Photo Courtesy of Wildlife Habitat


It’s a safari, and a zoo:


If you can’t decide whether to take your chances on a truly ‘wild’ wildlife encounter, or the guaranteed animal encounters offered by a zoo, why not take a Daintree Rainforest Tour that includes both a visit to the Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat in the morning and the opportunity to spot wild animals, including crocodiles and cassowaries, up at Cape Tribulation in the afternoon? Join a guided tour through one of the wildlife habitat’s ecosystems and get up close to some of Australia’s indigenous animals before heading further north to the Daintree River for a wildlife cruise, a guided rainforest walk and stunning views from Alexandra Lookout.


Still not enough wildlife? An overnight stay in Cape Tribulation offers the opportunity to fit even more animal encounters into your holiday with a beach horse ride, a half day snorkel tour to the reef from the shores of Cape Tribulation, a guided night walk in the Daintree Rainforest itself. 


Photo Courtesy of Ocean Safari


So, whether you want to hand feed kangaroos, spot crocodiles, snuggle up to a snake or find Nemo, the Cairns area, with its abundance of beautiful and rare wildlife, both on land and in the water, is the perfect holiday destination for anyone with a passion for nature and wildlife. Just book your animal adventure online, or by giving us a call, and start packing!

See more animal encounters here for visitors to Cairns and Port Douglas.


The Tour Specialists - Far North Queensland Destination Specialists

Sophie Tabouel

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