Jul 11, 2015 - National Geographic Orion
This morning some of us had the chance to sleep in and recharge from the busy but exciting previous days. But for some, the alarm went off early as an optional helicopter flight to the beautiful Mitchell Falls was scheduled. While the sun was rising and coloring Prince Fredrick Harbor, two helicopters arrived on Naturalist Island to take the first guests up the Mitchell Plateau for a scenic tour. The rest of us enjoyed a relaxing breakfast in the outdoor café surrounded by spectacular scenery.
At 10:00 we started with a 2.5 hour scenic Zodiac cruise up the Hunter River and Porosus Creek in search of saltwater crocodiles and birdlife among the mangroves. What a great tour it was! Within 10 minutes of leaving the National Geographic Orion we spotted our first saltwater crocodile lying on the mud bank feeding on a large species of fish. It was great to see how this water’s edge predator was trying to swallow its prey. Further up Porosus Creek we saw lots of charming mudskippers, skipping across the mud with their pelvic fins used as little tripod-like legs. It was interesting to see how this amphibious fish is able to stay out of the water for extended periods. Little air pockets in its gills and the ability to breathe through the skin are some of its survival secrets.
We did not have to go very far up the creek to spot more crocodiles basking in the sun, positioning their bodies in such a way that their skin receives the most sunlight for thermoregulation, very crucial for a cold-blooded animal. We were able to watch these amazing, powerful reptiles up close and many photos were taken.
We also saw fantastic bird life among the mangroves, with the standout being a black-necked stork or jabiru. A large gracious bird, it stands a meter tall with a wingspan of about 2.5 meters with a very long beak used for feeding on frogs, mollusks and fish found in the mud. We saw a great billed heron, mangrove herons, a rail, and a great white egret catching fish along the water’s edge.
After seeing so much it was time to return to the ship, satisfied and happy. Just before we reached the ship, a big manta ray jumped out of the water right next to some of the Zodiacs, a spectacular sight and what a grand finish to the morning!
Right after lunch we headed out again for our afternoon Zodiac cruise to Thor’s Hammer, a fascinating geological formation further into Prince Fredrick Harbor. Some of us watched a big pod of bottlenose dolphins around the ship before heading out for a 20-minute Zodiac ride across the harbor. After arriving at a set of little rocky islands, we saw a big osprey nest on the top of one of them. What a bonus to see two chicks in the nest and both parents foraging for their young. Hovering over us, the adult ospreys (sometimes called fish hawks due to the fact that their main diet is fish) each gripped a prey item in their talons.
A great start of our afternoon cruise.
Our main sight was Thor’s Hammer and it certainly stands out like that. It’s an impressive geological formation created by weathering of the King Leopold Sandstone. Underneath, at the base of the “hammer,” we were able to see very interesting formations of quartz crystals created millions of years ago by a solution of heated water and dissolved silica that cooled down in the veins and small cracks in the sandstone. From Thor’s Hammer we cruised slowly back along the coastline, where a welcoming surprise awaited for us: a blue umbrella with ice cream provided by the ship’s excellent galley staff. A lovely finish to the day as we cruised back to the ship watching the sun slowly set.