May 28 – Stephanie

Welcome to Cairns!

After a delicious Chinese dinner and relaxing night on our own in Sydney, it was quite a change in pace to pack up, leave, and reach our new destination: Cairns, Far North Queensland.

Before discussing what was in store for us here, I would first like to share with you some background information about this great city.


Cairns is located within Far North Queensland on a coastal strip between the mountains of the Great Dividing Range and the Coral Sea. The size of Cairns is much smaller than Sydney; considering each as Significant Urban Areas (SUAs), Sydney had a population of over 4,000,000 in 2012, whereas Cairns had a population size of about 150,000Even with a much smaller population density, Cairns is nonetheless a fantastic tourist site with many great attractions, as it is the major “commercial, industrial, education, retail, and entertainment center” of Tropical North Queensland.

History of Cairns

Cairns was first inhabited over 40,000 years ago by the Aboriginals living within its rainforests. Cairns was eventually discovered by British explorer Captain James Cook in 1770 and, catalyzed by the discovery of a gold field in the Cairns area, was officially founded by European settlers in 1876. Initially, the land was almost completely composed of mangroves, swamps, and rainforests; however, with the settlers came a gradual development and establishment of the city. Due to the agricultural success of the sugar cane crop, along with the decision to build a railroad line through the region, Cairns was soon on its way to becoming the 16th largest city in Australia. It was only until after World War II that Cairns began its transformation into the tourist center that it is today. Its international presence was heightened with the 1984 building of the international Cairns Airport, which we had the pleasure to see in flying from Sydney to Cairns.

A statue of Captain Cook in Cairns, whose presence symbolizes the significance that Cook had on the formation of Cairns.

Cairns Climate

During the winter months (May to August), the Cairns and Far North Queensland area offer a tropical climate characterized by low rainfall and humidity, clear skies, and cool breezes, with temperatures ranging from 16°C to 29°C, or about 60°F to 84°F. Our group really enjoyed the hotter weather here as compared to southern Australia, although it rained a bit more than would be expected for the area. Cairns has been hit by many cyclones in the past due to the warm tropical weather. However, as the season for cyclones is during Australia’s summer, we did not encounter these dangerous conditions. Severe cyclones have hit Cairns a multitude of times, the most recent of which was in February 2011. Fortunately, the recent cyclones have not had devastating effects on the city.


Cairns provides a tropical atmosphere with a beautiful view!

Cairns Culture

Cairns offers a nice juxtaposition of a laid back environment with an adventurous vibe. Due to the beautiful weather, casual clothes such as T-shirts, shorts, sandals, and swimsuits make up a large portion of the dress in Cairns. Topless sunbathing is allowed, showing just how casual the atmosphere is here. With the proximity of the ocean, many water sports are common hobbies of its inhabitants. The proximity of mountain ranges makes backpacking and other adventurous activities also extremely accessible. We experienced this atmosphere first-hand, especially at Paul’s place, On the Wallaby, where there were many young backpackers looking for a good time in the Cairns area.

With such a strong international presence in Cairns, Mandarin Chinese and Japanese are common languages found here; some shop signs are even in Japanese. Concerning religion, many Tibetan Buddhist temples can be found, along with Christian places of worship.

Though the indigenous presence has lessened due to the development of the region, there are still many such communities nearby. There are both Aboriginals  and Torres Strait Islanders. These groups have allowed for tourists to gain insight on their way of life. For example, there exists a Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park north of Cairns city, featuring the art and culture of the Tjapukai people. Additionally, the Cairns Regional Gallery presents many Aboriginal art pieces that give a window into their lives.

A performance at Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park. These performances enrich the cultural understanding of both inhabitants of Cairns and the tourists that pass through.

Sustainability in Cairns

Having such great sites of biodiversity, beauty, and overall ecological and cultural importance within the realms of Cairns, measures have had to be taken to ensure the sustainability of the region.
Concerning the Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander people, the Cairns Regional Council has developed a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) in order to foster a positive relationship with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. This includes an employment strategy to grant them more representation in the employment sector of Cairns. One of the goals of the RAP is to increase the life expectancy of the Aboriginals to better mirror the non-Aboriginal life expectancy. To increase political representation of the Aboriginals, Cairns has formed a First Peoples Advisory Committee to “provide comment, feedback and direction on issues that relate to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.

Economically, the Cairns Regional Council has an Economic Development & Innovation Strategy and Delivery Program to build not only prosperity but also sustainability within Cairns. For example, the Tropical Innovation Awards expresses Cairns’ leadership in innovation, much of which deals with sustainability.

In terms of the environmental health of Cairns, The Cairns Biodiversity Strategy, adopted in 2012, strategizes how the government should and will  protect and restore biodiversity over the next decade. Many environmental protection acts—including but not limited to water, air, waste management and reduction—have been passed over time. State of the Environment reports are made periodically; a sustainability grant program exists to encourage community groups to be sustainable; and a Sustainable Building Design Policy has been adopted for building design. Events such as a Sustainability Symposium and Fair are planned to foster economic, social, and environmental stewardship.

Things to do in Cairns

Cairns is quite an exceptional city and is the only place in the world adjacent to two World Heritage sites—the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics rainforests, within which the majority of the Daintree Forest is a part. With its warm climate and geographic location, there is never enough time to engage in everything the region has to offer! Since we only spent a few days here, there were quite a few things we missed out on, such as the following:

  • The Cairns Esplanade boasts a lagoon safe for swimming; gardens; markets; picnic areas; live entertainment; and much more!
  • The Flecker Botanic Gardens grants tourists the opportunity to see unique plants and flora of this Australian region.
  • Other adventurous activities include bungee jumping, parasailing, and hang gliding.
  • To explore the cultural side of Cairns, you may want to visit one of the various art galleries and centers such as the Tanks Art Centre, or visit the national parks, wine tours, Flames of the Forest restaurant, and Mossman Sugar Mill.

The Botanical Gardens display the valued biodiversity in the flora of the area.

Cairns also offers the Cairns Museum in the heart of the downtown area.

Cairns Museum

Located within the city of Cairns is a museum that illustrates the culture of the city and its progression from an uninhabited land to the city it is today. Objects contained within the museum include Chinese artifacts; Aboriginal artifacts; and historical books dealing with the development of Cairns. The museum offers displays concerning the railroad construction, mining, timber, women in Cairns, wars and conflict, among other events in Cairns’ history.

Cairns Museum

The Cairns Museum, in the downtown area of Cairns, offers people an inside glance in the history and culture of Cairns.

Though we were not able to go to many of the aforementioned places, we were fortunate enough to be able to go snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef. Here is some background information on the extraordinary World Heritage Center:

The Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system, spanning from Bundaberg  in the south up past Cape York in Far North Queensland. Made up of over 2900 individual reefs, biodiversity is great in the reef: over 1500 fish species, 3000 mollusc species, 350 echinoderms, and 350 coral types are present. Additionally, animals such as turtles and crocodiles are native to the Great Barrier Reef. The Great Barrier Marine Park was created in 1975, and The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has been assembled to ensure the protection and sustainable utilization of this economically vital World Heritage site. This Authority must also work the indigenous people of the area, as the Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders are the traditional owners of the Great Barrier Reef. While in Cairns we met with Adam, a former employee of the Great Barrier Marine Park Authority, and learned more about what is being done by the government to try to protect this biodiverse location, taking into account the economics surrounding the marine ecosystem and the relationships these policies affect.

Glorious colours:  Image by Tourism Queensland

The Great Barrier Reef’s tremendous biodiversity is evident in the colorful species present.

Cairns also boasts the Wet Tropics rainforests, which includes the Daintree Rainforest.

Wet Tropics Rainforest

Here, geological processes have rendered a collection of breathtaking rivers, gorges, waterfalls, and mountains across 450 kilometers. This rainforest is distinct from those in other areas due to the dry season that it experiences. Much of the biodiversity that Australia now boasts has evolved from the rainforest ecosystem. Currently, the species in the Wet Tropics make up 30% of all Australian marsupials; 60% of its bats; 25% of its rodents; 40% of its birds; 30% of its frogs; 20% of its reptiles; 60% of its butterflies; 65% of its ferns; 21% of its cycads; 37% of its conifers; 30% of its orchids; and 18% of its vascular plants. For an area that is only 0.2% of all of Australia, it is clear that its protection is vital for maintaining the biodiversity in Australia. Like the Great Barrier Reef, there is a Wet Tropics Management Authority created in 1993 to manage the Wet Tropics area in a way that will ensure its protection and continued value to society. Although we did not meet with this management authority, we did meet with The Reef and Rainforest Research Centre that develops research initiatives to further the sustainable use of not only the rainforest, but also the reef, and tries to incorporate the indigenous cultures into their research and decisions.

Part of the Daintree forest, in the World Heritage Site, the Wet Tropics.

And now, onto our first-hand experiences after arriving in Cairns!

We left the YHA Hostel bright and early and headed to the airport, only to have our flight delayed for two hours! Thankfully we arrived in Cairns without any further problems and were promptly picked up by Paul, a friend of Jim and Luke, who has been helping to make our stay in Cairns as smooth as possible. (As mentioned earlier in the post, we stayed in his lodge, On The Wallaby, in Yungaburra after our stay in Cairns.)


After finally arriving in Cairns, we boarded Paul’s bus and made our way to the hotel.

The tropical, beachy vibe and warm weather kept us excited for the days to come in this city. With our arrival at the Cairns Queenslander Hotel, we were ready to start the academic portion of the day.


Cairns Queenslander, the hotel we were staying at while we were in town. The lights in each room could only be turned on once the key was put in the switch, ensuring that no energy was being wasted by people staying there.

Our first speaker, Adam, was a former employee of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), also called “Grumpa” by locals. This authority was put in place in the 1970s to protect the reef via enforcement of governmental policy. As development of the coastal area and industries such as fisheries began to boom in the reef area, the government found it necessary to minimize environmental degradation. Areas of the reef have been zoned into seven categories, ranging from complete access by commercial and public interests to sites of complete preservation, in which absolutely no human interaction is permitted. The GBRMPA offers these zoning maps to the public on its website.

As the Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders are the traditional owners of the Great Barrier Reef, it is of utmost importance that non-Aboriginals do not destroy such a vital geographic piece of their survival and culture. With rising tourist numbers, increased coral bleaching, invasive species include crown-of-thorns starfish, declining water quality, and other issues, it is imperative that such agencies are proactively seeking the protection of the Great Barrier Reef.

What with the climate change affecting sea temperature, sea level, frequency of severe weather events, and ocean acidification, protecting the Great Barrier Reef will continue to be vital as the future continues. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is working to create proposals and strategies that will be as protective and restorative as possible without hindering the economy of areas such as Cairns.

Though successfully keeping many fishermen from illegally fishing within the reef, the GBRMPA faces many obstacles in maintaining the National Heritage Area’s health. Many of these, such as the growth of crown-of-thorns starfish, have led to changes in the ecosystem that threaten the maintenance of the rich biodiversity present in the reef. Oil spills are common due to the lack of international policy dictating stricter passage through the marine area including and surrounding the reef. Coastal development, including the development of mining, has led to greater pollution and degradation of the reef. These issues have spurred political tensions, as industries vying for economic profit have contradictory aims to governmental groups such as the GBRMPA trying to protect the reef. Increasing taxes on shipping and mining companies is one strategy that would limit these industries’ production effects on ecosystem health. Though such a mining tax exists, some believe that it is not enough, which has increased political tensions within the country. The zoning policies in place have also sparked tensions; fishermen hope to explore “no take” zones whose economic return would be higher than those currently available, but the government does not want to create a change in zoning regulations. Hopefully, with increasing threats to the Great Barrier Reef health, Australia will be able to sustainably manage the area by enacting policies implemented by the GBRMPA that will ease political tensions caused by some of these issues.


Adam, former GBRMPA employer, speaking to us about the role of GBRMPA and the Great Barrier Reef.

Next, we heard from Dr. Julie Carmody, a member of the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre. As mentioned earlier, this nonprofit organization manages the federal funding that is given to groups for research projects relevant to sustainably using and managing the environmental assets of tropical Australia, Papa New Guinea, and the Torres Strait islands. The RRRC manages the National Environmental Research Program Tropical Ecosystems Hub (NERP TE Hub), and also administers the Reef Rescue Water Quality Research and Development Program, which has a focused view on human impacts on environmental impacts concerning water quality, nutrients, chemicals, and sediments.

The RRRC puts much of its resources towards conducting research. This research has both reactive and proactive motivations. With past and present climate change, the RRRC looks at how we can adapt to the climate change, along with mitigating the effects that have already been incurred.  Proactively, the RRRC researches methods that will increase the sustainable management and use of rainforests, coral reefs, and other ecosystems in the area, in order to maximize benefits to industries and communities while minimizing costs to the tropical species and ecosystems of these areas. The reef, Wet Tropics Rainforest, and Torres Strait are the focus of this research. Also, a goal of the RRRC is to create a link with the Aboriginals concerning the research and development of ecosystem-related practices. The research and management conducted by the RRRC incorporates a cultural aspect oftentimes disregarded by hoping to sustain the culture of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders it deals with, while making use of their ecological knowledge to aid marine resilience. The RRRC provides access to its research results and hopes to inform the public and industry about sustainability finds.

Julie explained that the RRRC will give government funding out to institutions, which will then report back to the RRRC; the RRRC will then report back to the federal government with the research results. Dr. Carmody went through many of the programs that RRRC oversees, including the Natural Environmental Research Program- Tropical Ecosystems Hub. The NERP TE Hub is currently working on 39 research projects to foster a greater understanding of how to increase sustainability in this biologically and culturally diverse area. We were able to have a look at some of the fact sheets for these projects, some of which already have published data.

Dr. Carmody mentioned the issues that are occurring around the Torres Strait with both dugongs–large marine animals–and turtles. In part due to shipping and boating, which increase the pollution of the water, there has been a loss of sea grass in the ocean. As sea grass is food for both of these species, their populations have been dwindling. The NERP TE Hub has a project, Marine turtles and dugongs of the Torres Straitdepicted on page 2 of the link– that is looking at these species and the threats to their populations. With such research projects, the management of the ecosystem in which they live can be better suited to increase the population sizes. The link also displays other research projects that the RRRC is undertaking to help further understanding and care of the unique ecosystems in the Torres Strait area.


Dr. Julie Carmody of the RRRC enlightening us on the progress the RRRC has made in sustainability gains. The RRRC manages projects studying subjects from water properties to management strategies.

After the RRRC presentation and before we had to report to dinner, I decided to explore the city on my own by going on a run towards the boardwalk. It was such a beautiful area with lots of green space, access to walking and biking, and outdoor seating.


The view from the Cairns boardwalk at night. The waters and landscape surrounding the city are well managed by groups like GBRMPA to ensure its lasting beauty.


People playing frisbee by the boardwalk. Such green space in the Cairns downtown area encourages a sense of community and engagement.

Although we did not go down to the coast for dinner, we enjoyed a great meal at Cock and Bull, a locally owned restaurant here in Cairns. The food was delicious, but I was in for a shock when we learned that they don’t have take-away boxes here. With so much food still left on our plates, some of us decided to take matters into our own hands and got some ziploc baggies and tupperware to store our food in. I was really surprised by this– perhaps the restaurant hopes to encourage an atmosphere of enjoying food with family and friends rather than a sort of pick up and go style that is common in America. Also, with my initial reaction I had not taken into account other factors that would make takeaway boxes a threat to the maintained health of the area, as the humidity and warmer climate make diseases more likely to be spread. This experience made me realize how contextualized sustainability truly is!


The Cock and Bull restaurant front. The restaurant is locally owned, so we were fueling the local economy by enjoying delicious meals here!

Overall, today encompassed many aspects of sustainability that we had already encountered, but in new contexts in a new location. Both Adam and Dr. Carmody spoke about the complexity of managing such an ecologically significant area due to large biodiversity and the challenges associated with that loss of biodiversity. The need to respect the indigenous people living within this area while still maintaining the ecology of the reef, rainforest, and Torres Strait is a balance that they must keep in mind. Dr. Carmody mentioned the Triple Bottom Line, which means that acting sustainably must incorporate economic, social, and environmental dimensions. This relates to the weak sustainability model, in which all three of these dimensions must overlap for an action, policy, or management practice to be sustainable. As many threats to biodiversity on the reef come from industries that greatly boost the economic health of Australia, the environmental benefits of many of their management policies must be weighed with the effects on the economy. These groups must also deal with the Indigenous people that share the natural resources being managed, so the cultural or social aspect of sustainability is extremely present in their policies. The continued presence of shipping, boating, and mining within the future of the area will most likely ensure that such strict research and management of the areas must continue. Learning about the importance of this biodiversity has us all hoping that these ecosystems can survive the test of time and continue to flourish for years to come.

All of us are so excited to snorkel and scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef tomorrow- after hearing so much about it today, we cannot wait to be at the site of such a biodiverse and culturally significant World Heritage Area!


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2 thoughts on “May 28 – Stephanie

  1. Shelly Schmidt

    What a great write up- bravo! I am so jealous you get to go see the great barrier reef- and I cannot wait to hear all about it. I hope you get to see some beautiful scenery and alot of colorful fish : ) Oh that beachfront looks like a beautiful place for a run- are there any other runners on the trip from MSU? I agree with you about throwing out food- and the take out boxes. Where do take out boxes go after you are done with them? Which is better for the environment- getting rid of excess food or the boxes? Love and Hugs from home!

  2. rubinsc1

    To answer your last question first, it seems like both are wasteful, but depending on their end use both can be good solutions. For instance a box has the potential to be reused multiple times then recycled at a plant. On the other hand food scraps can be composted and turned into organic fertilizer that is both environmentally sensitive and cheap for the farmers. Now for your first question the lagoon front in cairns is quite nice with wi-fi so we like that and even though running is downright repulsive to some, me, Stephanie has found some running buddies, much to my surprise.

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