Sue Baxalle pulls on her fins for an amazing underwater experience where she meets the first of many new friends in North Queensland.
It's always good to make new friends when on a trip away. And I can now boast a range of Northern Queensland buddies, large and small, wet and dry, scaly and feathered. There's Wally the enormous wrasse, Ella the turtle, and a flock of noisy cockatoos, for starters.
I'd arrived in Cairns to a grey, wet landscape and sweltering, humid heat. The outlook for the rest of the week was looking dubious, too, but the reef gods smiled upon me as the next day dawned gloriously fine.
I breathed a sigh of relief as Sunlover Cruises was whisking me off to Moore's Reef for a Great Barrier experience.
The catamaran we travelled on is one of two the company operate for the reef visits. They have three decks, with indoor and outdoor seating. After grabbing a coffee on the first floor, I made my way up to the second level, where a crew member was briefing those who planned to go snorkelling once we reached the reef pontoon. He went through the basics for first-time snorkellers - a career in comedy is definitely an option if he gets tired of his Sunlover role - and the variety of hand signals we needed to use if we should require assistance.
Marine biologist Maria held a presentation on the top level, a fascinating session about the corals we would see on the reef, the marine animals and about threats to the environment.
The wind was picking up and the boat rocking over the waves proved too much for some. The crew were amazingly patient and quick to assist, bearing sick bags.
After 45 minutes we arrived at Fitzroy Island, where we dropped off some day-trippers and picked up others coming for the reef visit. The sailing was smoother on the second stage of the voyage, and about half an hour later we were docking.
We would have four hours there, but trying to fit in a good amount of snorkelling, including a guided tour with Maria, as well as an introductory scuba dive, a trip on the semi-submersible craft and finding time to scoff down some lunch - Sunlover provides a comprehensive buffet with hot and cold dishes - was almost impossible. It was lucky in some ways that the helicopter-ride option, for which I had been signed up, was cancelled because the chopper was being serviced.
The crew issued fins, masks and snorkels. Steps from the pontoon on to an underwater platform made water-entry easy, and off we went into the 28C Coral Sea. Visibility was excellent and the variety of marine life incredible.
If I'd thought I was swimming in an aquarium while snorkelling, it was no patch on my scuba experience. One of the diving instructors took us through the ins and outs of the equipment and the hand signals we would need to use with our guides. While certified divers could go off to explore with a crew member, we newbies were taken out in groups of three, arms linked and with regular pauses to equalise to relieve pressure in the ears, as we descended to meet Wally, the friendly Napoleon fish, also known as a Maori wrasse.
Wally was happy to pose for photos with everyone and seemed to relish the attention. Photographers from Calypso Reef Imagery were on hand to snap us with him and with a giant clam. Onward we went, a bit deeper, and into an incredible forest of coral and among its vividly coloured fishy residents.
One of the things I appreciated most about Sunlover's scuba operation was that it had a variety of prescription-lens masks to cater for those without 20/20 vision. I had never found snorkelling much of a problem, vision-wise - it being about the colours, but the mask made a world of difference. The only disappointment on our outing was that no turtles came out to play.
Too soon, we had to return to the pontoon. Before reboarding the catamaran, I had just enough time to join the final trip on the semi-submersible submarine. It was like being in a glass tube as we motored past corals and came eye-to-eye with fish. Though this was a thrill for some who had not snorkelled themselves, the visibility was a disappointment compared to being in the sea.
I disembarked at Fitzroy, ready to discover an Australian version of a tropical island.
The island's largest monitor was playing hard to get. I was keen to meet Gus, as the resort's information book described him as a formidable character, though rather shy. I kept an eye out while exploring the island but there was no sign of the 1.2m yellow-spotted monitor lizard. And though I did see plenty of his smaller reptilian relations, geckos, skinks and even a couple of smaller monitors, I was somewhat relieved not to come across the legless, slithering variety of reptile, of which there are apparently four types on Fitzroy. The carpet python, slaty-grey snake, green tree snake and brown tree snakes were elsewhere on the 339ha island.
Arrival at the island is the appropriately named Welcome Bay, where you disembark on the pier and head into the resort. It is a modern and pleasant complex (it was completed in 2010) of suites, self-contained apartments, studios and cabins. There is also a camping ground further along the island.
But 97 per cent of Fitzroy is national park, covered in tropical rainforest. The highest point is 269m, reached by the "summit track" - reportedly a 2.6km return trip recommended only for the very fit. Partly deterred by this but mainly by the overcast day, which did not bode well for a decent view from the top, I opted instead for the 3.6km-return "Lighthouse Road" track.
Just when I thought the incline up a pathway could not possibly get any steeper, the track turned a corner and, yes, another ascent awaited. I persevered, thankfully armed with a water bottle in the humidity, to reach my goal. The lighthouse was established in 1943 but deactivated 30 years later.
Other, less challenging walks were the trail to the Secret Garden - through the forest lined with impressive boulders and to a viewing platform - and the walk to Nudey Beach.
Maps of the island's walks take care to note that public nudity is illegal in Queensland, just in case anyone gets the wrong idea. Nudey Beach is a secluded, coral and boulder-lined cove and one of the most popular spots on the island for snorkelling. However, bathing nude would not be wise at Nudey Beach - nor any of the other beaches - as full-body Lycra stinger suits are recommended as protection from box and irukandji jellyfish.
The island is also home to the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre. Though the main hospital unit of the non-profit organisation is in Cairns, the Fitzroy centre is like a halfway house for recuperating turtles. The patron of the centre is Bob Irwin, the late Steve's father.
At the helm is Jennie Gilbert, who is "mum" to 10 turtles ranging in age from the 6-month-old hawksbill Ruth to 90-year-old Angie, an olive ridley turtle. Tropical Queensland waters are host to six of the seven species of turtles.
A zoologist and marine biologist who originally specialised in dolphins, Jennie is passionate about the animals. Years ago, someone brought 50 turtle eggs that had been dug up on the beach, probably by a dog, to her vet practice. She helped hatch them and says, "Once you've seen a hatchling, that's it. I fell in love with them."
Soon after, when asked to rehabilitate an injured turtle, she and Paul Barnes co-founded the centre in 2000. There is a team of 70 volunteers. The resort operates daily tours to the centre, though these groups are able to meet only two green turtles, Ella and Squirt.
Signs above their tank showing their care plans read: "Food and plenty of TLC."
The next day, as I left Fitzroy Island, I was serenaded by my other new friends, sulphur-crested cockatoos that seemed happy to pretend they were sea birds.
The writer flew to Cairns courtesy of Tourism and Events Queensland and Tourism Australia, and was hosted by Fitzroy Island Resort and Sunlover Cruises.