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The author feeding a kangaroo at Hartley's Crocodile Adventures. (Photograph by Jessica Hyem)

Australia: Animal Lover’s Paradise

There’s an animal for everyone where the rainforest meets the sea in Tropical North Queensland.

I’ve been to Tanzania, roaming Arusha National Park in a jeep and by foot in search of zebra, giraffe, baboon, and other beautiful African creatures. But when it comes to amazing, eclectic wildlife, nothing beats Australia.

In just over a week, I saw hundreds of animals – some in the wild, some in zoos and reserves, and some in research facilities.

Here are three ways to spend quality time with Queensland’s native fauna:

Dive (or Snorkel) the Great Barrier Reef
The longest reef system in the world is teeming with fish of all colors and sizes, as well as sharks, turtles, sea snakes, dolphins, whales, and other magnificent sea life.

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“Bonnie,” one of the patients at the turtle rehabilitation center on Fitzroy Island. (Photograph by Carolyn Fox)

If you snorkel or have your diving certification, you can hop on a day boat or book a ticket on a live-aboard expedition for up to a week to explore all this underwater wonderland has to offer. I hooked up with Cairns-based Mike Ball Dive Expeditions for a three-night live-aboard adventure on the Spoilsport.

Visit an Island
Queensland’s coast is lined with islands worth checking out. I recommend Lizard Island if you are looking for a home base. While it’s a quick boat ride to popular dive site Cod Hole, you’ll be just as happy snorkeling around the luxurious white sand beaches there.

Just a 45-minute ferry ride from Cairns, Fitzroy Island is home to a recently revitalized resort that provides the perfect back drop for a relaxing overnight or weekend stay. The charming island also features a new sea turtle rehabilitation center. Just watch your fingers, these guys, though friendly, can snap a piece right off!

Hike the Rainforest
You’ll find the oldest rainforest in the world in Daintree National Park — along with the fluttering blue butterflies, cool bugs, and Boyd’s forest dragons. Visit the recently opened Mossman Gorge Centre and go on a Dreamtime Walk with an Aboriginal guide or stop in at one of the great animal parks outside the park.

Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, a haven for problem crocs in the area, offers boat tours that can get you as up-close-and-personal with the dinosaur-like creatures as you’d ever want. You can also mingle with kangaroo, hold a koala, and visit the cute, but carnivorous quoll.

Animal Superlatives: Highlights From My Trip to Oz

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The facilities at the Mossman Gorge Centre. (Photograph by Carolyn Fox)

Ugliest: Pink and orange stonefish at Steve’s Bommie, a dive site on the Northern Great Barrier Reef
Richard Fitzpatrick, a marine biologist and filmmaker at James Cook University, has been poisoned by a stonefish 13 times. The cure, he says, is “loads of hot water.” Ease the water temperature up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit if you’re ever stung.

Cuddliest: Scribbly, the baby koala
Queensland is the only state in Australia that has a program for holding koalas. There is nothing quite like cuddling a koala like a baby in your arms. Meet Scribbly for yourself at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures.

Most Surprising: Olive sea snakes
Growing up as I did in Southern California where rattlesnakes roam, I’ve never been a fan of running into the slithering creatures on land. But diving with these beautiful, pearly white olive sea snakes gave me a newfound appreciation for an animal that can move with such grace in the water.

Smelliest: Gray kangaroo
While it was fun to feed ears of corn to a group of friendly kangaroos, I couldn’t shake their smell all afternoon. It was worse than petting cows on a farm.

Scariest: Crocodile
Watching the largest species of crocodile in the world go from perfectly still to snapping in a blink of an eye made me grateful I was on a boat with metal bars. They may look like they are snoozing, but these massive reptiles are just waiting for the right moment to strike. See them at at Hartley’s.

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A crocodile swims next to a tour boat at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures. (Photograph by Carolyn Fox)

Coolest (animal I didn’t know existed): Lumholtz tree kangaroo
The tree kangaroo looks like an adorable miniature bear with an extra long tail. After watching Barney (full name Bernard) hop from tree to tree, we were all delighted when he jumped down to the ground to greet his favorite zookeeper. Meet him at Wildlife Habitat in Port Douglas.

Most Playful: The parrot fish
While snorkeling near Nudey Beach on Fitzroy Island, colorful parrot fish came out to play. One swam near my face long enough for me to ready my underwater camera, then flitted away before I snapped a frame. We repeated this dance five or six times, and though I never got a shot, I had a lot of fun playing my part.

Most Enchanting: Dwarf minke whales
Australia regulates how many divers can participate in expeditions to find, and swim with, dwarf minke whales, and I was fortunate enough to be one of them this year. Tip: When one of these beautiful black and white marine mammals suddenly appears a few yards below you, remember to keep breathing.

Relieved I did not see: Box jellyfish
Richard Fitzpatrick calls these the “the ferrari of invertebrates.” Box jellyfish have 24 eyes but no brain, and can kill you in 90 seconds. Terrifying.

Carolyn P. Fox manages digital content for National Geographic Travel. Follow her story on Twitter @SeaFox4.