CAIRNS, AUSTRALIA : As City for Fishing, It's Out of This World

Times Staff Writer

It doesn't take many walks up and down the boulevard here to determine that this is a city known for its proximity to a creature that swims, has a long bill and can weigh three-quarters of a ton.

All you have to do is read the signs: Marlin Coast Nursery, Marlin Coach Tours, Marlin Radiator, Marlin Bar, Marlin Coast Lawn Bowls Club, Marlin City Hi-Fi, Marlin Marina, Marlin Gifts . . .

Things have not been the same in this Queensland coastal city since a fisherman named Richard Obach caught a 1,064-pound black marlin in 1966 on a boat named Sea Baby, owned by an American, George Bransford. Obach caught the fish on the Great Barrier Reef, about 25 miles out of Cairns harbor. Australians always knew black marlin inhabited the reef, but not marlin that big.

"The black marlin fishing we used to do, before the mid-'60s, was light-tackle fishing in the inner reef, for 30- to 80-pound juvenile blacks," said Laurie Woodbridge, longtime marlin charter boat skipper. "Bransford was convinced that since we always seemed to have a lot of little blacks in the inner reef waters, that big, mature marlin were somewhere in the area, that the inner reef was a nursery."

Today, two decades later, a virtual navy of marlin sportfishing boats patrols the outer reef waters, most of them based in Cairns. Many marlin charter boats, in fact, spend the entire season fishing for big blacks--October through early December--on the outer reef, 25 to 30 miles from the Queensland coast. The boats tie up at night on the lee side of big reefs, to larger mother ships, where fishermen are housed and fed, only minutes away from prime trolling waters.

Mother ships, yachts in the 55- to 70-foot class, also are chartered--for roughly $1,000 a day--by diving groups. Divers spend days exploring and photographing the clear, blue waters of the Great Barrier Reef.

Cairns, which is served by daily non-stop Qantas flights from Honolulu, was once described by San Francisco writer Stanton Delaplane as "a blend of Dodge City and Singapore."

Several old Victorian hotels and civic buildings suggest a 19th-Century American frontier town. But Asian influences are also seen--tropical trees growing along the Esplanade, tin-roofed houses built on stilts, a picturesque waterfront walkway and the rain forest that begins at the edge of cane fields just outside Cairns.

Cairns has a population of about 50,000 but its downtown streets have a slow-paced, small-town feeling. Take away half a dozen or so high-rise hotels and apartment buildings built along the waterfront in the last half-dozen years, and walking Cairns' streets might feel like Balboa in the early 1950s.

It can also seem like your worst nightmare, or like a scene from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." By day, green parakeet-like birds called lorikeets flit about the city in noisy groups, from one tree to another.

On the Esplanade, at night, roughly the same sound is heard from the dense, dark limbs of an ancient fig tree. Tourists walk across the street, expecting to gaze upward and see lorikeets. This is a source of much amusement for the natives, who elbow one another in the ribs, then positively fall down laughing when the tourists are descended upon by giant, screeching flying foxes, fruit bats the size of flying poodles.

The view from any third-floor window in town clearly shows that Cairns is a tropical city. The surrounding hills are lush and green, part of the Atherton Tablelands and its dormant volcanoes.

Cairns may one day lose its rain forest ambiance, however. Many locals fear the rush to development along the Queensland coast will cost them their green hills in coming years. The city sits on the shores of Trinity Bay's wetlands and a century ago was a commercial center for miners, who visited the city from their outback diggings for supplies and visits to the city's pubs.

At Marlin Marina, on the waterfront, is the Cairns Game Fishing Club, where the city's fishing history can be seen in old pictures and impressive marlin mounts on the walls. Recently, club members were lamenting the passing of one of their American members and frequent visitors, actor Lee Marvin.

Another favorite stopping point for Cairns marlin fishermen is Bransford's Salt Water Tackle Store, owned by Jack Erskine, famed throughout Australia for his light-tackle fishing skills. Erskine, besides having a store full of big-game and light tackle, has a collection of black marlin video tapes, including some memorable footage shot by Hollywood director John Frankenheimer.

In the 1980s, tourism has propelled Cairns into far more than a place where wealthy Americans can go on expensive marlin fishing trips:

--It's Australia's backpacking capital, where youth hostels line the Esplanade, where young European, Japanese and American backpackers are lodged at rates ranging from $6 to $12 a night.

--It's a departure point to Queensland's far north, where pavement ends and map reading skills begin. There's a road leading to the northern tip of the York Peninsula, but as one American, who recently took 3 1/2 days to drive it, described it: "It makes the Baja Highway look like the San Diego Freeway."

--Cairns is a hotbed of diving activity, with dive shops found on virtually every street in town. Dive shop vehicles dash about Cairns streets, picking up clients from or returning them to hotels.

--Although the city itself has no quality beaches, miles-long white sand beaches are only a few miles away, on the north-bound highway to Port Douglas, another booming coastal resort city, 35 miles north of Cairns.

One recent visitor from Bozeman, Mont., Golde Wallingford, recently spent a day with Quinkin Tours, which picked her up at 7 a.m. at her Cairns hotel, took her to Port Douglas, put her on a 45-foot boat with 11 others and took her on a diving tour of three reefs.

The cost was $44 for the dive trip, including equipment, and $20 for round-trip transportation.

"I loved every minute of it," Wallingford said. "The Great Barrier Reef is like a garden. It's beautiful--fish of all different shapes and colors, and those colors of all the different coral formations--I've never seen anything like it."

To divers, Cairns is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. Actually, it should be called the Great Barrier Reefs. Rather than being one massive structure, the Great Barrier Reef is a system of reefs, stretching for 1,260 miles along the Queensland coast. It covers roughly 100,000 square miles and consists of about 2,500 named reefs, several hundred islands and thousands of lagoons, deep-water channels, underwater caverns and shallow pools.

By any measure, it's one of the world's great natural wonders. Dr. J. F. Grassle, a noted American marine scientist, once said of the reef: "There are two kinds of human experience which enable man to partially understand his position in nature. One is looking up at the stars, and I think the other is seeing the Great Barrier Reef."

The Great Barrier Reef, in some places thousands of feet thick, is the world's largest organic structure. It was built by tiny coral polyps, one-tenth to one-half inch long, which over millions of years formed cup-like limestone skeletons while attached to existing coral formations beneath them. Coral polyps remove calcium from seawater, and convert it to limestone.

For centuries, the massive coral structures steadily rose toward the surface of the Coral Sea, on the edge of Australia's continental shelf.

The coral polyps, which feed on drifting plankton from their stationary locations, die when exposed to air. So the thousands of reefs stopped growing abruptly when they reached the surface. Today, individual reefs vary in size from just a few square miles to giant table-top shapes of up to 20 miles across. In some areas, the chain of reefs is 200 miles across, at others, as narrow as 16 miles.

Geologists and marine biologists call the basic mass of the giant reefs "reef concrete," referring to the once living skeletons of the coral polyps.

The reefs provide habitat for countless creatures, including more than 2,000 vertebrates. A diver in one day might photograph numerous varieties of sponges, anemones, worms, starfish, sea urchins, crabs, shrimp, lobster, clams, oysters, mussels--and, of course, fish.

The Great Barrier Reef has fish species that almost defy belief:

--One tiny one, called the flashlight fish, has a light organ on its eyes. A night feeder, it can shine an inches-long beam of light into dark crevices.

--Among the earth's tiniest creatures with backbones are gobies, which sit, almost invisible, on the ends of sea whip plants, eating drifting food. About 10 millimeters long, they weigh less than a gram and are roughly one million times smaller than one of its neighbors, a 2,000-pound tiger shark, which has essentially the same physiology and internal organs.

--The blue tuskfish, a bottom dweller, is so strong it will move aside coral "boulders" to get at food.

--The damsel fish has taken up agriculture. It moves algae growth to its roosting spot on the reef, cares for it, feeds from it and vigorously defends its "farm" from intruders.

--The stonefish is one of the world's most poisonous creatures. It is camouflaged to resemble a rock and divers who have erred and stepped upon its poisonous dorsal spines have died--after months of agonizing pain.

--The blue streak cleaver is the reef's resident dentist. Larger bottom fish, such as cod, allow the blue streak cleavers to enter their mouths, and pick food particles from their teeth.

Cairns' Esplanade, the fig tree-shaded grassy walkway along the city's waterfront, often seems like part of a European city, with young people bearing packs seen everywhere. German, French, Italian, Japanese and English all are heard.

One recent count had 11 youth hostels in Cairns, all connected by a telegraph reservations system to hostels throughout Australia.

Although many bunk 4 to 10 backpackers to a room, some offer single and double rooms, at higher rates. Many have kitchens where guests can cook their own meals.

Some young visitors choose to eat at inexpensive fast-food establishments--Aussies call them take-aways--others at pubs, where they can eat fish and chips, sausages or meat pies, and maybe have a glass of Cairns' own Cairns Draught.

Some youth hostel guests also receive reduced rates for trips to Queensland's rain forests and some Great Barrier Reef islands. Backpacker discounts are also available for air, train and bus transportation.

Although many American marlin fishermen call Cairns the world's marlin capital, Aussies think of the Cairns area as a surf and river fisherman's paradise. The prime surf fishing species are mulloway, bonefish, bream, dart, flounder, garfish, rays and sharks. And on the Queensland coast, the species don't change, but the beaches do.

In the monsoon season--Aussies call it the wet--November through February, violent storms blow in off the Coral Sea and sometimes completely destroy beaches, or change surf fish habitats from smooth, sandy bottoms to rocky-pebbled bottoms.

The mulloway, a grouper-like bottom fish that feeds in shallow water, often at night, reaches six feet in length and is Australia's largest edible species caught regularly by surf fishermen.

For most surf fishing species, the favored bait are beach worms, which require some specialized hunting skills. Beach worms, 8 to 16 inches long, are caught with stink baits. Rotten fish heads or parts of days-old rays are put on the beach, at or just above the water line.

The long, fat worms soon appear through the sand. When they begin to move toward the bait, observant fishermen grab them.

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