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Yup, you pretty much nailed it. There isn't an automatic "conversion", hence why you can't publish custom gazebo message types as ros messages without writing a bunch of code to do that conversion (or vice-versa). You can find some further explanations here:

http://gazebosim.org/tutorials?cat=connect_ros

http://gazebosim.org/tutorials/?tut=plugins_hello_world

and the source code for those plugins here:

https://github.com/ros-simulation/gazebo_ros_pkgs