Queensland’s turtle hatching spectacle

By Sue White 15 February 2011
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While the cyclone and floods have hit Queensland hard, for wildlife the show must go on – and what a show it is.

ALTHOUGH THE GREAT BARRIER Reef is best known for its underwater wonders, from November-April it’s the nightlife that captures visitor’s hearts.

Along the reef’s southernmost tip, roughly level with Bundaberg, the Southern Hemisphere’s most important turtle nesting and breeding grounds attract visitors from across the globe.

For more than half the year the tiny coral cay of Lady Elliott Island, 80 km offshore, comes alive at night. Although daytrips from Harvey Bay, Bundaberg and the Gold Coast are common, overnight visitors to the island’s simple cabins are treated to a free show as green turtles, loggerheads and the occasional hawksbill clamber on land to nest (November-March) and hatchlings flip their way along the beach back to sea (January-May).

While stumbling across turtles when snorkelling or diving is relatively easy, seeing them onshore in the highly protected ‘green zone’ of Lady Elliott is an activity requiring patience, strategy and a healthy dose of luck. 

Turtle hatchlings: instinctive journey to the sea

Hatchlings wait until nightfall, when the sand cools, before making their way out of the underground chambers where they’ve incubated for the past eight weeks. Followed by up to 100 other siblings, they emerge in clusters and instinctively head for the light out at sea. Only one in 1000 will make it to maturity, but all use the trip from their nest along the sand to imprint the orientation of the Earth’s magnetic field – like a GPS marker – so they can return to the same spot to breed in another 30 years time.

Torches cause confusion for the hatchlings, so spotting them involves strolling along the shoreline in in the moonlight trying to catch them in the act. Nature is in charge out here: sitting and waiting anywhere along the perimeter of the 45-hectare cay proves just as effective as stumbling along the sand it seems.

While hatchlings are willing and ready to make their journey anytime after dark, their mothers are far fussier. Nesting turtles will only emerge two hours either side of high tide, meaning that  1 am starts are common for visitors keen to spot a nesting mother. Staying for a few days helps, as high tide eventually comes at a more obliging hour.

If the price of spotting turtles in relative isolation seems too high, there’s another excellent option on the mainland. Just outside Bundaberg, dozens of visitors head to the secluded Mon Repos Turtle Rookery for a ranger-led turtle watching experience.

Lady Elliot Island ranger turtle tours

While green turtles abound on Lady Elliott, the most significant loggerhead turtle nesting site in the South Pacific is at Mon Repos. Here, rangers take groups of up to 60 people out nightly for five months a year to view both nesting and hatchlings. “Working with an endangered species is very exciting,” says ranger Gemma Hayley. “It’s rewarding work, we relocate nests if they’re in a dangerous position so they’re safe – you’re really making a difference.”

With public access on Mon Repos beach restricted from 6 pm to 6 am to protect the breeding area, the trips led by Queensland Parks are the only way to see the spectacle on shore at Mon Repos. Visitors can take their time exploring the excellent education centre while rangers and volunteers scour the beach for action, calling groups down one-by-one as the marine creatures are found. The tours are excellent, if a little crowded, but the whole experience is still turtle-paced: expect to be out from 7 pm till almost midnight.

While Mon Repos provides an easy way to have an authentic nature-based experience, the work being done here behind-the-scenes is equally impressive. Since 1968, researchers have successfully worked to protect the nesting grounds and build up data on the local turtle populations. It’s not an effort they can do alone: after realising town lights were disorienting the turtles and resulting in some bad nesting choices, Bundaberg residents cut lights, closed blinds and changed lighting to help shield turtles from the glow of their city just 15 km away.

For those who don’t mind seeing their clutch of hatchlings with a gaggle of tourists, Mon Repos hits the spot in terms of budget and ease of access. Those with more time or money up their sleeves should jump on a Cessna Caravan out to the First Lady of the Reef, where turtle spotting on this idyllic atoll will become a treasured memory for even the most world-weary traveller.

Lady Elliott Island

Mon Repos Turtle Rookery
Bookings essential, at least a few days in advance. (07) 4153 8888 or www.bookbundabergregion.com.au.

Australian Geographic and Sue White thank Queensland Tourism.