With our first steps off the timber boardwalk and into the soft white sand of Mon Repos beach’s turtle rookery, you could cut the excitement in the night air with a knife. Giggling children squeezed their parents’ hands tight, the adults themselves craning their necks and squinting into the blackness for a glimpse of Mother Nature’s work.
Our group assembled a short way down the beach, circling our ranger guide and hanging off his every (educated) word. As he outstretched his arm, finger pointing down to the swirling shoreline that we could just make out in the moonlight, the anticipation was palpable.
“See that big, black, shiny object emerging from the ocean?” he asked.
“Yes, yes, yes!” the group eagerly answered, awaiting confirmation of our very first turtle sighting.
“Well, that…is a rock.”
Mon Repos, 15km east of Bundaberg and about 4.5 hours drive north of Brisbane, is home to the largest concentration of nesting marine turtles on Australia’s east coast and is the most significant Loggerhead nesting site in the South Pacific. Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service operate ‘Turtle Encounter’ tours, seven nights a week from November to late-March annually giving tourists a close encounter with these amazing reptiles. Nesting mother turtles appear on the beach from November to January and the hatchlings can be spotted from January to March.
On our visit in late-January, we were lucky enough to witness both spectacles in the one night. Miss 6 and Miss 4 squealed with delight as our guide’s torchlight revealed a bubbling mass of teeny tiny green-black turtles, each with a shell about the size of a 50-cent piece, clambering from the sand in an awkward, clumsy mess of flippers. Our guide explained that only one in 1000 of these babies would survive long enough to lay her own clutch of eggs – a statistic that made us realise just how special those massive adult turtles are. They need to survive natural predators and human interference (whether that be our rubbish in the waterways, our boats’ propellers or our fishing nets) for 30 years before their internal GPS brings them back to the beach where they were born to lay their eggs.
Further along Mon Repos beach that night, we were lucky to witness life come full circle for one of those hatchlings.
Our group waited in stillness and silence while the nesting mum emerged from the water (and, yes, she did look like a rock), tracked directly up the beach and settled herself down. With her hind flippers, she dug a nest and began to lay her eggs. Once she’d laid about 10 or so, our guides said we were able to approach her and watch the rest of the amazing process up close. Positioned at the ‘southern’ end of the big mumma, only a metre from the torch-lit action, hubbie and I fielded some interesting questions about the anatomy of a female turtle from our little Misses as we watched the slimy ping pong ball-like eggs slip out. Only minutes later, the mother turtle finished her job, covered up the eggs and ambled back down to the water. In what was the best moment of the night, we were asked by our guides to help relocate her 129 eggs to higher ground. You see, turtle eggs are porous so nests dug below the high-tide mark need to be relocated or the eggs ‘drown’.
Eyes wide with amazement and steady hands fixed in a bowl shape, Miss 6 clutched a freshly laid turtle egg, slowly and carefully carrying it up to the man-made nest in the higher sand dunes. She made a wish for the baby inside the egg that night – that it would be that one in 1000 so we could keep coming back to Mon Repos to enjoy this amazing turtle encounter experience for many years to come. And the rest of us were with her on that.