Would you like to see little turtles take their first steps and help them into the ocean? This wonderful natural attraction is so close to Brisbane you can practically hear the turtles calling.
Each year hundreds of little adventurers dig their way up through the sand on Mon Repos beach, battling elements and adversaries in a daring trek towards the ocean.
It may be an annual occurrence but watching groups of baby turtles take their first wriggling, shuffling little steps across the wet sand and into the ocean is an experience that will never lose its magic.
It was the pursuit of this natural magic that drew me to Mon Repos, located an easy five kilometres east of the Bundaberg City Centre, on a recent wet January afternoon. My fellow turtle enthusiasts and I gathered eagerly at Mon Repos Regional Park just before the sun went down, hoping against hope that our little friends would be in a hatching mood. Witnessing a wild turtle hatching is a bit of a game of luck because, although the nearby beach was littered with more eggs than an Easter hunt, turtles are wild marine animals and there is no guarantee that they’ll actually show up to the party.
While there is always an element of uncertainty with every natural attraction it’s fair to say that if it’s turtles you’re looking for, then Mon Repos is the place to be. The area supports the largest concentration of nesting marine turtles on the Eastern Australian mainland and is one of the two largest Loggerhead turtle rookeries in the South Pacific Ocean.
The sky above the Mon Repos Turtle Centre, where tours are led from, was lit up with lightning, looking like a fireworks display. “This must be why they advise you to bring a rain jacket,” I thought to myself as I tried to shield my camera equipment from the downpour. Luckily I was able to snag a rain poncho from a friendly food truck vendor, who is onsite to sell refreshments until 11pm, and I was all set to withstand the elements.
The Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service rangers at Mon Repos Turtle Centre are all about safety, so no one was allowed to venture onto the beach until the lighting backed off. After a few hours of watching turtle documentaries on a big screen, a guide finally called my slightly soggy group towards the beach entrance and asked us quietly what we had been hoping to see that night. Her somber tone worried me more than the fact that the kids next to me had consumed no less than three ice-creams each from the food truck during our wait, and were not sure how to deal with the fact that their bodies were now more than 80 per cent sugar.
Was this well-meaning turtle lady about to tell us that there was going to be no activity on the beach that night?
There was a moment of silence and then …”Hatchings?” the man next to me finally answered in a tentative whisper, knowing that his dreams were probably about to be washed away.
“Great, because that’s exactly what you’re about to see,” the ranger told us happily. Now, I’d like to tell you that our group of (mostly) dignified adults didn’t break out into cheers of joy and something that looked like mash up of the Macarena and the Nutbush but, well, that would be a lie.
We huddled together in a close group as we made our way slowly down the beach towards the hatchings, with nothing to light our way except the occasional blast of lighting over the ocean and a small beam provided by a ranger’s torch. A torch he used to check the ground in front of us every few steps, to ensure that no little wayward turtles would find themselves in an awkward situation.
A little further down the beach dozens of little hatchings had already pulled themselves free of their sandy home and were making their way towards the ocean. Glorious, beautiful, humbling and pretty damn cute only briefly sums up the awe-inspiring moment you see these little guys take their first steps. A few little stragglers had been scooped up in a bucket by a ranger and we patiently stood in a circle and were each given the chance to see them up close, hold their wriggling bodies in our hands and take a few pictures.
This hatching was especially significant because the newly hatched turtles in question were Loggerheads, an endangered species. That’s why we needed to give these remaining turtles a helping hand.
Standing in a long row leading down to the water, we used our torches to create a light tunnel and guide the baby Loggerheads past our feet and into the water. They became a little confused on the way down to the water’s edge, but finally the last one managed to make it into the water (after being rudely pushed back by waves during it’s first attempts) and was sent on its way with a cheer.
You might think that after sitting through a lighting storm, traipsing across the beach under cover of darkness and helping the next generation of turtles make their way to the sea our experience would be over, but the night’s work was just getting started for the hardworking rangers and they invited us to come along for the rest of the ride.
Our group followed Ranger Lisa further inland up to the beach until we came to the recently vacated turtle nest. Kneeling carefully in the damp sand, we peered down into the seemingly empty hole while Lisa explained that part of her job was to clear the nest, count the eggs and rescue any stranglers that may not have made it to the surface. She dug deep down into the sand and finally pulled out a wriggling baby turtle who had been helplessly trapped under a tree root. To our surprise two more tiny Loggerheads were also pulled from deep within the nest, along with a handful of eggs that had not hatched.
Lisa painstakingly gathered up the broken eggshells and counted them, revealing that more than 127 little explorers had dug their way out of the nest. Chipping their way out of the egg’s confines with the small egg tooth that sprouts from their faces.
No documentary, photo or secondhand tale can do justify to experience of watching the turtles rise up from the sand or being present when a majestic mother turtle heaves her way up the beach to lay her eggs. So, if you’re wanting to experience some turtle time you had best make your way to Mon Repos Beach for an experience you’ll never forget.
Turtle hatchlings can be viewed at night on Mon Repos from January through to March. Ensure that you wear suitable footwear for walking on the beach at night as there are some rocky sections and there may be occasions where you need to walk in the water.
Weekend turtle tours are booking out quickly. However, weekday turtle encounters are also an option to ensure you don’t miss out on this natural wonder.