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As dusk fell on the beach of Mon Repos, near Bundaberg on Queensland’s Coral Coast, hundreds of people stood milling about under the trees nearby. The mosquitos had come out in force but there was no escaping them; we had to wait until our number was called, and only then would anybody be allowed on the strictly-monitored beach.
My friend Michelle and I were lucky. We were in Group 1. The 250 people waiting with us were divided into five groups, and each would wait for a signal from a ranger before they could go onto the beach. Some groups would wait for hours (the latest the tours can run to is 2am), but we were fortunate to be in the group that would be the first to go searching for loggerhead turtle hatchlings.
The reason so many people had descended on Mon Repos in search of turtles is because it has the highest concentration of nesting sea turtles on Australia’s east coast. A population that hovered around 100 nesting mothers in the mid-1990s has increased to more than 300 today (although not all of those turtles nest every year).
For the first part of the season — November to January — you can witness mothers making their trek up the beach and laying their clutch of eggs. From February to March, those clutches hatch and the little hatchlings go scampering down the beach. This year, mothers were still coming in to lay eggs in the middle of February, so that season will likely go even later.
We arrived and began the checkin process at 7pm; by 7.15, our group was called into the waiting area near the gate across the boardwalk leading to the beach. The volunteers running the tour had been told that there were hatchlings that were ready to go, but they had to do some last minute checks before we’d be allowed on the beach.
All phones and cameras had to be turned off, all torches put away. Photos would only be allowed at very specific times on the tour. At all times, we needed to stay 2m away from the volunteers to ensure that they had enough time to stop us in the event of an unexpected turtle sighting. After all, with all of us walking in the dark, we could easily tread on a little hatchling.
Did anyone follow the directions? Not really. It seemed like all 50 people were trying to win a contest for how well they could crowd around the guide. At least no one had their phones out!
Since there was already expected turtle activity, we were guided directly to a grass-free section of a sand dune where a ranger was waiting. He had located a nest that was showing signs of activity and had actively blocked the way for the little hatchlings, leaving them to climb all over each other in the nest until we were there to witness it. Because the hatchlings take around two days to emerge from their eggs and eventually from the sand — a process that involves waiting for the temperature to drop enough that they know it is safe to go — a few more minutes wasn’t an issue in the grand scheme of things.
Once we were all in position, with some people having scrambled up the dune and others arranged between the nest and the sea, the ranger pulled his hand away and turtles began to pour out of the sand. It was like a little volcano erupting the tiniest turtles you could ever imagine.
The little girls looked bewildered as they frantically crawled out of the nest, only lit by a few dim lights held by the volunteers. Any more light than that and they may have been distracted from the task at hand — getting to sea as quickly as possible.
I say ‘little girls’ because it was quite likely that all of these hatchlings were girls. Research conducted at Mon Repos has found that nests in high-humidity areas with a temperature of 25º-33ºC are the most successful, and if the temperature in that nest reaches higher than 28.6º, the turtles will be female. This means that turtles from the white sands of coral cays like Heron Island tend to be male, while the turtles that hatch in the sands of the mainland tend to be female.
No matter whether they were crawling or stuck on their backs (which, as a baby, a turtle can recover from — unlike an adult where this is a death sentence), their flippers flapped around wildly. We were watching animals that had only just discovered what their limbs could actually do but still didn’t quite have full control of them. It was absolutely adorable, but it also illustrated how easy it is for a hatchling to get into trouble and turn themselves into easy targets for predators.
What came next surprised me. I thought the rangers left the turtles virtually untouched, leaving them to get on with the most treacherous trek of their lives on their own. Instead, after the turtles tumbled head-over-tail down a small sand embankment, they were gathered up into a small mesh enclosure. This kept them from running headlong into the crowd, and given that each of them could easily fit in the palm of my hand, that could be disastrous.
Once all the turtles were gathered up, the volunteers picked up two hatchlings each and took them around the circle. This was the only time that photos were allowed on the tour, so the beach suddenly lit up in flashes as though the paparazzi had arrived. Each person got a chance to pat a hatchling, which the children loved.
However, I would have been just as happy taking non-flash photos at another part of the tour rather than taking flash photos of people holding the little guys. I know the program is run by rangers that have the turtles’ best interests at heart — and the turtle population has certainly improved since they have started this program — but it felt wrong to be picking up wild animals. That said, they do follow strict guidelines regarding the amount of time any hatchling can be handled.
As funny as it was to watch the turtles do their first gymnastics on the way downhill, the best part of the tour was their actual scamper out to sea. Everyone in the group was lined up along each side of a wide ‘runway’ drawn on the sand. I highly recommend bringing your own white torch, because you might be chosen (like I was) to stand in the middle of that runway, shining your torch on the sand in front of you to help act as a guide. Obviously, the turtles can make it to sea without those guides, but it again helps to keep them going in a straight line and away from the crowd.
Our clutch originally had 104 turtles. 6 hadn’t made it out of their eggs due to issues prior to hatching, but the other 98 scuttled towards the sea as quickly as they could once they were set free. Most of them passed between my feet, but a few got a bit lost and tried to climb up and over them! It was one of the most endearing things I’ve ever seen, even if it did take a lot of willpower to withstand the tickling.
The whole process took less than five minutes, although I had to stay put in my spot until every last straggler had passed by. Once it was safe to move, I went to the sidelines of the runway and watched as the waves took the turtles, knocking some back up onto the sand and sucking others away. Once they left the sand, we had to trust that they were safely on their way because the guides could not light them up; after all, why would we want to show the airborne predators, eager for a meal, exactly where to find them?
Before we left the beach, we were taken back up to the nest to watch the researchers at work. They scooped out all of the plasticky-looking eggs, providing an exact count and details about the mother, which came from a small tag (labelled with QA9728) left by the people that witnessed her nesting on the evening of December 5. These records will help them track the mother for years to come.
The hatchlings themselves will not return to the beach for around 30 years, when they come of age and begin nesting themselves, but it will be this beach they return to due to their unique ability to find the exact place where they were born.
This research program and the visitor’s program in general could not exist without the hard work of the rangers. They spend their afternoons and evenings tirelessly doing everything they can to help increase the population of an endangered species.
While I didn’t necessarily understand some parts of the tour, it was hard to argue their effectiveness; not only were foxes actively stopped from attacking the nest, but not a single turtle was taken by a crab, lizard, fox, or seabird on their trek to the sea. In a completely wild environment, this story would be completely different. I know that I am now an advocate for the work that is done at Mon Repos, and at a guess, I’d say there are 49 other people in the group that feel the same way.
Have you ever watched ‘the march of the turtle hatchlings’ or had a similar wildlife experience elsewhere? Tell me in the comments below.
I travelled to Mon Repos as a guest of Bundaberg and North Burnett Tourism, but all opinions stated in this article are my own. Mon Repos is located just outside Bundaberg on the central Queensland coast. Tours are available between November and March and cost $11.25/adult and $5.85/child. Booking early will give you a better chance of being in an earlier group; these groups can be on the beach any time between 7pm-2am depending on turtle activity.
The daytime photos in this post were taken the day following this tour, when I was lucky enough to be walking down the beach when researchers found 4 stragglers from the previous night that safely made their way out to sea.