at Mon Repos CP with the Rangers
Turtle season in queensland
One of my best moments as a Park Ranger: witnessing the nesting and hatching of the turtles.
I had been waiting for this special moment for months and it was so extraordinary.
This experience is a unique Queensland natural encounter I will not forget.
A large variety of turtles such as the loggerhead, green, leatherback and flatback live along the Queensland coast, from Bundaberg in the south, to the Cape in the tropical north, as well on the islands of the Southern Great Barrier Reef (Heron Island, Lady Elliot Island etc)
I often had the chance to swim with them while snorkelling in the turquoise water but from November to January each year, it is “turtle season” in Queensland, which means that mother turtles come ashore to nest and from January to late March tiny hatchlings take their first steps.
Meeting with Lisa Emmert - QPWS :
Visiting the Bundaberg region for a few days in January, I stopped at Mon Repos Conservation park (Australia’s most accessible sea turtle rookery and also the primary nesting area of loggerhead turtles). During the same night, I was lucky enough to observe a mother turtle nesting and babies making their way to the ocean. I tell you more about this strong emotional moment in a minute.
I feel so respectful about turtles, knowing that they are a rare animal that may live for 200 years. Strong but fragile at the same time, they are very vulnerable. In Queensland, the rangers have been doing an amazing job to protect and conserve these endangered species since 1968. It was in fact the first government in the world to start protecting the turtles. Pollution, plastic bags, fishing nets, dogs, boat strikes are the most important threats nowadays and when you come to Mon Repos, this is not only about watching the turtles but also about learning about them, knowing what you can do to help them. Everyone at his own scale can participate to save the species.
Every night during the season, the rangers take people to the beach to observe the turtles. They play a video first to make you aware of this special animal and natural event. A tour in the visitor centre is also a great opportunity to get to know more about turtles (species, origins, life cycle, threats etc).
PART 1 : Nesting : November to January
Sea turtles are 30-50 years old before they breed but generally they don’t come every year to nest. Did you know that a turtle comes back to the beach she was born to lay her eggs? Even years later she finds her way back! Incredible Mother nature!
Gathered in groups, I was not the only one excited to go down the beach..! Such a magical moment, the full moon enlightened the beach, the waves breaking on the rocks…we followed Lisa, the ranger.
She knew that a loggerhead turtle was currently nesting on the beach. Such a magical moment but as they are easily disturbed during the nesting ritual, we listened to Lisa and learnt how to watch the turtle with care at night on the beach.
1. The journey up to the beach
Female sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs at night. As the turtle crawls up to the beach she is very easily disturbed and may turn back. That’s why we could not use any light (mobile phone, torch etc) and we walked slowly behind Lisa, looking for an eventual turtle going out of the sea.
2. Digging the body pit
When we arrived to the turtle, she had already found a right place to nest. With all 4 flippers, the turtle scraped loose sand away to form a large depression. At this stage, we had to stay well back and wait, still not using any light.
3. Excavating the egg chamber
After, Lisa explained to us that the turtle was going to excavate the egg chamber now. She changed her technic and used only her hind flippers to carefully scoop out a vertical pear- shaped cavity about 60 cm deep. Once again the turtle can be easily disturbed and so we continued to watch without light as she flinged sand outward. Once she stopped moving sand, we waited for about 10 min and then we were allowed to approach her from her rear to observe her laying her eggs. They were as big as ping pong balls. In general a mother turtle lays about 125 eggs.
4. Covering the nest
At the end, the turtle filled the egg chamber using her hind flippers and then the body pit with all 4 flippers. It was important to stand back to give the turtle space to cover her nest well. Easy to realise that she was pretty exhausting by the end of the process. When she nests, a turtle doesn’t eat, she is weak, respect her and let her make her way back to the ocean. It’s best to keep the torches off and follow her from a distance to the water’s edge (lights can indeed sometimes disorient turtles crawling down to the beach…)
I had the chance to watch a green sea turtle nesting on Heron Island as well.
PART 2 : the hatchlings : from January to March
The night was already one of the best of my life when Lisa told us to keep moving forward. She didn’t say why and then made us stopped. We had arrived to a nest this time and she asked us to wait in circle…until the magic started: 1, 2, 3, 10, 30..mini turtles moved out of the sand and made their way to the ocean!!! Hatchlings follow the lights so it is really important not to have any mobile phone on, torches etc because they will be confused and go the wrong way!! Lisa told us they were baby loggerheard, the most common here.
It was the effervescence not only for the babies but also in the eyes of the public and in mine of course! They are the cutest and I felt particularly emotional seeing them for the first time. A lady said it doesn’t matter how many times you assist to their first steps, it’s always the same emotion. You want to protect them but you can’t do much that leaving them finding the ocean and wish them good luck for their long journey. Predators are everywhere and it’s sad that on average of 1 on 1000 will survive the first months. This makes me feel even more respectful for the mums who made it.
Lisa showed us also babies Flatback turtle in a bucket, they were found a few meters away and were kept by the rangers for research purposes (measurement, tagging). Flat back is a species only found in Australia and it was interesting to see the differences between them and the loggerhead. They were bigger and lighter in color, weird as the adults Flat back are in the contrary smaller and darker than the Loggerhead.
Posted on January, 19th 2014