Turtles

Mon Repos and the baby turtles…

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Back in November of 2009 whilst I was still working at the Island Caretaker I visited the turtle hatchery at Mon Repos for the first part of an incredible story about life that takes place here on the Queensland coast. This week I returned to Bargara to witness for myself the truly remarkable second half of the story.

Mon Repos visitor centre A turtles favourite beach

The Visitor Centre here at Mon Repos usually caters for around 160 people a night and as we arrive the crowd is already massing. Expectant locals, excited backpackers and avid photographers all wanting a view of the new hatchlings as they appear in the world for the first time.

Alex from TQ and James from the local tourism board have joined me for this little adventure and we head through the crowds to find Shane one of the QPWS rangers here responsible for looking after the team of wardens, researchers and volunteers who live and work here monitoring the beaches. He tells us that the season is well and truly underway with the first of the action taking place back in early November when the female Loggerhead turtles (one of the most endangered in the world) started to land on the beach to lay their eggs.

The incubation period for the eggs is usually around eight weeks but with this year’s cooler and wetter weather that’s increased to just over nine, resulting in the first of the baby turtles appearing just after the New Year. Since then the beach has been a hive of activity and much to the delight for the researchers as over 400 Loggerhead’s have come to the beach to lay their eggs, a record number for the Mon Repos rookery.

We head down the boardwalk with Shane turning out our torches and camera screens to maintain the darkness as any light source that goes astray can disorient the babies as they make their break for freedom down the beach. At the far end of the beach two lights flash indicating the site of expectant nests, one where activity has been seen during the daytime hopefully resulting in new life tonight!

Counting the hatchlings The nest erupts

Jenna, a Park Warden and Pat, a volunteer, are there to meet us. They’ve been watching the nest and everything spot on for tonight so we gather around and wait. The activity within the nest has been taking place for a couple of days, the babies have all started to hatch deep down within the sand chamber and have made their way to just under the surface to wait for the heat of the day to disappear before they all at once make their entrance into the world and join the frantic race to the edge of their new ocean home.

The temperature of the sand throughout the incubation period has a huge effect on the sex of the newborn turtle population. When the average temperature rises above 28c more females are born (being the hot-headed of the sexes it figures!) but this year with the cooler summer more males are expected to arrive into the world.

Tiny little swimming machine! And they're off!

We sit and wait, then all of a sudden there’s something stirring below the surface. A tiny little black head pokes through the sand followed by a pair of flippers and an inch long body…it’s starting to happen! The first of the hatchlings is out and on it’s way…then another…then another and suddenly they’re all starting to appear. A chaotic melee of life is materialising right before our eyes with almost too many to count! Within then minutes we’ve counted 118 turtles – funnily enough exactly the same number that were laid that night back in 2009 when I was here before.

Now imagine a tiny little turtle that looks like it’s made from concrete, no bigger than 4cms with flippers like a wind-up toy that move continuously and then times that by a hundred – this is the scene that I was witnessing!

Jenna counts the eggs Into the big wide ocean

The dash down the beach to the water’s edge can be fraught with danger for these little machines – seagulls and crabs attack them on the shore and then as soon as they hit the water there’s fish and all manner of other creatures waiting to finish them off. Not the simplest start to life you could hope for.

Luckily under the cover of darkness the birds and crabs aren’t around but those first few minutes in the ocean must appear so alien and scary for our little friends.

We watch as the last of the turtles disappear into the surf, only 1 in a 1000 of them will ever make it back to the beach. From here they paddle due east past the Great Barrier Reef over the continental shelf, past New Zealand and into the Pacific Ocean where they’ll spend the next ten years of their life moving with the ocean currents, eating and growing.

It’s been a real treat to get back to Mon Repos to witness this incredible natural spectacular and something that’ll stay with me forever. With the lateness of the hatching season this year there’s the chance to get down to the centre to witness it for yourself with the expected hatching season due to extend through to the end of March. Get down there and watch it as I guarantee you won’t regret it!

Next stop, Lady Elliot island in a few days time to film a short movie about Best Expedition and see if there are any turtles out there still.

Over and Out for now

Ben :)