14 things you probably didn’t know about turtles
I probably don’t have to tell you. The turtles are back.
At this time of year thousands of female sea turtles transform from graceful paddlers into behemoth beasts as they haul their bodies up the sandy shores of Queensland’s beaches to lay their eggs.
Come hatching time in January, thousands of little flippers tap away across the sand under the protecting cover of the dark as a new generation start their journey towards the ocean.
One out of a thousand will survive the ride and return to their nesting ground 30 years later to close the circle of life. Here’s a look at 14 things you probably didn’t know about our shelled friends.
1. Known to seafarers as ancient mariners, turtles have been swimming the underwater world for more than 200 million years and evolved before mammals, birds, snakes and even lizards.
2. They live on every continent apart from Antarctica and follow the currents of the ocean from an early age, leaving the beach they hatch on and not returning for at least 30 years when they’ve reach sexual maturity.
3. There are seven different species of marine turtle, six of which are found on the Great Barrier Reef.
4. The largest are leatherback turtles which, when fully grown, can weigh over 900 kilograms and measure two metres long.
5. Contrary to popular belief turtles have great eyesight and an excellent sense of smell, even underwater. They can hear pretty well for an underwater creature and even have nerve endings in their shell.
6. Turtles feed primarily on sea grass and jellyfish but even equipped with all of these sensory wonders they still mistake plastic bags for jellyfish.
7. The top side of a sea turtle’s shell is called the carapace and the underside, the plastron. The carapace is made up from of 60 different bones and plates that give it incredible strength and protection.
8. Sea turtles nest on sandy, secluded beaches such as Mon Repos near Bundaberg. The warm sands act as an incubator for the eggs, with the young appearing between 45 and 70 days after being laid; sunny spots are quickest, shady spots take a lot longer!
9. The temperature of the sand determines the sex of the hatchlings with the cooler nests producing more chilled out dudes and the warmer ones more hot-headed dudettes (that figures).
10. Some turtles can absorb oxygen through the skin surrounding their necks and flippers allowing them to sleep underwater and remain there for long periods of time – up to five hours – how cool is that!? Their heart rate drops as low as one beat every nine minutes.
So where can I see them nesting?
11. There are some turtle nesting hotspots along the Queensland coast where our four-flippered friends seem to congregate to lay their eggs more than others, including Lady Elliot Island, Lady Musgrave Island, Heron Island, Mon Repos near Bundaberg, Green Island and Fitzroy Island.
12. Raine Island at the north of the reef is a specially demarcated ‘pink zone’ by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority due to the sheer number of turtles that come ashore here in the nesting season. Over 3,000 green sea turtles come ashore here every night for over two months with the sand becoming a mass of tracks by sunrise.
13. Heron Island used to be a turtle cannery up until the 1930’s with the chance to ride on the backs of turtles as they made their way up the beach – thankfully those days are long gone!
14. Between November and January the female turtles visit beaches along the coastline, with the first of the hatchlings appearing, usually around mid-January and continuing through to March.