Our timing couldn’t’ve been better: we had arrived in the Australian town of Bundaberg during the peak season for turtle-hatching and that evening we were going to be treated to a show.
Otherwise famous for its rum distillery, Bundy hugs the east coast of the continent, 365 km north of Brisbane and relatively close to the backpackers favourite, Fraser Island. When we arrived we headed quickly to the tourist information offices before they closed and enquired about the best place to go for a chance of seeing the turtles hatching. “You’re in luck,” said the lady behind the desk as she pulled out a pen and a map to show us. She plotted a route to Mon Repos 14km to the east and even sold us a couple of tickets at $9 a pop. Public access to the beach was closed between 6pm and 6am, she told us, so trying to sneak-a-peak through the bushes was out of the question.
Wanting to make sure we were one of the first there, we rocked up early and made some dinner (we were living in a van and travelling around Oz at the time). As I sat and read my Kindle, I wrapped up against the army of mosquitoes that were heading my way, whilst a young couple in a camper van next to us happily left all their doors open to welcome the little blood-suckers in. They’d be regretting that in the morning, I thought.
The carpark filled up quickly, so we were glad that we had already added our names to the list of interested folk. At around 7pm a guide came out to chat to us all and to inform us that the hatching process was predictable but not guaranteed. Worst case scenario was that it wouldn’t happen, or that the wait would be a long one. Thankfully the Mon Repos Conservation Park Information Centre was open so there was still plenty to read about and learn.
Suddenly, a man wearing shorts and a blue shirt scurried over and whispered something in her ear (or maybe he just spoke normally). “I’ve just been advised that some of the turtles are hatching right now, so we better get these groups organised quickly.” A murmur rippled through the suddenly-excited crowd as names were read out from a list. Group One would be the lucky ones who got to go down to the dunes first to take a ganders and we hoped desperately that we were amongst them, being the first to arrive and all. Name after name was called out and we watched jealously as couples and small groups climbed on stage to receive their ‘prize.’ It seemed that we were going to miss out when she started to read “…and finally, Matthew and Lia.” And no, I haven’t added this for dramatic effect – we genuinely were the last to join the group, and we were chuffed to bits.
All lights and torches were forbidden down on the beach and our eyes quickly adjusted to the dim light coming from the stars. On the horizon a few street lights could be seen shining brightly, something our guide told us was a real threat to the existence of the turtles. Apparently, their natural instinct to head towards the sea as soon as they emerge is down to the fact that they simply follow the lowest point of light on the horizon. Obviously nothing is lower than sea-level, so in theory this should be the lowest natural light. But the streetlights over yonder could potentially confuse the turtles, meaning that they might wander off in the wrong direction and not survive. So for that reason, all mobile phones had to be off and there was a rule of absolutely no photography unless permission was granted.
Luckily for me, permission was granted whilst our guide started to dig for eggs. Flash photography was totally forbidden, but thanks to the light from his headlamp and a high ISO camera setting, I managed to document what was going on. Slowly he removed broken shells and tried to put them in a pile to piece back together later. That way he could predict how many had survived and how many hadn’t. As he dug deeper he started to assist the baby loggerheads out of the sand and placed them in a temporary holding area for their own good. Despite being the largest loggerhead turtle rookery in the South Pacific, the conservation project still had it’s work cut out. Only 1 in 1000 turtles survives to adulthood – thanks in part to overfishing and pollution – and with a total of 85 broken eggs counted from the nest, statistically they were all done for. The project was important.
Once the turtles were out and safely ‘locked away,’ one was lifted out and passed around the group. Our conservation leader dazzled the poor sucker with his headlamp as everybody (there were 40 in the group in total) snapped away. I felt a bit awkward seeing the turtle being shown off in this way, but understood that the conservation leaders are in a bit of a predicament. People pay their money and want to see these amazing animals close-up (their money obviously makes a huge difference to their survival), but at the same time it was clearly not so fun for our little loggerhead.
Our final task as a group was to help all the turtles down to the shoreline. Several volunteers were chosen to stand in a line with their backs to the ocean and to open their legs wide in a V-shape. With a torch each in their hands, they started to wave their arms back and forth between their legs so that the light flashed down on the sand. This created a tunnel of light for the turtles to follow, and follow they did, making their way slowly in to the sea. The power of the waves sent many of them back but from what we saw they all managed to make it. I was pleased to see that they weren’t just lifted in to a box and launched in to the sea. And that they didn’t head towards the nightlife on the horizon for a few shots of Bundy rum instead.
The turtle season in Mon Repos lasts from November to late March. For further information go to www.southernqueensland.com.au/productview.aspx?view=488