It turns out that very near Bundaberg, only about an hour’s drive, is a sea turtle birthing grounds and science station. One of my favorite animals, and bam! There they were hatching and hey! They give tours and wow! We’re right in the area and.. oh they’re booked? Oh. Oh but someone cancelled? Really? We can get a spot? Oh my god that’s great! Thank you!
And so we got very, very lucky.
Mon Repos is a national park where the largest concentration of sea turtles nest in Eastern mainland Australia, with a special focus on the loggerhead turtle. Outside of their scientific work, the center engages with the community at large by offering nightly tours to see the turtles hatching. A ticket costs about $12 AUS a person and it all goes to caring for the sea turtles and their environment. This is a fantastic experience and I recommend it as just about the best thing you can do in Australia. Others may disagree, but baby sea turtles! When we arrived the parking lot was semi-full and a small crowd of people waited in a loose line in front of the center.
Two things. One, the line wasn’t needed – the staff would call up people in order of their sign-up sheet. Two, the only thing more abundant than excited people are the mosquitoes. Just an unbelievable number of mosquitoes. The repellent does nothing except taste awful, don’t even bother. There is, however, a lovely old man who runs the only food stall there, and his fish and chips are pretty good. A+ for an otherwise difficult wait.
Darkness falls and the staff starts calling out names. How this works is, volunteers from the center are combing the beach, looking for hatching clutches of eggs. When they spot one, a group of about 10 people get called in to watch the turtles hatch and make their way down the sand to the water. You get your group sticker, and you wait. If you’re the last group, like we were, it can be a bit agonizing and the hours go by and you wonder if they’ll find a fifth encounter for the night. They usually find many, but sometimes, sometimes.
We explored the museum for a bit, watched a documentary on the turtles and the center, and waited. After some indefinite amount of time, we were breathlessly called in. They’d found a rare late-night hatching! The staff there really is excited to show visitors the turtles. We walked down the beach, turning off our lights as we hit the sand. From there we walked about five minutes to a small nest where our guide was waiting. She told us about the relative rarity of the encounter, the state of the eggs, and what to look for.
Initially she thought there were only two turtles left in the clutch – the rest had long since headed to the sea. It turned out there were five in total, with one unfortunately not long for this world. Our guide picked up the turtles and let us touch their fins and backs. Feeling the baby sea turtles flipper pulling against my hand is and will remain one of the purest moments of joy I have experienced. Somewhere between the Lion King’s Circle of Life and a David Attenborough nature documentary, everything else faded for this one perfect moment. It might not be the same for everyone, but for me, apparently this was it.
But wait, there’s more! While we were looking at the turtles up close, another hatching started mere meters away from where we were. The guide had a terrible time controlling our group, unfortunately, but no turtles were stepped on and very quickly we lined up a few feet away from their line of travel. And travel they did, remarkably quickly for such small animals, yet terribly slowly in the grand scheme of things.
It was interesting to see how greatly they are affected by light. Our guide used their flashlight to guide them to the water, but they will follow any bright light pretty mindlessly. This is the reason the center fights tooth and nail for blackouts and light restrictions in the breeding area – anything, even light from a house window, will set them in the wrong direction.
We watched the clutch make their way to the water, about twenty to thirty turtles. Amazingness (and luck) for the night being over, we walked back to the center, then the car. At this point we were beat, so I found a nearby park that seemed to allow camping, and camp we did.
A great thanks to the staff and volunteers at Mon Repos for offering this experience to the public and making our night an amazing one. For anyone interested in visiting, information can be found here.