Queensland: In search of precious cargo

An exciting search for a turtle encounter is one of the main draws on the central Queensland coast.

Turtle hatchling in the water at the Mon Repos sea turtle rookery in Queensland, Australia. Photo / Bundaberg RTO
Turtle hatchling in the water at the Mon Repos sea turtle rookery in Queensland, Australia. Photo / Bundaberg RTO

We huddle together silently in the dark, under strict instructions not to move or make any noise.

All we can hear are the waves lapping and the soft sound of footsteps on sand. There is a brief flash of a torch and some of the younger members of our group try shuffling forwards.

With all the stealth and silence, you might think we were on some kind of a covert mission. And in a way we are.

We're on Mon Repos beach near Bundaberg and the first turtle of the season has just made her way up the beach to lay her eggs.

Only one in a thousand turtles survives long enough to reproduce so their cargo is precious.

Too much noise and light or too many distractions and this mother could get spooked and head back to the water, so my little group was held back at a safe distance until it was safe for us to see it for ourselves.

We had arrived at Mon Repos turtle rookery, about ten minutes drive out of the centre of Bundaberg, just after dark.

After trooping through the small display explaining the threats to turtles in the wild and how the eggs are laid and hatched, we moved into an amphitheatre to see a short film.

Before the movie had even started there was a call - we had a turtle.

My group of about 25 eager turtle-watchers were ushered into a holding area, where we were told to turn off any lights. Our path down to the beach was illuminated only by the dim glow of a bulb that was shielded from the turtles.

The wait until the turtle had begun to lay her eggs seemed endless.

Finally we were told we could crouch down right next to her, close enough to see the eggs, like small, white, ping-pong balls, dropping into the hole she had dug with her back flippers.

The she began to fill in the hole, flicking the sand back to protect her offspring. The children at the front of our group squealed as the sand went flying everywhere but they were too enthralled to move away.

After the delivery, she turned to make her way back to the sea. We were kept well back so she could navigate her way into the waves.

It turns out turtles have an amazing sense of direction, even though they swim thousands of miles they will return to lay their eggs in the same area they were born.

After witnessing this incredible birth, it whetted my appetite to get closer to these beautiful animals, so the next day I hopped on a tiny plane from Bundaberg and flew out to the reef to see them swimming in the wild.

On a trip to Lady Elliot Island, at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, the excitement starts as you take off and fly out low over the clear sea to glimpse the tiny, perfect dot of unblemished beach on the island below.

When I arrived there were only 50 people on LEI. Just 150 are allowed to stay at any one time, with a few extra there on day trips.

Even before you check in at reception, the people at the dive shop hand you a snorkel and flippers.

It may be beautiful at sea level but everyone knows the best views are from under the water.

But nothing prepared me for what I was going to see - huge schools of brightly coloured fish who didn't seem to mind at all when I crashed their party and swam among them.

I had no luck sighting a turtle so at sunset I took myself off on a walk round the island. It takes about half an hour to do a complete lap and at the beach farthest from the little resort, the sky turned orange as hundreds of birds swooped all round me.

With no televisions, internet or mobile phone reception on the island, early nights are easy to come by and I bounded out of bed the next morning desperate to continue my pursuit of the elusive turtles.

This time I snorkelled round the reef on the other side of the island. There were huge stingrays and beautiful angelfish every way I looked. But still no turtle.

Undeterred, I went out on the island's glass bottom boat with a group made up of hardcore scuba divers and nervous first-time snorkellers and found marine life that was even more vivid and exciting.

Back on dry land, I decided to take my mask and flippers out one more time before going home.

Suddenly there was a turtle, one I had wanted so desperately to see, swimming so elegantly it was as if it were flying.

Turtles need to surface for air every half an hour or so we would bob our heads up together before plunging back down again.

We swam together for ages until my new friend settled on the bottom for a nap.

Back in the tiny plane on the way back to the mainland, I craned my neck to look down on the island and the reef, finally happy in the knowledge that down there, somewhere, was my sleeping turtle.

IF YOU GO

Getting there:

By air: Seair flies to Lady Elliot Island from Bundaberg and Hervey Bay three times a week. Flights from Maroochydore, Brisbane (Redcliffe) and Gold Coast (Coolangatta) are available upon request. Flights cannot be booked alone but must be booked with accommodation or a day trip.

By car: Mon Repos is 15km east of Bundaberg.

Staying there: Lady Elliot Island has rooms from $132 per person per night, including breakfast and dinner.

Playing there: Lady Elliot Island has a PADI dive shop with boat trips and equipment available upon request.

Further information: See queenslandholidays.com.au.

The writer was a guest of Tourism Queensland and Lady Elliot Island, flying Seair from Bundaberg.

- AAP

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